Monday, November 28, 2011

Santa's Slay: "Christmas Evil" (1980)

Poor Harry. In Christmas 1947, he saw Santa doing more than kissing Mommy under the Christmas tree, and it has traumatized him since.

An adult Harry (Brandon Maggart) now works at the Jolly Dream Toy Factory, where he is the butt of jokes and gossip from his coworkers. He is promoted to an office job, but still misses the toy assembly line. Harry also has an extracurricular hobby- he is obsessed with Christmas and Santa Claus. His house is in perpetual Christmas year round, and Harry spies on the neighborhood children, keeping track of who has been nice and who has been flipping through a copy of Penthouse. Harry's brother, Phil (Jeffrey DeMunn) and Phil's wife Jackie (Dianne Hull) are on the other end of the spectrum. They are in love, they have children, but Phil is venomous toward his weirdo brother.

Harry is taken advantage at work by a lout who wants to duck out on a shift. At the Jolly Dream Christmas party, a film shows the vacationing owner promising toys for the local children's hospital- which Harry finds out is nothing more than a publicity stunt. Jolly Dream's toys themselves are plastic and worthless, Harry laments that no one takes pride in the product any longer. Harry reaches his breaking point.

He begins stalking one particular bad boy of the neighborhood. He steals from the toy factory and delivers gifts to the children's hospital himself, driving a cargo van with a sleigh painted on it. He is now dressed in full Santa regalia, loved by children where ever he goes. Stopping by a church on Christmas Eve, he has other plans for naughty adults, killing three people on the church steps in a startling scene of violence and gore. Soon, Harry is crisscrossing town, bringing joy and gifts to children and taking revenge on the adults who have wronged him. He eventually ends up back at Phil's home, and the movie ends with one of the weirdest climaxes to ever grace a horror flick.

"Christmas Evil" belongs just below "Gremlins" and "Black Christmas" and well above "Elves" and the moronic "Silent Night, Deadly Night" series when it comes to the unique Christmas horror genre. I would compare this film favorably with the unwatchable "Maniac," which also featured an insane loner who loses it and kills.

This film is different in that we are tipped to Harry's insanity early, and watch him mentally deteriorate through the film. The motivation for his Christmas delusion is weak, Mom gets her garter belt felt by Santa Daddy, and Harry slashes his hand open on a broken snow globe. Maggart is very good as Harry, anchoring the film. The writer/director wisely keeps the cast above thirty, no horny teens wandering around alone here. The supporting cast are all character actors whose faces you have seen a million times in other things, most notably "Home Improvement"'s Patricia Richardson, playing the polar opposite mom from her saintly television Jill.

The ending is definitely weird, and the torch bearing townsfolk is a little too much to take. There is a wicked sense of humor throughout, from office politics to a police lineup of Santas, but Jackson never succumbs to tossing in a bunch of Christmas cliches and stupid one liners.

The film came out in 1980, in the beginning of the slasher cycle, and it is definitely different. Known under alternate titles "You Better Watch Out" and "Terror in Toyland," I recommend it based on the junky slasher films that have followed.

This was made before there was a slasher formula, and its difference is something to cherish (in a very weird way). (* * * *) out of five stars.