Sunday, December 15, 2013

Christmas Evil (1980)

... aka: Terror in Toyland
... aka: You Better Watch Out

Directed by:
Lewis Jackson

You could say that Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) lives for Christmas. In fact, it's recently become quite an obsession of his. He wakes to a Christmas-themed alarm clock carousel dressed in his Santa pjs and immediately puts on "Winter Wonderland" while doing his stretches. From there, he heads to the bathroom for a shave, while humming another Christmas tune and practicing his best Jolly Saint Nick laugh. But this year, Harry's wanting to take it a step further by actually dressing up as Santa and, just like Santa, he's been making a list and checking it twice... In this case, literally! You see, Harry has been spying on all the neighborhood kiddies, and has kept a detailed log year round about who has been naughty and who has been nice. If you're a good girl like little Susie Lovett, you're branded a "darling" in the "Good Boys and Girls" book, but if you make it into the "Bad Boys and Girls" book you can expect to have such naughty violations as "has bad breath," "uses profane language" and "crosses against the light" to your name. Or in the case of hellion Moss Garcia, who's caught  taking a gander at a Penthouse magazine among other things, "impure thoughts" and "negative body hygiene."

Yes, Harry is not quite right in the head... and it's all about to boil over. A sad and lonely man, Harry works as manager at the "Jolly Dream" toy company during the day and return to his home all alone at night. From all indications, his mental problems started in his youth and his fixation on Christmas and all it should stand for goes back to his childhood trauma of him catching mommy getting frisky with Santa Claus (well, at least his dad dressed up as Santa). At work, Harry doesn't earn much respect from his co-workers and is upset over the cheap toys they've been churning out, as well as a very shady ad campaign cooked up by the new PR man that involves the hard-working employees footing the bill so the company itself looks generous. Harry has no real friends, no wife or romantic interest, no kids of his own; just a brother named Philip (Jeffrey DeMunn) who doesn't have very many nice things to say about him. Philip's wife Jackie (Dianne Hull) thinks he's just underestimating his brother. Boy is he ever!

As he slips further into insanity, Harry skips out on Thanksgiving dinner with Philip and company because he has a lot of work to do to prepare for Christmas. He makes his own Santa costume (going all out with real fur lining), paints a sled on the side of his van and steals a whole bunch of toys from work. By Christmas Eve, he's finally in the holiday spirit and ready to hit the town with his van full of gifts (or a box full of dirt if you have it coming). After donating bundles of toys to a children's hospital (something his company was supposed to take care of), Harry encounters some extremely rude, wealthy snobs outside a church. He's mocked and ridiculed and finally snaps; gouging out an eyeball with an armed tin soldier and chopping up two others with a hatchet in front of the entire congregation. Merry Christmas, indeed! Then it's off to various other places to spread more holiday cheer... or is that fear? Hey, why not a little bit of both?

Originally released as You Better Watch Out and issued on VHS as Terror in Toyland, but best known as Christmas Evil, this is one of the first and best Christmas horror films. It's one part psychological horror, one part dark comedy and, unlike many others of its type, has some interesting things to say about how a season whose message is one of joy, charity and selflessness often times gets really, really warped. It also marked a rare lead role for character actor Maggart and he makes the absolute most of it, giving an excellent performance that's comic and tragic in equal measure. The actor manages to be both creepy and sympathetic; humming a rage-filled "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" while crushing a toy in his hand one minute, and sadly peaking in the window and watching his brother, his kids and his wife interacting as a family the next. Despite some of the horrible things he does throughout the film, our sympathies always lie with the poor guy, and Maggart deserves high praise for wonderfully pulling off this difficult role.

I've seen this get lambasted too many times to count by people expecting another gory Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) style slasher flick, but the film deserves better treatment than that. It's well-made, well-acted, thoughtful, disturbing and often times very, very funny (just check out that police line-up of Santas!). It was sadly the only film for director Jackson, who also scripted. Playing small roles are Joe Jamrog (who gets his throat cut with a Christmas tree topper), Philip Casnoff, Patricia Richardson (the mom from TV's "Home Improvement"), Scott McKay, Peter Friedman, Raymond J. Barry (as a detective), Rutanya Alda and Mark Margolis.

This has been issued on DVD numerous times. The Synapse release is the original director's cut of the film and comes with a great commentary track from famous fan John Waters, who considers this "The greatest Christmas movie ever made."

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...