Christmas Evil

Color, 1980, 94m.
Directed by Lewis Jackson
Starring Brandon Maggart, Dianne Hull, Jeffrey DeMunn, Andy Fenwick, Peter Neuman
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Synapse / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Troma (US R0 NTSC)

Christmas EvilThis oddball mixture of whimsy, gore, and anti-corporate rage has long been lumped in with other killer Santa films like the Christmas Evillater Silent Night, Deadly Night and Don't Open Till Christmas, but it's far from your average slasher film. Originally titled You Better Watch Out (a name still present on the Vinegar Syndrome and Synapse transfers), the story follows one extremely unfortunate Christmas in the life of Harry (regular TV actor Maggart), a poor soul whose love for December 25th was forever warped when he injured himself while watching his parents getting it on with the aid of a Father Christmas outfit. Now a toy factory employee, Harry is still obsessed with Christmas but has taken it to rather frightening extremes, keeping an eye on his neighbors and compiling his own naughty-or-nice list with rather nasty punishments in mind. No one else around him seems willing to indulge Harry's dearly-kept dream to bring the Christmas spirit alive, and soon our poor antihero has snapped, turning his fragile psyche into the instrument for a rampage of yuletide violence with his non-charitable coworkers getting the brunt of his seasonal rage.

A weirdly sympathetic descent-into-madness story, Christmas Evil has been confounding viewers for decades when they expect to rent another movie with Santa sliding down a chimney and hacking up topless teens with an axe. The on screen violence is pretty low-key, with director Lewis Jackson instead opting for an off-kilter atmosphere of black comedy and pathos. Even when Harry goes full-tilt nuts at the end, it's hard to avoid feeling for the guy a little bit, especially since most of the other adults are such stern, dishonest lumps of coal. The much-discussed ending (which the director posits as a fantasy) is certainly memorable, ending the film on a Christmas Evilnote not unlike Thelma & Louise. (Really!) It's no wonder John Waters raved up and down about this one in his book Crackpot; it's a holiday film truly unlike any other, for better or worse. Christmas Evil

Christmas Evil made its first DVD appearance in 2000 in a dire-looking edition from Troma, sporting a solo commentary by Jackson and a pair of video interviews with Jackson (talking about the film's genesis and his two previous, very obscure projects) and Maggart (at home sitting next to Kabukiman, for some reason). Best moment: Jackson revealing Kathleen Turner and Glenn Close auditioned for and were turned down for the film.

Interestingly, Synapse's far more attractive DVD special edition released in 2006 restores some footage deleted from previous video editions (nope, not extra gore -- mainly just more of Harry's trials at work, as far as these eyes could tell). The source print looks great, with those all-important reds and greens popping through quite vividly. The mono audio is also a huge step up compared to the muffled, lifeless past versions. Anyone wondering about this film's origins and intentions will find plenty of answers in Jackson's newer commentary track, which covers everything from the financing to the visual scheme and the wacko distribution history. He also offers his own personal outlook on the story and what he was trying to convey, which is indeed a far cry from your average "slasher Santa" Christmas Evilyarn. Far less serious but just as educational in its own right is a second commentary with Jackson and the always-entertaining John Waters, who's obviously in a mood similar to his one on the Mommie Dearest DVD and has a very infectious level of enthusiasm. Expect lots of Santa jokes and stories, as well as far more arcane trivia than the first track. A Christmas Evilmust-hear, obviously. Other extra goodies include nearly half an hour of fascinating VHS audition footage (it's pretty clear why Maggart got the job, and keep an eye out for JoBeth Williams, Michael Beck, George Dzundza, David Rasche, and Lindsay Crouse!), some hilarious audience response cards from test screenings (easily the most enjoyable you'll see this side of Criterion's Videodrome disc), three storyboard demonstrations, and six minutes of interesting but inessential deleted footage.

Given the film's modest but constantly increasing cult following, it was inevitable that Christmas Evil would make the leap to Blu-ray. Released just in time for Christmas of 2014, the dual-format edition from Vinegar Syndrome features a new, sterling 4K HD transfer of the feature (in its director's cut with the original title) that manages to advance handily beyond the already excellent prior edition. Colors, detail, film grain, and black levels are all spot on and look like real film with a very consistent, clean appearance, while the modest mono track still sounds just fine. All three audio commentaries ever recorded for the film are finally collected together here along with a sparkling new HD transfer of the original, rare Christmas Evil trailer and the storyboards. The DVD version retains all of these extras and adds on all of the other preexisting bonus material as well (audition footage, test screening cards, and deleted scenes). Stuff this one in yer stockings, kiddies!

Updated review on November 13, 2014.