Lewis Jackson’s Christmas Evil, originally released as You Better Watch Out, is a bizarre and chilling Christmas horror picture. Jackson’s screenplay is unexpectedly careful in its unwrapping of Christmas mythology, social concerns, psychological problems, and economic matters.
The 1980 film is full of troubling imagery and weaves an unsettling tale, with sounds of unhinged humming, distorted Christmas carols, strident bells, and cheerful tradition helping sink the viewer further into truly disturbed territory. There are also notes of grim satire and corrosive humour, all of which add up to a gleefully distressing holiday yarn.
The tale begins in 1947, as young Harry (Gus Salud) sees mommy (Ellen McElduff) getting groped by Santa Claus (Brian Hartigan). Santa is Harry’s father and the revelation sends the kid into a tailspin of despair. 33 years later, adult Harry (Brandon Maggart) is a Santa-obsessed weirdo. He’s also a toy company executive.
Harry’s brother (Jeffrey DeMunn) is worried about him, especially as the Santa obsession deepens. Harry takes it upon himself to literally become Santa and this involves a trip to a mental hospital with a van filled with presents. It also involves murder, as a bunch of dumb yuppies find out the hard way. As Harry’s mental illness worsens, the body count piles up as high as the presents.
This is Jackson’s sole outing as a writer-director, apparently, and one wonders what might’ve been. The filmmaker reaches a peak of disturbing tone seldom found in even the most effective horror features. His command of subtlety blends exceptionally with the sheer oddity of the premise.
Maggart is an astonishing lead, too. He is a Christmas anti-hero and his head is swimming with disaster, especially as he tries to make sense of the materialistic holiday. He works in the Jolly Dreams toy factory out of some sense of altruistic Christmas affection, it seems, but the crystallization of sales reports and corporate reputations and a half-assed donation to kids overwhelms him.
It’s hard to say what exactly makes Maggart’s Harry snap. The sexualized opening scene holds a few clues and Jackson doubles-down later when he shows the protagonist having a problem with a kid’s desire for Penthouse magazine. It may also be the excess of the season, as Ricardo Aronovich’s lens spends a long time lingering over the booze at the office Christmas party.
Regardless of the exact straw to break Santa’s back, Harry’s explosion during a quiet humming of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is one of the most disturbing scenes in the picture – and that’s saying a lot. Maggart plays the carol with constant twisting and mangling, pursing his lips and drilling the familiar melody through in a distortion of all that is magical and wonderful about the holidays.
While some of the supporting characters lack meat, Christmas Evil is a startling and effective horror movie. It is far superior to many “Santa slasher” features and conveys an shocking flair for turning Christmas on its chopped-up head. It’s a slow-burner, though, so be warned that it takes a while to open the present. But when the bow’s off? Look out.