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Original title: You Better Watch Out

D: Lewis Jackson / 100m

Cast: Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn, Dianne Hull, Andy Fenwick, Brian Neville, Joe Jamrog

Xmas is a time for family – or so they say. If you’re young Harry Stadling, Xmas is a time for discovering that Santa Claus is actually your father playing dress-up and spending adult time with your mother rather than coming down the chimney and leaving presents for you and your brother, Philip. Disillusioned by this terrible discovery, Harry’s view on Xmas becomes twisted. As an adult, Harry (Maggart) spies on the children in his neighbourhood and makes notes on their behaviours in two large volumes: Good Boys and Girls 1980 and Bad Boys and Girls 1980. He works as a senior employee at a factory that makes children’s toys, but he’s tolerated more than respected, and one of the men who works the line, Frank Stoller (Jamrog), exploits his good nature. As Xmas approaches, Harry’s need to make people conform to his view of the importance of the Yuletide season – or his “tune” as he calls it – leads to his dressing up as Santa Claus on Xmas Eve and distributing presents.

Except, Harry’s plan doesn’t work out as he’d hoped. As well as handing out gifts for everyone at a children’s hospital, Harry finds himself handing out retribution to those who don’t share his love of Xmas, or respect how special it is. With his exploits attracting the attention of the police, Harry finds himself chased by a bloodthirsty mob who don’t take kindly to the “Xmas cheer” he’s dispensing. A narrow escape leads him to seek out his brother, but Philip (DeMunn) has his own issues surrounding Harry and the festive period, issues that mean a further escape for Harry, but not quite the one he’s looking for…

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Christmas Evil is not your typical slasher movie set at Xmas, and is vastly different from movies such as Black Christmas (1974) or Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). For one thing, it takes its time in establishing the mental state of its central character, the emotionally detached Harry. This is very important to the overall storyline, as writer/director Jackson strives to make Harry a character the audience can at least have some sympathy with, and not regard as just some whack job intent on killing people for no reason (or because he got a present without any batteries, or a Barbie doll instead of Action Man). This means the movie gets off to a slow start, as Harry struggles to maintain an outward air of calm – as much as he can, at least – while everyone around him fails to recognise how important Xmas is to him.

Once the prologue set in 1947 is over with (and Harry’s childhood rejection of the Xmas myth is in place), the movie begins a few months before Xmas actually comes around. This again allows Jackson the time and space to show the gradual deterioration of Harry’s mental state, and the casual malice he endures both at work and closer to home through his brother, Philip. With Philip feeling obliged to look after Harry as well as his own family, there’s a tension and an animosity there that Harry feels deeply. At one point he watches from outside his brother’s home, and sees the perfect picture of a happy family at Xmas-time. Etched on Harry’s face is a mixture of dismay and envy that explains everything you need to know about Harry’s view on Xmas, and why he’s so torn by his feelings about it. He can’t quite reconcile the good with the bad, or the notion that there can’t be one without the other.

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While Harry finds himself struggling to find a balance that will help him deal with his feelings, certain events conspire to push him towards more violent responses, including the offhand remarks of his bosses at the factory, and the (until then) suppressed need for revenge on Frank Stoller. It’s notable that for every bad thing that Harry does, he does an equally positive thing as well, and Jackson is clever enough to ensure – even if this is a “slasher” movie – that Harry’s predicament can’t be viewed in plain old black and white. He’s helped in large part by the performance of Maggart as Harry, a singular portrayal that is surprisingly nuanced beneath all the outer trappings of increasing mania and moral confusion. Maggart’s career is littered with television appearances (including an episode of ER in 1995 where he played a Santa Claus figure), and very few movies; this is his finest hour without a doubt. Imbuing Harry with a strangely affecting melancholy, and showing his descent into madness by reining in any possibility of histrionics, Maggart gives an intuitive, unforgettable performance, and Jackson is wise enough to give him the room to explore the character as fully as he can.

But while on the acting front this is Maggart’s movie, on the cinematography side it’s Argentinian DoP Ricardo Aronovich’s. Persuaded by Jackson to work on the movie, Aronovich’s sombre lighting design and tight close ups on Maggart’s face make for a claustrophobic, unnerving visual approach to the material. There are moments where he also creates a kind of chiaroscuro effect, particularly when Harry is being chased by the torch-wielding mob, the flames creating an odd halo effect that seems almost supernatural. His framing and spatial awareness is impressive too, making much of what takes place look and feel like the real world and not some composite assembled for yet another movie.

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In the end, Jackson’s commitment to his own script and the way in which it should be presented, pays off handsomely. At first glance, Christmas Evil looks like a hundred other gory slasher movies from the early Eighties, with their high body counts, splatter effects, and invincible killers. It also looks and feels like a low-budget slasher flick – Aronovich’s involvement notwithstanding – and it has a grimy, gloomy atmosphere that isn’t exactly an original approach. But as noted above, the movie takes its time before it provides its first kill, and it and all the subsequent kills are shot as cutaways, put together neatly and given a disturbing air by editors Corky O’Hara and Linda Leeds. These scenes have an almost sordid feel to them, thanks to the combination of mood and lighting, and Harry’s inability to quell his angry feelings.

There’s humour too, threaded throughout the movie, and like in any good, serious drama, it’s allowed to take centre stage on just the one occasion, when the police are trying to get witnesses to identify Harry from a line up of Santas. Otherwise, Jackson focuses on themes relating to family, loyalty, unmerited expectations, greed, and the endemic hypocrisy that the festive season seems to instill in everyone, where the phrase “goodwill to all men” really is just that: a phrase. There’s a sense that he’s tried to “keep it real”, and while he may not succeed in everything he’s attempted, he’s definitely got more right than he has wrong.

Rating: 8/10 – a superior horror thriller, featuring a great performance from Brandon Maggart, and a remarkably astute screenplay from its director, Christmas Evil is a much better movie than anyone could have ever expected (John Waters calls it “the greatest Christmas movie ever made”); as a portrait of one man’s struggle to make sense of his own conflicted feelings about the Yuletide season (and with a subtext of PTSD thrown in for good measure), it’s unexpectedly compelling, and makes good use of its Xmas backdrop, limited budget, and confident, measured pacing.

NOTE: The following trailer has French subtitles.

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