Christmas Evil (Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray Review)

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Should not be shown around Christmas—will give weirdoes bad ideas 

So scribbled an anonymous twenty-five year-old female on a comment card after an early screening of the 1980 demented-yet-strangely-endearing, too-oft-overlooked Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) precursor You Better Watch Out, a film better known by the title distributors later foisted upon it without consulting writer/director Lewis Jackson, Christmas Evil.

And to be fair to this once-young woman now waving goodbye to her fifties in parts unknown, she was neither alone in her three-by-five cardstock reckoning—a sample of her fellow commenters’ assessments: “Needs editing or possibly [to be] destroyed”; “Of no value”; “What was this supposed to prove?”; “Undermines the spirit of Christmas—another reason to get Santa out of Christmas”; “WHY?”—nor entirely off base in its implications. After declaring Christmas Evil “the best seasonal film of all time” (!) and a “cinematic masterpiece” without which “no holiday family get together is complete” (!!) in his eccentric 1986 rant n’ roll tome Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters, the Pope of Trash closed out his tribute with this nugget: “I wish I had kids. I’d make them watch it every year and if they didn’t like it they’d be punished.”

Now, granted, so far as creepy family traditions go, Waters’ fantasy is not quite as terrifying as, say, Elf on the Shelf, but it ain’t exactly a reading of Twas the Night Before Christmas by the fireplace, either. Sure, Waters provided Christmas Evil champions/hawkers like Troma (2000), Synapse (2006), and, in its latest (and greatest) iteration, Vinegar Syndrome one hell of a pull quote. In toto, however?Hardly the sort of endorsement destined to win over members of the general public worried over weirdo-incitement and reason-for-the-season spiritual undermining. 

Then again, perhaps some of these screening prudes discovered a new appreciation for the subtleties and depth of Jackson’s singular film in the aftermath of the blunt, deliciously psychotic assault that was Silent Night four years later. And, truth be told, a not insignificant segment of horror fans would do well to conduct a similar reappraisal from the opposite direction: Though Christmas Evil is sometimes dismissed as the slowest starting, lowest body-count entry in an infamous yuletide horror trilogy, it is arguably a more subversive film than either the aforementioned Silent Night or Bob Clark’s wonderfully gnarly proto-slasher Black Christmas (1974). Rather than pervert Christmas for shock value, itraises the holiday’s best, most righteous aspects, aspirations, and traditions to a horrifying apotheosis.

Which is perhaps why, despite the degradation and violence, so much of the film feels cathartic and cheer-worthy.

Here, for the uninitiated, is the basic outline: Back in ’47, little Harry Standling saw mommy doing something considerably more risqué than kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe and this transgression has had the somewhat paradoxical effect of freezing his psyche in a state of child-like devotion to the holiday. When after the opening credits we are introduced to adult Harry—played to hangdog perfection by Dressed to KillSesame StreetWorld According to Garp actor/Fiona Apple fatherBrandon Maggart—we meet one of those nice guys perpetually in the process of finishing dead fucking last. Harry’s an earnest human doormat whose only refuge is an crummy urban blight apartment, decorated in the style of a Christmas Tree Shop projectile vomiting North Pole kitsch across the opening scene of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

Relaxing in this isolated, makeshift winter wonderland between nine-to-five shifts as a midlevel supervisor at the Jolly Dream toy factory, Harry nurses resentments against an asshole older brother; unruly, conniving line workers; and condescending bosses while partaking in the sort of hobbies every red-blooded American male has engaged at one time or another. You know, like mild calisthenics in Santa pajamas, caressing fake “bowl full of jelly” bellies in a stretch mirror, smelting Christmas-themed weapons, and occasionally getting out a trusty pair of binoculars to not-so-leisurely spy on pre-teen neighborhood children through their bedroom windows for Naughty/Nice book fodder.

It might take Christmas Evil nearly an hour to get to its (utterly glorious) first kill, but it is crystal clear from the jump none of this will end well—even before a semi-mystical experience, making eye contact with a Thanksgiving parade Santa through a little flickering black and white television, somehow convinces Harry he is the Jolly One and the time for patience with baddies is well and truly over.

ChristmasEvilRevThe resulting film is a really intriguing mélange, like The Santa Clause meets Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Psycho remade as an outré vigilante movie by John G. Avildsen during the early Joe (1970)/Save the Tiger (1973) man-out-of-time phase of his career—all with a pinch of Seventies style, jaded urban detective flick thrown in for good measure.

“Maybe our Santa’s gonna do some good after all,” one detective muses during perhaps the greatest Santa police line-up scene of all time.

“You mean give the myth back its meaning?” another asks.

“Myth, schmyth! He’ll make kids scared again. They won’t think everything’s coming to them so easy. They’re bad, Santa will get them!”

Of course, Harry’s rampage proves to be less about terrorizing children than avenging his own unshakable outsider status and seizing, by force, a respect the world hitherto has refused to give him. Seriously, the heartstring-tugging scene wherein Harry-as-Santa is dragged into a holiday party and feted by complete strangers, adult and child alike, might as well have the Chariots of Fire soundtrack backing it up—it’s powerful enough, really, to make you wonder if Lewis Skolnick should have saved himself some heartache, taken a hatchet to Stan Gable and Betty Childs, and posted a few impaled preppie heads out front of the Lambda Lambda Lamda house during the first third of Revenge of the Nerds

In the minutes leading up to the film’s beautiful, insane denouement a gaggle of true believer children step in to save Harry from a mob of parents.

“These children know things you obviously don’t understand anymore,” Harry triumphantly lectures the adults. “They love me! They want someone to notice who’s good and who’s bad! Someone to guide them! Someone to take responsibility so they don’t have to make those decisions themselves…”

Alas, the end Harry unwittingly seeks—i.e. a chance to retroactively validate his lonely suffering by stopping the next generation of incipient social oppressors and sneering deriders in their still-tiny tracks—can only be achieved through a is-this-for-real fantastical cinema magic event which, depending on one’s perspective, turns literally everything about the film’s narrative arc on its head.

It’s a beyond perfect ending, but it shows there is no salvation on this mortal plane—not even for Santa Claus, not even on Christmas Day.   

The Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray is a stellar little package: a newly restored 4k transfer from 35mm alongside cool little archival interviews with Jackson and Maggart. The former tells us both Kathleen Turner and Glenn Close auditioned and were turned down for the film; the latter exudes an appealing (and seemingly legit) nuttiness. Then there’s straight up stellar commentary tracks from the pair, as well as John Waters. Highly recommended. 

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Weekend: Dec. 12, 2019, Dec. 15, 2019

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