Monday, July 16, 2007
#17: Christmas Evil (Lewis Jackson, 1980)
This was a big surprise. Knowing nothing about "Christmas Evil" other than the title and the fact that it was distributed by Troma Films, I was expecting nothing more than a trashy, schlocky "killer Santa" slasher movie. (Which I kind of love, in my own small way.) However, this may be the most atypical Troma film, or Christmas-themed horror movie, ever made. I fell in love with "Christmas Evil" about five seconds in, and, despite a few rocky patches, my love grew stronger with each passing frame. Where did this movie come from, and why don't more people know about it?
A superficial plot synopsis makes it sound much sillier than it is: A little boy and his younger brother sit on the stairs of their home on Christmas Eve with their mother and watch a man in a Santa suit come down the chimney and put presents under the tree. The younger brother says it's their father, but the older boy believes it really is Santa. Sneaking back down the stairs in the middle of the night, the boy sees Santa in a sexual tryst with his mother, goes into a state of shock, runs upstairs, smashes a snow globe, and purposefully cuts himself with a shard. Fast forward thirty years: the boy is now an asexual, Christmas-obsessed toy factory worker who has just been promoted to an executive position with the company, which is named Jolly Dream. In his spare time, he spies on neighborhood kids with binoculars, not for sexual reasons, but to discover who's been bad and who's been good. He then enters their information into two oversized ledgers, "Bad Boys and Girls" and "Good Boys and Girls." (The baddest boy of all is named Moss Garcia, possibly my favorite character name in all of film.) After a series of perceived slights, he fuses his identity with Santa's and takes to the streets in his sleigh (a white van), meting out punishments and rewards to the deserving on the wintry streets of New York.
Visually, narratively, tonally, and performatively, "Christmas Evil" is much richer, stranger, funnier, creepier, and freer than the plot synopsis suggests. Take the opening scene: Ostensibly positing a single traumatic event in the character's childhood as an explanation for his adult behavior, a rancid and dishonest cliche prevalent in horror films, murder mysteries, and bio-pics alike, "Christmas Evil" is really undercutting this oversimplification. The unsettling surrealist touches (Santa/Dad can somehow propel himself into and out of the chimney like a rocket) and the oddness of the sex scene (what looks like cunnilingus is actually just Santa/Dad pressing his face near the woman's crotch while rubbing the same spot on her leg over and over in a weird, repeating loop that never seems to go anywhere), not to mention that the younger brother is already too old to believe in Santa, seem to suggest that the boy was already nuts, denying any pat explanations.
"Christmas Evil" is hard to describe, visually and narratively, so I'll do the lazy thing and offer some comparisons. Made for less than a million dollars, the film barely suffers from its low budget, and the cinematography is beautifully and carefully composed. Visually, the film looks like a combination of late-period Fassbinder (a big inspiration for director Jackson), William Eggleston's photographs, Edward Hopper's paintings, the inside of holiday snow globes, and 1970s beer commercials, particularly the scenes inside the toy factory. Tonally, the film is equal parts Luis Bunuel, John Waters (a huge champion of the movie, who claims to watch it every Christmas), 1960s and 1970s television Christmas specials, and Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," with one scene paying homage to "Frankenstein" and the two murder scenes given the generic slasher-film treatment. Brandon Maggart, who oddly enough is Fiona Apple's dad, is excellent in the leading role. He's simultaneously incredibly sympathetic and horrifying. The rest of the cast is equally good, and there are loads of visual treats (particularly the Santa Claus police lineup).
Needless to say, this was not at all what I was expecting, and thank God for that. I loved this movie.
Fun fact: Moss Garcia's mother was played by Patricia Richardson, who would later go on to star in "Home Improvement," or, as Lloyd Kaufman put it in his DVD introduction: "Patricia Richardson is in this movie. She later starred with ex-junkie Tim Allen in the TV show 'Home Improvement,' which sucked."
Not-so-fun fact: Director Lewis Jackson, prior to "Christmas Evil," or "You Better Watch Out," the title he prefers, directed two drive-in movies so obscure they have no entry on imdb.com. He hasn't been able to make a single film after "Christmas Evil." This is not right and not fair.