Christmas Evil, 1980

Christmas-Evil-PosterCan’t a guy just be super into Christmas and keep tabs on the neighborhood children and punish inconsiderate coworkers without being chased around by a torch-baring mob, Frankenstein-style?

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.

Harry sees Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
Harry sees Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

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!

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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!

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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!”

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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?

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Silent Night, Bloody Night, 1972

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If there’s anything low-budget shocker Silent Night, Bloody Night proves with certainty, it’s that the bulk of the scares are so strong that Bob Clark cribbed many of them for his 1974 opus Black Christmas, and that there’s no place like home for the holidays.

Possibly the earliest modern Christmas slasher (excepting of course that Tales from the Crypt segment with Joan Collins – maybe I’ll get to that slice of holiday cheer next year) poor Silent Night, Bloody Night has been wasting away on public domain for years, which means you can pull up a comfy chair, spike your eggnog and enjoy it right now:

(By the way, if you’d like to see a better version, there is a not-bad restoration from Film Chest. Personally, SNBN has my vote for a big Anchor Bay re-release)

In case you didn’t just watch it, here’s the synopsis which will contain spoilers:

It’s Christmas time, and super suave lawyer guy (Patrick O’Neal, PS.) and his Jane Birkinesque ‘assistant’ arrive at the old Butler mansion (a Death House, if one of the alternate titles is to be believed) with the intent to sell it on behalf of the grandson of the ex-owner (who set himself on fire, no big deal). They meet the town’s council, and intend to stay the night in the house. What should’ve been an extramarital copulation in musty sheets that haven’t been changed in years turns into quite a stylish and brutal axe murder. And it’s a felling axe, which are used specifically to cut down trees, which reminds me of Christmas trees, so you’d be hard pressed to find a more festive axe-ing. Silent-night-Bloody-Night-BloodUp ’til now there’s been some marvelous killer POV tracking shots, but roundabout now is when you’re really going to want to take out your Bob Clark bingo card.

The killer then starts making whispery phone calls to the town council, introducing himself, chillingly, as “Marianne” and coercing the phone operator to visit the Butler mansion. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Butler, the grandson in questions meets up with the daughter of the mayor (cult favorite and Warhol superstar Mary Woronov) and they set out to find out what’s going on with the missing sheriff. Everyone more or less ends up at Butler Mansion eventually.

silent-night-bloody-night-butler-house[1]At the Butler Mansion, we’re treated to some major revelations (maybe there’s a reason Jeffrey has such strong facial features) in the form of a sepia toned Grand Guignol flashback made all the more effective with public domain degeneration. During Butler House’s mental institution days, Grandpa Butler set all of the crazies loose to parade down the walkway, Night of the Living Dead style, in order to crash a fancy Christmas party the resident doctors were having. Well, they didn’t so much crash the party as much as they brutally murdered the doctors and stole their booze. Keep an eye out for more Warhol superstars – Candy Darling and Ondine both make appearances.

silentbloo19Later, a misunderstanding ends in gunfire and we learn the true identity of Marianne – a person from the past, just looking to be with his daughter for Christmas and also to terrorize everyone who’s ever wronged his family. As one does.

Of note is Silent Night, Bloody Night’s use of the revenge motive, a device that would become tired and rote in later slashers. While many lesser slashers spend a couple of minutes revealing the traumatic event that led so-and-so to stalk cheerleaders, SNBN really earns its revenge motive, crafting a respectable mystery laden with scandalous small town secrets.

As far as 70’s drive-in cheapies go, Silent Night, Bloody Night has a lot of unexpected suspense, directorial skill, and style. Obviously, it’s not without its issues, there’s some stiff performances and the long-winded, freeze-framed expository parts aren’t exactly filmic, but nitpicking a film like SNBN seems feeble when the foundation is so strong. While Billy would go on to make terrifying, lewd, and schizophrenic calls in Black Christmas two years later, Marianne’s calm, cold whisper is frightening in its focus. Director Theodore Gershuny’s point of view shots are uncomfortably long. Part of what makes that initial axe murder so – ( I hesitate to say rewarding, but if you’re cool with me calling an axe murder ‘festive’ I don’t see how that would be out of line) rewarding is how long we’ve anticipated it. By that point, the gore clips are just gravy. It’s always a treat when a public domain film with a misleading cover such as this:

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NOTE: Do not be upset when this young lady does not appear in the film. However, John Carradine is definitely in this film, so you have that to look forward to.

…ends up being so atmospheric and inevitably influential. Not to say Gershuny invented the slasher wheel, but dude had some impeccable influences, and Silent Night, Bloody Night sets an undeniable bar for all that followed. For all of its quirks, SNBN is relentlessly effective and certainly deserves a spot in the canon of early slashers that would go on to shape a subgenre.

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