Concluding my confusingly-timed trilogy of Christmas horror movie reviews is Christmas Evil, described by John Waters as “the greatest Christmas movie ever made.”
This ho-ho-horror film from 1980 has a couple of alternative, naughtily nice names: You Better Watch Out and Terror in Toyland. The story, shamelessly ripped off by Silent Night, Deadly Night, starts as a kid sees mommy getting felt up by Santa Claus. Just like the song. 33 years later, a traumatised and unstable Harry (Brandon Maggart) makes Bad Santa look like Elmo Saves Christmas.
The wicked titles and taglines, including “Who’s been naughty?” and “He’ll sleigh you”, misleadingly suggest a fun, festive slasher. What we get is a thoughtful character study; a modern-day retelling of Frankenstein, where society creates a monster… and it’s Santa Claus.
While Silent Night, Deadly Night lost its message amongst the bloodshed, writer/director Lewis Jackson, who sadly never made another film, keeps the gore to a minimum. He focuses instead on strange, psychological horror, as Harry’s relationship with reality snaps like candy cane. By the brilliant ending, he’s become a sympathetic figure, impressively handled in Maggart’s performance. Disturbed and afraid, Harry is confused by the gulf between what people say and what they mean, particularly at Christmas time.
As a depiction of mental illness it’s typically violent, but Jackson never laughs at Harry, or takes pleasure in his actions. However, that doesn’t stop him from sprinkling dark wit throughout the movie like icing sugar. Where most Santas are all talk and no red trousers, Harry really does check which children have been naughty or nice. Using binoculars.
Unlike Silent Night, Deadly Night, this one actually feels Christmassy. This is partly due to the festive soundtrack that features James Brown, and partly the visual quality. The film still looks great, especially for a production so small that the crew had to double as extras. One memorably science-fictional shot captures an army of eerily glowing plastic reindeer. Run Rudolph. Run.
Most festively of all, it explores the meaning of Christmas, albeit in a genuinely dark and bizarre way. Although never prosecuted for obscenity, Christmas Evil was liable for confiscation during the video nasties scandal. The lack of gore suggests this had more to do with the subversive nature of a film that combined Yuletide imagery with violence in order to consider those forgotten by society; a film that stabs straight at the heart of Christmas hypocrisy.