Format: Internet video on laptop.
The various posters/art I have seen for Christmas Evil (also released as You Better Watch Out) shows either a Santa Claus-suited hand holding a knife or an axe-wielding Santa standing in front of a fireplace. Both promise a movie with Santa-as-slasher, but that is only partially true in the case of this film. It’s not really a slasher, although it is a film about a mass killer who does have both a knife and an axe at various points in the film. I’m not sure exactly what this is aside from being really weird.
We start in the past as two young boys (Wally Moran and Gus Salud) sit with their mother (Ellen McElduff) watching Santa Claus put presents under the tree. Later, one of the boys wakes up and sneaks downstairs only to see his mother and Santa having the beginnings of some sexy time. The boy is traumatized, not realizing that the man in the suit is his father (Brian Hartigan).
We jump forward about 30 years and the two boys are now adults. The older, Harry (Brandon Maggart) lives alone and works in a toy factory, having just been promoted off the factory line. The younger, Philip (Jeffrey DeMunn), is married to Jackie (Dianne Hull) and has two kids. We don’t find out what he does, but it’s implied that he’s more successful than his older brother. When we’re introduced to the adult Harry, we soon discover that he is obsessed with Christmas, sleeping in a Santa costume and having his apartment fully decorated with a number of Christmas decorations and such.
His obsession goes further than this, though. Harry spies on the neighborhood kids to determine which ones are naughty and which ones are nice. At the factory, his coworkers treat him like a chump. One of them, Frank (Joe Jamrog) convinces Harry to take his place on the line for him at night so he can spend time with his family only for Harry to discover that Frank instead hangs out at a bar. He has further problems with his job when he discovers that the boss offers to donate toys to a local facility, but only if the workers produce extras and donate their own money to do it.
Come Christmas Eve, Harry has a full-on psychotic break and imagines himself to be Santa Claus. He makes a costume for himself and decides to reward the good children and punish the bad ones. Fortunately, this does not mean that he starts stalking and killing children. He does attack a group of yuppies walking out of a church (this is the axe part) in full view of other church goers, and he takes revenge on some people who have slighted him in the past. At the same time, he steals toys from the factory to deliver to the children’s facility and spends time at a Christmas party spreading legitimately good cheer and giving presents to the kids.
Christmas Evil is a very strange movie in this respect. The typical horror movie that uses a holiday as the theme gives us something like Halloween or My Bloody Valentine where the killer is seeking a particular type of revenge or acting on a particular sociopathic urge. There’s a strange morality to Christmas Evil, a sense of tension between what we’re told is what Christmas is supposed to be about and the actual motives of people who seem to have forgotten basic compassion.
This is not to say that Harry is anything like a hero, because he’s clearly not. He’s a psychotic who kills people. But there is a sense of righteous fury in what he does, a sense that he is, at least in his own mind, trying to restore some sort of balance to the moral universe. He doesn’t do anything terrible to children; the worst thing he does is give a bag of dirt instead of a present to a neighborhood boy who is troublesome. His rage is reserved instead for adults who have evidently lost their own moral focus.
Brandon Maggart gives a very strange performance because of the role. The truth is that he’s pretty good as the descending-into-madness Harry. It’s more interesting to see accomplished character actors Jeffrey DeMunn and Peter Friedman in such an odd little pseudo-slasher.
Are there problems? Well, sure. One issue is that the police in whatever city this takes place in appear to be completely incompetent. Harry has decorated the side of his van with paintings of Santa’s sleigh, something clearly seen by the crowd outside of the church where he commits a triple homicide, and yet he continues to drive around town for a full day without being pulled over. There are weird moments that seem to happen for no real reason, like Harry getting stuck in a chimney and scenes of Philip and Jackie arguing. Oddest and the most out of place is wen Harry finds himself in a heavily-decorated neighborhood and is recognized as the axe-murdering Santa, the locals form a literal torch-wielding mob to track him down. Not flashlights, but actual cloth-wrapped torches, as if they had them prepared for just such an occasion.
Regardless, this is an odd film, and it’s odd in the right ways. It’s certainly not a traditional holiday movie, but it’s also quite a bit more and different from the traditional slasher.
Why to watch Christmas Evil: It’s a crazy Christmas movie and a crazy slasher-esque movie.
Why not to watch: The world’s stupidest police department, odd pointless moments, and a literal torch-wielding mob.