“Better Watch Out… Better Not Cry… Or You May DIE!”
1980 – R – 100 Minutes – Vinegar Syndrome
Starring Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey Demunn, Dianne Hull – Directed by Lewis Jackson
The idea of Santa Claus is pretty creepy once you start to think about it. I mean, a man who wears the same suit every day of his life and shakes like a bowl full of jelly watches kids and everything they do every single day of the year, then if they are “good”, he breaks into their home to leave them gifts. And we actually let children believe this! That’s pretty horrific, but perhaps something more horrific than that would be a man driven so insane by the cheerfulness of jolly ol’ Saint Nick that he starts to believe his is Santa Claus!
Oh yeah, there’s a movie for that. Christmas Evil or as the title card would suggest, You Better Watch Out. Actually, that’s the title of the film. It was later changed before release to Christmas Evil to seem more appealing to the slasher crowds that were booming at the time. This debately only hurt the film over time, but luckily due to Synapse putting the DVD out a few years ago and now Vinegar Syndrome just recently releasing it on Blu-ray, it seems to be finding a bigger audience every year. It’s what John Waters calls “the greatest Christmas movie ever,” so let’s check it out.
On a totally unrelated note, star of the film, Brandon Maggart, is the father of Fiona Apple. Remember her?
Late Christmas Eve in 1947, young Harry sneaks from his room to see Santa, which is really his father dressed up, licking his mom’s leg like a lollipop. This sight is so traumatic that he smashes a snow globe open and gouges his hand with a shard of the broken glass. Cut to (non pun intended) present day 1980 and Harry is obsessed with Santa. You know those older guys that still collect toys (guilty) or are so obsessed with Spider-Man or something and they still wear the pajamas, watch the cartoons all day and hum the little jingles? That’s Harry. Thankfully, the guy doesn’t go around in public wearing his Santa jammies. He does, however, wear them inside his all year around Christmas decorated home. It’s kinda like the Cracker Barrel if they decorated for Christmas every single day of the year.
Harry also happened to land himself a supervisor position at the toy factory he works at, Jolly Dreams. It’s a non-union job, so nobody listens to him, treat him like crap and look down at him for taking the position, like he betrayed the other workers. But he’s still a good guy that he even takes crummy worker Frank’s shift for him that evening. Luckily, he has his hobbies to take his mind off things, like spying on the neighborhood kids from the rooftop with binoculars, jotting down who’s being a good or bad boy or girl in his naughty or nice books, of which he has several. Oh yeah, he’s been doing this for a long time. You may want to take a break from the film to scrub yourself clean right now.
Heading home from a long day at work, he spots Frank, the co-worker who shift he covered, getting nice and drunk and calling Harry a shmuck. Harry heads home in a hurry for some therapeutic squeezing a toy soldier until it breaks while humming a Christmas tune as he increasingly becomes more anxious doing so. Ah, doesn’t that feel better?
Thanksgiving passes, Harry blows off his brother Phil (played by Jeffrey DeMunn) and his wife and two kids, and his company’s Christmas party is in full swing. And brother, is it swinging! White people be getting drunk up in there! Through a televised announcement, Harry learns that Jolly Dreams will be donating toys to less fortunate kids, but only if profits increase. Harry asks his supervisors about how many toys are being donated and if all of the kids will receive something, but they don’t seem to care. But what of the little children and their toys? Harry decides to step in and take action! While the party is still in full effect, he marches right on down to the assembly and steals toys to give to the good boys and girls. Call the guy a shmuck all you want, but he has a good heart.
But if you are gonna play the part of Santa, you may as well become Santa. Harry finally melts down, making toys down in his basement, gluing a beard to his face and dressing in full Santa garb. He packs the toys in his van and does what would be considered the most charitable thing a man could do, if you didn’t know he was totally bonkers, and drops off toys to Willowy Springs State Hospital. It’s actually a very heartwarming moment to think those kids were just given a Christmas by a total stranger who cares about their well being, but then you start to dial that thought back once the night further unfolds.
Stopping by at a nearby church after mass where a few of his supervisors are attending, Harry waits outside for the place to empty with a glare Jack Torrence would shudder at. As the crowd exits, Harry starts to make a move toward his bosses, but is stopped by some yuppies, none of which are Patrick Bateman. They taunt and tease Harry, but he has more than toys in his sack! Jabbing one of their eyes out with a toy soldier, he then proceeds to hack them to death with a rather festive looking Hatchet and darts off into the night, taking cover in a Christmas party and giving the most chilling Santa speech to some children. Good thing Billy from Silent Night, Deadly Night was someplace else.
The night is still young and Santa’s work isn’t over. Harry stops by Frank’s house, first by trying to squeeze through the chimney, further validating his insanity and giving a claustrophobic like me anxiety. Realizing that won’t work, he breaks into Frank’s home like a normal person, through the door, dropping off some toys for his children under the tree… then paying a visit to Frank himself, who is tucked in bed, fast asleep next to his wife. Harry gives another dark speech, then tries to smother him to death with a pillow, but ultimately slashing Frank’s neck with a Christmas ornament, which is more fitting. Tis the season afterall.
Phil knows something is wrong when Harry (who is busting up toys at Jolly Dreams) is absent on Christmas day and comes to the realization that his brother is the psycho-Santa he heard about on the news. Later in the evening, Harry’s van breaks down on the wrong side of town… the kind where apparently they have frequent Frankenstein’s monster problems as he finds himself being chased by a torch carrying mob after his cover is blown. He manages to escape and seeks help from Phil, who greets him by strangling Harry over what he’s done and drags him back into his van. However, Harry isn’t dead and knocks his brother down with a punch and speeds off just as the lynch mob is catching up. Phil chases on foot only to witness what is debateably among fans either a miracle or a tragedy; Harry swerves to dodge the mob, only to have his van crash off a bridge as it soars into the sky as he recites the final lines ‘To All a Goodnight’. Did his van crash off the bridge, killing Harry or did he actually become Santa and soar into the sky? The sound certainly sounds like a crash, but the look on Phil’s face says otherwise… that is left up to the viewer, which ultimately makes for a better ending.
Christmas Evil is kinda like the Taxi Driver of Christmas. You watch as a man being bullied by coworkers, surrounded by greedy people who don’t care about the less fortunate, basically completely overwhelmed by the scum of the Earth as the needy are laughed at, loses his mind. He goes so far over the edge to actually believe he is Santa, much like Travis saw the same atrocities and believed himself to be some sort of equalizer or cleanser. Brandon Maggart’s performance as Harry is downright unnerving, as you watch a normal man who isn’t all there, be pushed over the edge to the point of no return. You feel sad for him, but your feelings are put to question once you begin to realize how sick he is and what he is doing is wrong. You want to help him, then he murders a few people and you aren’t sure how to feel. But that’s what the filmmaker was going for. This is more of a character piece than it is a slasher. And that’s a common misconception most people have with this film and as I stated earlier, it could be due to the way the movie was marketed, is that it’s viewed as a slasher, when it really isn’t. Sure it has slasher like elements and he slashes a few people, but the overall arch is about Harry’s fall into madness.
It’s a great film, swimming with two kinds of mood; the kind that gets you geared up and excited for the holidays and the other kind that sends shivers down your spine and cautious of anyone that is dressed like Santa Claus. The festive Christmas lights against the dark sky as Harry stands in the cold night, breath visibly exhaling from his body, in a dirty Santa suit is one of the scariest images I can think of. Although the pacing itself is slow and there isn’t much gore, there is still a chilling and shocking story to find here. Give yourself a gift this year and watch what is probably the best Christmas movie of all time. Eat it, A Christmas Story!