Christmas Evil - A Silent Fright, Holy Fright Christmassy Review
Director: Lewis Jackson
Starring: Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn, Diane Hull, Andy Fenwick
Written by: Lewis Jackson
Produced by: Pete Kameron, Burt Kleiner
Cinematography by: Ricardo Aronovich
Original Score by: Don Christensen, Julia Heyward, Joel Harris
A toy factory worker, mentally scarred as a child upon learning Santa Claus is not real, suffers a nervous breakdown after being belittled at work, and embarks on a Yuletide killing spree.
Nothing quite says Christmas like the story of a voyeuristic man with a Santa fetish who imparts his moral sense of right and wrong with deadly consequences during the yuletide season. Christmas horrors focussing on a killer Santa are no stranger to the genre. From the 'Silent Night, Deadly Night' series to 'Rare Exports' the dark side of jolly old Saint Nick has been explored to the full but it all started with Lewis Jackson's 1980 psychological slasher 'Christmas Evil'. It managed to get made in the wake of the post 'Halloween' slasher boom but what helped it gain the cult following that has endured to this day was the championing of the film by The Pope of Trash himself, John Waters. With a reputation that has given it life for over forty years, does the film still hold up?
Opening on Christmas Eve 1947, a young Harry Stadling alongside his mother and brother Philip witness a seemingly magical event as Santa drops off presents underneath their Christmas tree in a dreamlike sequence of heightened reality. Later that evening Harry pops downstairs only to witness Kris Kringle getting frisky with his mother bringing new meaning to the song "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus". The action then cuts to the 1980's with Harry (played by Brandon Maggart) going about his morning routine in his apartment which is basically a shrine to all things related to Santa.
From the get go Jackson does a terrific job of highlighting how Harry's affection for the Christmas season has been distorted through his obsessions from innocent to disturbing. The slow pans around his apartment and close ups of Harry highlight this as his gleeful smile twists into a blank expression evoking comparisons to the likes of 'Taxi Driver'. Those comparisons don't stop there however as Harry's misplaced sense of duty to save Christmas is akin to Travis Bickle's misguided mission to try and clear up the corruption of New York. His voyeuristic observances of the "naughty" and "nice" children of the neighbourhood establishes the tension in the film that only grows throughout the film as we get closer to Christmas Day. Even the commercial aspects of the season from the ramping of making toys to the thanksgiving parade further chip away at Harry's sanity.
In the leading role Brandon Maggart is terrifically unhinged as the obsessive toy factory worker whose mental instability would make him the ideal candidate for a Freudian case study. He plays the role with a meek childlike innocence that veils over the bubbling unaddressed anger in his life. Compared to something like Joaquin Phoenix's performance in 'Joker' which is larger than life (but not in a bad way), Maggart internalises all of the frustrations and pain in his character's life painting a pathetic yet engrossing picture. The supporting cast are quite good as well, most notably a young Jeffrey DeMunn as Harry's concerned brother Philip as one of the few characters to offer any sympathy to Harry. He is very much someone torn between his own family and the well being of his brother.
The look of the film is wrapped in a warm glow that emerges from the grit of the New Jersey suburb thanks to cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich. He is constantly reminding us of the warmth and joy behind the Christmas holidays but it almost feels like it is a device for lulling the audience into a false sense of security as other aspects of the film fills them with dread. One such aspect is the impressive score from Joel Harris, Julia Heyward and Don Christensen that serves to reflect Harry's deteriorating psyche. It twists from innocent Christmas based jingles to a nightmarish soundscape to great effect in service of the film's overall creepy atmosphere.
For the most part the film is a slow burn of pent up tension but the third act is when it really comes to life when Harry embarks on his festive rampage. The short explosion of violence when he kills three people after a midnight mass ceremony is handled in a sharp and brutal fashion thanks to the great editing in the scene. From there it descends into more madness before reaching its surreal finale. Jackson seems to revel in these moments without losing sight of the importance of the psychological elements that were established earlier in the film.
When you watch it now, 'Christmas Evil' isn't just a great piece of Christmas horror, it is a great horror in general. In an era where the slasher was all about the graphic nature of the kills the film stands out thanks to its focus on tension and looking at the internal rather than the external. Whilst I wouldn't go as far as John Waters' assessment of rating the film more highly than 'It's A Wonderful Life' as one of the greatest Christmas films, it is still a sinister gem and one of the best in the subgenre.
- Joseph McElroy