“You better watch out” is a sinister line to begin a children’s song, let alone a children’s Christmas song, but it’s one of the most beloved of holiday intros nonetheless. John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie’s ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ may be the go-to holiday jingle to ignite feelings of excitement and joy, but in other circumstances, it can read more as a warning for impending judgment and consequence.
If you’ve been on the Nice List this past year and are looking for some uproarious holiday horror, the 1980 Santa-sleighing slasher, Christmas Evil, is one film you’ll need to check twice. Also known as You Better Watch Out and Terror in Toyland, Christmas Evil is both free on Vudu and part of Shudder’s curated collection, ‘Unhappy Holidays’.
Shudder presents Lewis Jackson’s (The Transformation: A Sandwich of Nightmares) seasoned psychological slasher best with its description:
A man obsessed with Santa Claus snaps and goes on the yuletide killing spree in this early to range Christmas horror fable that John Waters called “the greatest Christmas movie of all time.” Harry is a schmuck and both kids and adults treat him like garbage. But they wouldn’t be so mean if they knew he was keeping track of them on his “naughty list”. After Harry’s nut gets cracked, he starts delivering deadly justice to bad boys and girls – leading to a jaw-dropping finale you won’t see coming. A perverse and hilarious antidote to the holiday season.
Running a perfect 93 minutes in duration, Christmas Evil is a wacky cult favorite that delivers a festive combination of both laughs and chills.
Reason For The Season
The slasher angle is a very interesting corner of the horror genre to give rhyme and reason to when it comes to the villain and the victims. Christmas Evil‘s protagonist and villain, Harry, is not born a killer, but instead made to be one through years of suppressed rage and childhood trauma. As a young boy, he quite literally saw mommy kissing Santa Claus and the situation was not nearly as innocent as Tommie Connor’s song. The revelatory lewd conduct and emotional reaction, combined with a buried layer of sexual deviancy, is too much for him as a child, so he takes on the seasonal persona that contributed to this shock to control his effect on other children.
There’s nothing wrong with a little role-play, but when it comes down to Harry actually watching children, judging his “little darlings”, and turning members of the Naughty List into murders, that’s when things get totally wacky and fly off the roof. Harry buries his rage deep down inside, coming off frustrated, lonely, and, quite frankly, a little weird. This has a multitude of effects on the characters around him, including the anger we see in his brother, Phil, sympathy from his wife, Jackie, adoration from the good boys and girls of the neighborhood, and indifference from his coworkers. So much about the Christmas season triggers Harry and turns into a gradual buildup of terror.
“Christmas Evil‘s protagonist and villain, Harry, is not born a killer, but instead made to be one through years of suppressed rage and childhood trauma.”
What was horrifying to see during my own rewatch of Christmas Evil was just how many scenes compare with the family-friendly film, The Santa Clause. It’s not drastic, but it’s there. In the jubilant preparation of Christmas, Harry watches the children around him and places them respectively on the naughty or nice list. His behavior crosses against the light of what adults are expected to do when children are around them and how they get their thrills.
It’s said that Harry is not interested in money, he’s interested in toys, which by society’s standards could be a considerable perversion. His severely psychosomatic Santa Claus issues worsen as Christmas draws closer, resulting in some pretty great (awful) early 80’s gore and a bursting sack filled with childhood disturbances, psychological stigmas, subconscious blame and guilt, and deadly daddy issues. The reason for this slashers’ season stands as one of Christmas Evil’s most intriguing and unique points of cringey Christmas contention.
Playing The Tune
Jackson signs his frightening, resplendent Christmas story with splashes of powerful red hues. Be it the fabric of Harry’s homemade Santa Claus suit or the blood spurt following an axe chop, red is a primary color focus used in magnificent glory to highlight the holiday’s incredible volatility. Its fade-to-black transitions, retro grain look, and hardcore, rapid synth stings turn a saccharine season dark, uncomfortable, and tense quickly. The old-school 80’s style highlights the film’s traditional template of allegorical meaning and deeper analysis. Though it may be substantially considered poor in taste, Christmas Evil is a brilliant portrayal of the contrast existing within this magical holiday.
Utilizing glints of consumerism, greed, and decadence, Christmas Evil is saturated in all the ugly elements of a time usually deemed as merry and bright. All of the sweet nostalgic aesthetics of the holiday, especially the memorable scenery of that decade, are cut with menacing motions of Santa’s omniscient voyeurism, repressed sexual memories, traumatic drive, and bloody homicide. Harry’s ultimate spiral into insanity, compete with beard and hat, is split between murdering and rewarding those he oversees. His actions are an incredible take on Santa Claus’ Naughty and Nice List, and even more supportive content to the Christmas contrast that deserves recognition.
The Man With The Bag
The horror genre thrives off of the performances of artists, both seen and unseen. An actor’s ability to craft a character and bring them to life can make a difference between a good film and an effective film. Brandon Maggart (Brothers) is a stellar Santa Claus with a masterful expression of a man who has broken his his inner mentality. Between a shaving cream beard, a collection of dolls, an arsenal of metal soldiers, a clever sleigh van, and a toy-making career, his character of Harry is a complex persona to express in a way that is not overly silly. From jolly humming and dancing to temper tantrum throwing and scary mirror play that could give De Niro a run for his money, Maggart puts on a cringe show like no other.
While the performance is really what makes Harry such a worthy character of praise in Christmas Evil, it’s his character and realness that is true, simple horror. He is just an average guy with an unhealthy fascination of make-believe. His obsession is born from some seriously latent problems and it comes through in his extracurricular activity. He uses the judgment piece of Santa Claus to express his anger against those who wronged him or who do wrong in general. While some of his reactions are goofy and awkward, his fugue state and ultimate grand finale on Christmas night prove just how depraved and dangerous he is capable of being. This is a man that could live in anyone’s neighborhood, put anyone around him on any list of his choice, and come down anyone’s chimney.
“From jolly humming and dancing to temper tantrum throwing and scary mirror play that could give De Niro a run for his money, Maggart puts on a cringe show like no other.”
There is so much to be said about Christmas Evil, whether you take it for a black comedy or choose to take a closer look at its meaning. Either way, it holds a definitive horror factor that is enough to make viewers think of Christmas in a different light, a darker one. It might be littered in toys and St. Nick impersonations, but Christmas Evil is not exactly a family-friendly flick unless you want to strike an innate fear of Christmas into the hearts of your kids. Seriously though, do not watch this with children in the room. You wouldn’t want to spoil the essential, delusional right of make-believe. Not that I don’t believe… I do. I wouldn’t want to end up on anyone’s Naughty List.
Are you a fan of Christmas Evil? What do you think about this selection of Shudder’s Unhappy Holidays? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!