Synapse // 1980 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // November 20th, 2006
Harry as "Santa": But if you're bad boys and girls, then your name goes in the Bad Boys and Girls Book, and then I'll bring you something...horrible.
Christmas Evil is alternatively known as You Better Watch Out, or less commonly as Terror in Toyland. Director Lewis Jackson favored You Better Watch Out, and here we see it on the print. An ambitious distributor renamed it Christmas Evil and the name stuck. This yuletide chestnut embodies the bad-taste, holiday-cult hit of all time. Christmas Evil even carries the glowing endorsement of "King of Trash" John Waters (Pink Flamingos). Synapse films releases a director's cut, special-edition DVD; this court will discern if it's naughty or nice. So say your prayers and tuck yourself in, because Santa Claus comes tonight -- and he could be really pissed.
Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggert, Tony nominated actor for the Broadway production of Applause and father to Fiona Apple) wants to be Santa Claus -- for real. Ever since he was a little boy and saw mommy kissed somewhere interesting by jolly St. Nick, he has fetishized the spirit of Christmas. You can't blame Harry because he works a midlevel management job at a toy company somewhere near New York City. His more successful younger brother is married, has children, and makes a lot of money while Harry subsists in a cramped city apartment all alone. What's a guy to do? He starts spying on kids to see who's naughty, hoards toys from his factory, makes his own red suit with real fur lining, and tricks out his van with a sleigh mural. Yet something goes horribly wrong once Harry slips into his Santa persona: he's vengeful. Not content with doling out toys, he's going to spread some Christmas fear and take care of the naughty once and for all.
This is true holiday camp because Christmas Evil takes itself seriously as a psychological holiday thriller of dark proportions. Brandon Maggert acts the hell out of his part as if he was reaching for an Oscar while portraying a psycho Santa. The film is genuinely disturbing on many levels; it could be a psychodrama classic were it not that Harry wants to be something so silly as Santa. Don't expect Christmas Evil to insert its tongue into its cheek, because the opus has a serious, operatic feel throughout. Yet we get ludicrous moments such as a Santa Claus police lineup, a murder with a tree topper star, and New Yorkers chasing bad Santa through the streets with torches as if they were villagers in a Universal monster classic. These images, coupled with an astounding ending, make Christmas Evil a joy to watch. It will keep you wondering what was in everybody's egg nog.
This is director Lewis Jackson's only film to date, so perhaps the man was exorcizing some yuletide demons of his own. Christmas Evil was a labor of love for him, and it remains his sole cinematic achievement. Synapse Films allows the director to return the title to the original You Better Watch Out, and has a director approved cut that comes in at ninety-five minutes. We get an anamorphic widescreen transfer that looks color correct and clear even if grain is still a bit of an issue after all these years. The creepy "Christmas Carol gone wrong" score comes at us in mono, but it's distortion free.
Extras are plentiful for Christmas Evil; it finally gets vindicated after years of shoddy VHS versions. Two full length audio commentaries are found here: one with director Lewis Jackson flying solo, and another where he is joined by fan John Waters. Both tracks are interesting, but the Waters comments are more entertaining and reason enough to pick up a copy. There are comment cards from early screenings, storyboards, and audition tapes as well as spoilerish comic book panels on the insert.
Anyone expecting the twisted terror of other holiday slasher films such as Black Christmas or Silent Night, Deadly Night are going to be baffled. Christmas Evil is slow in parts; more a character study than a straight ahead slasher flick. Harry doesn't go Michael Myers on anyone (to reference another holiday serial murderer), but then again traditional supernatural slashers such as Freddy and Jason never handed out toys either. This is a bad movie in the classic sense, and you have to see it for what it is to enjoy it.
You've got to be a bit naughty in spirit to truly appreciate this camp Christmas classic, but if you're the right level of twisted it will delight. Christmas Evil is darkly funny, and makes you realize exactly how creepy Santa can be. Let's face it, the man's a pervert -- watching children do naughty things, coming in and out of homes in the dead of night through chimneys, and whipping innocent reindeer while hanging out in fur and leather boots. He's a fetish icon who finally gets his nod as Harry comes out of the Santa closet in Christmas Evil or You Better Watch Out. Strap the kids down and make them view this every year.
This naughty little film is nice for holiday viewing. Merry Christmas everyone!
Review content copyright © 2006 Brett Cullum; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2006 Nominee
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary with Director Lewis Jackson
* Commentary with Director Lewis Jackson and Celebrity Fan John Waters
* Comment Cards
* Audition Tapes
* Christmas Kookies