Sometimes, a sensational movie gets overlooked because of its lack of distribution. Other times, it's the apparent issues inherent in the subject matter that causes ultimate viewer ignorance. It's what happened to Lewis Jackson and his significant small wonder, You Better Watch Out. Initial audiences in the early '80s were stunned when they learned that this festive fright flick -- re-titled with the far more lurid Christmas Evil label by financially strapped distributors -- featured an unbalanced man who took the notion of "being" Santa to painful, unwholesome extremes. Already angry at the mixing of the festive with the frightening in several celebrated slasher films, the seedy subtext involving children and bloodshed made even the most high-minded horror fan more than a little ill. And that's too bad really, since their ready dismissal prevented them from appreciating a truly remarkable movie.
When he was a young boy, Harry Stadling had his faith in Santa Claus shaken when he saw the jolly old elf up to no good with his more than willing mother. Scarred for life, the emotionally distraught man has reconfigured his life around a desire to be the seasonal symbol, even going so far as to seek employment in a toy factory, fashion lists about children he views as 'naughty' or 'nice' and prepping his own personal Kris Kringle persona. As December 25th grows near, Harry has problems adjusting to the demands of his new, imaginary position. As he battles his co-workers during the day, he spends his nights making real tin soldiers and hand-carved dolls.
While his brother Bill worries about him, Harry seems nonplused in going about his Yuletide mandates. Once Christmas arrives, however, Harry loses all touch with reality. He paints his van with sleigh images, dons his realistic red suit, and patrols the neighborhood for houses he can enter. There, he substitutes his homemade toys for the pre-packaged plastic junk already waiting under the tree. Oh, and he kills a few people along the way, individuals who've either wronged him in the past, or who question his legitimacy as the annual bringer of holiday cheer. If they don't watch out, this mild mannered maniac will go all Christmas Evil on their ass -- and the results won't be festooned with wassail or plates of figgy pudding.
Christmas Evil is a minor masterpiece, a surreal seasonal effort that mixes the psychological with the slasher to come up with a hybrid so compelling that it literally takes one's holly-berried breath away. With its genuine desire to explore the nature of good and evil, as well as to give the story of Santa Claus a real, disturbing face, writer/director Lewis Jackson creates one of the most irresistibility odd experiences in the history of holiday cinema. When he first conceived the project (under its far more compelling title You Better Watch Out), Jackson never realized the backlash he would face in fooling with the Yuletide's number one icon. But thanks to a shroud of scandal fueled by other Xmas/killer cinema -- including Bob Clark's Black Christmas and Theodore Gershuny's Silent Night, Bloody Night -- Evil ended up being labeled a liability. While our current post-modern irony would question anyone taking such a film seriously, the truth is that 26 years ago, people held the holidays in a near sacrosanct capacity. Spitting on St. Nick -- or even worse, making him a vengeful nutjob with an unhealthy obsession with all things Kringle -- was akin to silver bell blasphemy. Today, we'd just laugh at such a depiction. But it was such a silly standard that kept this exceptional film from finding the audience it so richly deserved. While not very respectful to the facets of the festivities, it is still a fascinating motion picture.
Almost all the movie's magic rests squarely on the shoulders of actor Brandon Maggart. Perhaps better known for his numerous TV turns -- as well as being the father of singer Fiona Apple -- Maggart delivers a tour de force performance of such power and perception that one has a hard time distinguishing our fact from his fantasy. He is so real as the perplexed manchild who considers himself a modern incarnation of the mythic gift giver that you never once doubt his motives – even when the mannerisms he uses to illustrate them go from basic to bizarre. It takes a lot of guts to use the standard holiday features -- lists of whose naughty and nice, climbing down the chimney, attacking the blatant commercialism of the season -- as ways of providing insight into one man's massive breakdown, but thanks to Maggart (and some fine scripting by Jackson), Harry Stadling becomes a true three dimensional mess. There is a moment when our amiable anti-hero secures his fake beard to his face that is simply astounding. As Maggart tugs on the false facial hair, his eyes light up in a combination of innocent delight and frightening demonic glee. You can practically see the crazed cogs turning over in the character's fracturing façade. It's a credit to the actor's determination and drive that Harry never becomes a cliché. Instead, he turns into a cause for curiosity, and eventually, a considered reason for concern.
But it's not just Maggart who's magnificent here. Jackson shows how creativity and invention can change even the most ludicrous or laughable material into a disturbing and dread-filled experience. Several scenes are staged in a manner that keeps us consistently off guard (like Harry's hounding of the "bad" boy Moss Garcia) and more than a little uneasy (a moment where children form a human shield around our killer is rather disquieting). Equally evocative are the moments where Jackson juxtaposes cheer with fear, as when Harry is forced to crash a holiday party. The look on his face indicates a mix of hate and happiness, while the guests have no idea the trail of blood that has lead this man to their doorstep. With references to classic monster movies (gotta love the torch carrying mob that hounds Harry through the third act) and an unsettling opening that completely sexualizes Santa, Jackson makes his statements with moves both subtle and spectacular. For anyone who has ever wanted an alternative view of the typical tinsel and glad tidings holiday hokum, Christmas Evil will act like a pure eggnog enema. It constantly confounds expectations as it creates a classic cinematic legacy all its own. Fans of the unusual and the arcane should not miss this demented decking of the halls.
All hail Don May Jr, and Synapse Films for delivering a definitive DVD version of this long mishandled masterwork. Jackson lost control of the film shortly after its release, resulting in numerous shoddy VHS versions. Here, May's magnificent company provides a pristine, 1.78:1 anamorphic "director's cut" that allows the Jackson's original vision to shine through. The image is pristine, with very little dirt or damage, and the colors and contrasts are controlled magnificently. Several scenes have an ethereal, dreamlike quality thanks to Jackson's artistic approach to his filmmaking, and this renders Christmas Evil (here with its original You Better Watch Out title card intact) an impressive optical presentation.
Without a full blown multi-channel remaster to redefine the sonic situation here, we are left with a still intriguing Dolby Digital Mono mix. Part of Jackson's genius is his use of unusual Christmas carols (including seminal cuts from the Phil Spector holiday LP and the James Brown album) along with eerie, evocative takes on same. The score is indeed creepy, providing a perfect aural backdrop for Harry's numerous misdeeds. It also aids in the creation of an ambiguous atmosphere where both good and evil can exist simultaneously at any given moment.
Thanks to the amazing added content provided on this disc, Lewis Jackson finally gets a chance to defend his movie and its making. Offering his opinions and positions in two full-length audio commentaries (one solo, the other featuring fellow filmmaker -- and fan -- John Waters), we discover that the story behind Christmas Evil is just as intriguing and twisted as the film itself. While Waters does provide his own patented cattiness, fetishizing and perverting everything in the film (much to Jackson's glee), it's the humble helmer himself who comes away fully vindicated. Everything he hoped and prayed his picture would be is now finally available for audiences to appreciate, and after the struggles he faced both pre- and post- production, this is one man who couldn't be happier. Claims that Jackson storyboarded every shot are confirmed by a trio of said cinematic illustrations, while a series of preview cards offer up hilarious highlights from the test screening process (one of the best -- "I think I'll be like Harry this year." -- Yikes!). Toss in 25 minutes of audition tapes (including turns by Michael Beck, JoBeth Williams and Lindsay Crouse) and you've got a great set of supplements for one amazing movie.
Traditions are hard to come by in our new and improved merchandising mindset. What seems hallowed one minute gets the sacred cow wind knocked out of it the next. It's too bad that Lewis Jackson had to wait 26 years before his twisted take on the true nature of Santa Claus could be considered separate from the societal beatification of that crass, over-commercialized Coca-Cola mascot. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating from a DVD standpoint alone, You Better Watch Out/Christmas Evil actually deserves a DVD Talk Collector's Series tag for the film itself. Frankly, anyone not stunned at how jaw-droppingly brilliant this psychological spectacle is doesn't appreciate the literal language of film. While definitely outside the mainstream, this experimental exercise in sinister season's greetings should become an annual lesson in ritual vs. reality. There can be no greater present under any film fan's tricked out Tannenbaum than this amazing motion picture.