Dir. Lewis Jackson (1980)
A toy factory worker has a nervous breakdown after constant bullying, his past coming back to haunt him as he goes on a rampage dressed as Santa Claus.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
This one escaped me for so long, despite owning an awesome release by Vinegar Syndrome on bluray. I’ve seen so many people say it’s their favorite Christmas movie, including the legendary John Waters. Well, if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me. I decided to add it to the inaugural Christmas extravaganza to see what all the fuss was about, and let me tell you… as far as cheesy Christmas horror movies go, this one very well might take the cake. Brandon Maggart (Dressed to Kill) plays Harry, a man who works at a toy factory and who just loves Christmas. He has a tortured relationship with the holiday, though, ever since he caught his father and mother getting down to business on Christmas Eve. His father was still wearing the Saint Nick costume that he wore for his children, however, which was certainly a traumatic way to find out that Santa Claus isn’t real, and the film shows us exactly what happens when you see Mommy kissing Santa Claus.
Harry has a nervous breakdown after being tricked into working Thanksgiving for a coworker, and the month between Turkey Day and Christmas becomes a slow slide into lunacy punctuated with some great set pieces and a few murders. It’s almost anti-formulaic for a slasher film, especially one about Christmas, even though the film establishing most of the genre’s tropes was released two years earlier with 1978’s Halloween. The film was written before John Carpenter’s classic, but it was because that (much better) film got so popular that Christmas Evil was able to be made. Despite being viewed by many as a standard holiday slasher film, however, Christmas Evil was far ahead of its time in predicting the type of workplace mental health concerns that would become commonplace. Sure, in 1980 is was a toy maker, but the violence would spread to post offices, fast food joints, and other places of business throughout the next several decades after the film’s release.
It’s always interesting to watch horror movies at the dawn of a new decade. It would be easy to compare this film to Halloween, but it’s perhaps even more influenced by Argento’s work during the 70’s, most notably Suspiria and Deep Red. The blood in the film has that same vibrant hue and the bell-infused score hearkens back to Goblin’s work in those films. The film has a dreamlike quality, and while it doesn’t have a lot of the tropes of those influential gialli like a black-gloved, mysterious killer or a supernatural resolution, Christmas Evil could just as easily fit as an American Giallo as it could a slasher film. If Argento was to make a Christmas movie, Christmas Evil would be very much like something he would make. Then again, you could make another argument that the film runs parallel to Frankenstein, for whatever that’s worth.
Maggart is fantastic as the psychotic Harry, a man who has been pushed to the limit (though you’re left with the feeling that he was always pretty close to the edge regardless of his treatment from coworkers.) There’s a lot of style behind the direction here, sort of a low-rent De Palma feel to the shots. The film is often bizarre and disorienting, and while it’s easy to dismiss the choices made as being budgetary concerns or happenstance, there’s so much life behind Maggart’s performance and his slow descent into madness that the film becomes much better than it has any right to be. He’s inspired in this film, with a performance that feels so out of place for a Christmas movie yet fits the style and darkness necessary for Christmas Evil.
It’s rare that a horror movie spends this much time with the killer. In most films, they’re hiding in the darkness, waiting for their victims so that they can spring out while leaving as much to the imagination as possible. In others, we see their crimes emblazoned on the screen while their motivations are revealed in the final act, the final reveal showing why the dead bodies came so frequently during the film. In Christmas Evil, almost the entire film is dedicated to Harry’s life, showing a lonely man with more than a few screws loose who only wishes to become the red-robed Robin Hood to all of the underprivileged children of the world. The first death, in fact, doesn’t come until almost an hour into the movie, with a shocking sequence of mayhem in front of a church to start off the festivities.
A good three-quarters of the movie is a bizarro world Hallmark movie, with a man who seeks to bring about the joy of Christmas to all. The picture of mental illness is not unlike Saint Maud, wherein the true nature and outcome is not revealed until the final frames. Granted, Christmas Evil is a bit more ham-handed with its depiction, and it has an arguably more nutso final act. But the film’s depiction of the bad guy through his own eyes is groundbreaking, and something most filmmakers of the era wouldn’t have had the guts to do. Harry is a sympathetic character, a man who has been bullied most of his life and has finally reached a breaking point.
Who this movie is for: Christmas-holics, Holiday horror fans, Milk and cookie lovers
Bottom line: Christmas Evil is way better than it should be and is a pretty disturbing depiction of mental illness and the havoc it can wreak on a community if unchecked and untreated. Maggart’s Harry is an incredibly compelling character, one who is equal parts sympathetic and horrifying. The film is incredibly well-made, and even though Lewis Jackson’s story and cinematography is dated to say the least, it’s still an effective film filled with holiday cheer and a batshit finale. This one has found a cult following, and it’s easy to see why. Check it out as part of your Christmas viewing on Shudder. While you’re at it, look for the blink-and-you-missed-it early cameo from Mark Margolis, who played Hector Salamanca on Breaking Bad.