Friday 25 December 2020

Christmas Evil (1980)

Director: Lewis Jackson
Writer: Lewis Jackson
Stars: Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn and Dianne Hull

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

There are so many Christmas horror movies out there (and others that may not be horror but are just as traumatising) that I may well write a book on just them, but I still needed to pick one for A Horror Movie Calendar. I avoided Black Christmas, as that’s too easy a choice and plumped for this one, which John Waters has described as “the greatest Christmas movie ever made”. As flawed as it is, it’s actually a surprisingly inventive look at Christmas and what the holiday means, wrapped up in slasher clothing. One thing I really like about it is that it seems to unfold in a world where there are no days that aren’t holidays, which is social commentary in itself. We watch Harry Stadling get out of bed in his Santa pyjamas, practice his Santa laugh and check his Santa belly as he hums a carol or three, in an apartment decorated like a greeting card. He works at a toy factory and Frank has him cover his late shift so he can take his wife out of town for the holidays. It’s so obviously Christmas, we’re shocked to discover that it’s really Thanksgiving.

Harry rings his brother Phil to tell him that he won’t make it over for Thanksgiving dinner. He’s busy watching Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the announcer pointing out that it’s his first appearance of the season. That prompts Harry to shift into overdrive with his preparation for Christmas and a quick montage highlights that he’s not alone. The stores promptly put out their Christmas displays, Christmas trees go up in public squares and, no doubt, on the 1980 equivalent of Facebook, people would moan about how soon this is all happening. Heck, we haven’t even got to Halloween yet and everything’s suddenly Christmas. In Harry’s world, Thanksgiving and Halloween don’t exist, because the Christmas season lasts for all twelve months of the year. To Harry, the day after his Christmas-themed Thanksgiving is his work’s Christmas party and the day after that is Christmas Eve. And, we know from the intro, which took place on Christmas Eve in 1947 when Harry was a child, that’s a gigantic #C54245 Christmas Red flag.

For the first few minutes of this movie, everything is Hallmark card perfect. Harry’s sitting on the stairs with Phil and their mother, as the magic unfolds. The narrator reads A Visit from St. Nicholas (“Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house...”) as Santa actually drops down the chimney into Harry’s living room. He’s in the traditional red suit with the traditional white beard. A big sack of presents follows him to put in the stockings hanging by the fireplace. He enjoys the milk and cookies left for him, by the well decorated tree, and when Phil giggles, Santa even winks at him before disappearing back up the chimney. Later, while the kids settle down to sleep, Phil states that Santa was Daddy all along and Harry doesn’t believe it, so he sneaks downstairs. There’s Santa, still in costume, having himself a grand old time feeling up mum’s thighs, her robe wide open and her intentions clear. Harry runs up to the attic, traumatised, smashes a snowglobe and cuts himself with the broken glass. It’s not so Hallmark card perfect now.

It doesn’t take a qualified psychiatrist to realise, as the film moves along, that Harry has conflated sex with violence in his mind and is now half convinced that he’s actually going to be the next Santa Claus, one who truly lives up to the spirit of Christmas, unlike the lecherous Santa who molested his mother back in 1947. His apartment is just a beginning. He even spies on the neighbour kids with binoculars so that he can see who’s being naughty and who’s being nice. Scotty Goodrich takes out the trash, so he’s good. Adorable Susy Lovett plays with her doll, so she’s good too. But Moss Garcia reads Penthouse, then cuts out and dismembers the centrefold, so he’s been bad. And Harry keeps detailed records in annual volumes. Moss’s page is really not promising. Yeah, Harry has some deep seated problems, but he’s highly functional. In fact, he’s been given a promotion at Jolly Dream (“If it’s not a Jolly Dream,” says the sign in his office, “it’s not worth having”), so he’s now working a desk instead of the assembly line.

The heart of the film is in the idea that real life isn’t a particularly good place for someone who thinks that he’s Santa. Harry doesn’t see his job at Jolly Dream as a job so much as a calling and he’s grounded enough to realise that he’s probably alone in that. He fails to get over to his colleagues just how important hand made toys are to kids. He isn’t happy at all when his boss introduces him to a new idea man, George Grosch, who’s come up with a plan to donate toys to a local hospital for mentally handicapped kids. Sure, he appreciates the sentiment but George has no idea how many kids are there and doesn’t care whether everyone will receive a gift or not. What’s more, he wants the employees to chip in towards the cost to help “shoulder the burden”. So he takes it upon himself to fill up more sacks with factory toys to distribute. The key scene may be the one when Harry glues on his Santa beard so perfectly that, when he cries into the mirror, “It’s me!”, we can buy into him thinking he’s New Santa. It’s what’s known as a fugue state.

Maybe it’s the one soon afterwards, when he practices his “Merry Christmas!” outside the Willowy Springs Hospital and it starts to snow. It becomes a real success, the staff overwhelmed. When they ask who donated so many presents, he says confidently, “Some people who didn’t realise how generous they could be.” Less successful is the next stop, which is where Harry’s boss has gone for a midnight mass. The first few worshippers down the stairs pick on him, so he stabs one in the eye with a soldier and then bludgeons a few more to death for good measure. And so we go. Wherever people have been good, the experience is great. He’s a big hit when he’s dragged into a Families and Friends Organization party. But wherever they haven’t been good, it’s not so great. After the shift he worked for Frank, he discovered he spent his time in a bar, laughing about that schmuck Harry as he wasn’t going anywhere till the morning. Now Harry slices Frank’s throat open with a star ornament in his bed after leaving toys under the tree for his kids.

It’s all played straight, so even the silliest moments are surprisingly effective. For instance, on the way to Frank’s house, he urges a non-existent set of reindeer onward, because that’s what Santa does, and, once there, he clambers onto the roof to climb down the chimney, because that’s what Santa does. He fails, of course, because he’s way too big, so has to pry himself back out and find a new way in. Perhaps best of all is the scene where a Geraldo Rivera ripoff tells television viewers on Christmas morning to avoid anyone dressed like Santa Claus. That leads, perhaps inevitably, to an actual police line up of mall Santas, which is priceless too. Even some of the cops half-seriously see the bright side, because they realise that this killer Santa is at least following the rules. Gleason thinks that making kids scared of Santa again might be a good thing, so that they’ll be good throughout the year. And, throughout all of it, Brandon Maggart totally sells the deterioration of Harry’s mind. He’s likely the most sympathetic slasher I can name.

I’d never heard of Maggart before seeing this, but he’s a well-regarded actor on stage, television and film, as well as being a painter and author, even if he’s best known nowadays for being Fiona Apple’s father. His previous feature, made the same year as this, was Dressed to Kill for Brian De Palma, and his next would be The World According to Garp. He appeared on the pilot of Sesame Street in 1969, continuing throughout the first season as Buddy in the dimwitted pair of clowns called Buddy and Jim. A year later, he was up for a Tony for his originating role in the Broadway musical Applause, based on All About Eve. Everything I read about him adds to the suggestion that he’s massively versatile, but his website oddly highlights how he might have been made for this role. Not only does he now have the white beard he needs to play Santa, his stated motto is “When reality becomes too stressful, I create my own. I fly. And, from space, things don’t look all that bad.” Given the fantastic ending to this film, that’s wildly appropriate.

I think I can spoil that ending, because it’s crucial to understanding who Harry is and why he’s important on a far wider stage than this one movie. Chased by literal villagers with torches, his van launches off the side of a bridge but, rather than spill into the river, as logic suggests, it actually continues on into the sky, even turning towards the moon. The narrator returns to wrap up A Visit from St. Nicholas: “I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, ‘Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.’” It’s a fantastic ending, in literal terms, which goes against everything we’ve seen thus far. It could tell us, as I’m sure it intends to, that Harry’s own persona, in this trauma-fuelled fugue state, has finally been subsumed by that of Santa Claus and he’s going to die thinking that he’s the new Santa. However, it also hints that he’s a sort of equivalent to Sam in Trick ’r Treat, not a human being with human problems, but the literal guardian of the rules of the season, albeit Christmas rather than Halloween, who gets to enforce them bloodily. I like that.

The film’s title is clever but a little unfortunate, because it’s a great pun but one focused on just one day, Christmas Eve. While that crucial night before Christmas is especially important to Harry, the first death scene happens after midnight mass, so we’ve already moved into the next day by that point and thus everything important that follows, all the good and all the bad, occurs on Christmas Day. The working title was simply Santa, which isn’t remotely as good; my copy is titled You Better Watch Out; and other prints bear the name Terror in Toyland, which sounds more like the Laurel & Hardy take on Christmas that we see at a late point here, March of the Wooden Soldiers, which is the abridged version of Babes of Toyland. None of them match Christmas Evil, so I guess we’ll all have to live with it suggesting the day before the holiday rather than the holiday itself. Of course, most traditions include Christmas Eve in their details, because, like so many other holidays, they used to run from sunset to sunset rather than midnight to midnight.

As an Englishman living in Arizona, Christmas is the holiday when I feel the most disconnected, because I used to celebrate it in one country, following certain rules and traditions, including some specific to my family, but I now celebrate it in another, following an entirely different set of rules and traditions. To me, Christmas is putting up a tree on Christmas Eve, ahead of midnight mass at our local church, followed by small stocking presents to keep us kids happy and sleep. The next morning and early afternoon would be spent cooking a huge dinner; we’d eat turkey and pork, roast potatoes and three kinds of stuffing, finishing up with a very alcoholic Christmas pudding, using my grandma’s recipe that included brandy and Guinness, served with rum sauce. As the adults sat back in exhaustion, we kids would hand out presents from under the tree. We’d watch The Queen’s Speech, the final of The World’s Strongest Man and, if we stayed awake, the big evening movie. I remember watching Raiders of the Lost Ark while it snowed outside. Magical.

In Arizona, perhaps the only commonality for me is roast turkey for dinner, though I do contribute a Christmas pudding that only I eat, given that all Christmas food in America has to include marshmallows and can’t include fruit. The Christmas tree is put up long before Christmas and it’s taken down much sooner than 6th January, so entirely ignoring the Twelve Days of Christmas, which run from Christmas Day to Epiphany. What else go up are lights, plastic icicles and gigantic inflatables to fill up yards and sway on the rooftops, so prompting traditions of driving the kids around town after dark to see the biggest lightshows. Americans watch sports on Christmas or they leave the Yule Log on in the background, a four hour vista of a roaring fireplace, after It’s a Wonderful Life the day before. Many more, including my better half, have traditional gift wrapping movies, hers being Bram Stoker’s Dracula, albeit not for any Christmas reason. A family tradition here is to buy the kids a new ornament each year to add to the tree.

What I realise watching Christmas Evil again is that most of these are either modern or very focused traditions and there are a host of older traditions that have fallen into that timeless hole of nostalgia. Harry is entirely secular, so he isn’t interested in Christmas being a contraction of “Christ’s mass” as a celebration of the birth of Jesus; he only shows up outside midnight mass here because he knows his boss will be there. He doesn’t have an Advent calendar, he doesn’t go out carolling and there isn’t a nativity scene in his apartment. Similarly, he doesn’t look back to when 25th December was adopted as Christmas Day, the first known celebration being three centuries after the death of Jesus. He doesn’t put up mistletoe, one of the most overt pagan symbols that remind us of the date’s original meaning as the winter solstice in the Roman calendar. He’s all about the Victorian reinvention of Christmas, an overtly Dickensian take on the spirit of the day, emphasising family and an underpinning sense of cameraderie and cheer.

Most specifically, he epitomises the 1822 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, which bookends the film and that really places this movie in one particular era, which emphasises the connection in my mind from Harry to Sam in Trick ’r Treat. While both holidays continue to grow and change over time, Harry and Sam are adamant that their particular interpretations are the correct ones, even though they’re rooted in nostalgia for previous times. Show disrespect for their version of the rules that govern their holidays and they’ll take you down. It’s not a lump of coal in your stocking, you defiler of the spirit of Christmas, it’s an axe to the head or an ornament to the throat. And I kind of dig the irony there. Good will to all men, Harry thinks, except those who don’t buy into that concept. It really is incredibly appropriate to turn someone like that into a slasher in a Santa suit. My reasons for liking this movie aren’t all in sync with John Waters’s reasons, but I’ll happily suggest that Christmas Evil should become a Christmas tradition of its own.

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