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Review: Christmas Evil (1980)

Christmas Evil [a.k.a. You Better Watch Out] (1980)

Directed by: Lewis Jackson

Premise: Harry, a manager of a toy factory (Brandon Maggart) has a fanatical love of Christmas and he is obsessed with Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, Harry goes on a murderous rampage while in costume as St. Nick.

What Works: There is a whole subgenre of Christmas horror films like Gremlins, Krampus, Black Christmas, Jack Frost, and certain versions of A Christmas Carol. Within that subgenre there exists a niche of movies about killers dressed as Santa Claus including Silent Night, Deadly Night, Don’t Open Till Christmas, and Santa’s Slay. The best of these killer Claus movies is 1980’s Christmas Evil (originally titled You Better Watch Out). This film is distinguished from other psycho Santa pictures in its intelligence and characterization as well as the way the movie weaves together tragedy and black humor. There is an inherent creepiness to Christmas decorations and many children are frightened by Santa. A lot of Christmas horror pictures use the seasonal setting as a gimmick but Christmas Evil is about the holiday season and what it represents. The protagonist of Christmas Evil is Harry, a middle aged man who is consumed by nostalgia. His obsession with Christmas is rooted in an ideal of American life and a preoccupation with innocence; the prologue sequence introduces the character as a boy learning the truth about St. Nick when he sees his mother kissing Santa Claus. As an adult, he is obsessed with a puritanical ideal and his frustration eventually leads to violence. This theme is very much a product of 1980 but nearly forty years later the concept of nostalgia turning ugly has renewed relevance. Christmas Evil tracks the character’s descent into madness intelligently and actor Brandon Maggart does an excellent job. Harry is monstrous but also pitiable. His disillusionment isn’t entirely misplaced and Harry reacts against the commercial and disingenuous aspects of the holiday. When Harry goes on his murderous rampage, his targets are those who have sullied the holiday in his eyes. Christmas Evil manages a strange collection of tones, alternating between horrific violence and moments of awkward comedy and the loneliness and isolation becomes increasingly bizarre and surreal. That clash of tones could go wrong and it is to the filmmakers’ credit that this silly premise plays so credibly.

What Doesn’t: For those who hold Christmas sacred, a horror film involving a murderer in a Santa Claus suit may come across in poor taste, regardless of its intentions. But Christmas Evil might also confound some horror viewers. The movie takes quite a while before it becomes violent and Christmas Evil does not provide the trashier thrills usually associated with slasher films especially from this period of time. Christmas Evil was originally released in 1980, putting it at the beginning of the slasher phase that would dominate the genre for the next decade. However, Christmas Evil isn’t really a slasher film; it has more in common with Taxi Driver than it does with Silent Night, Deadly Night.

DVD extras: The Vinegar Syndrome release of Christmas Evil includes commentary tracks, interviews, deleted scenes, screen tests, storyboards, a comment card gallery, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Christmas Evil is among the best holiday horror films. It is odd and may not be for everyone but Christmas Evil is a well-crafted and thoughtful picture that actually has something to say about the holiday.

Episode: #781 (December 22, 2019)