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So the season of Alt-Christmas viewing is once again here and I thought I'd make up for not getting around to this film last year by watching it first, especially when it came so highly recommended by my blogging buddy Emily (Deadly Dollhouse of Horror Nonsense) aswell as the high priest of bad taste John Waters who proclaimed it the "greatest Christmas movie ever made" on the commentary he recorded for the special edition dvd, while reminding me just how underrated he is when it comes to great movie ideas even if he does tend to lean more towards art house movies. Now having finally gotten around to watching this film I can safely say it's underrated legacy is full justified especially and only when it is so frequently overlooked for "Silent Night, Deady Night" which also memorably featured a serial killer Santa, even though this film predated that film by four years.
Following Harry (Brandon Maggart) a production line worker at the Jolly Dreams toy factory who harbours an unhealthy obsession with Santa, especially as he takes it upon himself to become the next true Santa. However when Harry is driven over the edge by the lack of festive spirit of those around him, he suddenly snaps and embarks on a murderous rampage.
Also known under the more colourful titles as "You'd Better Watch Out" and "Terror in Toyland" it may seem similar on the surface to "Silent Night, Deadly Night" but this film is a much different beast, which is essentially all down to the character of Harry who when we first meet him is far from the ticking time bomb which Billy from "Silent Night, Deadly Night" was especially as all Harry wants is to be Santa. It's an obsession he plays out in his day to day life as he wakes in his Santa pyjama's before setting off to spy on the local boys and girls whose names he writes down in his naughty or nice book. As I said he really likes to play out his Santa fantasy any way he can, with his job in a toy factory only seeming like a logical choice. True Harry's childhood drama might not be a severe as Billy's seeing how it essentially stems from Harry finding out that Santa wasn't as real as he thought he was, after catching his dad dressed as Santa one Christmas Eve while getting rather hansey with his mother.
Harry while a self-imposed loner is still a likable enough kind of guy, even though the world around him constantly seems to be working to try and break his festive spirit, from the crappy toys the factory makes, to the pervert little kid who wants a subscription to Penthouse for Christmas, so it really is only a matter of time before he snaps. However unlike Billy Harry doesn't set off on a bloody festive rampage, but instead suddenly sets off to be the real Santa, as he dons his Santa suit and sets off in his white van (the reindeer might have been alittle too much of a push) to spread some Christmas cheer as he steals toys from the factory to give out to sick kids at the nearby hospital...ohh and he also punishes those still not showing the right amount of festive cheer. Needless to say Harry is not a cold blooded killer, but more of a guy trying who has been in his Santa mindset for too long, if the mindset of a particularly crazed Santa, which frequently account for some of his more random moments.
More light hearted than "Silent Night, Deadly Night" this film also comes with a lower body count aswell, yet more than makes up for it with original moments as Harry uses sharpened toy axes and even a toy soldiers bayonet to punish those who wrong him. The really special moment though here is when he attempts to further his Santa fantasy even further by trying to go down a chimney only to get stuck in the process this is of course before the truly bonkers finale involving a torch welding angry mob and an ending which has to truly be seen to be believed so I will leave that for you to discover for yourself.
What is especially interesting about this film though is the relationship that Harry has with his younger brother Phil (Jeffrey DeMunn), who seemingly is the only family that Harry has left even though unlike Phil who makes repeated efforts to bring Harry out of his self-imposed exile by inviting him to spend Christmas with his family only for Harry to refuse any of these offers in favour of working on his Santa inspired plans. These moments of course only seem the more potent by the end of the film when he sees what Harry has become and tries to stop Harry himself rather than leaving him to be caught by the angry mob pursuing him or turning him into the police, like a more logical person would.
Maggart the father of singer Fiona Apple, something I only found out over the course of writing this review (what a fair weather fan I am) is great as Harry and really makes the role more believable than you would expect from this kind of film, especially when he spends most of the film hiding behind a fake beard he is still able to perfectly translate through his eyes exactly what Harry is feeling, from the twinkle of excitement he gets from playing Santa in a more traditional role such as the scenes of him handing out gifts, to the cold dead eyes of his darker side it really is a memorable performance he gives here and one which never feels campy or OTT, even during some of the more surreal moments and kind of makes the fact that the film is so over looked only more of a shame.
While it never might have caused the same kind of controversy as "Silent Night, Deadly Night" this in no way makes this any less of an essential alt. Christmas watch, especially when this is such a unique take on the idea of a serial killer Santa and one only elevated by Maggart's performance.
A review of the Arrow DVD release which is £9 on amazon at the moment.
There are a lot of horror films based around specific holidays (Halloween is the most obvious). Christmas has generated more than its fair share of horrors. Black Christmas is probably the best Christmas-related horror film. The sleazy Silent Night Bloody Night is a lot of fun, as is the risible Don't Open Till Christmas. But the most Christmassy Christmas horror is 1980's Christmas Evil (a terrible name - its original title was You Better Watch Out, which is much more suitable). It's a killer Santa film. But unlike Silent Night, in which the killer Santa is just another slasher film bogeyman, Christmas Evil's Santa is trying genuinely to live up to his famous model's philosophy of rewarding good children and punishing bad ones. Whilst killing people, admittedly.
No-hoper Harry works in a toy factory, where his co-workers scorn him and take advantage of his generosity. He has a terrible relationship with his more successful brother, and has trouble relating to the modern world. His apartment is full of dolls and pictures of Santa Claus, and he rather creepily spies on the local children to see who is good and who is bad. The kid who takes out the trash is good. The kid who reads porno mags in his bedroom is bad.
As Christmas approaches, Harry continues to be appalled at the greed of those around him. Eventually he snaps, dressing as Santa, stealing a bunch of toys from the factory, and embarking on a renegade mission of rewarding good children and punishing people who lack the Christmas spirit.
It's difficult to adequately convey the mood of this film, as it's pretty damn strange. As horror it's fairly negligible, with a low body count and precious little gore. It certainly isn't the kind of slasher film it seems to be from the cover artwork. Director John Waters apparently believes that it's the greatest Christmas film ever made, and while I don't quite agree with him on the quality (Gremlins is better), it definitely feels more like a Christmas film than a horror. Except that it's too nasty for children and will alienate a lot of adults too.
There are some overtly comedic moments, as when the police round up Santas and make them do an identity parade. But it's not the kind of sneering fratboy humour you typically get in a slasher movie. If there's an abiding emotion to the film, it's sadness. Harry just wants to make everyone's life better, but his inability to connect with people and his excessively black-and-white way of looking at the world prevent him from ever really doing so. He's a messed up man who has an uneasy relationship with grown-ups, but who is loved by children (his brother can't stand him, but his nephews love him). Brandon Maggart, whom I've never seen in anything else, is absolutely brilliant as Harry. He perfectly captures the social awkwardness and the pathos while still making him slightly unsettling.
The rest of the characters are generally stereotypes, usually obnoxious ones. Jeffrey DeMunn (later in The Mist) plays the brother very well, letting us understand his frustration with Harry and, later on, his increasing panic at the situation his brother has got himself into.
The actual horror component is pretty minimal. It's at its most unsettling when Harry is spying on the local children, and keeping ledgers of who's been naughty and nice. But when he gets going, he only hurts adults. Harry uses sharpened toy soldiers to kill, and smothers someone with his sack (his sack of toys, in case anyone was thinking of something ruder), which are slasher movie-style novelty killings. But there are nowhere near enough deaths for this to be a real slasher flick, and Harry is too bumbling to be a really effective psychopath (he manages to get stuck in a chimney at one point). Like I say, it's an odd film. Harry, in full Santa regalia, is dragged reluctantly into a Christmas party at one point, and it seems like the film will play this scene for suspense - how long will it be until he goes crazy and kills someone? But instead he has a lovely time, dances with the kids, drinks eggnog, and leaves. What kind of horror film is this?
Whatever kind of film it is, it's a damned odd one. The ending, which I clearly cannot spoil, elevates it to something like genius - it's a wonderfully silly ending, but it works beautifully on its own terms, and is far better than, say, the tacked-on ending of Bad Santa. John Waters was probably onto something, although I still say Gremlins is better.
The Arrow release has a 15 certificate, which is probably for one scene where someone's eye gets stabbed (it's too cheap a film to have particularly gory effects, but older releases were 18, probably because the BBFC just slapped 18 ratings on any horror film going back in the day). There's no nudity and precious little bad language. The best thing about it might be the sound effects - there are lots of slightly distorted renditions of Christmas standards on the soundtrack. Along with the excessively jolly Christmas decorations, this gives the film a peculiar atmosphere, and one which you can only really experience by watching it.
Don't get me wrong - this is still a low-budget horror movie, and will probably leave a lot of people nonplussed rather than impressed. But I found it a lot more likeable than I ever expected.
The main extras are two commentaries, one by the director, and one by the director again with John Waters. They're both fairly conventional as far as I can tell (I didn't listen to either all the way through). There are also short interviews with the director and with the star, but they seem to have been made for a Troma DVD release, and my hatred of Troma has kind of coloured my view of them. They're OK, I guess, not too jokey, but too short to be really essential.
Arrow have missed out their usual trailer reel, presumably because it would bump the disk up to an 18 certificate, but there's a decent booklet with a good essay on Santa Claus-themed horror movies by Kim Newman.
This is a surprising film in all sorts of ways, and one I'd cautiously recommend if you're looking for something a bit more unusual than your average Christmas movie.