Christmas Evil: Time to Come in From the Cold
Day 8 of Slash the Halls brings you a review of this holiday horror classic.
By M.T. Bates
Holiday-themed horror movies are pretty niche if the holiday isn’t Halloween. Some movies have the holiday as a background like in Gremlins where it isn't the focal point. However, when we as horror fans think of Christmas-themed horror movies, a few quickly come to mind: Silent Night, Deadly Night, Black Christmas, Krampus, and A Christmas Horror Story, to name a few. These are almost always the immediate favorites, and for good reason, because these are great movies.
While not entirely forgotten, but often left out for whatever reason, Christmas Evil (You Better Watch Out), seems to be stuck in kind of a limbo that it has only recently started to climb out of. Coming out after Black Christmas and well before Silent Night Deadly Night, Christmas Evil truly deserves its place on top of the Christmas Horror genre.
Maybe it was because it never received a couple of sequels, or a remake, or because it can’t be considered one of the first slasher movies like Black Christmas, but that doesn’t change the fact that Christmas Evil did what SNDN did, only 4 years earlier, and much more effectively in my opinion.
The opening is sweet and picture perfect, a true treat for any child to behold, but even the sweetest treats can leave a nasty aftertaste. While I won’t spoil the beginning for those who have not seen it, I believe it was handled brilliantly without going overboard or being gratuitous. Suffice to say, little Harry was scarred, a tried-and-true horror trope to begin any classic horror film.
Harry, however, all grown up seems to have adjusted, quite oddly. His house is alive with Christmas spirit and his eyes are fixated on the children of his town. Becoming the truest form of St. Nick yet, while at the same time bringing alive how truly creepy the legend is, Harry has a naughty and nice list and it is filled with the exploits of his neighborhood’s children, while he also keeps a mental list of the naughty adults.
Also embodying the spirit of St. Nick in his work, Harry has found employment at the Jolly Dream toy factory, and despite receiving a promotion off the toy line, he’s still a bit of the punching bag. Anger and rage build up in Harry but he has no outlet. It all festers inside of him, but yet, his love for Christmas is undying and unfettered.
Twenty-Five minutes into the film, we can already see Harry’s descent into Christmas madness, but the madness takes a quick hiatus when it seems like the neighborhood kids adore Harry. His fascination and knowledge of the children truly rivals Santa. Harry’s story unfolds at a perfect pace of world building, character building, and a building of insanity. Brandon Maggart is absolutely stunning in his portrayal of poor Harry, and it is because of him that you are able to buy into this movie so much more than other Christmas horror movies. Harry seems like the kind of person who could exist.
The movie has a wonderfully chilling score all throughout that truly enhances the atmosphere. About halfway through, we get to the meat and potatoes of the film: Christmas Eve, the night Harry has been waiting for. A month of planning and working towards this night is the culmination of Harry’s entire existence. Those who have been good have nothing to fear though.
While the night begins quietly (and ominously) enough, it’s the scene in front of the hospital that truly sets this movie apart from the others in this genre. It will throw you off at first but then it turns into quite a warm scene, which sets the perfect tone for the very next scene… in front of a church. It teaches us all to never insult Santa in front of a church at midnight on Christmas Eve.
This movie has a way to keep throwing you for a loop, which is why I love it so much. The next scene is deliciously wholesome with a bit of awkward dread thrown in at the end. It is probably my favorite scene in the whole movie because you are not entirely sure how to take it.
This movie has a wonderfully surreal Christmas atmosphere throughout the entire film, something I didn’t get from other Christmas horror movies of the time. It feels like it could be a run of the mill Christmas family movie. The character of Harry is both crazy and self-aware of his actions, which is not what you expect in this kind of film. It’s a relationship not often seen in slasher movies, but it is safe to say that, come Christmas morning, Harry has truly slipped over into crazy full time.
Harry is a victim of circumstance and is a tragic slasher villain if there has ever been one. This movie focuses on the villain and hero the entire movie, who happens to be one in the same, and that becomes clear when the children of the town stand beside and defend our jolly old murderer.
When you begin to sympathize with the villain, you begin to wonder if he truly is the villain. Perhaps the world around him is the villain. His intentions are more or less pure, and he tries to embody Santa as much as possible. If you take away the couple of murders, you would argue he succeeded swimmingly. Harry is Christmas. He wants to make the best toys and give them to all the deserving boys and girls. He also wants to punish the naughty kids… and adults. He is Santa and Krampus rolled up into one delightful ball of crazy, which brings me to the ending.
The ending is ambiguous, mainly because I believe even the filmmakers didn’t see Harry as the villain either. He was the anti-hero Christmas needed, and even that notion is made aware in the movie by some police officers in one scene. You can make of the ending what you will, but I believe Harry is still out there somewhere, in his not-so-festive panel van.
Everything. The pace, the characters, and the score. This movie does everything right for a quirky little slasher film from 1980. The casting of Harry was genius as was the portrayal. The score only enhances the amazing Christmas atmosphere this movie already gives off. The overall idea of the film is very believable and you sympathize with the hero/villain. The movie pushes all the right buttons while rarely, if at all, missing a beat.
Nothing? I can think of one thing about the movie that bothered me. We never (please correct me if I am wrong) really got a payoff for what Harry left naughty little Mos for Christmas. Aside from that I am happy from beginning to ending with this flick. However, for the sake of trying to find something to complain about, I’ll just throw in a low body count, which still doesn’t bother me.
This, in my opinion, is the pinnacle of Christmas horror and should sit on top of that niche throne with no contenders. Christmas Evil should be a yearly watch for every horror fan and truly deserves even more recognition today. A story like this in the hands of the right director and writer today could easily turn out to be the most frightening movie ever.
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