Ho-Ho-Horror: Christmas Evil (Lewis Jackson, 1980)

Harry Stadling (Gus Salud), a little boy with a fondness for all things Santa Claus, uncovers the truth about ole Saint Nick after witnessing his mother canoodle with Big Red! In a state of severe shock, Harry runs upstairs and stabs himself with a broken snow globe. Thirty-three years later and still scarred from the horrific events of his childhood, Harry (Brandon Maggart) has become a little obsessed with being Santa, a fixation that takes him on a yule-tide terror-spree across the city.

Despite the original one-sheet reading “1st Came Halloween, then Friday the 13th, Now….” director Lewis Jackson – who previously directed only two feature length films, one called The Transformation: A Sandwich of Nightmares (no joke) – treats Christmas Evil more as an examination of a shattered psyche than a post-Halloween slasher. Its 100 minute run-time focuses on a man and his good intentions that just so happen to carry with it one heck of a mean streak. Sure, most of the elements of the slasher genre are present – the traumatic past and the stalk and slash of an anti-hero – except Jackson is far more concerned with unraveling the tortured mind of a man who, for better or worse, really does have a good heart.

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In between working as a manager of a toy factory called Jolly Dream, where if it’s “not a Jolly Dream, it’s not worth having”, Harry watches over the neighborhood kids to determine whether they’ve been naughty or nice, which if you aren’t Santa Claus or the local police, comes off darn creepy. At work, Harry pulls overtime for his coworkers, despite being ridiculed behind his back. It’s a burden that he accepts because his heart is in the right place; it’s his head that isn’t.

When he isn’t laboring away at the factory or maintaining his naughty or nice list, Harry languishes at home where every inch of floor space is littered with plastic Santa’s. It’s here where we see Harry begin to lose control, as Jackson remains focused on showing the man adrift versus the man lost to a world of obsession and instability. It’s a focus that creates scenes of unease and unpredictability, as Harry later super glues a white beard onto his face and steps out into the streets as the world’s biggest Santa Clause fan.

We spend just about every waking moment with Harry, and when we aren’t, it’s spent at his younger brother Philip’s home (a young Jeffrey DeMunn), who happens to be a little bit more good looking and a lot more successful. Every year, Harry spends Christmas with Philip and his family; except things are very different this year. As we move back and forth between Harry and Philip, we are shown that Christmas Evil isn’t simply a psycho-slasher, but a moral tale of inclusion that focuses on the spirit of Christmas. It just also happens to be a tale as pointed as a stiletto, one that offers a frightening look at mental illness that affects millions of people this time of the year.

What makes Harry’s mission so unnerving is how genuinely caring he is about bringing children a Christmas they won’t ever forget, while confronting demons who want nothing more than to take out everyone who has wronged him. Christmas Evil may not be filled with buckets of blood, but it’s overflowing with a palpable tension from a man who is as unpredictable as the night is dark. When Harry confronts strangers and crashes parties, there’s enough awkward dread to fill a stocking, and we never really know what’s going to transpire until it’s too late.

One instance occurs when Harry is pulled into a Christmas bash he stumbles upon while out delivering toys he stole from work. The party, lit like a hazy nightmare one might have where they’re suddenly naked in front of a large crowd, halts festivities to gawk and leer at this seemingly innocuous figure who seems well, par for the course. Except Harry isn’t one to embrace the limelight, as the camera lingers on him for what feels like forever, the sweat beading on his forehead. We aren’t quite sure if he’s going to burst into ho-ho-ho’s or explode from the surmounting pressure. Then, without warning, he is taken into the atmosphere, embracing the dance floor with holiday cheer.

This scenario continues throughout our film with less and less exuberance and merry as Harry continues his voyage, the night clearly taking a toll on our mentally fragile Santa. Before long, both police and a torch wielding mob begin scouring the streets, turning Harry into a Frankenstein’s monster of sorts with the holidays as his creator. What makes Christmas Evil stand out among the subsequent Christmas slashers that came in its wake (Don’t Open Till ChristmasSilent Night Deadly Night) is how much heart it actually has, while maintaining an unwavering and chilling look at a traumatized individual; one who spreads as much fear as he does cheer. After all, it isn’t John Waters’ favorite Christmas film for nothing.

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