CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

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There are more than a few sleazy stocking stuffers out there for those who prefer to take their holiday-themed cinema with a dash or two of unadulterated dementia, but few are as distinctive and genuinely unnerving as Lewis Jackson’s CHRISTMAS EVIL aka YOU BETTER WATCH OUT. Often (understandably) mistaken for a slasher pic and perhaps even better known for being championed by John Waters as the infamous trash connoisseur’s favorite Christmas movie, one might innocently stumble upon this gem and be pleasantly surprised when it turns out to be equally perceptive and perverted rather than simply the latter.

Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) saw mommy kissing Santa Claus once as a young boy and hasn’t been the same since; understandable, seeing as immediately following the incident, Harry runs up to the attic and cuts his hand on the glass from a broken snow globe. This fateful night gives way to an adulthood that could be described as unconventional at best and utterly unmanageable at worst. Harry finds it difficult to balance his public and private lives, working an often demoralizing position at a local toy factory by day and counting down the days until Christmas whenever he’s at home.

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This is soon proven to be far, far more than merely a vice for the deeply disturbed introvert. Harry seems to envision himself as Santa Claus in the flesh, and as such, he not only works hard to perfect his costume before the big night but also keeps detailed records of the good and bad kids on the block. It all gets to be more than a bit creepy real quick, and when Christmas Eve comes around, Harry has slipped out of reality and into the deepest depths of decline, completing his transformation into Saint Nick in order to spread holiday spirit far and wide. What begins as an odyssey built on good cheer soon descends into a bloodbath as Harry finds himself unable to cope with the general (adult) public’s apathy toward his favorite holiday, culminating in an intense closing act straight out of FRANKENSTEIN.

Jackson’s film is a decidedly peculiar one; imperfect, for sure, especially when indulging in the kind of grotesque theatrics that have led viewers to label it as a “slasher” film over the years. But when one considers genre trappings, it is perhaps the film’s ability to transcend them which makes it so genuinely bewildering. Above all else, this is a character study – a sad and scary one at that – and we’re trapped inside of Harry’s sick, delusional head for the entire duration. It’s so close to our waking reality (or at least up until the bat-shit insane finale), that there’s no shame in squirming when Jackson wants us to.

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Exploitation films – and even better, intimate studies of the fractured human psyche disguised as exploitation films – are undeniably at their best when supported by a great deal of talent both in front of and behind the camera, and this is where CHRISTMAS EVIL is at an advantage. The weight of Harry’s off-kilter world is one of intricate pleasures thanks to the gorgeous cinematography of Ricardo Avonovich (Murmur of the Heart, That Most Important Thing: Love, Missing), which renders the character’s madcap gift-giving and murder spree as previously internalized phantasmagoria and provides all that came before with the distinct savor of morbid normality. There’s also some clever editing on display throughout, and Jackson’s direction is both efficient and composed; only in a few brief moments do we get a glimpse of a film from a man who isn’t completely in control of his vision.

This mostly refers to the more visually horrific sequences, which include but are not limited to a toy soldier’s sword skewering a human eyeball (enough to make Lucio Fulci blush) and throat slashing by way of the golden star at the top of a Christmas tree. It could certainly be argued that these moments succeed in enhancing the film’s “weird” factor, which is already way off the charts to begin with, but in context they are not only abrupt but over-the-top in a way that would suggest they were hardly the first thing on Jackson’s mind. The conclusion to this macabre tale, in which Harry burdens his poor brother Phil (Jeffrey DeMunn) and his family while on the run from an angry mob, also feels slightly rushed. Luckily, the director’s heart is in the redemption of his dysfunctional misfit, and he finds the perfect way to cap it all off.

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While CHRISTMAS EVIL will hardly be everyone’s cup of spiked eggnog, it comes equipped with more than enough heart, humor, horror, and genuine pathos to hold its own even against the inevitable naysayers. It is a fine film with an ambitious concept, one that it does not always execute tastefully, but one that is nevertheless explored in a consistent, satisfactory manner. Maggart is so good here that you find yourself surrendering to his solitary psycho; as ugly as his actions may be, we know Harry only has the best intentions deep down, which in itself inspires quite the palatable moral dilemma. Jackson’s film may unabashedly deal heavily in steaming coal, and its exterior may at first appear to be a needlessly nasty one, but through its own unique cocktail of extremism and empathy it achieves a kind of strange humanity, one that allows it to thrive beyond the realm of mere curio. For all the talk of it being an anti-Christmas picture, it certainly does its best to keep the spirit alive in its own wacked-out way. Quite the exquisite feast of discomposure, and a terrifically twisted treat for all sorts of adventurous parties.

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