Tuesday, 18 December 2012

FESTIVE CULT REVIEW: Christmas Evil (1980)

This much misunderstood psychological horror film with an oddball New York Christmas slant now gets its seasonal due on DVD in the UK, thirty years after its initial flop release, thanks to the timely attentions of Arrow Video. The ‘evil Santa’ motif spawned a handful of Christmassy horror flicks back in the eighties, but most of them were firmly grounded in the slasher genre, their makers inspired by the success of Halloween to have a go at making everyone’s favourite annual winter holiday season the basis of some often very similar and unimaginative material. Few of these films had much to offer beyond the cheese factor involved in setting a killer Santa Claus on a murderous serial killing rampage, and even that aspect of them had already been anticipated by the memorable Tales from the Crypt story first adapted by Amicus for their ‘70s film version and later remade for the anthology TV series that followed in the 1990s. But the very qualities that led Christmas Evil (originally titled You Better Watch Out) to be dismissed or ignored when it first came out, now serve to distinguish it as one of the more original and well-crafted entries in the niche interest Christmas horror sub-genre. The film became actually one of the first full features to tackle the killer Santa Claus theme. Director Lewis Jackson spent ten years attempting to bring this independent production, birthed in an idea he first had in 1970, to the screen: he planned, drew and laid out precise storyboards for the whole project in advance, which in turn managed to help persuade the esteemed French cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich to come over to the U.S. in order to lens this low-budget flick, despite the fact that the rest of his lighting crew would be made up of inexperienced first-timers and the shoot would often involve working long, arduous non-union approved hours.
The result was in fact a rich, black, Grindhouse blend of weirdo comedy and drama, shot in an arthouse style and generally approached as though the film were intended as a serious psychological portrait (by, say, John Cassavetes) of mental decline in an unforgiving urban setting … but still decorated with tinsel and holly and liberally furnished with a mordantly ironical sense of ice-cold humour.
 The film refuses to be slotted into any one identifiable genre: there are moments of absurdist comedy; others deal in sharp, cynical satire; and still others are redolent with cheap exploitation-heavy, drive-in-ready gore (although you have to wait a good fifty minutes for any of that to appear – a fact which straightaway alienated any audience for such material it might ever have had). Jackson was more influenced by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Fritz Lang than he was by John Carpenter or the Friday the 13th franchise; the relaxed pacing, the film’s avant-garde edginess and unpredictable shifts in tone; and the way in which its bleak, grungy urban backdrop gradually becomes transformed into a distorted expressionistic version of Fritz Lang’s M -- but dressed with fairy lights and flashing neon reindeer -- meant that Jackson’s producers (who were expecting the usual unchallenging genre slasher piece), dropped the ball with their marketing: the film came out before Silent Night, Deadly Night, but seems not to have gathered anything like that film’s notorious reputation, despite being way more evocative and beautifully put together.

Instead, the original You Better Watch Out was quietly forgotten for many years while it sank into a purgatory of complex sub-distribution deals that led to unauthorised title changes and poor VHS copies, etc. The film played on 42nd Street for a time, which is where it was eventually re-discovered by people such as John Waters, who managed to keep the memory faintly alive until Jackson was finally able to wrestle back the rights to his original cut and oversee its restoration for releases such as the present one with the original title restored to the print -- although Arrow have used the Christmas Evil title that most fans of the film will know it by for the DVD cover of this version.

The film’s whole approach to the killer Santa genre is grounded in its bizarre character study of an aberrant individual whose Christmas-loving psychosis becomes the basis for a wry take on the cynical commercialisation of the season. Like the recent Finish fantasy film Rare Exports, Jackson’s screenplay delivers an withering exposé of the advertising industry’s sanitisation of the whole mythos surrounding Santa, returning this questionable figure to his darker roots in traditional Germanic folklore. Father Christmas -- or Black Peter – started off as something of a vengeful, scary ogre before Coca Cola rebranded him with his current cheerful, plump, rosy-cheeked grandfather image. The original Santa of legend was wrathful, and spent as much time punishing and hurting children for their supposed transgressions as he did rewarding them with presents under the Christmas tree. This film slyly highlights just how similar the original Santa was to the kind of oddball nutter it depicts as its central character; the kind who you’d actually cross the street to avoid. Here, Brandon Maggart plays sad, lonely neighbourhood outcast Harry Stradling: an isolated Christmas obsessed inadequate who connects with no-one but the little kids who live in and around his run-down district (most of the shabby-looking locations were based in New Jersey, though the film is set in New York). He works in a drab, soul-destroying toy factory (ironically named ‘Jolly Dream Toys’) where his single-minded obsession with improving the Company’s cheap and perishable plastic products has seen him promoted from the production line to the executives’ office, yet still he’s looked down upon by his colleagues and generally treated with derision and a complete lack of respect.
Former Broadway musical actor Maggart (now the father of singer Fiona Apple!) gives a pitch- perfect performance here that completely captures Harry’s deranged personality, echoing the film’s own schizophrenic tone as the character slips and slides between comic slapstick exuberance one moment and  scary screaming mad guy unpredictability the next. One minute Harry is rolling out of bed dressed in his Santa pyjamas while joyfully mimicking all the typical Father Christmas mannerisms and acting out the familiar contemporary Christmas card image of St. Nick, the next he’s frantically crushing plastic dolls in a psychotic frenzy while manically humming ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ under his breath in his empty, dimly lit house.

That house is, of course, a fetishistic shrine to Christmas cheer stuffed full of kitsch, faintly disturbing Santa Claus memorabilia, the décor all painted in red, green and white Christmas colours for providing the appropriate setting to any number of the carefully posed, creepy-looking dolls and toys that fill up every part of Harry’s living space. He even has his own little hideaway in the garage where he makes his own toys -- a glowing candle-lit woodshed grotto that looks for all the world like Santa’s Lapland workshop made reality. This is the story of a man who loves Christmas so much he actually wants to be Santa … it’s just that the rest of the world won’t accommodate his warped desires. John Waters, speaking on one of the two commentaries accompanying this release, likens Harry’s situation to that of a transsexual who feels themself trapped in the wrong body; only in this case Harry believes himself to be Santa Claus trapped in the body of a human schmuck!
 In the build up to Christmas Eve, he sets about stitching together his own Santa costume for the big night. ‘Being’ Father Christmas involves all sorts of activities that most parents these days might find rather unpalatable – especially if one were to (as Harry does) mimic the practices of the traditional folkloric Santa: Harry spends his days, all year round, spying on the activities of the neighbourhood kids: peering through their windows, peeping on them -- even in their bedrooms -- through high powered binoculars from the top of a tenement opposite. He’s noting down their good and bad behaviour in two huge volumes marked "Good Boys and Girls" and "Bad Boys and Girls" and he seems to have a creepily comprehensive knowledge of what everyone gets up to: entries include specific details that indicate Harry’s devoted pretty much all his time to keeping tabs on these kids; their crimes range from ‘smoked cigarettes in an alley’ and ‘has bad breath’ to eerily personal observations such as ‘always has to be first in everything’. He also seems to have taken rather a dubious level of interest in one particular little girl, whose picture he keeps on his desk and whose entry in his book of "Good Boys and Girls" reads, simply ‘just a darling!’
The fetishistic angle to Harry’s obsession is spotlighted in the suggested reason given for his Peter Pan-ish need to live forever in a bubble of childlike Christmas-themed expectation: the film’s 1947 prologue depicts in a stylised Christmas card-like dream haze Harry and his younger brother getting to spy on Santa on Christmas Eve, watching him coming down their house chimney and eating the mince pies and drinking the milk their parents have laid out for him. Of course, this magical tableau has been staged by the kids’ parents -- with their dad dressed up as Santa – to enhance the magic of the season, but Harry isn’t able to accept that fact and is driven over the edge when he creeps back down stairs later on and finds ‘Santa’ now lewdly making out with his mom! Harry’s reaction is to grow up deploring any hint of sex and embracing all aspects of the Christmas spirit with a sort of sublimated fanatical fervour. The many images in the film of Harry, dressed in his full Santa Claus regalia, stood outside in the cold while gazing through people’s windows and into their warmly lit homes, serve to highlight his self-imposed isolation as well as his voyeurism. Jackson sets out to frame every shot with exquisite care and many scenes here are actual recreations of images by 19th Century German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose sketches of the Santa Claus figure combined the modern white-bearded, red-suited Coca Cola ideal with the more sinister traditional elements of the character.

The first half of the film concentrates on detailing Harry Stradling’s strange and aberrant psychology in all its bizarre but depressingly bleak glory, the film often coming across in tone a lot like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Driller Killer but with an unlikely Christmas theme added! The second half catalogues the events of Christmas Eve and Christmas day, when Harry sets out to make his demented dreams a reality: punishing the naughtiest kid in the neighbourhood with the traditional bag of dirt on the doorstep and breaking and entering into peoples’ homes dressed as Santa, to either leave the presents he’s carefully selected and made for them, or to redistribute the presents waiting under their Christmas trees from those he considers to be undeserving to those who are more in need. Disgusted by his Company’s idea of a seasonal charity drive at the local Willowy Springs hospital for disabled children (which is really just a cynical marketing campaign on their part), he breaks into the toy factory and fills his van with its products to be distributed to the hospital by him, dressed in his Father Christmas suit. All Harry wants is to be accepted as Santa and to have people react to him as people should react to Father Christmas at this time of year. There are moments when he manages to engineer just such an outcome (a scene in which Harry practices his Santa persona in the street, with it starting to snow just as he perfects his baritone ‘Merry Christmas!!’, helps invest the viewer fully in his distorted worldview by its end) and is even strong-armed into attending a Christmas party by some enthusiastic revellers who make him its star attraction.

But Harry is still tormented by a lifetime of slights and insults and this is the night for punishing those who haven’t always displayed the proper level of Christmas spirit in their dealings with him in the past. Here the film manages to combine its edgy, grungy New York indie spirit with an enjoyably black style of humour in sequences where excited kids are shown happily waving ‘Santa Claus’ off not knowing that he’s just brutally murdered their father in his bed, for instance; or where he’s shown getting stuck halfway down someone’s chimney stack in a vain attempt to be authentically Christmassy (Waters reads some overt sexual symbolism into that scene!). The police investigation into the spate of Claus-related crimes consists of nabbing all the city’s department store Santas and forcing them to attend a line-up in front of all the witnesses who saw Santa slaying people outside of a church, just after they’d come out of Midnight mass!
 But probably the most memorable image to come from any of these ‘80s Christmas horror flicks is included in this film when Harry’s murder spree is reported in the press the next day and he ends up spending Christmas night being hunted through shabby New York streets and back alleys by a torch-carrying mob, in what is surly the most amusing tribute to Frankenstein ever dreamt up. The image of a crying Santa being chased by a vigilante gang waving flaming torches in a modern city setting (didn’t they have electric torches in 1980s New York?) is gloriously surreal and highlights the film’s capacity for shifting tone from the earthy and realistic to the utterly insane -- but then how else should you be expected to react to some fat bearded guy who breaks into your house and leers over your kids while they sleep?
There’s also a subtext about how the inherent dysfunctionality which often exists in relationships between close family members is brought out more at Christmas than at any other time of year, despite the season supposedly being all about families coming together: Harry’s highly troubled relationship with his  brother is one of the key subplots in the movie and the scene with the adult mob chasing Santa concludes in Jackson’s tribute to Friz Lang’s M when Harry, increasingly dishevelled and sweaty in his soiled Santa costume, is cornered in a backstreet courtyard, but the children of his pursuers all crowd around to protect him from the violence of their own parents -- one little girl even handing him her father’s knife to protect himself with!

Beautifully photographed, extremely well-acted and accompanied by a truly unnerving avant-garde sound design that is inclusive of a score that’s full of warped nerve frazzling Christmassy melodies played on toy instruments but mixed in with discordant synthesiser atmospherics, Christmas Evil is a class above most of its peers, but sometimes gets little credit from those expecting a more conventional ‘slasher’ approach. It is indeed very deliberately paced, and concludes with what continues to rank as a gloriously ludicrous conceit; but for me it completely works and weaves its own demented spell. This is going to become an annual favourite from now on, thanks to the excellent new UK DVD from Arrow Video, which includes two commentaries (one informative one with writer-director Lewis Jackson  detailing the production history and the shooting of the film, and one ‘just for fun’ with John Waters watching it alongside the director); there are some deleted scenes which are actually pretty worthwhile additions; some short video interviews with Jackson and star Brandon Maggart; a selection of original storyboards in scroll-thru form; and rare black and white screen test footage which includes tests by some fairly famous actors who didn’t get into the film. This edition also includes a collectors’ booklet with writing by Kim Newman and John Waters as well as a new introduction by Lewis Jackson, plus some rare stills and images from the latter's personal files. The sleeve features a reversible cover image including original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys.  

RELEASING COMPANY: Arrow Video/AVAILABILITY: Out Now/GENRE: Christmas Thriller/FORMAT: DVD/REGION: 2 PAL/ASPECT RATIO: 1.85:1/DIRECTOR: Lewis Jackson/CAST: Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn, Dianne Hull

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