A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Lewis Jackson’s 1980 bummer horror classic Christmas Evil is the greatest Christmas Horror movie of all time. Read our Christmas Evil movie review to find out why!
Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart)’s full of the Christmas spirit. Perhaps a little too full.
Christmas Evil, also known as You Better Watch Out or Terror in Toyland, is the ultimate Christmas horror film. Bold claim, i know, but for a movie to be a Christmas Horror film, it should succeed as both a Christmas and a Horror film. Many/most Christmas horrors are merely horror movies that happen to happen around Christmas.
Christmas Evil, on the other hand, encapsulates the layered, often contradictory, experiences a lot of us have around this time of year. Many of us come from messed up families or broken homes, and the holidays are a reminder of traditions that constrain rather than warm and delight. Christmas is not the most wonderful time of year, for a lot of people, for a lot of different reasons.
Christmas Evil is truly a Jekyll/Hyde of a film, with bright Christmas cheer bumping shoulders and rubbing uglies with bleak, dismal, hopeless dependency and Bad Vibes for all. One second it’s all Miracle On 34th Street and the next it’s Bob Clark’s sewer crawl, Black Christmas (my other candidate for The Greatest Christmas Horror of all Time.)
Christmas Evil is truly a Jekyll/Hyde of a film, with bright Christmas cheer bumping shoulders and rubbing uglies with bleak, dismal, hopeless dependency and Bad Vibes for all.
If you’re looking for a horror movie that will still let you feel the holiday cheer, here’s a Christmas Evil movie review as Dark Christmas week continues.
We start off on Christmas Eve, 1947. Young Harry and his brother Philip stay up late to catch a glimpse of old Saint Nick. They do, but Philip, ever the pragmatist, assures Harry it’s their dad in a costume. Harry, devoutly faithful, sneaks out past bedtime to prove his brother wrong.
He catches Santa Claus kissing mommy – and not on the cheek, if you catch my drift – and a murderous, libidinous complex is born in Harry.
Fast forward to present day, witnessing a grown-up Harry in his own little wonderland He literally leaps out of bed, dropping the needle on some festive Christmas vinyl and launching into his morning calisthenics. While wearing his Santa PJs. He gives himself a beard made out of shaving cream and has a jolly time getting ready for his shift at the Jolly Dreams toy factory.
Harry had been recently upgraded to a desk position, but he missed working hands-on with the toys. Both the higher-ups and his fellow co-workers all make fun of him as some kind of rube for believing in quality toys and taking pride in your work.
In his spare time, Harry acts as a sort-of guardian angel for the kids in his community, spying on their activities through a pair of binoculars and jotting down their good deeds and sinful transgressions in his books of ‘Good’ and ‘Naughty’ children. Like little Moss Lockhart, with his “poor bodily hygiene”, cutting pictures out of a Penthouse Magazine (which the child actor kept, btw, causing quite a row between the child’s Mom and director Lewis Jackson).
This feeling of ‘offness’ follows Harry everywhere he goes. Even his own brother, Philip (Jeffrey DeMunn) thinks he’s a loser. Some part of Harry seems to realize this, causing him to call off Thanksgiving dinner with Philip and his family. Here’s where Christmas Evil starts to go off the rails, as Harry spirals off into his own little world.
Harry spends every waking moment between Thanksgiving and Christmas getting ready for his final transformation. He’s becoming his true self, St. Nick, protector of good children and punisher of the wicked.
This sets the stage for his big event, Santa’s night out on Christmas Eve. He begins by following some of the higher-ups at Jolly Dreams whom Harry has decided have forsaken the Christmas spirit to a prestigious NYC church. Some yuppies start harassing him on the sidewalk in his Santa refinery, causing Harry to lose it, killing one of them with a pewter soldier and another with a homemade, hand-painted lead axe.
From here, Christmas Evil alternates between heartwarming scenes of Christmas cheer, as people who don’t realize Harry’s murderous nature treat him as Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick, and scenes of bloody vengeance.
Word gets out of the bloody homicides on Christmas morning and everyone’s on the lookout for a Santa with a real fur suit. This gives Harry away while talking to a group of children, resulting in a torch-wielding mob (how many Christmases have we had ruined by torches and mobs?) chasing him through back alleys, sobbing and scared. He makes a fast getaway in his white van/sleigh, culminating in a final moment of magical realism that casts the finale in a light of confusion and uncertainty.
We argued up-top that for something to be a truly great Christmas Horror film, it must succeed as both a Christmas Movie and a Horror Film. While we love plenty of other Christmas Horror films, movies like Black Christman prey on the bleakness, claustrophobia, and ill-feelings the holiday can offer. They’re more bummer horror taking a stab at festivity and cheer than contributing to the Holiday movie canon.
Christmas Evil, on the other hand, is a Christmas movie, and an excellent one at that. It’s got a similar beating heart to the also-quite-bleak-when-you-think-about-it It’s A Wonderful Life with its indictment of corporate greed on a sanctified day. Harry Stadlin is a True Believer Of Christmas. He’s got the Holiday Spirit, in spades. On top of that, he’s a traditionalist, trying to bring back a sense of right and wrong to the world, a world where the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished.
DenOfGeek calls Christmas Evil the “Taxi Driver of Christmas movies” and they’re exactly right. Like Travis Bickle, Harry believes the world is a wicked place and needs to be washed clean. Also like Bickel, he seems himself as a kind of savior as he descends into madness.
Even more than that, Christmas Evil is just a good movie. Most of the movie focuses on Harry and his shot from his point of view. The cinematography goes from being relatively “straight”, bright and bold and cheerful as something like Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story, which makes the uncanny, slightly-off camera angles all the more unsettling and grotesque, in contrast.
It also creates a real empathy with Harry, even as he’s doing horrible things. This makes scenes like the mob chase even more poignant, seeing Harry sobbing and gasping for breath like some panicked animal all the more painful and unsettling.
It’s reasons like these that have caused Trash Film luminaries like John Waters to proclaim Christmas Evil his “favorite Christmas movie of all time.” It’s one of ours, now, too!
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