Friday, December 11, 2015

MR Christmas Evil

Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la, la... la... la... la.

Is it only me or is Christmas a particularly creepy time of the year?? That would explain all these horror films...

Movie: Christmas Evil also known as You Better Watch Out and Terror in Toyland
Directed by Lewis Jackson 
Release date 1980
Genre Slasher/Horror film
Country USA

When I last reviewed films for Christmas, I had a look at all the Silent Night films. But Silent Night, Deadly Night wasn't the first film to mix slasher films and the holidays. No. That honor goes to Christmas Evil.

Along John Carpenter's Halloween, this film was one of the very first proper slasher horror films made, and like Halloween and Friday the 13th it was also yet another holiday-themed film that would slowly help define the genre.

But that's where the comparison stops. Christmas Evil isn't as funny as some of the more over-the-top slasher films out there and doesn't even have an iconic colorful slasher killer. It's a much more realistic and grounded horror film, with a far less outlandish scenario.

It's also a much slower burn to enjoy, but it's well worth the look.

The film was originally released on the big screen under the title You Better Watch Out. But it quickly got renamed as You Better Watch Out when it came back to tie-in Silent Night's release (and has also gone under the name Terror in Toyland on home video). The movie was released in November 1980. It never got much popularity but it has since made a cult following in recent years.

Christmas Evil is the tale of a very disturbed man that finally takes the occasion in his hands to dress up as his obsession during the holidays - namely Santa Claus - and ends up going on a murdering spree, spreading out joy and dishing out punishment accordingly!

Our story begins with a little prologue taking place on a Christmas Eve back in 1947. We are introduced to this young kid named Harry, living in the New Jersey suburbs. On the night of Christmas Harry and his brother get to see Santa bringing in their presents! But Harry also catches his mom having sex with the man dressed as Santa Claus (his father?). Of course since this is a horror film, this means the kid's now traumatized and he even cuts himself...

Several decades later, we find Harry all-grown up, apparently a well-adjusted adult now all tings considered for an horror film. Harry works in some toy factory (before they started outsourcing mass-produced toys to third world countries?). Harry is only preoccupied with only one thought this Christmas - he wants to become the one true Santa!

Harry's kind of crazy when you start to notice it. He made a Santa suit of his own as creepy as possible, his entire apartment is filled with Christmas stuff and toys. And if that wasn't creepy enough for ya, he even goes to the rooftop of his building to spy on the neighborhood kids, and see who's "good" or "bad". When he finds this kid not playing with dolls like the others but checking out a Penthouse magazine issue, Harry puts his name in the "Bad Boys & Girls" book of his!!

And at work it's nothing better, the others mock him, humiliate him and even abuse of his kindness. They give him all the work, pretend to be sick, and spend the day at the bar instead. Which is making Harry more and more angry. But Christmas is coming!

He tries to put on a good mood and keep the Christmas spirit going. His younger brother from the prologue checks on him, but Harry doesn't want to come for Thanksgiving dinner. Back at work the next day the company lies to their employees about donating toys to charity. Which is the tipping point for Harry. He decides to take his Santa dress up game to the streets and become the old Saint Nick for real. He steals the entire warehouse worth of toys and give them all to a nearby hospital.

He has a nervous breakdown. Along the toys he grabs a few handy weapons like knives and axes and even sharpen the tip of a toy "just in case". He leaves a bag of dirt to bad neighbor kid. He then begins his killing spree by murdering people in front of a church.

With talks about a murderous Santa on the loose, his brother is worried Harry is behind this. Harry goes back to the work and breaks most of the assembly lines. He continues his rampage in the streets but gets approached by people wanting to have fun with Santa. I mean, until they recognize him for the hatchet murders and a Frankenstein-style torch-equipped mob immediately forms after him! Harry runs to his brother... who kills him!... But not really. Harry strangely leaves off, I kid you not, flying with his van into the Christmas night sky!

Merry Christmas everyone! Oh Oh Oh!

That's a pretty effed up Christmas tale.

The film stars a bunch of unknowns mostly; Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn, Dianne Hull and Andy Fenwick.

Christmas Evil is a really strange film. I mean here we have a strangely weirdly frightening killer who is made all the more real since the guy is such a mundane and regular average Joe.

But that's makes this film so good in my opinion. Harry is such a creepy frightening and "real" killer. Particularly regarding his interaction with the kids or how he goes punishing people.

The movie is clearly not perfect but it's a pretty damn good horror film.

Some weird questions are left unanswered due to the nature of the film or the cheap budget. Like how the Santa at the beginning went up and down the chimney. Which Harry completely fails to replicate later in the film, but I guess you could explain that with the imagination of the little kid.

Although why would a traumatized little kid developed such an obsession with becoming Santa after seeing his own dad (?) having sex with his mother dressed the same way... I mean, you could probably bring up some Freudian explanation for that, but...

There's some moments of great tension like when Harry gets cornered in the street or the funny police lineup with all the Santas.

The ending gets really weird though. The best way to explain any of it is to say it's like the beginning of the film. Harry died and he got to fly off like Santa to the North Pole in his imagination.

Compared to a lot of cheesier funnier slasher films produced right around that time to this day, it's a much more creepier and serious film. It wants itself plain regular and closer to classic horror films. In fact the film's often been praised for that. It has a good tone, great editing, cinematography and style and also a weird twisted dark sense of humor.

Unlike the usual B-grade horror films that often get pretty cheesy and try to cram in unnecessary T&A for sex appeal or bloody rampage, Christmas Evil feels pretty restrained. You don't get much outside of Harry's mother at the beginning and his sister in law in a rare few shots. And it's not very graphic either apart from a great gory closeup with the toy sword through an eye.

Christmas Evil offers a great twist on Christmas tales.

While you would usually expect slashers to be a lot louder and more brutal like most cheesy films at the time, even more compared to modern slasher films, Christmas Evil is a lot slower-paced and feels like a classic horror story. It's not just a revenge story either, since our Harry here has some heart and goodwill and seems only concerned with charity and traditions. He's a twisted psycho for sure, but more like a damaged person instead of a supernatural killer.

The film also looks great, there's some great shots that make suburban streets look really creepy!

The film didn't become a classic until recently, but it probably influenced the Silent Night, Deadly Night films which are direct spiritual successors to it.

And it's a shame I think. In a weird way the film was strangely perfectly set up for a sequel with his brother once Harry "dies", but I guess Silent Night prevented them from making more (and also the whole controversies they brought with more exposure...).

I love talking about horror films music usually, but here the score was pretty forgettable. Despite being composed by no less than three different good composers, Joel Harris, Julia Heyward and Don Christensen.

Overall, Christmas Evil is a pretty good underrated classic.

The film kind of fell into obscurity to the louder slashers the decade would see, but I think it's probably the best and only good Christmas-themed horror film out there. The killer is obsessed and really creepy. Plus the film has some great dark humor here and there.

Although it saddens me it's far less popular compared to, say, the Silent Night, Deadly Night films which are of questionable quality. At the very least it seems to have attained a cult status more recently.

The main reason is the film saw so very little releases on home video. We finally got a few recent offerings including a decent re-release by Troma back in 2000, a special edition from Synapse Films in 2006 as well as my above recent Arrow Video release. It's hard to come by, but it's Well Worth a Look!

I give it:
2 / 3 Necronomicons!

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