Twelve Days of Axe-mas: Christmas Evil [aka You Better Watch Out] (1980)

I am taking part in The Chicago Creepout’s Twelve Days of Axe-mas holiday viewing event. This is my day four.

The idea of the killer in a horror/slasher film having murderous tendencies because of mental illness is so ingrained in the genre that it has become an acceptable cliché. Even in this age of hyper-political correctness (and don’t get me wrong, I realize most of what the overly politically correct folks are preaching is stuff I agree with, I just wish they weren’t so damn self-righteous about it) there isn’t much in the way of outrage when the killer in a slasher flick is portrayed as being somehow mentally damaged. In fact, there is not much of any kind of mainstream outrage directed at horror films any longer, but that’s another topic for another post at a future date.

In the past week, I have watched three films that deal with a man who dons a Santa Claus costume and kills people.

In Silent Night, Deadly Night, the killer is traumatized as a child by seeing a criminal dressed as Santa Claus kill his parents. This trauma is made worse by the iron hand with which he is raised in an orphanage where the Mother Superior reinforces the importance of punishment for those who are bad. By the time the killer is a grown man, forced to put on a Santa costume for his job, the groundwork has been laid for him to snap. Granted, the psychology behind his motivation is shallow and the handling of his psychotic break is cheesy and unbelievable, but at least the filmmakers take the time to set it up.

In Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2, the killer is the little brother of the first film’s killer. Traumatized by being raised in the same orphanage and seeing his brother (Spoiler!) gunned down by the cops at the end of the first film, he eventually goes on a killing rampage in a Santa costume. In keeping with the horrible production values, bad acting, and terrible script, this reasoning is less thought out and more haphazard than the first film’s motivation, but it is still rooted in witnessing violence as a child.

In today’s film, Christmas Evil, the eventual killer is less a slasher and more a confused, unhappy guy with some repressed issues. Despite its dressing as a horror film, it’s actually more of an uneven character study that goes to dark places before an ending that confuses everything that comes before it.

As a young boy, Harry and his brother Phil sit with their mother on Christmas Eve and watch as Santa Claus comes down the chimney and deposits gifts under the tree. Later, after Phil tells him that the Santa was actually their father, Harry goes back downstairs to see his mother in a sexually compromising position with his father, still dressed as Santa. Horrified, Harry retreats to the attic where he smashes a snow globe and uses one of the shards of glass to cut his hand.

Cutting to the present day—in this case, 1980—Harry (Brandon Maggart) is now a manager at a toy factory. Obsessed with Christmas, his house is decorated for the holiday all year round. Aside from angrily denouncing the shoddy toys the factory produces, Harry is quiet and keeps to himself. In fact, Harry seems like a pretty decent guy.

But Harry has some disturbing habits. He peeps on Phil (Jeffrey DeMunn) and his wife (Dianne Hull) as they have sex. He spies on the neighborhood children, keeping a “naughty” book and a “good” book in which he details their positive or negative qualities.

As Christmas nears, Harry takes steps to put a long-brewing plan into motion. He puts together a Santa costume, makes his own toy soldiers (complete with long, pointy swords), paints a sleigh on the side of his van, and goes out on Christmas Eve to become Santa. Given the film’s title (and alternate title), you can probably guess that not all goes well.

What sets Christmas Evil apart from other “killer Santa” movies is that Harry starts his evening of mayhem with only the best of intentions. He really wants to honor the spirit of the season and make children happy. His punishment to a naughty child is more funny than scary and he actually does succeed in bringing happiness to children and one group of adults. But it’s when he is provoked by people who want to mock his holiday spirit, that Harry’s underlying anger at being pushed around and made to feel like an inferior person because of his usually gentle nature, erupts into full-blown violence. Oddly enough, given that it’s intended to be a horror film, that violence feels like it comes out of left field.

The abruptness of the violence is the weakest aspect of the film. Harry is never shown to have any kind of apparent violent tendencies or fantasies. Other than hurting himself as a child, he comes across as harmless. He is definitely high-strung, but acting out violently never seems to be in his nature. Simply put, Harry’s breaking moment is not earned by writer/director Lewis Jackson.

The aftermath of Harry’s brief outburst is where the film comes together as something more than another “killer Santa” film. Not only is Harry aware of what he has done, he does not seem to feel remorse for his actions. What he does feel is confusion about why so many people would not feel the Christmas spirit the way he does. His confusion turns to fear as mobs try to chase him down in scenes reminiscent of any number of classic “misunderstood monster” films.

What gives me pause about the portrayal of Harry’s mental illness in Christmas Evil is not that it’s shallow like the two Silent Night, Deadly Night films. Rather, it feels too close to reality. Not all people who suffer from mental illness rant and rave like maniacs, arguing with voices only they can hear. Many suffer in silence, ostracized from family and lacking the ability to maintain friendships. If they do experience any kind of “break” where they hurt themselves or others, it’s often not seen coming.

I’m not saying that people will watch this film and assume that all people who suffer from mental illness are violent or potentially violent. I am saying that it’s easier to ignore the slasher genre’s reliance on using that excuse for the reason their killers are so violent, when the psychology behind their motivations is shallow and logically shaky. The psychology behind Harry’s problems is never fully known. It is made clear that he has problems even before seeing his parents on Christmas Eve. Harry seems too much like someone you would actually meet in real life and that makes him scary. This realism grants the film a queasy feel that actually prevents it from being as entertaining as it should be.

That’s a shame because it’s fairly well made and exceptionally acted up and down the line. Maggart provides just enough desperation to make Harry a pitiable character and not simply a villain. DeMunn nails his scenes late in the film as he unloads on Harry about how difficult it has been for him to deal with a brother who can’t properly take care of himself. Even small, one-scene roles are given more depth by a parade of reliable character actors like Raymond J. Barry, Mark Margolis, Rutanya Alda, and Stephen Mendillo.

Is it possible that I’m over-thinking a simple exploitation film? Of course it is, but it’s rare that I watch a film expecting to only be entertained and end up doing some soul-searching about how close to the truth I actually want a genre film to come.

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