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Holiday Horrors: Christmas Evil (1980)


While it's hard to imagine Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out) being made without the success of Halloween (1978), it was supposedly written before Halloween was released. At some point in the 1970s, director Lewis Jackson smoked a little weed and had a vision of Santa Claus holding a knife. This became the basis for the film.

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It's also easy to assume that Christmas Evil is an early 1980's slasher film; however, like the director himself, I don't believe it is. The killer, Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) barely goes on a killing spree and there's no final girl. You can't blame the producers for using the tagline, "1st came Halloween… then Friday the 13th… and now…" even if it misrepresents the movie.

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There's only one clear, premeditated murder in Christmas Evil. The total body count is four, but the other three are spontaneous. In Harry's twisted mind, they might even be considered committed in self-defense. How were the innocent churchgoers on Christmas Eve supposed to know that if they surrounded Santa Claus, he'd panic and pull out an axe?

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Yeah, poor Harry has a real Santa complex ever since he saw him making out with his mother on Christmas Eve. It's not stated in the film, but anything you read about Christmas Evil says that Harry was emotionally scarred when he learned Santa wasn't real. It was clearer to me that he blames his younger brother, Phillip (Jeffrey DeMunn) for ruining his childhood fantasy.

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As an adult, Harry sleeps in Santa pajamas, decorates his house year-round, and frequently tries on white wigs and beards. Nothing specific makes him snap 33 years later, but he keeps big books with information about good (and bad) little girls and boys. Lest you think he's going to murder the bad children, the worst he does for them is leave a bag of dirt at their doorstep.

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For the good children, he enters their houses with a bag of gifts stolen from the toy factory (of course) where he works and places them around their Christmas trees. Having painted a sleigh on the side of his van, he drives around town, cracking an imaginary whip at imaginary reindeer, and has no trouble breaking and entering...

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That is, except for the one house where he actually tries going down the chimney. He makes a noble effort of sucking in his gut, but still can't squeeze through the opening. While not humorous throughout the movie, this scene (and especially the big finale; more on that later) demonstrates that Christmas Evil has a sense of humor, albeit slightly twisted.

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Mistaken for a holiday party Santa, Harry experiences the perks of being beloved by everyone. He dances and has a great time, leaving the kids with a stern reminder to be good girls and boys. One of my favorite moments in the film is when his demeanor changes and he says, "If you're bad, your name goes in the books… and I'll bring you something horrible."

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Another favorite moment is when an angry torch-bearing mob (yes, you read that correctly) confronts Harry, but cannot take action because he's surrounded by children that love Santa. This eventually results in a Christmas evening chase and a somewhat suspenseful few moments whether you sympathize with Harry or his brother.

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The ending is purposely ambiguous. My advice is to not think about it too much. It elicited an actual sense of wonder from me and, in an odd way, was perfect. I can't say that Christmas Evil is a deep psychological study, but it's more than just another slasher film; those will come later. I will say I was pleasantly surprised and enjoyed it quite a bit.

Written by Lewis Jackson

Directed by Lewis Jackson

Starring Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn, Dianne Hull, Andy Fenwick

RT 100 min.

US Release Date November, 1980 (Pittsburgh, PA)

Home Video Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray)

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