As the 1970s crossed over in the 1980s, two distinct forms of slasher movie appeared. One the one hand, there were the films that followed the pattern laid down by Halloween and Friday 13th – slick body count movies that, for a few years, defined the genre and were almost guaranteed box office success. On the other hand, there were the oddball, eccentric films that hovered somewhere between the arthouse and the grindhouse, with their own distinct style and sense of weirdness that would prevent them from finding that mainstream market. Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer is a classic example of this sort of film, and so too is Christmas Evil, a film that shares the same off-key atmosphere as Ferrara’s film, but blends it with a dark sense of humour.
Shot as You Better Watch Out (that title that appears on screen in this director’s cut), Lewis Jackson’s film follows Harry (Brandon Maggart), whose life is slowly falling apart as Christmas approaches. Already suffering the childhood trauma of seeing his mother making out with Santa – or at least , his father dressed up – he’s now stuck in a dead end job in a crappy toy factory, where he’s the butt of jokes and exploited by co-workers. He also has an obsession with Christmas, spying on local children to see who is naughty and who is nice, and writing the names and crimes of offenders in a large book of ‘Bad Boys and Girls’.
Before long, Harry has convinced himself that he is Santa, dressing the part and setting out to bring Christmas cheer. This starts with him stealing toys from his factory and donating them to sick children, but Harry is the sort of Santa who punishes the naughty as well as rewarding the nice, and there are plenty of naughty people around…
It’s easy to understand why Christmas Evil struggled to find an audience on original release. The film is marketed as a horror film, but it’s more a psychological study of mental collapse (again, rather like Driller Killer), and it’s not until the film is more than midway through that we get a murder – hardly the sort of thing to keep the audiences flocking to Prom Night and He Knows You’re Alone happy. But see now, it’s remarkable just how impressive the film is. Slow, perhaps, but deliberately so, and the gradual mental collapse of Harry is effectively played out. What’s more, the couple of gore scenes are remarkably nasty and shocking, coming out of nowhere. There’s also a lot of humour here, and the ending is outrageously audacious.
Christmas Evil works best when seen as part of that genre-bending collection of left-field horror movies that emerged in the 1970s and would only find a following years later thanks to video releases. It’s a fascinating, entertaining mix of sleaze and style that fans of oddball cinema will find very agreeable.
This new DVD certainly pulls out all the stops for such a relatively obscure film. There are two commentary tracks – one with director Jackson, the other where he is joined by none other than John Waters, a huge fan of the film. There are also audition tapes (with some interesting familiar names who didn’t get the parts), outtakes and storyboards, as well as video interviews with Jackson and Maggart.