Christmas Evil

Santa is a cunning linguist
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1980
Director: 
Lewis Jackson
Starring: 
Brandon Maggart, Jeffery DeMunn, Joe Jamrog, Dianne Hull
The Setup: 
Portrait of a Santa-obsessed psycho.
Discussion: 

So it’s December 26th, I’ve just gotten back from my parent’s house for Christmas, and I’m like “Hmm, do I watch the Alicia Silverstone jailbait saga The Babysitter, or will it be Christmas Evil?” when a little voice inside said: “Duh!”

We open at an extensively-decorated house on Christmas Eve, 1947. These two boys and their rather saucy mom are watching from the stairs as a guy dressed as Santa [presumably dad] comes down the chimney, eats the cookies and drinks the milk, and leaves presents for them. He sees the kids before he leaves, and gives them a little wink. Santa flies up the chimney, and the kids vanish. We then join the two boys in bed. Philip doesn’t believe what he just saw is real, which enrages Harry, who bears a strong resemblance to Mikey from the old Life cereal commercials. Harry sneaks back downstairs, where he sees Santa lifting mommy’s skirt and having a good, close-up examination of her vajayjay. It’s gyno-santa! This offends Harry’s sensibilities, and he runs up to the attic and starts cutting himself. Okay!

Now I had read a review of this that considered it among the most poorly-made pieces of kaka out there in cheesy video-land, so I was sort of expecting that, but what soon became apparent is that it’s not awful, it’s just trying to be somewhat artsy. Santa flying in and out of the chimney, and the way the kids on the stairs vanish, let us know that the writer-director, Lewis Jackson, is trying to approximate the magical memory of the eight-year-old. This is soon followed by an artful use of red and careful laying out of visual themes, as well as a soon-to-be-apparent focus on psychology as opposed to slaughter, and we have to adjust out expectations. This could actually be kind of, you know, GOOD.

After the RED credits we join Harry in the present day [which was 1980]. He sleeps in a Santa suit, has Santa-based decorations all over his house, and puts shaving cream on himself like a white beard. Hmmm, so I guess he never really quite got over the traumas of that fateful evening. Note to parents: lock the door when playing "Santa Baby."

Harry begins his day by peeping on all the little boys and girls in the neighborhood. He sees one of them, Moss Garcia, looking at a picture of a naked woman. Then Harry gets out his books, with the look and feel of hand-tooled leather, that say “Good Boys and Girls” and “Bad Boys and Girls,” in which he keeps accounts of the various children’s qualities, such as “tells lies” and “cheats” and “Is just delightful.” Okay—are we creeped out yet? Harry then goes to work, and we have a little bit of the Manufactured Landscapes as we have a shot showing the deadening work of a toy assembly line. It’s all interestingly photographed, oh, and I forgot to tell you that the titles of Harry’s little books go by so fast one is aware that they are pointedly NOT being shoved in one’s face. Do my sensors detect subtlety? Methinks!

So it turns out Harry has recently been promoted off the assembly line to a desk job, which has raised the resentment of his Jersey-dude line workers, who think Harry is a nut. Further evidence of this accrues as Harry chides them all for not putting tender love and care into the toys they make, since a toy is a beautiful thing, etc. He is incensed by one guy, Frank, who is particularly good at conveying friendly-faced aggression, and who says he hates Christmas and those little brats. In Harry’s office is a big Santa poster, in which Santa is giving the same little wink and gesture that Harry’s dad gave on the night his mind was permanently warped. The film is very good with its judicious use of bright red, and at conveying—and making creepy—the ubiquitousness of Christmas decorations and music around holiday time.

Okay! So asshole Frank, who I mentioned earlier, forces Harry to work for him on the assembly line on Thanksgiving. Harry finds he can’t just robotically put these toys together, he needs to put some heart and soul into it! And this may be the first of many times that you start to think “Okay, I get it, he doesn’t like putting the toys together...” and the scene continues for what seems like five minutes anyway. Feel free to fast-forward: you can tell when something is happening again. So Harry goes to this bar, where he sees that Frank actually lied so her could go out drinking at the bar—and just happens to be talking about his lie right at that very second! Then Harry goes home and sings “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” in a menacing way, and you think “He’s snapped! He’s going to go on a killing rampage!” But no, then he goes over to Moss Garcia’s house and peeps on him, then rubs mud on his face [that is not a misprint] and then kisses Moss’ house, leaving a big lip print. Then Moss comes out, and Harry hides in the bushes while Moss comes over to check if someone’s there, taking one tiny step, then ANOTHER tiny step, then… just go ahead and fast-forward. There’s no shame in that. I did, and I STILL couldn’t believe how long that little tyke took in getting over there—and all for nothing.

So he starts making a Santa outfit for himself. Now, I had a very hard time understanding the time period all of this was taking place over. I thought it was close to Christmas at the beginning, then halfway through you find out it’s only Thanksgiving. Then I was sure it was Christmas Eve on several occasions, only to find out it’s somewhere in between. There is another very good montage—this time of the creepy Christmas decorations everywhere, which the movie succeeds in wringing menace form—but it’s cut short. I’d much rather have that than a document on little Moss’ every step. Anyway, Harry has a very nice rapport with the real kids around town, and we see that he has a little dollhouse with replicas of the kids in it. I have to say, for quite a while this movie succeeds in growing progressively weirder and weirder. There are, however, MANY moments where you go “Okay, NOW he’s gonna snap and start a murdering spree!” only to find him clipping coupons or whatnot. However the movie is smart enough about all this to joke with you about it. At one point, having broken into someone’s house dressed as Santa, he brandishes a huge butcher knife! …then uses it to cut some ribbons. This is obviously the director’s way of chiding us for our expectations of slaughter and, well, ya got me!

At one point we see a far shot of Manhattan, and think a) Oh, I guess this is happening in New York, and 2) HOLY SHIT, look how sparse New York was in 1980! You can see the Empire State Building with almost NOTHING around it. That whole area is packed with skyscrapers now. There’s a shot a second later where we see nothing was down by the twin towers either.

SPOILERS > > > Okay, so it’s finally fucking Christmas Eve. Harry steals a bunch of toys from the factory and delivers them to a family, and then Moss Garcia only gets a nasty, pooty painting! That’s funny, but I thought he could think of something a little nasty for Moss. E.Coli cookies perhaps? Anyway, then he takes a bunch of toys to the local orphanage, then goes to the huge church where the good Christians are just coming out. In front are two guys who work at the toy factory but don’t LUUUVVVE toys, so Harry puts the sword of a toy soldier through the eyes of one, and hacks up two others with an axe, right in front of the rest of the crowd! What’s this? Slaughter? And a very fun one at that!

So then Harry gets back to his peeping duties, going to spy on this awesome 1980 office Christmas party. He is caught outside, and pulled in, whereupon he enters full-on Santa mode. This scene is pretty good, as at first everyone at the party is subtly mocking him, then over time is genuinely won over—none of them having yet received the news that there's a killer Santa on the loose! Then the kids come in, and Santa tells them all to be good and they'll get nice toys, but if they're bad he'll bring them "something horrible," which is very evocative [dead things with tentacles spring to mind], but knowing him he just means a pooty drawing left on the doorstep. Big whoop—hardly worth being good for. Then he heads off to Frank's house, climbing up on the roof and trying to get down the chimney. Unfortunately he doesn't fit, so he is forced to use the door. He smothers Frank in his bed, having a huge struggle while Frank's wife, six inches away in the same bed, doesn't wake. She probably thinks he's just whacking off again. She finally wakes when Harry just gives up and slashes Frank's throat with a Christmas star. Frank's kid also sees Santa while he's in the house.

Meanwhile, Philip and his wife are experiencing marital tension. Phil's wife comes on all hot and sexy to him, then uses this opportune moment to nag him about how he treats Harry. Ladies, do not do this. If you have something to say, tell your husband you want to have a word with him, do NOT come on all hot and sexy only as a prelude to criticism or other serious topics. Then he'll fear that every time you are affectionate it's only a mask to cover the nasty conversation coming up, and you'll start being bummed that the intimacy has left your marriage. Bad news. Regardless, it seems a little too late for Phil and Jackie, as we see in an interesting moment when the director is playing a news report you want to hear against a conversation you also want to hear. This guy is really fucking with us.

Then there's a REALLY clever scene in which Santa is stopped by a bunch of kids on the street. The parents show up, horrified when they see their unsuspecting kids all gathered around a known maniac, and unable to really do anything. When they finally attack Santa—the kids all defend him! I thought that was pretty clever. Anyway, soon Santa's on the run and the suburban town—who just happen to have a number of torches at the ready—come after him in a mob, Frankenstein-style.

So Harry makes it to Phil's house and reveals the real reason for his beef all these years: back when Phil was six, he said he didn't believe in Santa! They go at it and it looks like Phil has killed Harry, when suddenly Harry wakes and escapes. At the very end comes a real surprise… Harry's van goes off a bridge, and flies away into the air, like Santa's sleigh! If you listen, you can hear the crash and explosion while you're seeing this, making us realize that the flying is in Phil's mind. Another review I read interpreted this as that Harry really WAS Santa all along, which would be very interesting, but I don't think is right. Anyway, surprise, and that's the end.
< < < SPOILERS END

The main problem with this movie is the way it is marketed; as a slasher, when it's really a psychological thriller, more in the vein of Maniac. Those coming in expecting Harry to snap and go on a killing spree will find this boring and pointless, as many on the IMDb do. But those ready to slow down and let the playful and competent [if a bit overindulgent] director take you for a ride, will find some clever little twists and surprises, especially toward the end. Jackson has really thought through this whole Santa thing, and has a vision for how a psychosis could revolve around Santa, what Santa means to children and adults in the community, and for the underlying creepiness of just how very pervasive all the Christmas decorations and songs become at that time of year. This movie is very rich and clever, and those willing to open themselves to its meandering ways and put their slasher expectations on hold will find a lot of interest here.

That said, again, feel free to fast-forward. This is really 60 minutes of story stretched out to 90 minutes, and it seems like it. It also, while very smartly finding new and weirder things for Harry to do, becomes rote for long periods. "Now he's… even crazier!" But the interesting turns and subversions of the last 30 minutes kind of make up for it. This is really ripe for a remake that could focus it, but who would see it? It would have to play at the arthouse… which would be fine for me, but I don't think everyone feels that way.

Brandon Maggart, who was quite good, continues to act. Sadly, this is Lewis Jackson's only film. Apparently this is one of John Waters' favorite films. Next time you're looking for a smart little psychological thriller [watching during the holiday season DOES enhance its potency], this is a nice little entry.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, but don't expect a slasher, this is a more meditative look at the working's of a psycho's mind.