Friday, December 16, 2016

Don't Watch This Alone!: CHRISTMAS EVIL

Welcome to another installment of DON'T WATCH THIS ALONE!, where we review the best, worst, and everything in between in the world of horror. Today we review a lesser-known entry in the holiday horror subgenre, 1980's CHRISTMAS EVIL.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. Christmas Evil struggles mightily to set itself apart from its mediocre peers. In some ways it succeeds: there are no indiscriminately bloodthirsty psychopaths, no promiscuous teenagers, there's even almost no blood, at least by the standards of the genre. Its failures come mostly in terms of its low budget presentation, and a script that tries to be more clever than it is. Also, the ending. The ending is just bizarre.

The movie is a about a man named Harry Stadling, who believed wholeheartedly in Santa Claus as a boy, to the point that it affected him deeply when he learned that Santa wasn't real. As an adult, Harry still loves Christmas, and though he knows now that there is no Santa, he still uses the character as a role model in his own approach to the holiday season. He's become something of a Santa geek, sleeping in red pajamas with white trim, decorating his house heavily with Santa Claus images and memorabilia, and even keeping his own Naughty and Nice list of the children in the neighborhood.

For a living, Harry works at the Jolly Dream toy factory, where they make cheap plastic toys of the quality you might find on offer at your local Korean knockoff dealer, or the discount bin at the Salvation Army. Harry hates this. In one scene, we see him arguing with assembly line workers about how the company should try to put out a more quality product, since well made toys have a value that goes far beyond mere money. The workers don't care at all about that. As long as they're getting paid, who cares if the company produces trash?

The more Harry looks around, the more he notices the same kind of apathetic cynicism in the people with whom he interacts. This year, his company is holding a charity drive to donate toys and money to "The Willow Springs State Hospital for Retarded Children." Yes, that's the hospital's actual name in the movie. Truly, 1980 was a different time. The organizers of the drive, Harry learns, have no idea how many children are in the hospital. They don't know if their drive will ensure every child there receives a toy. All they care about is good PR for the company.

It's things like this that push Harry over the edge, and set the events of the movie in motion. That's the great strength of Christmas Evil: it's not another mindless, blood-soaked killing spree. Instead, Christmas Evil draws upon the original myths surrounding Christmas, which, as has been pointed out many times, are actually kind of horrifying. The Christmas myth involves a loss of privacy, home invasion, and moral judgments based on the arbitrary will of an individual. While those found deserving are rewarded, those found wanting are subject to corporal or even capital punishment, depending on which culture tells the tale. Christmas, traditionally observed, is a scary time.

And so Harry makes a Santa costume for himself, and sets about delivering this system of rewards and retributions to the people. To his credit, as disgusted as he is with the people he views as "bad", Harry's focus is on spreading the joy of the holiday. Even after he makes his first kills, we never get the sense that Harry is doing this out of mere blood lust. Instead it's clear he sees himself as the agent of blessing or nemesis that the season requires. Unfortunately, writer/director Lewis Jackson doesn't seem to believe that his audience could get their head around something like this, and so takes the "this guy is crazy" cop-out, having Harry do the old slide-into-madness routine. That routine is indicated by Harry spouting nonsense lines about "playing the tune". "I'm figuring out the tune; I haven't got all the notes yet, but I'm getting there." This is what I meant about the script out-clevering itself. Maybe it's just the earnestness of actor Brandon Maggart in the role of Harry, but these lines seem like Jackson thought they meant something. They really don't.

Maggart's performance as Harry, meaningless dialogue aside, is kind of compelling in its own way. Maggart plays Harry, not as a monster whose psychopathy runneth over, but as a true believer of a tradition which encourages people to be their best, most generous and empathetic selves. Harry wants people to remember what they forgot about the holiday season, and it seems he's even partly successful in a few instances.

But people just don't dig that whole "killing" mess. As is usually the case, the "why" of it goes over their heads, and so the movie reaches its ending. I won't spoil it, because it is a big shiny Christmas gift of weirdness that has to be seen to be believed. I will say, though, that this movie gets bonus points with me for doing the unexpected thing.

Christmas Evil is a slow-burning, and slower-paced, attempt to break away from horror movie rote, with a sympathetic main character and a sincerity that horror movies often lack. It isn't for the impatient movie fan, but if the recent revival of the lesser-known Christmas traditions (Krampus, etc) has your interest, consider giving this one a try.

Once again, I couldn't find a decent trailer for this movie, though Youtube is rife with a heavy metal guitar-driven promo that's obviously fan made. Instead, the full movie is linked below. Enjoy!

Christmas Evil is rated R.

Robert's Score: 8 / 10

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