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Christmas Evil (1980)

17 December 2004 by Gnoll 4 Comments

CHRISTMAS EVIL


1980, dir. Lewis Jackson
95 min. Rated R.
Starring: Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn, Joe Jamrog.

Review by Gnoll

Ahh, the killer Santa. Somehow, in the annals of Hollywood, this has become quite the sub-sub-subgenre of Horror films. Probably made most famous by the 1984 classic Silent Night, Deadly Night, this niche has given viewers plenty of alternative Yuletide movie nights. The one that started it all, though, is 1980’s low-budget sensation Christmas Evil.

Christmas Evil, also known by the titles You Better Watch Out and Terror in Toyland, is actually less of a traditional slasher flick and more psychological thriller. Except, of course, without the “thrill”. This was actually picked up and released by Troma pictures many years after its initial release, so it almost deserves some acclaim. Almost. Fortunately, since this is a pickup and not an original Troma production, I won’t feel nearly as bad slamming it.

That’s because Christmas Evil is a bad movie. Not just bad in the traditional “that looks fake” and “this acting sucks” sort of horror flick way, but in the “holy shit, when is somebody gonna die?” way. Exactly fifty-three minutes pass before the first corpse is created, which would be fine if this movie were more than 95 minutes long. Unfortunately, it ain’t, so there’s a lot of stalling before this actually can earn the right to be shelved in the “horror” section at the local video hole.

Brandon Maggart stars as a middle-aged psychopath named Harry. You might have seen Maggart in Dressed to Kill or The World According to Garp, but I’m sure you didn’t care if you did. You might be more interested to learn that Maggart is the father of pretentious waifish angsty wailer Fiona Apple, which takes him down a few notches in my book. Anyway, we know Harry is a psychopath because of a flashback sequence. It all stems from an incident that occurred when he was a small child one Christmas Eve. Turns out he saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus. Err, rather, he saw Santa Claus kissing Mommy in her “special place”. So disturbed by this vision, little Harry ran upstairs, broke his snow globe, and slashed his hand open with the broken glass.

Thirty-something years later, Harry is a lonely middle-aged man who, despite being disturbed by a provocative Saint Nick in his youth, lives and breathes Christmas. His entire house is decorated up in holiday regalia, and he seems to get an unnatural kick out of seeing shaving cream on his face. Oh yeah, and he also likes to spy on all the kids in the neighborhood and maintains tomes of naughty and nice lists. The sweet little girl down on the corner has been nice, but that kid who throws rocks at dogs, picks his nose, and reads Penthouse has been naughty.

Harry also conveniently works in a toy factory, where he has recently been promoted to supervisor. Harry takes pride in his work, and is very upset that his employees only care about the money and not the toys. He misses working on the assembly line so much that he reluctantly covers the shift of Frank, an employee who claims he needs an extra day of vacation. On his way home from work from his long double-shift, Harry just happens to pass the bar where Frank just happens to be bragging about pulling the wool over Harry’s eyes, and Harry gets mad. He runs home and starts pacing around and breathing hard and humming Christmas carols with psychotic passion.

While watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, Harry gets inspired. And by inspired, I mean the guy seems to get aroused. He calls his brother and cancels his plan to spend Thanksgiving with his family, and then watches the arrival of Santa at the parade like it’s pornography. Suddenly, Harry gets the proverbial lightbulb above his head. He begins working on a Santa suit, molded after the more traditional Saint Nick image rather than the Coca-Cola branded Santa we see so often today. He’s gonna make sure that people truly understand the spirit of Christmas, god damnit.

The first thing Harry does on his descent into madness is pay a visit to Moss Garcia, the bad widdle boy I mentioned earlier. Harry has it in for this kid, so he peers in his window and gazes at the kid going about his daily activities. Sounds like the prime opportunity for Harry to make his first kill, right? While that sounds like the ideal plan, Harry would rather spend his time smearing his face and hands with mud and then pressing them against the house’s vinyl siding. Moss’s mom (Jill Taylor from Home Improvement) scoops him up and drags him into the car to run some sort of errand or something, but not before Moss gets really creeped out because he thinks there’s a monster in the bushes. Now, this seems like it could be the setup to some really cool scene down the line, but allow me to go non-lateral for a moment: it doesn’t. No, we never hear from Moss Garcia again in the movie. We never find out the mysterious significance of the muddy prints he left on the wall. The whole scene winds up being a gigantic loose end in the grand scheme of things.

Harry’s psychotic fires are also fueled when he visits his office Christmas party. While the factory workers are pouring down the booze and having a holly jolly time, Harry is seething because the boss has hired a new hotshot PR guy who is only concerned with bottom line and company image. When he finds out a charity donation is designed not for the benefit of retarded children but rather to make the company look good, Harry decides to steal an assload of toys to deliver himself.

From this point, though, the time frame suddenly jumps ahead to Christmas Eve. Here is where Harry is planning out his great scheme, whatever the hell that’s supposed to be. Harry dons his Santa suit, and for some unknown reason permanently affixes the fake beard and moustache to his face. He paints up his van with a picture of Santa’s sleigh and loads it up with the stolen toys. He arrives at the hospital and delivers his boatload of stolen wares. Now, if a random guy shows up late at night in a Santa suit and a rusted out old van wanting to give away piles of toys, wouldn’t you find that the least bit suspicious? All it takes to bribe the security guard is one little wrapped present, and the entire friggin’ staff comes out and helps haul all the toys in, despite the fact that they could contain bombs or body parts or god knows what else.

On his way home, Harry stops by a church delivering Midnight Mass. As the doors open, a couple of hooligans ruffle Santa’s feathers a bit. And just to put the exclamation point on the whole thing, these guys talk and act like English dandys and everything, despite the fact that the film clearly takes place in middle America somewhere. Their heckling doesn’t seem like much in the grand scheme of things, but it apparently is just enough to cause Harry to blow his top. Next thing you know, we’ve hit that fifty-three minute mark. You know what that means, right?

Time to get killing!

The hapless hoodlums are stabbed in the eyes by toy soldiers, then hacked up with a candy-striped hatchet. After leaving three bodies behind, Santa Harry hops into his sleigh-van and speeds off into the night. Good thing there was only a congregation full of eyewitnesses who saw a deranged Santa jump into a holiday-painted van, or else Harry might run the risk of getting caught.

But while the prospect of three bodies all at once seems like it would bode well, in actuality we’ve now witnessed three-quarters of the film’s bodycount. Harry quickly piles the final body on, when he visits Frank the conniving factory worker. First, Santa Harry tries to slide down the chimney, but realized that it’s a fruitless effort. Of course, we, as the viewers, are forced to put up with about four minutes of boredom while Harry tries to pull off this feat, only to return to the ground and go in through an unlocked window. Harry places some gifts under the tree for Frank’s kids, and proceeds to the bedroom and suffocates Frank with his sack full o’goodies while his wife sleeps right through it.

Harry flees the scene and winds up at a snazzy holiday soiree where he dances the night away with some partygoers. He then warns the children there that they had better be nice, or otherwise bad things will happen to them. This scene serves no purpose whatsoever other than to show some weird dichotomy in Harry’s personality and make him seem sympathetic. unfortunately, because this is a really really really bad movie, all it does is makes us want to hit the fast forward button on the remote control.

By the time morning has come around, the cops still haven’t caught Harry, despite the fact that he’s passed out in the back of his very conspicuous van outside of his house. Meanwhile, the obviously inept local police force have managed to round up every mall Santa in town for their line-up. They realize that the search is futile, but everyone in town is to be on the lookout for suspicious Santas running about. Some kids spot the bad Santa, but their parents decide to form an angry mob and chase after him. Not only is it an angry mob, it’s an angry mob wielding torches that appeared as if from thin air! They push Santa Harry back until he’s forced to retreat at his brother Phil’s house.

Phil doesn’t want any of Harry’s disturbed Santa as hanging around, so he chokes him. With his bare hands. Right in front of his wife. Then he drags Harry’s lifeless body out to his van and props him up in the driver’s seat, but we never really find out what his intention from this point is. Harry comes to, suckerpunches his brother, and heads back out into the night. He flees the angry mob once again, and then we are subjected to the goofiest ending of any horror movie ever.

Now, I realize that this is supposed to be a psychological thriller and all that, and that things aren’t actually happening the way you might think they are; but that does not change the fact that Harry driving the Sleigh-van off a bridge and then flying away into the night sky is a ridiculous thing to see. It really makes this whole thing just end on a gigantic question mark. There are all kinds of loose ends and unanswered queries, most of which you probably didn’t care about anyway. But, for the love of Kringle, can we at least get an ending that doesn’t do the seemingly impossible and suck more than the rest of the movie does?

Some films deserve the universal mantle of “holiday classic”, and yet some others only fill that role for a very select audience. But the only person I believe in the history of Earth that finds this film atop their holiday viewing list is trash film guru John Waters, who is quoted as saying this is his favorite holiday film. Whether or not you want to be caught dead sharing your tastes with a guy like Waters is entirely your business.

4 Comments »

  • retro said:

    Hard to believe Christmas is already around the corner. I am ready for some Thanksgiving turkey though.

  • Ray Crowe said:

    This is a great underrated seasonal horror film that plays by its own rules. Brandon Maggart’s performance is exceptional.

  • Bruce Sears said:

    Brandon Maggart who plays the main character in this movie does a fine job as the disturbed character known as Harry. He really portrays a realistic sad, deranged character that slips into madness and then snaps. The scene with him gluing the Santa beard on his face as he looks in the mirror, is very chilling and disturbing. He laughs and then breaks down and cries as he stares at himself in the mirror. It really looks as if the actor is really losing his mind to madness and not just acting. As far as the ending, it appears to look silly and out of place but if you really think about it, Harry is so far gone in his mind that out of derangement,I believe he is imagining that he’s flying away from danger. In actuality he is falling to his death. We are basically seeing what he believe in his mind and not the doom that awaits him.

  • romy said:

    i have seen the movie but i have some questions about it
    if you look part 0.49.00 when he visit the hospital do you really think he is only bad… i think he is good at hard but the mrders what he does later is wrong… a wrong. i think he just a confused man. and mawbe he does wrong things but also things that are good. what do you think… evry body has a good and bad side or not….??????

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