Christmas Evil (1980)

Christmas Evil first published by

The way for the slasher was paved in the Seventies by Italy’s stylised whodunnits (known as gialli) and by Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), and the commercial success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) guaranteed imitators – but the tropes of this nascent subgenre would still take a few years to establish themselves (and rapidly ossify) into the Friday the 13th franchise’s cookie-cutter template of a mute if heavy-breathing masked monster killing by numbers a succession of randy co-eds. 

Before that, films like Joseph Ellison’s Don’t Go In The House (1979) and William Lustig’s Maniac (1980), though certainly coming with a body count, focused sympathetically on the psychology of their talkative, alienated antagonists, and were as much under the influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) as of Halloween. In 1980, it seemed that the slasher could go in any number of directions – hell, even in the very first Friday the 13th film, released that year by Sean S. Cunningham, the franchise’s staple killing machine Jason Voorhees did not appear until the very end, and was not yet wearing his characteristic hockey mask. The genre’s formulaic future was yet to come, and those essaying the form at this early stage in its development were outriders and pioneers of multiple murder. This is certainly true of writer/director Lewis Jackson, whose Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out, aka Terror in Toyland) bears some of the hallmarks of what would become the slasher subgenre – the calendar setting, the trauma-damaged antihero, the killing spree – but is also sufficiently eccentric to qualify as something entirely sui generis.

Take the opening sequence, set on Christmas Eve in 1947, as young Harry Stadling (Gus Salud) watches in wonder the red-suited ‘Santa Claus’ coming down the chimney – and then flying magically up it again. “You’re crazy, Harry,” the boy’s younger brother Philip (Wally Moran) insists when Harry refuses to believe that the jolly visitor was in fact their father – but then Harry sees with his own eyes how ‘Santa’ has returned downstairs and is kissing their mother between her legs. A distraught Harry flees to the attic, where he shatters a toy snow globe – and the hermetic little world of innocence within – as, perhaps forever, something inside him breaks too. This is the classic ‘primal scene’ with which so many slashers begin – the key formative moment of trauma for a future killer  – and yet note the way that Harry, far from being the usual child parenticide or fratricide, is merely an upset little boy, alienated even from his own family, and unable to comprehend a faithless world where the Yuletide spirit has become corrupted. If that fallen snow globe recalls the opening of Orson Welles’ most celebrated film, then Christmas Evil will certainly be the melancholic Citizen Kane of Santa slayers. 

Cut to what a title punningly refers to as ‘The Present’, and Harry (now played by Brandon Maggart) is a fortysomething schlub obsessed with Christmas, and is still clinging obsessively to the fragile innocence of his childhood. The New Jersey apartment where Harry lives by himself is covered in festive decorations (even though it is not yet Thanksgiving), he sleeps in a Santa suit, and – rather disturbingly – he spies on the neighbourhood children, marking down their actions in separate books entitled ‘Good Boys and Girls’ and ‘Bad Boys and Girls’. Indeed, his tendency to see everything in black and white ensures that, as Christmas approaches, this peculiar loner will put the manic in Manichaeism, administering punishments and rewards to the naughty and the nice in his unhinged desperation to reassert the traditional values of Christmas for a world that has preferred, at least in part, to embrace a more secular, cynical modernity.

As Harry tells himself and anyone else who will listen that he has found the right notes to retune the world, the warning signs are all there that this meekest of men may well be a menace to society – even if only his brother Philip (Jeffrey DeMunn), now married with two sons of his own, sees it. Once Harry has donned his home-made costume and glued on his fake white beard, he will embody the very spirit of Santa. There will be deadly consequences for any of Harry’s coworkers at the Jolly Dream toy factory whom he has deemed insufficiently committed to the production line or ungenerous in seasonal company donations to the poor. Yet even as he breaks into one colleague’s family home – via a downstairs window when the chimney’s entrance proves too narrow – Harry is sure to lay gifts under the tree for the children before brutally murdering their father. It is this dichotomy that makes Harry both hero and villain of his own deluded narrative, and renders the film’s hallucinatory airborne ending – is it deranged fantasy or genuine Christmas miracle? – so wonderfully bittersweet. In all his insanity, Harry is at war with contemporary realities – of economics, pragmatics, even of physics – that he cannot accept or abide. He wants to make the world better, to fill it once more with that sweet, childlike awe that only Saint Nicholas can bring, and to expose the wicked for what they really are – and if, to achieve this, he must entertain the ‘jolly dream’ that his van is a reindeer-drawn flying sleigh, then the film leaves us viewers, along with Philip, also wanting at last to believe in Father Christmas again, if only to give Harry his bizarre saving grace from an altogether more grounded fate. 

The result is a determinedly odd character study, merging morality drama and black comedy (the police line-up of Santas!) to delirious effect, and in the end quite literally elevating itself above the downward gravitational pull of a more conventional slasher. Jackson did not make another film (this was his third), but it is hard to imagine a better watch (out) than this Yuletide oddity to have on one’s record. Any film that gets its audience as confused about the identity and ethical makeup of its protagonist, or leaves us wondering “What just happened?”, more than earns its place in the good book.

Summary: Lewis Jackson’s Yuletide UFO puts the manic in Manichaeism.  

© Anton Bitel