Christmas Evil Blu-ray Review
Written by ZigZag
Blu-ray released by Vinegar Syndrome
Written and directed by Lewis Jackson
1980, Region A, 95 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on November 18th, 2014
Brandon Maggart as Harry Stadling
Jeffrey DeMunn as Philip Stadling
Dianne Hull as Jackie Stadling
Joe Jamrog as Frank Stoller
Peter Neuman as Moss Garcia
Patricia Richardson as Moss’ Mother
Reviewer's note: I first saw Christmas Evil sometime in the early 1980s and immediately fell in love with the film. Troma's DVD release didn't do the film any favors and the director considers it a bootleg. Synapse-Films released a special edition DVD in 2007 and I reviewed it for HorrorTalk. Because my feelings have not changed much from that original viewing until now, much of that first review has been ported over here.
Once upon a time, a bearded man in a red suit kept lists of children both naughty and nice. On Christmas he would deliver toys to the good and punish the bad. You may think I mean Santa Claus, but in actuality I am writing about Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart). Harry works for the Jolly Time toy company and holds the traditions of Christmas very close to his heart. The problem is that Harry is a bit of a damaged gift, filled with a swelling murderous rage that urges him to punish those who undermine the spirit of the holiday.
One Christmas Eve long ago, young Harry saw something that no child should ever see, Santa Claus kissing his mother on her special mommy lips. The image scarred him so severely that the idea of anything flirtatious is deeply troubling. Harry has more than enough sexual hang-ups and role-play issues to keep a team of psychiatrists busy year-round. His co-workers do not respect him, his brother Philip (Jeffrey DeMunn) represents the life of success that Harry has failed to acquire, and the children of the neighborhood are turning nasty. Santa Claus is the last noble thing in Harry’s life and he attempts to become the myth and bring back all that once was good. Stealing toys from the factory and delivering them to the local children’s hospital is the highlight of the evening, but Harry can’t let go of the rage at those who have slighted him.
His targets include the co-worker who tricked Harry into covering a shift, the company executives who are motivated by greed, and the little boy down the street who picks his nose and has impure thoughts and “negative body hygiene.” As Harry becomes more wrapped in the spirit of Christmas, he begins to hallucinate and takes on the persona of a misunderstood Frankenstein monster being chased through the streets. He seeks refuge at his brother’s house, but must face the harsh truth that his own name may belong on the list of the naughty. While Harry is indeed a tragic figure who wants nothing more than a return to the simplistic innocence of his nostalgic childhood fancy, the decision to make a surrealistic leap into fantasy during the final reel proves too much for the exploitation audiences that the film invited.
Brandon Maggart (Sesame Street) delivers a powerful performance as the hopeless romantic who wants to erase the hypocrisy of those who preach family values while abusing their children. Harry wants to help others, but isn’t content playing Santa and wants to play God when it comes to the wicked with themes that echo Taxi Driver. Jeffrey DeMunn (The Blob) brings an empathy to the character of Phillip, who likely knows what his brother is doing, but is helpless to stop him. The two actors do not share a scene until the finale, yet their inevitable confrontation unfolds with an uncomfortable believability.
Director Lewis Jackson has stretched every penny of the budget and put it up on the screen. Ricardo Aronovich’s cinematography elevates the material to unexpected heights with vibrant colors and some truly gorgeous images. The biggest problem with Christmas Evil is the lethargic pacing that reaches for Euro-Art, but only succeeds in overestimating the material. Getting the jump on the killer Santa guise, the movie should have been a knockout, but Jackson pulls his punch and the film suffers as a direct result.
Christmas Evil features Santa performing cunnilingus by the Christmas tree, a grown man spying on neighborhood children with binoculars, a triple murder on the steps outside of Midnight Mass and an angry mob of New Yorkers who happen to keep a stockpile of torches nearby. It is easy to overlook the numerous shortcomings and recommend the film for the strength of these images alone. Christmas Evil was originally titled You Better Watch Out, was released under both names and later arrived on video as Terror in Toyland. There is a sizeable fan base surrounding this title and the film received a limited theatrical release marking the 30th anniversary. Trivia buffs may find appealing the early career appearance of Patricia Richardson (Home Improvement) as the abusive mother of the naughty boy with “negative body hygiene.”
Video and Audio:
Never before has this film been given such a fantastic presentation. A fully re-mastered picture taken from Jackson’s original print has been applied for this sharp transfer. A solid 1.78:1 anamorphic image features rich colors and deep blacks that remain free of major print damage. Film grain is present, but given the age of the material, it is totally acceptable.
The original audio has been cleaned up and is presented in a respectable DTS-HD MA mono track that maintains clear dialogue levels while pumping out the psychotic holiday music without distortion.
Vinegar Syndrome wraps Christmas Evil in a two-disc set that offers both Blu-ray and DVD formats with supplementary materials spread across each disc. The film was previously released on DVD by Troma Entertainment and later by Synapse-Films. This new special edition ports over all of the extras from these earlier discs, a real treat considering the difficulty in tracking down the Troma disc.
First up, we get three (3!) commentary tracks with director Lewis Jackson. The first is a solo rundown of the production, while the second teams him with fellow director and self-proclaimed number-one fan, John Waters. The third track pairs Jackson with star Brandon Maggart and while all three are pretty informative and entertaining, the Waters conversation is the clear winner in the bunch.
Deleted scenes are included and run about six minutes, offering additional glimpses into the misery of Harry’s work environment.
A half hour of audition tapes offers a look at what might have been with several recognizable actors turning up, including JoBeth Williams.
Jackson returns in a vintage seven-minute interview on the streets of New York, where he discusses the troubled history of Christmas Evil and shares his gratitude to fans for keeping the film alive, before dropping more famous names who auditioned for him.
Brandon Maggart holds his own in a seven-minute segment recorded at his dining table with Troma's ace reporter, Sgt. Kabukiman, discussing many topics including the actor's famous daughter (Fiona Apple).
The original theatrical trailer included here appears with the Christmas Evil title card and offers a glimpse of how the feature was advertised.
Audience comment cards from early screenings and a set of storyboards round out the supplements.