When he was a boy, Harry (Brandon Maggart) idolized Santa Claus, but one Christmas Eve, he witnessed something horrifying that forever shattered his innocent understanding of Santa. Now an adult, Harry wants to embody the pure Santa Claus he grew up loving. He works at a toy factory and keeps records of who’s been naughty and nice, but the spirit of Christmas isn’t what it used to be and he can’t take it. So, garbed in his red suit, Harry decides that the only thing he can do is to become Santa himself and make all of the naughty townspeople pay…in blood! (From Vinegar Syndrome’s official synopsis)
Lewis Jackson’s Christmas Evil (original title: You Better Watch Out, which is what appears during the opening credits of this particular Blu-ray, 1980) isn’t as notorious or controversial as Charles Sellier’s Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), but it does predate it by about four years and is the first feature-length killer Santa Claus movie (following a short episode from Freddie Francis’ Tales From the Crypt anthology in 1972). Horror connoisseurs also know that Christmas Evil is the superior Santa Slasher and perhaps even the best. It’s not necessarily a great slasher, based on the genre’s typical merits – the body-count is low, the startle scares are tepid, and there’s minimal bloodshed (though it should be noted that the bloody sequences have real impact, especially an early eye-gouging sequence) – but Jackson (who also wrote the screenplay) certainly has more fun with the silly concept of a murderous Saint Nick than most filmmakers ever would or even could. Few holiday horror tales manage to balance the disparate tones of sickly joy with the disturbing imagery and sinister underpinnings of the season’s consumer era mythology. Unlike Sellier’s more purely exploitative film (or most of the killer Santa flicks that followed), Jackson appears to have had an opinion on the hypocritical nature of the holiday as he gleefully piles misery upon his well-meaning, but ultimately murderous protagonist.
Jackson’s career as a director was extremely short-lived. Before Christmas Evil, he made a softcore porn called The Deviates (1970) and a homemade horror spoof called The Transformation: A Sandwich of Nightmares (1974) – neither of which are available on any home video format. Following Christmas Evil, he disappeared. He wasn’t outrageously talented, but got a lot of mileage out of very simple compositions (the climax plays out as an effective homage to Fritz Lang’s M, 1931) and good performances out of his cast (including early appearances from Jeffrey DeMunn, Mark Margolis, and Home Improvement’s Patricia Richardson). It’s particularly interesting to watch the director embracing and rejecting the expectations of a post-Halloween/pre-Friday the 13th slasher (noting that Christmas Evil was actually shot before Sean S. Cunninham’s Friday the 13th). He carefully recreates the classic rituals, including a tragic, pre-credit flashback that sets up his killer’s motivation and a number of fetishistic shots of weapons, but also eschews the whodunit stuff that often coincides with the genre and actively avoids painting Harry as a villain. Unlike the anti-heroes/anti-villains of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1978) or Bill Lustig’s Maniac (1980), Jackson’s main character really does have good intentions, despite his obvious mental deficiencies. Harry isn’t really setting out to murder people; rather. the cynical, sarcastic people that confront him bring out some pretty powerful rage. Some of his murders appear almost accidental. Moreover, the scenes where he interacts with amicable adults and children are genuinely sweet. It’s a pretty sophisticated stew of emotions for a largely forgotten, low-budget indie horror flick.
Christmas Evil has appeared on DVD twice – once as a non-anamorphic 1.33:1 disc from Troma and again as a special edition anamorphic 1.85:1 disc from Synapse Films. The Synapse version was, obviously, the preferred release and Vinegar Syndrome’s new Blu-ray is a substantial upgrade over even that. This 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer was restored from 4K scan of original 35mm archive elements. Despite a fair amount of grain (some of which discolours establishing shots) and a number of minor scuffs and scratches, this is a huge upgrade in overall detail and clarity. Many of the transfer’s problems aren’t the effect of age or maltreatment, but the fact that Jackson and cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich (who cut his teeth working for Louis Malle!) opt to recreate the soft-focused/diffused light look of other ‘80s slashers (specifically the Canadian ones, for some reason). The blooming lights, especially white ones, flare up and overwhelm the frame on a number of occasions. Vinegar Syndrome may have accelerated the issue with over-cranked contrast, which crushes the shadows in some shots. I can’t speak for Jackson and Aronovich’s intent, but do notice that this Blu-ray appears starker than the previous DVDs. Still, the sharpness doesn’t lead to any notable compression artifacts, like edge haloes. The color palette isn’t particularly eclectic, but there are some vivid orange and blue key-lights used during the darker sequences and the seasonal-appropriate reds are searing. The graininess and heavy contrast of some scenes creates some problems with the gradations; though, again, this may have been part of the original design.
The original mono soundtrack is preserved and presented in 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. The entire track is a bit muffled and as thin as expected based on the material, but is plenty clean (no major pops or hisses) and clear enough to understand the vital dialogue. Sound effects design is predictably underwhelming. The music is credited to Joel Harris, Julia Heyward, and Don Christensen. I have no idea who did what, but there is relative continuity between scenes. The synth-driven scare cues are effectively shrill and obnoxious, the more melodic piano motifs have plenty of depth, and the jazz drum-infused climax is relatively punchy. Jackson also makes great use of holiday standards throughout the film.
The extras, all of which first appeared on Synapse’s release (except where noted), include:
Commentary with director Lewis Jackson
Commentary with Jackson and actor Brandon Maggart (from Troma’s release)
Commentary with Jackson and filmmaking legend/Christmas Evil fan John Waters
Archival video interviews with Jackson & Brandon Maggart (from Troma’s release, 6:50, 6:40, on the included DVD only)
Original theatrical trailer
Deleted scenes (6:30, on the included DVD only)
Screen tests (25:50, on the included DVD only)
Storyboards & comment cards gallery
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.