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The Test of Time: Christmas Evil (1980)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY LEWIS JACKSON

STARRING BRANDON MAGGART, JEFFREY DEMUNN, DIANE HULL, ANDY FENWICK, BRIAN NEVILLE

Say, if you were blessed with unwrapping just one holiday horror movie stuffed under the tree this year, what would it be? BLACK CHRISTMAS? SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY, NIGHT? How about the OG TALES FROM THE CRYPT?

Well, one flick that would no doubt be in the running for me personally is Lewis Jackson’s 1980 psychological-killer-Santa-slasher joint CHRISTMAS EVIL. Indeed, this nasty and nihilistically toned outing is naughty to the core, with very little yuletide mirth to redeem any sort of jollity. It’s one of the things I always loved about the flick, just how ugly and mean-spirited it is, uncompromisingly so, making no attempt whatsoever to play as a feel good holiday entertainment. Just the way a Christmas horror joint ought to be smoked, ya dig?!

But the real concern is whether or not, almost 40 years later, CHRISTMAS EVIL still holds serve. The film premiered in Pittsburgh in November of 1980, and was only ever green-lit to begin with due to the success of Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN two years prior. Interestingly, Lewis Jackson wrote the script before HALLOWEEN was released. Moreover, Jackson never viewed his film as a slasher flick per se, but more along the lines of FRANKENSTEIN, as a man turns into an uncontrollable monster for reasons he can’t quite compute. Will this distinction matter much when revisiting the film with fresh eyes? Let’s get to the bottom of this bitch when we put CHRISTMAS EVIL up against The Test of Time!

THE STORY: Damn do I love this origin story. Reportedly, Jackson conceived the idea of a CHRISTMAS EVIL after puffing a doob one night in the 70s and seeing a vision of Santa Claus holding a knife. It’s all it takes, folks! Then, after spending 10 years trying to make the film, during which he spent collecting all of the Christmas decorations seen in the film (which really do belong to Jackson’s personal collection), he finally got the go ahead to make the movie he envisioned all along, one that apparently employed storyboards for every single shot of the film, Hitchcock style. Of course, that will be the only time any comparison can be drawn between Hitch and CHRISTMAS EVIL, but so be it. If you’re looking for further validation, just note that the great John Waters considers CHRISTMAS EVIL to be his favorite Christmas/Thanksgiving movie. Hard to argue with a pimp-stache like that!

Anyway, the story goes as so. In 1947, little Harry Stadling rushes down the stairs on Christmas Eve, only to find Santa Claus going down on his mom. For reals! As if it could get worse, Harry learns that Santa Claus isn’t even real to begin with. The incensed child bolts upstairs as Santa, who Harry doesn’t even realize is his own father, begins slowly falling into the pit of despair left behind by his cracked psyche. It brews, it festers, it lingers, and then 33 years later, it all bubbles to a homicidal head. Now a toymaker at the Jolly Dreams toy factory, Harry (Brandon Maggart) can’t quite overcome the scars he incurred as a child. He begins donning the Santa suit, spying on neighborhood kids to see who is good and bad. Harry continues to witness injustices, be it with his coworker Frank asking to cover a shift, only to go out drinking with friends, or a phony donation scheme at Jolly Dreams. You know the rest, Harry straps on the Santa garb and goes around looking to savagely rectify all who is naughty!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: The first thing that strikes one while watching CHRISTMAS EVIL is how uniquely brazen it is to have the killer Santa be the main character. This dynamic set the film apart back in 1980, and frankly, since nobody has really attempted it since, still remains an original angle on the killer Santa template. This cannot be overstated or undersold. What this structural decision does is actually transcend the slasher genre and at once become an example of intense psychological horror. The first 30 minutes of CHRISTMAS EVIL is relatively tame in terms of graphic violence, precisely because we are witnessing the psychological breakdown of a man in the throes of severe PTSD. That such stress was caused by learning Santa is fake, and that Santa enjoys giving cunnilingus to his mother is hilariously inappropriate, but still, the man’s descent into murderous madness is no laughing matter. By framing the film this way, and hewing to such a rude, crude, and lewd tenor throughout the runtime, the distinct feeling you get while watching CHRISTMAS EVIL is still surely as strong as it was back in the day.

And aside from that marring opener, three key scenes still stand out above the rest. Straight up, in terms of the graphic carnage, what holds up best in the film is the three-headed massacre Harry exacts at the foot of a snowy steeple on Christmas Eve. You know what’s uop. Harry first gouges the sword of a toy soldier into the eyeball of one of the disparaging lads, causing a thick expulsion of gore to leak out of his ocular cavity. Undone, Harry then brutally slaughters the dude’s two buddies with hatchet, leaving their lifeless bodies strewn across the falling snow. It’s the parabolic climax in the rollercoaster ride that is CHRISTMAS EVIL. Following that sequence directly is one in which Jackson wisely dials back the violence, and instead gives Harry a demeanor of merriment as seen dancing at a Christmas party….with children! Yup, Harry goes from homicidal maniac to jolly old Saint Nick, making us think he could do to those children what he did to his insulters.

The second standout scene that still holds up well today is when Harry slinks down the chimney of Frank’s house and skulks through while everyone sleeps. The first part drags a bit, but once Harry sneaks into Frank’s bedroom, the real fun begins. Remember, Harry snags a decorative star that rests atop the Christmas tree, flings that sucker like a ninja star right at Frank until it slices his throat and lodges into his trachea. Shite’s gnarly! So gnarly in fact that I dare you to compile a list of the all time best horror movie Christmas kills and dare leave this one out. It’s that good…still! So too, aside from the very last shot that veers into cartoonish fantasy, is the final sequence in the film. Just like FRANKENSTEIN, as Jackson suggested, the finale occurs when the torch-bearing masses mob Harry, who they recognize as the killer Santa. Harry escapes to his brother Philip’s house (Jeffrey DeMunn in a terrible mullet), who already has similar suspicions of Harry. I love the way the chase scene is directed, namely in the décor of the rutilant lighting decorations and snowy streets Harry is chased down. There’s a sort of sad nostalgia to the iconography of the scene, which almost breaks your heart when Harry slips and nears capture (a real slip and fall from Maggart, by the way). Somehow Jackson is able to make us feel both sympathy and resentment for Harry simultaneously, which is some feat!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Aside from the tone, premise and aforesaid three standout sequences, unfortunately, most to all of the rest of CHRISTMAS EVIL blows now. It starts with how barely coherent the plot is to begin with, and carries over to the glacial pacing the movie adheres to throughout. Really, when compared to today’s standard of flash-bang editing and rapid fire imagery, CHRISTMAS EVIL is almost unwatchable. That is, if you weren’t already a fan of the film to begin with. Of course, the movie could only achieve so much with a paltry $850,000 budget going in, but the languid tempo still hurts the overall enjoyment level when watching it today. The first half hour is almost entirely bloodless and devoid of the killer Santa angle altogether, instead opting to showcase a character losing his grip on reality and slowly slipping into insanity. It’s an admirable choice, but again, it doesn’t erase the fact the movie is slower than frozen molasses, at least in the early going. Movies have become so much zippier and edited so much finer that it’d be hard to think the same cut of footage would be assembled the same way today.

And to be blunt, the ending blows now as well. What might have been cute or quaint at the time, subverting the evilness of the film in lieu of a lighter, more fantastical conclusion does not work when viewed today. First, it’s a total cop out that actually avoids a real ending. Now, I’m aware that, while many people believe Harry actually ascends to the heavens in his sleigh-like van in the end after being forced off the bridge by rabid locals, the fact remains, if you listen closely, you can hear the sound of an explosion in the background. This indicates Harry did actually die, which, while unclear, is the far better ending to what amounts to a grand tragedy. Second, by having the cartoonish ending of Harry flying into the sky, Jackson undermines the unbroken tone of abject cruelty up until that point. It’s almost like the equivalent of a character waking up to reveal the whole movie was a dream. The more appropriate way to end the flick, which would keep in line with the nihilistic tenor before it, would be to show Harry’s demise and reinforce the tragedy.

THE VERDICT: All in all, CHRISTMAS EVIL is a mixed bag of good and bad presents. On the good side, the film still boasts a brilliantly unique premise of making the killer Santa the protagonist as well as the antagonist at once. The three homicidal set-pieces the film has still rank among the movies strongest points, and until the final shot, the nasty and naughty tone throughout is still beyond reproach. On the bad side, the slogging tempo is hard to get through by today’s accelerated entertainment landscape, where attentions spans are that of a fly and stimuli disposable from one second to the next. Between the crippling pace and the stupid ass ending that threatens to undo all that came before it, CHRISTMAS EVIL has definitely shown some severe aging. On balance though, the verdict comes in 3:2 in favor of it, by the slimmest of margins, defeating the Test of Time. Happy Christmas Evil to all y’all!

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