Every Thursday, I dig through obscure or forgotten streaming horror films, searching for ones I haven’t seen in hopes of finding a gem so that you don’t have to do all of the digging yourself. This week, I dust off Christmas Evil (1980) and let you know whether the film is a gem, or a lump of coal...
…If you’re reading this, then you survived last night’s, er, celebration, of Krampusnacht, the (holiday?) in which the Christmas devil, Krampus, takes away the children who have been bad this year. So, congratulations, you were more nice than naughty in 2018! Though the fear of Krampus has been passed down for generations, in film, Krampus has only recently been imbued into pop culture with flicks like Mike Dougherty’s Krampus. Until then, it was actually Santa Claus making a frequent appearance in horror.
Written/directed by Lewis Jackson (The Deviates), Christmas Evil is, to my knowledge, the first feature-length “killer Santa Claus” film to bloody up the silver screen. Many will point out that a killer Santa first appeared in the segment “All Through the House” in the 1972 flick, Tales from the Crypt, but it’s Christmas Evil that featured the first psycho in a red suit for a full 90+ minutes. Jackson’s film stars Brandon Maggart as Harry, a toy factory manager, mentally scarred from an event that took place during his childhood, who has a nervous breakdown on Christmas eve and decides to go around hacking up co-workers who mock his appreciation of the holiday.
Supposedly, Jackson got the idea for the film when he was smoking a joint and received an image of Santa holding a knife. These days, the idea may seem tame or even boring to a desensitized public, but back then, the idea of a killer Santa Claus was terrifying. When the idea was first conceived (ten years before the film released, and a few years before “All Through the House”, if the stories are to be believed), horror was more of a genre that focused on the absurd or the gothic. The genre mostly consisted of werewolves, vampires, zombies, giant bugs, you name it, but very rarely had it turned such highly regarded concepts like Santa into bastardized versions of themselves. So, it’s odd to me that, despite being one of the first to do so, it’s often Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) that we associate with when we first think “killer Santa”. Christmas Evil has become so forgotten, that it’s somehow passed me by all of these years, until now.
Christmas Evil begins with a young Harry and his brother, Philip (Jeffrey DeMunn), catching “Santa” (Brian Hartigan) in the act of delivering presents and scarfing down cookies. Harry is convinced he’s seen the real Santa Claus, while Philip has a more pessimistic view, saying Santa isn’t real and that it was just their dad. Unconvinced, Harry goes back to the living room, where he finds ole Santa Claus going down on his mother (Ellen McElduff). Turns out, Santa really is just his dad, leaving Harry so devastated he smashes a snow glob and slices his hand for some reason. And you know what, who can blame him? I would’ve thought it was the real Santa too, because what kind of crazy dad ACTUALLY jumps down the chimney, and then somehow shoots back up it like he’s got rockets for feet? But I digress. Christmas Evil, at it’s cold, dead core, is a psychological study on what happens to someone when their Christmas spirit is broken into a million pieces (hence the metaphorical snow globe smashing). And can I just point out for a second how fucked up it is that we still lie to kids about Santa, just so we can break their hearts down the line? Yay the magical wonder of childhood and all of that, but seriously, we’re just asking to create more disturbed Harrys with that massive shattering of trust.
Harry, as an adult, becomes the embodiment of what that sort of damage can do to a child. Trapped in the memory of Santa trying to find a way up Mom’s chimney, Harry has permanently planted himself into an artificial childhood which he will never grow up from. Not only is he obsessed with Christmas, but he views other childish things such as toys and Santa as two of the most important parts of life. Disconnected from reality and likely never having been with a partner sexually, Harry has no concept of the real world or adulthood, and in many ways, has already turned himself into a real-life Santa Claus. He works at a toy factory, loves Christmas, and believes in giving toys to kids every year as charity. So, when his coworkers begin to belittle Harry’s views on the holiday and reveal a no big deal attitude about kid’s at the orphanage not getting their toys this season, it isn’t that big of a step for Harry to suddenly snap and decide he really is Santa Claus. Maggart plays the character perfectly as well, coming off as more of a shy, weak guy as Harry, while taking on a completely different, strong persona as Santa, even going as far as to change his voice for the character. It’s really quite an astounding performance, and one I’m surprised isn’t mentioned in horror circles more often.
The true genius of Jackson’s film is in the way it’s presented. Christmas Evil may be a film you’ve never seen, and Lewis Jackson isn’t a household name, but it’s a wonder Jackson didn’t go on to do anything after this, because he proves himself to be an incredibly gifted genre director. Every single moment of Christmas Evil, no matter how cheery, is filled with a sense of dread. Everything is menacing, from a close-up of a snow globe, to an eerie portrait of Santa in Harry’s office, to Harry’s tonally wrong rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. Hell, even the opening scene with Harry’s dad coming down the chimney is portrayed as menacing, while most Christmas films would view that moment as one of the few legitimately “magical” scenes in the film. This is the norm with these sorts of films though, at least early on, and you could argue that Christmas Evil set the tone for what would come after in Silent Night, Deadly Night. While most slashers have a sense of fun to them, including the films mentioned on the poster for Christmas Evil in Halloween and Friday the 13th, both Christmas Evil and Silent Night, Deadly Night are deeply disturbing movies. Horror fans can find things to enjoy about them, but there’s no denying that both films have a relentlessly dark tone that offers little to no room to breathe. I suspect this is because, again, during this time, horror didn’t force audiences into looking at something so cheery as something that could be so sinister, which is probably why there were so many campaigns by upset mothers to get these films, especially Silent Night, Deadly Night, banned from theaters. Or destroyed completely. As purveyors of horror, we often prefer the thrills of Halloween to the nausea inducing cheer of Christmas, and I think some of that hatred sneaks into these movies, which is why they feel much nastier than your average dice ‘em up.
Interestingly enough though, Jackson never considered Christmas Evil to be a slasher, and it’s a fair argument. Traditionally, a slasher film involves a group of people (usually teens), who are picked off one by one by some madman. In this case though, Harry is our primary star, left out of the film for a grand total of possibly five minutes. We follow Harry every step of the way through his progression from soft toy worker to murderous psychopath. Christmas Evil is more psychological terror than slasher film, or could even be considered a monster movie from some points of view, including Jackson’s, who considered the film to be closer to 1931’s Frankenstein than anything else. I’d buy that opinion for a dollar, because I felt the same during the finale in which Harry is found out by the parents in town and chased through the streets with torches and pitchforks. Come on, so the guy killed a few people, he just wants kids to be happy! In his heart, Harry is a good guy, like Frankenstein’s monster. And like Frankenstein, there is something poignant about that fantastical ending which takes place in Harry’s mind, leading us to look at Harry for the first time, not as a villain, but as a misunderstood monster.
Though Christmas Evil is no Halloween like the tagline would have you believe, it’s still a gift of terror underneath the Christmas tree. I’ve already mentioned that the film is filled to the brim with dread, and part of that is because the soundtrack playing beneath these terrifying scenes is a strange cacophony of unnatural sound and screams which bleed into the music. It’s enough to get the bells on your boots jingling, and helps to distract from the occasional too slow pacing, which is my one mark against the film.
Silent Night, Deadly Night may get all of the glory, but it’s time we see Christmas Evil for the groundbreaking genre film that it was. Be good little boys and girls and unwrap this holiday horror treat this Christmas. You wouldn’t want to get on Santa’s naughty list, after all.
Christmas Evil is now streaming on Shudder.
By Matt Konopka