4 out of 5
Directed by: Lewis Jackson
I doubt I’ll have the patience to rewatch Christmas Evil anytime soon, and my rating is a bit forgiving: I don’t know that I’d consider it a great movie. But I do think it’s an incredibly notable one, and unique, even today, sitting in that odd template of unnerving character study used by movies like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or the more recent Joker, from Todd Phillips; so it is a movie I would suggest to others, albeit with caveats of knowing what you’re in for.
Namely: though it’s been titled rather luridly, and tends to carry horror associations – I watched it via Shudder, for instance, and it’s easy to associate this with other ‘killer Santa’ type flicks – Christmas Evil, aka You Better Watch Out, is not of a distinct genre. Calling it a ‘character study’ is also generous, perhaps: it’s almost queasily focused on the tweaked Harry (Brandon Maggart), toy production-line worker and owner of good / naughty child lists, but it’s also not as deep as the above-referenced movies, instead taking some notes from the genre to which it’s linked and allowing it to play out in a realistic sense; it doesn’t dig too hard – writer / director Lewis Jackson instead lets sequences play out with uneasy vagueness in terms of tone. This is why I think it still stands out as a unique experience, but also why it’s ultimately not a great film – there’s no definite intention behind it.
Take your starting point from various slashers (Silent Night, Deadly Night comes to mind), with little Harry confusing his Christmas Eve-wait for Santa with the sight of his father, dressed in the red-suit ‘n’ beard duds, secreting some sexy gropey time with mama – i.e. an early sexual trauma, mixed with holiday visuals – and shift that forward to a man who’s never quite come to terms with the experience. In Harry’s terms – co-opted from his brother (Jeffrey DeMunn), who on that ancient Eve refuted the existence of Santa himself – Harry doesn’t know how to play the “tune” of those around him; he doesn’t fit in. His preoccupation with the actual quality of the toys his company produces results in titters from his fellow workers; his concern over whether or not their Christmas donations are sufficient confuses the corporate type who is focused on the PR aspect of it. Christmas Evil leaves some details on the fringes that suggests that Harry has managed to operate acceptably in this world thanks to some grounding tenets, but we meanwhile spend plenty of time with him grinning to himself and humming Xmas tunes, noting down the behaviors of children in the apartment building across the street from him. The movie is very insular in that sense, and is sometimes edited jarringly to stick with that. Again, the result of this is that the movie is never quite expansive enough to place Harry’s behaviors in a larger context, nor is it clear whether or not we should be viewing things from his point of view, or if the flick is just indecisive.
For about an hour, then, you’re left wondering if this is going anywhere: cuts to Harry designing his own Santa suit; painting a van with holiday murals; building his own toys. And even once it does go somewhere – the briefest flash of gore – it seems, to an extent, improvised on Harry’s behalf, as does the character’s panicked flight around the city thereafter. Maggart is quite brilliant in this regard, with things building up to a wonderfully bizarre final shot that perhaps settles whether or not what we’ve been seeing is the reality, or Harry’s worldview.
But pitching this as an evil Santa slasher is misleading marketing 101; even calling it horror is a stretch, nor is it directly unnerving in the way a traditional character study might be. It’s moreso unsettling because of how untraditional it is, allowing things to roll out as they please over its 90ish minutes without concern for clear plotting or character development. This makes the prospect of watching it again daunting, but I’m glad I watched it the first time, and it’s a valuable moviegoing experience that’s very much worth that first time investment, as well as for the potentially ensuing conversations it can encourage with other appreciators.