Such is the eternal question of Lewis Jackson’s 1980 Holiday opus, Christmas Evil (also known as You Better Watch Out and my personal favorite, TERROR IN TOYLAND). This beauty stars Fiona Apple’s Dad, Brandon Maggart, sadly cheated out of the 1980 Oscar, as Harry Stadling; toy factory employee, big brother, and Santa enthusiast.
Young Harry’s trouble begins when he attempts to see Santa one fateful Christmas Eve. He sees Santa all right – it’s his father all dressed up and groping his mother. CONFUSION. Harry runs upstairs, shatters a snowglobe, and cuts his hand on the glass. Blood on the snow. Kind of his life motif.
In the present, adult Harry works kind of a bullshitty position at the Jolly Dream toy factory and, in his off hours, lives in a crazy Christmas hoarder house. He sleeps in his Santa costume and spies on neighborhood children, making a list (and presumably checking it twice) of good children who do chores and play with dolls and bad children who read Penthouse and talk back to their Mothers.
Later, Harry consents to work on the assembly line to help a co-worker who can’t make it to work and then catches the co-worker at a bar. At the grim company Christmas party, Harry watches a video from the President of the company who, from a beach, promises that if production increases, he will donate toys to the less fortunate children at the State Hospital (famous stock footage of Geraldo Rivera’s big exposé on Willowbrook State School, incidentally). He also meets George, the new hot shot at work. At around this point in the film, who knows whether it’s the realization that everyone exploits him or believes him to be a schmuck, or maybe just the excitement of the impending holiday season, but Harry becomes fully unglued, believing he’s the jolly man himself, and begins to action his big Christmas-ageddon. It is the latter half of the film that leads me to lovingly refer to this movie as the more festive Taxi Driver. SPOILERS AHEAD!
Harry steals some toys from work and drops them off at the State Hospital. He leaves the asshole kid, Moss Garcia, a bag of dirt and offs some smug preppies at a midnight mass. He replaces toys his long-suffering younger brother was planning to give to his children with improved toys from Harry’s own collection. He exacts revenge on the co-worker who took advantage of him. He shows up at a random company Christmas party and is treated like a hero. So, more or less what Santa would do in an evening if he was a little more Old Testament.
His delusions now turned up to 11, Harry ends up being chased by a mob of angry parents. In an art-filmy ending, Santa Harry eventually ends up flying over a bridge in his sleigh-painted van, to either his death or possibly back to the North Pole – we’ll never know. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
Lewis Black’s singular vision for Christmas Evil (not his first choice of a title), was that of a black comedy, but Brandon Maggart’s nuanced performance pushes the film closer to a measured character study of madness. He’s quite the slice of life, a banal, hard-working middle-ager who embodies the goodwill of not just the season but also humanity, and his journey to punitive Santa killer is an interesting one. Significant shots of Harry primping in the mirror reference Peter Lorre’s sublime performance as Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s singular M. It’s a worthy homage; Harry Stadling has more in common than Travis Bickle or Frank Zito than he does with Jason Voorhees. Not to say Christmas Evil is of quite the same calibre as Taxi Driver or even of Maniac, but Maggart’s humanity and touch of melancholy makes it a more emotionally involving experience than you may expect from a film with the tagline “Better watch out, better not cry, or you may DIE!”
If you’re looking for a Christmas double feature, Christmas Evil pairs nicely with Silent Night, Deadly Night – Christmas Evil’s dingy mid-life crisis turned surreal murder spree vs SNDN’s slasherific aesthetic offers two quite different killer Santas with a superficially similar premise.
Before I leave you with the remainder of your holidays, here’s a little wisdom from Harry Stadling, (remember, just because Christmas is over, doesn’t mean Santa’s not… watching.) – “Respect your mothers and fathers and do what they tell you. Obey your teachers and learn a whole lot. Now if you do this, I’ll make sure you get good presents from me every year. But if you’re bad boys and girls, your name goes in the ‘Bad Boys & Girls’ book, and I’ll bring you something – horrible.”
Straight up ahead – things I love about Black Christmas and 1980’s other big calendar killer – New Years Evil.
And hey, if we don’t speak before then, have a happy new year, ‘kay?