Christmas Evil (1980)

I figured we might as well get this out of the way.

The psycho Santa is a sub-genre all on its own – without straining, I can think of around twenty of the damn things, and we’re talking feature length, not vignettes as in the Amicus Tales from the Crypt movie. To All a Goodnight (directed by David Hess, no less)beat this one to the holiday slasher punch by a good 10, 11 months. The thing is – though we have a poster that invokes Halloween and Friday 13th (sic), and though it seems to always be lumped in with the other Christmas slashers – it’s not a slasher. What it actually is proves to be a bit confounding.

We do start in solid slasher territory, though, as thirty years ago, two young boys and their mother watch Santa come down a chimney, enjoy some nice bread and butter and milk, leave presents, and go back up the chimney. Later in bed, the younger brother, Philly, tells the only slighter older Harry that it was obviously their father wearing a costume. Harry sneaks back downstairs to discover Santa drooling over Mom’s garter belt (to be fair, Mom is hot). This breaks something in young Harry (just like the Christmas snow globe he uses to slash his hand), and if that poster led you to believe this leads to some carnage a la Pieces or Nightmare, please allow me to apologize on behalf of the filmmakers.

This is perfectly normal.

Thirty years later, Harry has grown up into Brandon Maggart (who was in Dressed to Kill that same year) who has a, shall we say, thing about Santa Claus and Christmas. He works at the Jolly Dream toy factory, where he was only recently promoted from the assembly line to middle management. He is disappointed that his former comrades on the line don’t really care about the quality of the toys they turn out, like in the old days. Then Frank (Joe Jamrog) bullies him into working his late shift so he can take off early for a weekend trip with his family. When Harry sees him in a local bar after the shift, drinking and laughing on the one he pulled on that jerk Harry, the decay begins.

Did we mention that Harry spies on the neighborhood children with binoculars? And that he has two enormous books, one for the Good Children and one for the Bad Children, with a page devoted to each’s good deeds or misdeeds?

The breaking point arrives at the Jolly Dream Christmas party, where a taped message says the company is donating to a local hospital for children with special needs, only to find out it’s all optics, and the guy who came up with the PR campaign has never even been to the hospital. Harry makes his own Santa suit (a pretty good one, at that) makes a slew of old-fashioned tin soldiers and tomahawks and other toys, paints a sled on the side of his van (the man is multi-talented, to say the least),  superglues a beard to his face, and heads out on Christmas Eve.

A simple holiday craft project – for the kids!

First stop is his brother Phillip’s house (Jeffrey DeMunn), leaving gifts. Then to the factory, to steal the toys for his next stop, that children’s hospital, where he is first greeted suspiciously, then joyously. High on his success, he heads to midnight mass where he knows his boss and the PR man will be, to tell them of his success. Unfortunately a couple of drunken New York effetes decide to heckle the Santa waiting outside the church, with the result that they eventually get a tin soldier’s rifle through the eye and a tomahawk upside the head (it seems that pressed for time, Harry just decorated a hatchet with cheerful holiday colors and feathers).

Harry speeds away and happens on a club social where he’s welcomed in and actually has a pretty good time. Before he leaves, he addresses the children there:

But now I want you to remember to stay good boys & girls. Respect your mothers & fathers and do what they tell you. Obey your teachers and learn a whooooole lot! Now *if you do this*, I’ll make sure you get good presents from me eeeevery year. Ha ha ha… but if you’re bad boys & girls, your name goes in the ‘Bad Boys & Girls’ book, and I’ll bring you something… horrible.

There is a tense moment, and then Harry laughs, and everybody laughs, except for one mother who looks rather disturbed. Then Harry heads over to Frank’s where he tries to smother the jerk with his toy bag, which doesn’t work very well, so he winds up slashing his throat with the star from a nearby Christmas tree.

First, I have to ask who keeps a Christmas tree in their bedroom. Second, I have to ask who the hell sharpens their Christmas ornaments?!?

Things go rather downhill from there, culminating in Harry being pursued by a literal torchbearing mob, driving his van off a bridge… and then the van flies away to the moon as Harry quotes from A Visit from Saint Nick

But I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

That ending is one of the reasons this movie endures, and it’s the first thing and probably only thing most people know about it. As you may have noticed, Harry has a pretty paltry body count. This isn’t a slasher at all, it’s more a character study of the disintegration of an already damaged personality into madness. The other reason this movies endures is Brandon Maggart himself, delivering an empathetic performance that could have crossed the line at any point into parody, yet never does. He’s had a good career, and there’s a reason for that. He deserved it.

We can’t say the same, alas, for writer/director Lewis Jackson, who apparently started collecting the Yuletide paraphernalia for Harry’s house in 1970, back when was making his first project, The Deviants, and continued to do so for the ten years it took him to get the backing for Christmas Evil, or, as it was originally titled, You Better Watch Out. Make no bones about it, it got made because of the success of the two movies referenced in the poster above. About Jackson himself, details are scarce on the ground; there is apparently a director’s commentary on the Vinegar Syndrome disc I have, which might yield some information, and if I hadn’t done something insane like deciding to watch 25 movies and review them in almost as many days, I might have dug into that.

Or, and let’s be honest here, if the movie had inspired me enough to do so.

Somebody on the Internet put together everything the average joe wants to see in just over a minute: