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Christmas Evil

Vinegar Syndrome // Unrated // November 18, 2014 // Region 0
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 12, 2015 | E-mail the Author
He's making a list.

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He's checking it twice.

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He's gonna find out who's naughty or nice.

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Santa Claus is coming to town.

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That's a cute enough introduction, but don't get the wrong idea. Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) isn't some psychopath who makes a detour at a costume shop before slaughtering an hour and a half's worth of victims. Santa Claus isn't a suit he wears; it's who he is. Harry has spent his entire adult life at the Jolly Dreams toy factory, having recently been shuffled from the assembly line -- where he got to make childrens' Christmas dreams come true with his own two hands -- to middle management, saddled with a bird's eye view of a line that now churns out shoddy toys that fall to pieces if you so much as look at 'em too hard. Every square inch of his New York apartment is covered in Santa tchotchkes, and he pokes his head out just long enough to see if the little boys and girls on his block are being good. The lengths he goes to may seem kind of disturbing, peering through binoculars into these kids' bedrooms, but Harry doesn't mean any harm. Like the song goes, he's just making a list and checking it twice, taking note of their every good deed and every misstep. Halfway through Christmas Evil, that Harry skin he was born with is shed, and out bursts Santa Claus.

Good boys and girls are rewarded with the wonderful presents they so richly deserve. As for the naughty...? Well, Santa sneaks into their homes, leaves a lump of coal, and donates the presents from their mommies and daddies to a nearby childrens' hospital. Oh, if only everyone else would embrace the spirit of Christmas like this...! Jolly Dreams' corporate overlords instead have their eyes squarely on the bottom line, taking no pride in the low-quality dreck their factory lines churn out, and promises of donations to the needy are a bald-faced lie. Some of the men Harry used to work the line with are every bit as exploitative and have no idea what the true meaning of Christmas really is. That pushes our newly-minted Santa past the brink, and...well, now you know why a distributor somewhere decided to retitle the movie "Christmas Evil".

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As marketable a title as "Christmas Evil" may be, it really does the film a disservice. There's nothing the least bit malevolent about Harry...errr, Santa. After hearing at a very tender age that there is no Santa, a part of him was never able to grow up. He looks at the world in much the same way a child would. There's just a way things are supposed to be: people do their best to help one another, they put their heart and soul into their work, the good are rewarded, and the wicked are punished. That's just not the way of the world, and Harry can't wrap his head around it. In much the same way a child might throw a tantrum and lash out, well...Harry racks up a bit of a body count along the way. Silent Night, Deadly Night it's not, though. This Santa doesn't revel in his kills. Hell, there isn't even a murder until more than fifty minutes into the movie, I'm pretty sure you could count the kills on one hand, and they all take place in a couple of sequences. Christmas Evil is not a slasher, no matter how many times someone mistakenly decides to classify it as one. Slashers are ultimately all about grisly murders, while story, characterization, and all that rate a distant second, if that. The closest comparison to another slasher I could draw would be Maniac, but that's only because we can't always trust what we're seeing through Harry's disturbed eyes.

Rather than being hammered out fast, cheap, and dirty, Christmas Evil genuinely is a well-crafted film. The cinematography by Ricardo Aronovich -- who'd routinely worked with the likes of Resnais and Malle -- is worlds removed from anything you'd expect to see unspooling in a dingy 42nd St. theater. The visuals are in every way outstanding, strengthened further by shooting on location wherever possible, drawing from a collection of strange Saint Nick-nacks that writer/director Lewis Jackson spent a decade amassing, filming in an actual toy factory, and a couple of particularly ambitious shots that far outstrip what Christmas Evil should've been able to accomplish on this budget. The film is daring enough to juggle several disparate tones, alternating between warmth, tragedy, misery and murder, and even a healthy streak of black comedy, such as a gaggle of Santas in a police lineup bellowing "Meeeeeeerrrrrry Christmas!" Jackson's screenplay went through many iterations over many years, and the final result is remarkably sleek and efficient, not dragged down by a single wasted moment.

Far and away the greatest of Christmas Evil's assets is Brandon Maggart in the lead, creating an engaging, sympathetic, and deeply tragic character. Harry isn't a villain in any conventional sense. Weighed down by a child's overly idealistic perception of the world around him, Harry is tortured by the thought of there being bad people around him. Think of him more as a vigilante lugging around a sack of toys; at the end of the day, he's sincerely trying to make his hometown a brighter, better place. In a more traditional horror movie, chances are that you're egging the killer on, counting down the minutes until the next blood-slathered murder. Christmas Evil draws a great deal of tension by dropping Harry in another precarious situation and making it look as if he might be compelled to kill again...and, in stark contrast to the Freddy Kruegers and Madman Marzes of the world, I routinely hoped he wouldn't. The sight of a horrified Santa dashing through a hallway, greeted by the beaming smiles a couple of kids who have no idea their father lays lifeless in the other room, is just too brilliant for words.

Just another slice of Xmasploitation it's not. Christmas Evil has proven to be deeply divisive for three and a half decades now, but I look at it as a truly outstanding film: one that's crafted with a great deal of thought, care, artistry, and subtlety. This is a movie that would've come very highly recommended regardless, but this special edition Blu-ray release elevates into something that's as essential as they come.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and by the look of things, Vinegar Syndrome has him on speed dial. Some sort of magic went into this achingly gorgeous disc, anyway. Newly remastered in 4K, this presentation is perfect. Its colors are rich and vibrant, most memorably those distinctively yuletide reds. Clarity and fine detail are off the charts, to the point that I felt as if I could discern each individual strand of hair in Harry's beard. The source elements -- under the movie's preferred title, You Better Watch Out -- were either in immaculate condition or have been cleaned up masterfully, with no wear or damage worth noting. This is a wonderfully filmic presentation, and its AVC encode never shows any sign of strain. No complaints, no qualms, no "but"s or "except"s: just pure, uncut perfection.

Presumably to lavish Christmas Evil's AVC encode with as much headroom as possible, some of the extras got the boot from this BD-25 disc and are only on the accompanying DVD. If that helps keep costs down and the quality as high as possible, I'm all for it. Christmas Evil is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, by the way.

Christmas Evil's 24-bit, monaural DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is equally flawless. Every last element in the mix is astonishingly clean, clear, and full-bodied, not marred by so much as a flicker of distortion. No analog artifacts or other assorted flaws ever get in the way either. I don't want to overuse the word, but this presentation really is perfect.

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Three commentary tracks round out the audio options.

This definitive (and all-region!) edition of Christmas Evil collects the extras from Troma and Synapse Film's DVD releases while adding in a few exclusive bells and whistles all its own. Some of these extras are only available on the DVD half of this combo pack.
  • Audio Commentaries: Writer/director Lewis Jackson contributes three (!) audio commentaries to this Blu-ray disc. The two most noteworthy tracks have been carried over from Synapse Films' 2006 DVD release. Jackson shoulders the first by himself, and it's an engaging and wonderfully comprehensive discussion. Among the many highlights are how Jackson sold his points in the film to give cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich the resources he needed, one long journey to get You Better Watch Out made in the first place and a second ordeal to reclaim it, bringing in a small army of no-wave band members to field the soundtrack, a visual trick with a giant globe that's inspired by Hitchcock's Spellbound, and how it's tougher to smother someone to death with a bag of toys than you might expect. Jackson speaks at length about overcoming the contraints of this fiercely independent production's budget as well as why he feels Christmas Evil struggled to find an audience initially. (Along those lines, it's worth noting that Jackson namechecks Lang, Sirk, Fassbinder, Cocteau, and Malle when speaking about his inspirations rather than, say, Friday the 13th's Sean Cunningham.) The commentary has a stop-and-go rhythm that might've been improved with a moderator or someone else in the room to spur on conversation, but this is still a very rewarding listen.

    The second Synapse commentary pairs Jackson with Christmas Evil's number one fan, John Waters. Jackson interjects at one point that Waters hadn't seen the movie in ages and was getting lost in it, but I didn't find that to be much of an issue at all. Waters is, as ever, charming as hell, and he prompts some points of conversation that only another filmmaker would, such as dealing with sub-distributors and asking about the quality of international dubs. Though there is unavoidably some overlap with Jackson's solo commentary, the conversation is wildly fun and devoid of any dead air, making it nearly as essential a listen. Some standout notes include comparing Harry's transformation into Santa to a drag queen discovering who she is for the first time, all but one of Santa's suits getting swiped from a costume truck, some particularly great chatter about the feasibility of slinking down someone's chimney, and a guy at Warner Bros. telling Jackson he'd be a millionaire if only Santa had lopped off a kid's finger and eaten it.

    The Troma commentary with Jackson and actor Brandon Maggart is a letdown, though. Aside from the shaky quality of the recording itself, Maggart doesn't seem entirely sure what an audio commentary is, seeming annoyed by all the conversation and preferring instead to just watch the movie. I appreciate Maggart's dry sense of humor, but he really doesn't contribute all that much. The best notes are covered in the other two commentaries as well, such as producer Ed Pressman opening the doors to his family's toy factory and Meryl Streep's brother contributing a little choreography. A few comments I don't recall hearing elsewhere -- the price tag for the final visual effect; spelling out what Harry's brother does for a living, exactly -- but it's really not worth wading through the rest to hear them when there are two far superior tracks elsewhere on this disc. I certainly appreciate that Vinegar Syndrome has brought this commentary to Blu-ray to make it as definitive a release as possible, but it's far and away my least favorite extra on this disc.

  • Original Comment Cards (HD): Exclusive to this Blu-ray release are more than two dozen original comment cards, most of which are pretty scathing. Keep your eyes peeled for an Easter egg!

  • Storyboards (HD): The very first thing that writer/director Lewis Jackson mentions in his solo commentary is that he storyboarded every single shot in the film. A number of these are featured here, among them an unfilmed sequence in an amusement park. Also included are some annotated script pages. If I'm counting correctly, there are 79 scans in all.

  • Trailer (2 min.; HD): The last of the extras on this Blu-ray disc is a high-def theatrical trailer. This one's under Lewis Jackson's less preferred title, Christmas Evil, by the way.
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  • Deleted Scenes (7 min.; DVD only): Lewis Jackson mentions in one of his commentaries that a number of scenes were pulled from the early stretch of the film just to keep things moving. It would've been phenomenal if this reel of deleted scenes could've been presented in HD as well, but the quality is still remarkably high even without having as much resolution to play with. More time is spent with Harry squabbling with the corporate brass and slaving away on the assembly line, and his brother's career as a NYC marshal is better established here. There's also a greater foundation for Harry preparing to play Santa, both in crafting toys as well as in deciding how to reward all the good boys and girls.

  • Audition Tapes (26 min.; DVD only): Clocking in at nearly half an hour, this black and white reel compiles auditions with a slew of actors. Among those who were ultimately cast, we're treated to readings by Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn, and Ellen McElduff. Many the actors auditioning here didn't land a role in Christmas Evil but went onto become familiar faces just the same, among them Richard Bright, Carla Borelli, Larry Pine, JoBeth Williams, Pat Hodges, Michael Beck, Lindsay Crouse, George Dzundza, and, the once and future Sledge Hammer! himself, David Rasche. This is one of the most comprehensive audition tape collections I've ever come across, and I'm thrilled to see it return on this set.

  • Interviews (14 min.; DVD only): Finally, two interviews are carried over from Troma's DVD, each running seven minutes in length. Lewis Jackson speaks in the first about Christmas Evil's distribution headaches and decade-long gestation, what he'd do differently if he could film it all over again, then-unknowns Glenn Close and Kathleen Turner auditioning and being rejected, and being surprised with the news that Tarantino's future editor Sally Menke worked on it.

    Brandon Maggart, meanwhile, is interviewed in what looks to be his dining room, speaking briefly about the auditioning process, his stint on the first season of Sesame Street, Christmas Evil's richly deserved cult status, and his thoughts on P.T. Anderson, who his daughter, Fiona Apple (!), was dating at the time. There's a manic energy here that's woefully lacking from Maggart's audio commentary, so if you only have time for one, consider giving this interview a look instead.

The Final Word
Sometimes the recommendations here will be enthusiastic but heavily qualified: "if kung-fu zombies are too much for you to pass up..." or "if you have a thirst for schlocky '80s backwoods slashers..." There's no need to grade on any sort of curve for Christmas Evil. More artful and skillfully crafted than most people would expect from a movie with Santa wielding a bloodied knife on its cover, Christmas Evil doesn't simply settle for the shock value of a bloodthirsty Saint Nick. It's instead the tragic descent of someone incapable of letting go of his childlike view of the world as it ought to be: where people take pride in their work and do right by their fellow man...where the good and just are rewarded, and the naughty are punished. I'm not reviewing Christmas Evil in the context of Santasploitation or even cult cinema in general; I'd argue that this is a genuinely great film, full stop, and one richly deserving of the definitive treatment that Vinegar Syndrome has lavished it with on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.
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