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Christmas Evil (1980) Review

Released in November of 1980, several months after To All a Goodnight, Christmas Evil, also known as You Better Watch Out and Terror in Toyland, was the second killer Santa film. It’s also a much different film from both its predecessor and the controversial Silent Night, Deadly Night which was released four years later. Where they were enjoyable slashers writer/director Lewis Jackson made a much more serious film, one that was as much a portrait of mental illness as it is a horror film.

It begins with a young boy seeing Santa kissing his mother, what’s particularly shocking to the poor lad is where he’s kissing her. This shocks him so much that he smashes a snow globe and slices himself with a piece of broken glass.

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Years later Harry (Brandon Maggart, Dressed to Kill, The World According to Garp) has grown up with a severe Santa fixation. He lives in a house decorated with pictures of Saint Nick, sleeps in Santa Claus pajamas and spies on the local kids to make his naughty and nice lists. He even works at the Jolly Dream toy factory where unsurprisingly his co-workers make fun of him.

What effect the first half of Christmas Evil has it gets for the wrong reason. Harry’s interactions with the town kids feel so incredibly wrong, he even peeps in windows to see who’s been naughty or nice, that it feels like a film about a pedophile. Apart from that very little happens apart from Harry getting more and more twitchy.

Around the halfway mark he finally loses his shit entirely at the company Christmas party, decides he is Santa and starts delivering presents. When he gets mocked, he snaps and begins his killing spree, such as it is.

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It’s not particularly large, and Harry’s methods are neither imaginative nor gory. Apart from his older brother Philip (Jeffrey DeMunn, The Mist, The Amaranth) and his wife Jackie (Dianne Hull, The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, The Fifth Floor) , Christmas Evil really doesn’t have any other characters. People show up long enough to insult Harry and that’s all the characterization they get, so the killings come off as random and don’t have a lot of suspense or impact.

And then there’s Christmas Evil’s infamous ending. A mob of literal torch, I didn’t see any pitchforks, wielding townsfolk chasing Harry through the streets like villagers pursuing Frankenstein’s monster. He makes it to his van which was stuck in the snow, but as the mob reaches him it comes free and he escapes long enough to confront his brother. Driving off he swerves to avoid the townsfolk and drives through a barrier and off an embankment. As he does his van takes to the air like Santa’s sleigh and flies off into the night. It’s left to the viewer to decide if he really had become Santa or if he’s gone fully delusional as he falls to his death.

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Maggart, who is probably better known for being the father of singer Fiona Apple than for his acting career, does a good job as the disturbed Harry and DeMunn is effectively shouty as his brother. Beyond that most of the parts simply require acting like an asshole for a few minutes, something most folk have no trouble doing.

Neither a compelling portrait of a troubled man falling into madness nor a successful horror film, Christmas Evil falls somewhere in the middle, a frustrating and unsatisfying mix of the two. It does have its amusing moments, such as a police lineup of Santas, but they’re few and far between with the rest struggling to rise above watchable. Jackson needed to focus the script better and give Harry some better developed antagonists if he wanted the film to be more than the cinematic equivalent of getting socks for Christmas.

Christmas Evil is available on Blu-ray as well as on Digital Platforms including Tubi.

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