Best Horror Movie You Never Saw: Christmas Evil (1980)

Welcome to Arrow in the Head's The Best Horror Movie You Never Saw, which will be dedicated to highlighting horror films that, for one reason or another, don't get as much love as we think they should. We know plenty of you horror hounds out there will have seen many of the movies we pick, but there will be plenty of you who have not. This column is for all of you!

This week we take a look at Lewis Jackson's morbid holiday horror treat CHRISTMAS EVIL aka YOU BETTER WATCH OUT (OWN IT HERE), starring Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn and Diane Hull.

THE STORY: After being traumatized by the sight of Santa feeling up mommy when he was a child, Harry Stadling has grown up to be a man disturbingly obsessed with Christmas. As life in a toy factory wears him down, Harry decides to spread some holiday cheer his own way: by rewarding his town's children with toys and punishing the cruel adults who have forgotten the meaning of Christmas. 

THE HISTORY: Originally conceived as a big budget Hollywood production titled SANTA by writer-director Lewis Jackson (who apparently came up with the idea after getting high and seeing an image of Santa Claus with a knife), CHRISTMAS EVIL was thought to be too weird by most producers Jackson showed the script to. Told he would be better off making it as an independent feature, it took Jackson almost eight months to raise the money for the film, which was then being called YOU BETTER WATCH OUT (depending on where you view the film, some versions still use this title). Jackson envisioned the film more as a morality play and character study than slasher film, although obviously it was marketed as such to drum up interest during its release. (Unfortunately, it's Jackson's final film credit as director.)

WHY IT'S GREAT While Silent Night, Deadly Night gets all the attention for being the film to shock the nation with its depiction of an axe-wielding Santa Claus, Christmas Evil beat it to the theater by about three years, though it never received the infamy – or popularity – of Silent Night. Despite both being about a man in a Santa suit who loses his mind, the two films are quite different. Silent Night, for all its so-bad-its-good entertainment factor, is a fairly repetitive and by-the-numbers slasher with a penchant for sleazy death sequences, with a protagonist/villain who completely loses any sympathy we might have had for him early on as he goes on his rampage. Christmas Evil is a deliberately-paced, rather eerie look at a very sad man's slow and painful descent into madness. Yes, the man kills some people, but only four people, so the film's focus isn't necessarily on blood and guts. The movie goes for unnerving character moments in lieu of shocking murders, and is all that much more effective for it. 

Carrying the film is Brandon Maggart (aka Fiona Apple's dad!) as Harry Stadling, a man whose love of Christmas goes above and beyond what most people would consider healthy. Maggart's performance is phenomenal; one of those instances where you feel as though the actor really was living the part. As Harry sees the people around him show an un-jolly disregard for the true meaning of Christmas, his mind snaps and he begins to think of himself as the real Saint Nick, who becomes something of a moral arbiter in his town: If you're nice, you get a present. If you're naughty, well, better hope Harry doesn't have anything too sharp in his sack. Refreshingly, Jackson doesn't pummel this idea into the ground; he could have just made Harry a raving lunatic who goes on a punishing spree, as Silent Night's Billy Chapman would do a few years later. Harry actually doesn't want to hurt anyone, not really; he'd rather bring good cheer with him, as he does when he's finagled into entering a holiday party and brightening up the event. Instead of nonstop bloodshed, Christmas Evil is more interested in depicting Harry's slow burn mental breakdown, as his soul becomes ever so weary as he sees the continued corruption of the holiday. Watching Maggart become so unhinged in the role is a wicked treat; it has to be one of the most underrated performances in horror history. 

Don't get me wrong, when the movie does spring a violent attack on you, it has been worth the wait. A scene where Harry takes down some very salty churchgoers is really jarring, as is the sequence where he tracks down a devious co-worker. Christmas Evil works so well because the threat of violence is always looming around the edges, and you're never sure when Jackson is going to unleash Harry's simmering rage. Adding to the paranoia you might feel are the frequent cutaways to Harry's well adjusted brother (Frank Darabont vet Jeffrey DuMunn), as you can sense a final confrontation in the offing. There is one indeed, though it doesn't go quite the way you might think, leading us to a conclusion that is completely unexpected and surreal. (I remember feeling palpable shock as the final shot played out before me for the first time.) The Silent Night, Deadly Night movies always came off as grim and cynical to me; Christmas Evil is a much more involving experience because it has more on its mind than tits and gore. 

As dark as Christmas Evil is, it's not depressing. Jackson sprinkles some very macabre humor throughout, and you'll even find yourself laughing at – or with – Harry as his antics range from childlike to weird to downright insane. You're not sure whether or not to root for Harry (at the very least, you'll root for him to get some much needed help), and that's partially what makes the film so fascinating. It's not often you begin to ponder the moral ambiguity of a character in a Christmas horror movie, but that's just what happens in Christmas Evil, a strange and engrossing yuletide nightmare.

BEST SCENE: For my money, the very end of the film is the highlight. Once you see what happens to Harry, you won't soon forget it.

WHERE TO WATCH: Vinegar Syndrome released Christmas Evil on Blu-ray a few years ago, a sparkling (relatively) 4K restoration. The disc has a ton of supplemental goodies, so it's aces for any super fan on this nasty piece of fruitcake. (It's also available on Showtime On Demand as You Better Watch Out.)

PARTING SHOT: You've likely exhausted all of the obvious holiday horror movies out there; how many more times can you watch Gremlins? (Okay, a lot more, but you know what I mean.) Christmas Evil offers a much different take on the subgenre, one that's quite a bit different than what you're probably used to. And if you've seen it already, there's no better time to revisit this sick Santa.

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Eric Walkuski is a longtime writer, critic, and reporter for He's been a contributor for over 15 years, having written dozens of reviews and hundreds of news articles for the site. In addition, he's conducted almost 100 interviews as JoBlo's New York correspondent.