Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ho Ho Homicidal Breakdown

Whenever I make a list of famous living people I’d want to have dinner with, few rank higher than John Waters. Aside from the fact that he’s witty, impressively mustache’d, and adorable, he and I also seem to share similar taste in campy (intentional or otherwise) films that tend to polarize audiences. Witness his cameo in Seed of Chucky or his inclusion of Baxter on his 2006 series, John Waters Presents Movies That Will Corrupt You.
Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out), a 1980 low budget production by Lewis Jackson, is, not surprisingly, a favorite of Baltimore’s best loved auteur. He even did a commentary on the special edition DVD (which, naturally, Netflix didn’t mail me...because I’ve been naughty). While this sad and unusual slasher (of sorts) doesn’t quite battle Faye Dunaway covered in Comet, it is a memorable little gem I’m glad to have finally found.
Quick Plot: 
As a young boy, Harry Stadling witnesses Mommy kissing Santa Claus which somehow plants a poisonous poinsettia seed of mixed love & hate for all things xmas. Fastfoward to the present, where the now middle-aged Harry (Brandon Maggart) works in a toy factory churning out subpar action figures. This is the low point of his day, as the other 18 hours are devoted to December 25th. Sleeping in Santa pjs, calisthenics to carols, and, most charmingly, keeping pristine records of which actions qualify a neighborhood child for placement on the Naughty and Nice list keep Harry smiling. And twinkling, which he seems to do every time he winks in the mirror. It’s quite adorable.

Sadly for Harry, nobody in New Jersey shares his unadulterated enthusiasm and finally, following a painfully drab office party, Harry decides to spruce up the season by delivering a few sleigh (or van)-fulls of toys to needy hospitalized children and performing impressive dance steps at strangers’ VFW parties. All is well and good until Harry decides to loiter in front of church just as the rowdy midnight mass crowd exits. Unable to take the snooty insults from strangely British Christians, Harry finally snaps in a gloriously homicidal fashion.

Christmas Evil predates Silent Night, Deadly Night by several years, but though it may seem, on the surface, as though the latter ripped off this thriller, the films are hardly on the same page. Where SN,DN is more mean-spirited ‘80s slasher, Christmas Evil is a thoughtfully sad, truly unique little delving into an unbalanced man’s mind. Think Taxi Driver, set during the holiday season and deep fried in gingerbread. If that doesn’t sound appealing, then you’re the biggest grinch of them all.
High Points
A kids-protecting-Santa scene took me back to a much loved, if not very good Christmas movie of the past, The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, wherein the children of a small town save the big guy by paying his rent

Boy is Harry a dedicated role player! Not only does he try his darnest to squeeze down a chimney, he also restricts most of his weaponry to objects of the season, such as tree ornaments and sacks of toys. His attention to detail is more than admirable.

It’s an easy sight gag that can’t help but put a smile on your face: several rounds of police lineups with Santa Clauses. The Usual Suspects, you’ve been served (eggnog).

Maggart is surprisingly sympathetic in what could easily have been an Eric Freeman SN/DN2  caliber role. While he seems to have had a successful career guesting on TV shows (including the Snapple Lady starring sitcom Babes!), it’s disappointing that Braggart didn’t find more work in genre films
Low Points
Some might quibble with the grainy and stained transfer, but the poor quality of the images actually worked for the film, lending a rescued-from-the-garbage heap feel that felt appropriate

So aside from being mentally unbalanced, what actually made Harry so pre-inclined to murderous rampages? Watching Santa Claus run his hands over Mom’s garters?

At first viewing, I found the final image wonderfully magical and charmingly surreal. Then I read some discussion about the film describing how many people don’t realize that the “flying” is preceded by the clear sound of a car crash and thus, the sleigh transformation is actually symbolic of Harry dying. I’ve decided to completely ignore that “sound effect” or assume that’s just the noise his brother would make when rolling down a hill because you know what? I want to believe in miracles.
Lessons Learned
If you give your son a name as stupid as Moss, you will be punished with raising a brat. And later marrying Tim the Tool Man Taylor.
The most dangerous member of an angry mob is the Cruella DeVille lookalike with the holly pin
New Jersey is home to unruly mobs itching to vengefully roam the streets with torches

How to Earn a Place on the Naughty List: 
Be a braggart
Tell fibs
Think impure thoughts
Have bad breath
How to Earn a Place on the Nice List:
Be just darling
Winning Line
“I have very superlative taste,” says Harry’s first victim while exiting church. I had to rewind this moment several times to confirm it, then giggle for a few minutes, and finally, try to figure out if it made grammatical sense and why a man would utter it while meeting a dirty St. Nick.

I fell in love with the oddness of this film, but it's certainly not a universal stocking stuffer. The first hour or so is more a tragic portrait of a man somewhere between Pee-Wee Herman and The Office's Kevin Malone, while the turning point sends Christmas Evil into early slasher territory with ornamental implements of messy destruction. Fans of holiday horror or bizarrely unusual genre-crossing cinema may do well to ask for the Special Edition to find its way under their tree, but those who prefer standard and slick cut-'em-ups may be left as baffled as a white person at Kwanza.


  1. I always knew I had seen this film, but couldn't remember anything about it. as soon as I read the mommy hooking up with Santa thing, I kinda remember it a little. I think this one got buried under Silent Night and the consecutive sequels.

    This is either the next, or the one right after that I should be getting from Netflix and I hope the copy I get has the Waters' commentary on it. Very few men can be so entertaining in such a sleazy way!

  2. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on this one. It has a real unusual charm about it that I found adorable and sad.

    The best thing about John Waters is that he's sleazy in such an innocent way. He could say the foulest things but still sound so darn classy. Could be the mustache.

  3. I think it is the mustache.

    I really enjoy Christmas Evil. Not in a watch it every year kind of way, but its a solid little film.

    If you like John Waters, try and fig up a copy of his Christmas CD which I think is called John Waters Christmas Memories. Jsut like the man himself its sleazy and a little profane, but in a classy way.

  4. A John Waters Xmas sounds fantastic! I've been longing for some good holiday tunes ever since I lost my cassette tape of the Crypt Keeper's "Have Yourself a Scary Little Xmas" (featuring such classics as "We Wish You'd Bury the Missus" and "Deck the Halls with Parts of Charlie"). Thanks for the tip!

  5. I love, love, love this movie.

  6. That's cause you're a kookiebish of good taste!