1980 / Director. Lewis Jackson.
Review by Glenn Cochrane
Before the notorious Christmas horror film SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT drove parent-groups into a frenzy of moral outrage and spawned a slew of clone movies, there was CHRISTMAS EVIL, the 1980 slasher film that underwhelmed, raised very few eyebrows and fell into obscurity. It was too smart for teenage audiences with most of its energies focused on the character development, with a kill rate that was relatively low and very drawn out.
(Of course Bob Clarke's 1974 film BLACK CHRISTMAS came first and started the whole holiday-horror sub-genre. But its promotional drive was ambiguous and gave no reason for objection. And the 1972 TALES FROM THE CRYPT film gave us our first homicidal Santa Claus, however that was a sequence within an anthology and hit theatres without a single parental-twitch.)
Time has been kind to CHRISTMAS EVIL. This little gem of a film resonates more now than ever before. Having picked up a large cult following over the past thirty years the film presents a nightmarish psychological horror that tells the story of a mild-mannered man with a strong ethical and moral code. His childhood memories of Christmas are marred with traumatising visions of his mother and Santa Claus being... “a-hem”.... naughty... and he has grown up feeling obligated to carry out Santa's work. He adores Children and values good-will amongst man, but when it comes to those who are naughty, he keeps a very long list that he always checks twice. Slowly over the course of the festive season he slips into a state of psychosis and becomes a homicidal murderer with a neighbourhood lynch mob on his trail.
John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN (1979) made the slasher a bankable genre and the makers of CHRISTMAS EVIL capitalised on the “holiday” concept. They shifted the narrative to Christmas time and played down the violent gratuity in favour of exploring the character's obsession and descent into madness. Brandon Maggart's performance in the film is exceptional and his commitment is undeniable. There are moments that echo films like TAXI DRIVER and PSYCHO, and in retrospect he gave cinema one of its most undervalued, eccentric and affective killers. What makes the film so great is how endearing this lunatic is. His plight is entirely sympathetic and he grounds this horror film with a dramatic arc that most other similarly-themed movies lack.
The cinematography is great and the production design is surprisingly timeless. Somehow, whether intentional or not, they avoided most of the obvious references to the era and the film's aesthetic feels quite modern. Slow tracking shots of murdered bodies laid in the snow and tight close ups of knives in eyeballs bring the story to its final act, where the deliberately slow pace of the narrative culminates in a finale full of classic tropes and unexpected delights.
CHRISTMAS EVIL is finally enjoying the attention and praise that it always deserved, and when stacked up against the other killer Santa movies, it ought to sit proudly at the top of your Christmas viewing list.
For Australian audiences CHRISTMAS EVIL has been released on blu-ray this year through Glass Doll Films, who have put a lot of time and devotion into making it an item worth collecting. The 4K transfer of the film itself is stunning. It looks incredible. The case-art by local designer Matt O'Neill is absolutely gorgeous and its design is exclusive to this release. The special features include interviews with Lewis Jackson and Brandon Maggart, as well as two audio commentaries, one of which features John Waters (Pink Flamingos) who professes to be the film's "#1 Fan". His thoughts on the film are hilarious and his insistence of turning every reference into some kind of gay symbolism is hysterical. In addition to the digital content there is also an impressive booklet with an in depth exploration of the film and its influence, which also includes photos and alternative poster art from various territories.