Most horror fans of a certain age remember Silent Night, Deadly Night. At the height of the slasher movie’s ‘Golden Era’, it was the movie that sparked a wave of controversy around its promotional material featuring an ‘evil Santa Claus’. Even Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 has hovered in public consciousness due to its meme-worthy awfulness. But 1980’s Christmas Evil – originally titled You Better Watch Out – failed to earn much attention outside of earning a place on the UK’s ‘Video Nasties List’. Similar to Grindhouse classic Maniac, Christmas Evil fancied itself something of a deep psychological thriller. Spoiler alert – it’s not. However, some critics found something to like.
Middle-aged Harry Stadling leads a sad and lonely life. As a boy, Harry was traumatized after witnessing his parents’ sexual liaison while his father was dressed as Santa Claus. Now he’s obsessed with Christmas and Santa Claus. His near delusional fixation on the holiday distances him from his brother and co-workers. At the toy manufacturing factory where he works, Harry becomes disillusioned with the shoddy quality of toys. As his grip on sanity loosens, Harry dresses as Old Saint Nick to spread his own version of Christmas cheer.
Christmas Evil Wants To Have Its Christmas Cake and Eat It, Too
Where to start with Christmas Evil? Despite promotional material promising a Santa slasher, Christmas Evil wants to be Taxi Driver. Much of the movie is spent mapping out Harry Stadling’s declining mental state. Several late 70s and early 80s horror movies also mixed Grindhouse or slasher sensibilities with psychological thrillers. Maniac. The Driller Killer. Silent Night, Deadly Night. Too bad Christmas Evil lacks the material and talent to make it work. Don’t expect to find much substance here. Writer and director Lewis Jackson’s ‘childhood trauma’ is pretty limp stuff. As far as tragic slasher backstories go, it ranks pretty low.
Not a jump scare was stirring, not even that horror movie mirror trick.
However, Christmas Evil’s biggest problem is the lack of scares and slasher kills. Without much real substance, the movie frequently drags for most of its runtime. Not a jump scare was stirring, not even that horror movie mirror trick. There’s a handful of kills in the movie’s third act. Too bad Jackson films these scenes with jerky camerawork and poor editing. In fact, more slashing occurred in the editing room than on the screen. Depending on your point of view, the surreal ending is either eyeroll-inducing or an idiosyncratic stroke of genius.
Christmas Evil Skates By on Kitschy Charm
Like other late 70s and early 80s low-budget horror movies, Christmas Evil isn’t without some charms. In fact, B-movie horror lovers may find a few things to appreciate. If Jackson isn’t an overly competent filmmaker, some of his artistic choices add a certain idiosyncratic vibe to the movie. In addition to its creepy score, Christmas Evil actually boasts some decent cinematography for a low-budget thriller. Jackson’s approach to his delusional character flips back and forth from an attempt at serious character study to kitschy camp. Let’s face it, Christmas Evil makes it hard to be scared when Harry is prowling in dark streets and rooms like he’s fresh out of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. The result is some bizarre humour – intentional or otherwise – that at least makes the movie memorable.
Now if only Harry had targeted the company behind Gobots.
Speaking of Harry Stadling, Brandon Maggart arguably lacks the range to pull off the movie’s ambitious psychology. Moreover, Jackson’s directorial choices early in the movie make occasionally make Harry feel more like a potential pedophile than sympathetic character. Fortunately, Maggart has a bit of sad, goofy charm that works with the movie’s recycled message. Even in 1980 the whole ‘no one has any Christmas spirit anymore’ theme was familiar. But this is a holiday horror movie and it mostly works. Who doesn’t want to see a morally bankrupt toy manufacturing company get their comeuppance. Now if only Harry had targeted the company behind Gobots.
Christmas Evil a Stocking Stuff Only for the Most Diehard Horror Fans
Between Christmas Evil and Silent Night, Deadly Night, the former is the clear winner of Grindhouse Christmas movies. Neither movie is technically ‘good’. But the latter Christmas horror movie is at least sleazy fun. And Silent Night, Deadly Night offers something of a plausible psychological exploration of trauma. In contrast, Christmas Evil is a mostly dull, half-hearted slasher. As a psychological thriller, it’s laughable in all the wrong ways. Some Grindhouse hallmarks, including a creepy score, save this one from the waste bin. Bottom-line, it’s still a lump of coal.