Christmas Evil (1980)

“CHRISTMAS EVIL” (AKA “Terror in Toyland” and “You Better Watch Out”) (1980)

 “But now I want you to remember to stay good boys and girls. Respect your mothers and fathers, and do what they tell you. Obey your teachers and learn a whole lot! Now, if you do this, I'll make sure you get good presents from me every year… But if you're bad boys and girls, your name goes in the 'Bad Boys and Girls' book, and I'll bring you something... horrible.” –Harry, as Santa, “CHRISTMAS EVIL”

Before “Silent Night, Deadly Night” (1984) offended parents and scarred kids for life by showing a serial killer dressed as Santa Claus in its advertising, there was “CHRISTMAS EVIL.” At the time of its release, audiences may not have known what to make of this low-budget oddity. It is, categorically, a horror movie, and it does deal with a homicidal man in Santa garb. However, it does a lot more than shock and scare its audience; it also serves as a darkly comic, sensitive, creepy and sometimes genuinely surreal study of a character with a psychology that makes Norman Bates seem normal in comparison.
The story begins in 1947, as a young boy named Harry catches a man dressed as Santa having some, uh, ahem… bow-chicka-bow-bow with his mom, not long after this same “Santa” personally delivered presents to Harry and his brother. This makes Harry realize, to his horror, that Santa isn’t real, and he is (apparently) scarred for life.
Fast forward to 33 years later, and Harry has grown into an awkward, Santa-obsessed adult: Harry’s whole apartment is festooned with Yuletide decorations year-round. His record collection seems to be all Christmas music. He makes every effort to look like Saint Nick by painting a van he drives to look like a sleigh, and sewing an elaborate Santa costume for himself. In addition, he works in a toy factory, and even keeps a list of “Naughty” and “Nice” children in his neighborhood. Since Santa isn’t real, Harry is determined to take his place and spread the holiday spirit of giving, compassion, and good cheer.

There is an unforgettable scene which can be taken as extremely creepy, funny, or both, in which Harry sees himself in his Santa costume for the first time. As Harry puts on his beard, he stares into a mirror. Giddy at his appearance, he gleefully squeals “It’s me! It’s me! It’s me!” The thrill of being jolly old Saint Nick, and bringing joy to so many, seems to be almost a sexual one for Harry. He seems to be asexual otherwise, with, unsurprisingly, no romantic interests or prospects to be found anywhere. Bottom line: For all his weirdness, Harry has good intentions. But you know what they say about the road to Hell being paved with those!
 You see, there are a number of folks in Harry’s life who he plainly sees are very naughty (Like the crooked executives at his workplace, or local delinquent Moss Garcia). Harry starts to wonder: What should happen to naughty individuals who skim charity money? Who have no holiday spirit? Who read dirty magazines?? They should, of course, be punished!!
So, Harry embarks on a kind of bi-polar Christmas crusade in which he, as Santa, performs laudable acts of charity to the “Nice” (like bringing a van-load of presents to an orphanage and giving an incredible Christmas to dozens of kids), and incorrigible acts of mayhem to the “Naughty” (like going on a nasty killing spree using Christmas toys as weapons). Because of these wildly divergent behavior patterns, Harry can be hard to sympathize with at times, but no one said you have to always have likable characters- especially not in an 80’s horror movie!
Some critics don’t appreciate Harry’s moral ambiguity. However, I enjoy this complexity in Harry’s character, because it reflects several fundamental truths about human nature:  One is capable of doing both good and bad things, but no one is ever really all good or bad. Serial killer Ted Bundy, for example, worked a suicide prevention hotline and was credited with saving many peoples’ lives- and this was while he was hunting human prey in his spare time!  Also, a “bad guy”, whether in a movie or real life, never really sees himself as bad; I’m sure Harry never intended to be “naughty” when he killed all those cynical, rotten folks. He was just trying to keep the Christmas spirit alive! Ho-Ho-Ho!
Critics are also…well, critical of the ending of “CHRISTMAS EVIL”. I won’t spoil it, but I would like to point out that the ending isn’t to be taken literally: The final few moments of the movie are pure fantasy, seen through the eyes of Harry. Writer/director Lewis Jackson’s commentary confirms it.
So, if you’re looking for an 80’s Yuletide horror with interesting performances, (especially from Brandon Maggart, who plays Harry to the hilt), clever writing, lots of garish colors, and a killer Santa with a thoughtful, dark comic twist, look no further than “Christmas Evil”! It’s now available re-mastered on DVD and Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome.

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