BILL’s BIZAREE BIJOU
William D. Carl
This week’s special Thanksgiving feature presentation:
CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)
Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made. If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if there’s a multitude of drag queens and camp sensibility, if go-go dancers in cages are featured, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk till dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable – then I’ve seen it and probably loved it. Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open. Trust me, with these flicks, you won’t believe your eyes.
You’d better watch out! You’d better not cry! You’d better not pout, I’m tellin’ you why…Santa Claus is killing everyone! Argh!
Killer Santa movies have been a staple of grindhouse cinema since TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972), when Joan Collins faced off against a psycho Santa trying to get into her house. Everyone remembers the terrifying ad campaign (but the not so terrifying film) for SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984). Santa was even a demon from Hell in 2005’s SANTA’S SLAY. But, the very best of the bunch is a little low budget thriller called CHRISTMAS EVIL, 1980, also known as YOU BETTER WATCH OUT. This little movie has Christmas spirit to spare, hilariously inappropriate scenes, and it’s scary as hell to boot.
On Christmas Eve, 1947, our prologue begins as young Harry and Phillip Stadling watch from the stairway as Santa delivers toys in their house. Little Harry is enraptured by the sight, and he doesn’t believe his younger brother when Phillip informs him that it’s just their father dressed as Santa. When Harry creeps back downstairs, he spies Mommy kissing Santa Claus! And Santa Claus is kissing Mommy in her jingle bell area. Yeah, the bells on her bob-tail rang. He runs upstairs, smashes a snow globe, and cuts himself.
Thirty years go by, and it is 1980. Harry is now a man-child, who has decorated his entire house with Christmas and, especially, Santa Claus iconography. As played by Brandon Maggart (THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, 1982, Lou on the TV series BROTHERS and a veteran of SESAME STREET), Harry is a fascinating Santa-obsessed character. He keeps a red suit in his closet, and he spies on the neighborhood children, taking notes in his BAD BOYS AND GIRLS and GOOD BOYS AND GIRLS books. It’s creepy watching a grown man observe the local children through a telescope. When he spots one boy reading Penthouse magazine, he writes ‘Moss Garcia…impure thoughts and bad body hygiene.’
Harry works at the Jolly Dream toy factory (handily doubled from executive producer Edward R. Pressman’s real toy factory), where he dreams of making good, quality toys. He’s recently been promoted to a pencil-pusher job, but he misses the line. Several of the guys tease him, and one takes advantage of him, calling in to work and forcing Harry into a double shift. As Harry walks home, he spies the culprit in a bar with his friends, and he goes…well, a little nutso. “Naughty…you’d better watch out, you better not…naughty!”
Phillip, Harry’s younger brother (played by Jeffrey DeMunn of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, 1994, THE GREEN MILE, 1999, and Dale on THE WALKING DEAD), is now married to a lovely woman named Jackie (Dianne Hull of THE ONION FIELD, 1979) with two kids of his own. He knows his brother is a couple of raisins short of a fruitcake, but he still loves him. Sometimes, when Harry isn’t spying on the kids in the houses near his, he lurks outside his brother’s place and watches their happy family life.
Harry is tortured at work, and he discovers he is part of a scam to rip off a “school for retarded children.” While watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, he goes right off the deep end. No more reindeer games! He finishes a perfect Santa suit, superglues a beard to his face, paints a sleigh on the side of his druggie white van, and delivers disgusting bags of trash to the bad kids and toys to the good kids.
Then, he begins a killing rampage that is a bit gory and very scary as he punishes the men who hurt him, going crazier and crazier and getting closer and closer to his brother’s home. The police scour the city (obviously somewhere in New York), searching for a man dressed as Santa Claus. Obviously, they are everywhere, so the search is hilariously ineffective. There’s a terrific scene at a police station with a line-up of men in Santa suits. “Now turn and say Merry Christmas! Louder!”
Will Harry become crazy enough to harm his own family? Will the police ever figure out who the killer Santa is? Just what terrible thing is in that gift package to Moss Garcia? Will the townspeople with torches find Harry and kill him? Where the heck did they get those torches anyway?
Even though CHRISTMAS EVIL is often played tongue-in-cheek, the movie becomes scarier and scarier as Harry gets closer to his (rather likable) family. The suspense builds beautifully, as the camerawork gets darker and the angles become more skewed. Harry is reflected oddly in Christmas ornaments and funhouse-type mirrors, his lovely Santa Claus face growing ever more terrifying as his world crumbles apart. The great cinematography was by Ricardo Aronovich, who would soon be shooting big films such as MISSING (1982). He had already shot fantastic French films like MURMER OF THE HEART, 1971 and PROVIDENCE, 1977. CHRISTMAS EVIL looks a million times better than an exploitation holiday-themed horror film should look.
The suspense is due almost entirely to Brandon Maggart’s brilliant lead performance as Harry. Maggart brings actual pathos to a character that could easily just be played for laughs. He is a psychotic Santa, after all. His breakdown is completely believable, and it’s actually sad to watch him fall apart. Watch his face as he spots Santa in the Macy’s Parade. The child-like wonder that fills his eyes, the glimmer of hope is gorgeous. He’s full of childish love and humor. Even as it’s pretty terrifying to watch him murder and stalk people, and his final confrontation with his brother (who may be the direct cause of his psychosis) is dreadful and a great piece of acting.
CHRISTMAS EVIL was the last film directed by Lewis Jackson (after THE DEVIATES, 1970, and THE TRANSFORMATION: A SANDWICH OF NIGHTMARES, 1974), and it’s a tragic shame. He deftly handles melding the nightmarish with the whimsical. This seems especially hard when dealing with common tropes that are familiar to everyone – Santa Claus, dolls, a toy factory, Christmas trees, toy soldiers. He wielded a deft hand, and the film is hilarious and disturbing in equal measures. He keeps all the comic and monstrous balls in the air like the very best juggler at the Rockettes Spectacular.
CHRISTMAS EVIL is a wonderfully wicked piece of holiday grindhouse fun, and it’d be a shame to miss it this year. Make certain you watch it, now.
Because Santa Claus is watching you! Hehehe…
I give CHRISTMAS EVIL three Santa Line-Ups out of four.
Merry Christmas everyone!
© Copyright 2014 by William D. Carl