This post is part of my Yuletide Terror season where I am reviewing various alternative Christmas movies.
Christmas Evil, sometimes also referred to as You Better Watch Out, or the completely irrelevant title Trouble in Toyland, is one of the more obscure Christmas horror movies out there, but over time it has gained a cult status, with its fans including controversial director John Waters who has declared it “the greatest Christmas movie ever made”. Certainly a big statement to live up to. Does it manage to, and does it deserve its cult status?
The film is often marketed as though it is a typical 80’s slasher. I went in expecting silly festive themed kills and hoping for nothing more than to be entertained. This in my opinion is a huge injustice. It turns out to be a really very dark character study taking the form of a slasher horror. In fact, the kills are quite few and far between, albeit very nasty when they do come around. The story follows Harry, who as a child witnessed his Dad dressed as Santa groping his Mum which causes some Christmas-related trauma in the young boy’s mind resulting in a twisted obsession with Christmas when he is a middle-aged man. Living alone in his permanently decorated apartment, like some sort of self-styled Santa he keeps watch on the children in his neighborhood, noting down their activities in his naughty or nice books. He also works in a toy factory; he’s by far the most enthusiastic employee but this is both mocked and taken advantage of by his co-workers. This Christmas he cracks entirely and he goes on a spree dressed as Santa, simultaneously dishing out gifts to children and getting gruesome revenge on those who have wronged him.
This is a premise that could have gotten very silly in the wrong hands if overdone, but this film doesn’t take that route, instead risking being boring. Many scenes depicting Harry’s descent into madness are uncomfortably long and surprisingly understated. Far from being boring though, these drawn out scenes display the brilliant performance by Brandon Maggart; one scene in particular sees him cheerfully humming a Christmas tune to a little toy soldier. As he considers his revenge on a Co-worker who humiliated him the tune turns more and more dark and angry until, in his frustration, he breaks the toy. On paper it’s a very uneventful scene filmed in one static shot but Maggart’s performance makes it so powerful that I still get a chill thinking about it some days after seeing the film. He is able to switch from jolly Father Christmas-esque chuckling to empty, self-loathing scowl in a terrifying instant and I never felt his insanity was overdone to the point that it can become unintentionally funny, like many horror movies have a habit of, and it is certainly never played for laughs, even if the movie in general does have a fair share of dark tongue-in-cheek humor.
As would be expected, the madness grows as the film goes on, yet it never loses focus on the characters, also including Harry’s younger brother & his family. Everything builds to a crescendo that provides the film with what I think is actually one of my favourite movie endings. It’s a very brave choice on the makers’ part as it might feel at first like a drastic shift in tone but I think it actually fits perfectly to the themes of the film. Contrary to my expectations this is not a cheesy, trashy slasher, but a genuinely excellent film that left a lasting impression on me and one that I would recommend to many people, not just those who enjoy horror movies. Whether John Waters is correct and it is truly “The greatest Christmas movie ever” is something that very much depends on your personal taste; not everyone wants such a dark and nasty story to be associated with the season, but if you’re looking for a Christmas movie that is the total opposite to what we have come to expect from the genre, then I don’t think you can get much better than Christmas Evil. Personally, I’ll take John Waters’ side and agree that it’s up there among the greatest.