Synapse Films presents
Christmas Evil (1980)
"If you're bad, then your name goes in the Bad Boys and Girls Book, and then I'll bring you something horrible."- Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggert)
Stars: Brandon Maggert
Other Stars: Jeffrey DeMunn, Dianne Hull
Director: Lewis Jackson
MPAA Rating: R for (violence, language, gore)
Run Time: 01h:35m:12s
Release Date: 2006-11-14
DVD ReviewA young boy witnesses Mommy kissing Santa Claus. (Actually, Santa sort of breathes on Mommy's thighs for an uncomfortable amount of time. It looks awkward to me, but Mommy seems to enjoy it.) This early encounter scars young Harry Stadling for life. He becomes obsessed with Christmas, and with restoring the innocence he lost that day. So begins Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out), a unique entry in the Christmas/slasher sub-sub-genre that popped up in the late 1970s. Unlike most of its contemporaries, it plays with some big ideas to mixed results.
Grown-up Harry (a wonderfully hang-dog Brandon Maggert) works at a cut-rate toy factory and lives by himself, sleeping in his Santa outfit as the holiday approaches. The movie's creepiest and cleverest plot device is that he's taken to maintaining enormous and detailed tomes cataloging the sins and virtues of the neighborhood children. The slightest infraction (often witnessed through binoculars) sends him running back to his apartment to update his "naughty" and "nice" books. By day, he's an innocuous low-level manager at the factory. At home, his existence is isolated and neurotic, spending the entire year looking forward to a holiday ideal that can't possibly match up with reality. The decadence of the neighbor kids, the jerks at the factory, and the general lack of Christmas spirit finally sends Harry over the edge. (If you've ever been to the mall in mid-December—and who the hell hasn't—perhaps you can relate.)
Harry's obsession with the neighborhood children makes him hard to take seriously as an anti-hero. The bit about spying on them makes him a great creep, but his oppressively pure worldview makes him every bit as unlikable as the bosses and bullies that ruin his Christmas. One of Harry's co-workers coaxes him into working a double-shift at the toy factory only to be spotted later by Harry at a bar. The guy's clearly a jerk, but he's got the right idea. This is where the movie's message gets muddled for me. Harry desperately believes in the spirit of Christmas, but works in an industry where a Christmas is only as good as the holiday sales figures. That contrast works well, but the world that Harry would literally kill for is far more lame than the crassly commercial one we live in. Skipping work can be a capital offense. A neighbor boy is terrorized, largely for hiding porn under his mattress and being otherwise interesting. Where I think I was supposed to take away stuff about commercialization and oppressed workers, I found Harry's puritanical worldview much more frightening. No drinking or skipping work? No porn? Might as well kill me now, Santa.
This absolutely has its moments. A surreal flight from an angry mob of parents taken straight from an old Universal horror movie struck just the right tone, down to the hastily improvised torches. That bit of inspired silliness works perfectly; much elsewhere falls flat. The body count is relatively low for this sort of thing, but there are a couple of nice kills. Director Lewis Jackson takes the material way too seriously, with anti-commercial subtext that sits too close to the surface to be really effective. It might be largely a matter of expectations—the box advertises it as John Water's favorite Christmas movie, and with that in mind it seems a bit too...tasteful. The movie tries to tell a serious story of psychological damage and crass commercialization alongside the slasher elements, and the result feels unbalanced, and the pacing is sometimes deadly. I certainly commend the ambition, perhaps a bit more than I enjoyed watching.
[Note: Don't be confused by the movie's title card. Jackson explains via a text insert and elsewhere that while the movie's original commercial title, Christmas Evil, was necessary to use in selling this new DVD, he considers You Better Watch Out the proper title, especially for this restored director's cut. That's the title that comes up when you watch the movie, in case you think you have the wrong disc.]
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
|Aspect Ratio||1.78:1 - Widescreen|
|Original Aspect Ratio||no|
Image Transfer Review: This is my first outing for this movie, but there have apparently been several very sloppy versions released over the years. In fact, the consensus seems to be that there's never been a quality release of this film. Once again, thank goodness for the magic of DVD. There's quite a bit of grain present, but I imagine that's well in line with the original theatrical presentation. Otherwise, there's no major film damage visible, and no obvious digital problems. I think it's a pretty darn good transfer, and I imagine that longtime fans will be in heaven.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: This cut uses the original Dolby Digital mono soundtrack. It works quite well. There's some very mild muddiness in the mix occasionally, but on the whole it's clear and full.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
1 Deleted Scenes
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Director Lewis Jackson, and Lewis Jackson and John Waters
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
- Audition Tapes
- Comment Cards
Additionally, there are storyboards for several sequences and a deleted scene that doesn't add much. I enjoyed the original audition tapes included, which are in surprisingly good condition, as well as the comment cards from test screenings. Judging from the small sample presented, most people thought the movie was "trash!" or walked out entirely. A few people seemed to get it, and a couple wanted to be Harry for Christmas. Creepy.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsWhat you get with Christmas Evil is a slow-moving slasher flick with some great moments and high ambitions that are never quite fulfilled. That said, it's a cult Christmas classic presented here in a deservedly definitive package. Director Lewis Jackson's smart flick is one to check out if you like your Christmas movies blood-red rather than snow-white, but it's not quite my favorite of the bunch.
Ross Johnson 2006-12-12