Friday, 4 February 2011

Christmas Evil (1980)

Santa has something to stick in your stocking

Yeah, I know this would have been more appropriate to post around Christmas, but I'm afraid I has a period of holiday lethargy in mid December that managed to stretch right on through January too. I guess I could save this review until next Christmas, but fuck it.

Silent Night, Deadly Night attracted a lot of controversy due to it's depiction of a psycho-killer in a Santa Claus suit, but it wasn't the first film to do so. Christmas Evil, otherwise known as You Better Watch Out, was released four years earlier and went largely unnoticed. It's not really a Christmas-themed slasher film like Black Christmas or Silent Night, Deadly Night though. It's a lot slower and more methodical, more of a character study really.

The movie begins on Christmas Eve 1947. Little Harry Standling and his brother Phillip watch in hushed awe as Santa Claus emerges from the chimney to deliver their presents and gorge himself on milk and sandwiches. Presumably it's their father in costume (how he was able to climb up and down the chimney is never addressed) and a little later Harry catches Santa eating his mother's cookies, so to speak. There's a screeching musical sting, and little Harry runs upstairs and starts cutting up his hands with glass shards from a broken snow globe.

Seems a little overly-dramatic to me, but in horror movie tradition catching your parents in flagrante all but ensures that you will grow up to be a creepy weirdo. Unlike Silent Night, Deadly Night's protagonist, whose (admittedly more extreme) Christmas experience left him decidedly Anti-Claus, it seems to have the opposite effect on Harry. He develops a twisted obsession with Santa Claus, plastering his tiny apartment with Christmas decorations and working at a crappy toy factory. When he's not being pushed around by his co-workers or complaining about the quality of their toys, he spies on the neighbourhood kids and records their deeds in his naughty and nice books. It appears that each child has been prejudicially assigned to one of the two books, so that things like "bad breath" are unfairly recorded as naughty deeds.

After gleefully watching Santa Claus' appearance at the Thanksgiving parade, Harry decides to cancel dinner at his well-adjusted brother Phillip's, sew himself his own Santa Claus costume and spend the rest of the holiday season spreading Christmas cheer as jolly old Saint Nick. I find it pretty hard to believe that this guy wouldn't own a Santa Claus costume already (he sleeps in Santa Claus pyjamas) but his homemade costume is pretty nice, with a long, flared coat and a dark fur trim. It's a lot more traditional and European-looking than your typical store-bought costume. Since he's not quite fat enough he has to beef up the costume with foam padding, which I figured would be used later to stop a knife or something. No dice, just careful attention to costuming detail.

Those expecting non-stop carnage might be a little disappointed with this film. The biggest scene of violence is where he murders a trio of rich assholes as they exit a church, stabbing one guy in the eye and chopping the other two in the skull with an axe. There's also a scene where he suffocates his asshole co-worker and then stabs him in the neck with a christmas ornament. That's only a few minutes towards the end, though. He probably spends more time stealing presents from the toy factory and giving them out to sick kids than he does murdering. That didn't bother me too much though. If anything it made the film a little more creepy and morally ambiguous.

Most killer Santa films only include one or two scenes with children, since nobody wants to be bummed out with a bunch of child murders, but this one realises the creepy potential of child/killer Santa interaction. He doesn't kill any of the kids or really do anything that bad to them. Sure he spies on them and stalks one of them and leaves a muddy faceprint on the side of his house, but in the end all he does is leave a bag of coal on his doorstep. One of my favourite parts is where a bunch of small children take the side of Santa Claus over their own parents, one little girl even threatening her own father with a switchblade. It reminded me of that episode of Tales from the Crypt where the little girl leads the escaped mental patient into the house because he's wearing a Santa suit.

Eventually Harry's crimes start to catch up with him. He tries to seek help from his brother Phillip, but Phillip strangles him in a rage. He then drags Harry's body back to his van, which he has painted to like a sleigh, and props him up in the driver's seat. Seems like a weird way to deal with the problem, especially since the van is parked right there in a driveway, but it doesn't really matter since Harry then springs to life and drives off. He is then chased by a torch-wielding mob, who I guess escaped from the set of a Universal monster film, and Harry drives the van off the side of a cliff in a panic. Then the van then rockets off into the night sky leaving a trail of sparks as Harry/Santa shouts "Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!" No, I'm not kidding. That's really the ending of the film.

This isn't the best Christmas themed slasher and it's certainly not the most violent, but it has some interesting moments and tense scenes. I'm not sure I can recommend it in good faith to someone who is looking for a killer Santa film, as it's sure to disappoint on that level, but I must have been in the right mood because I kind of dug it.

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