by Judson Cade Pedigo
It’s that time of year again, but recently, I have become obsessed with scary Christmas movies. It’s become a tradition of mine to leave the holly in the box and deck the halls with boughs of horror. It wasn’t always this way. For years there was no way I would allow any frights near my Christmas lights. It probably started when I was younger, seeing the Silent Night Deadly Night series all lined up in a row on the video store shelves. Ax-wielding Santas? Decapitated nuns? Blood-soaked demonic toys? No thanks! It just all seemed so wrong. Christmas has always been special to me and there was no way I wanted to see the profound mixed with the profane. That is until I stumbled across a little movie called Christmas Evil.
As an adult I began to add “alternative” Christmas movies into my regular rotation. Movies like Die Hard, Gremlins, and Batman Returns became a fun way to mix it up and were really more of an excuse to check in on Nakatomi Plaza every year. When I saw Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out) in the bargain DVD bin, I was more open to the suggestion of holiday horror movies. Christmas Evil became my gateway drug. It was unsettling, upsetting, uncomfortable and it was awesome. Young Harry Standling is shocked one Christmas night when he catches his mom doing more than kissing Santa Claus (well, it’s Santa that’s doing the kissing). This angry and confused boy grows up to be an angry and confused man who is obsessed with Christmas. His apartment is a shrine to Santa; he works in a toy factory and keeps tabs on the neighborhood kids in two large volumes labeled naughty and nice. It all culminates one fateful Christmas Eve when Harry, losing his grip on sanity, becomes (in his mind) Saint Nick and heads out into the night to deliver presents and punishments as he sees fit.
Filmmaker John Waters has long said that this is his favorite Christmas movie and praises it for its camp value. I’ll admit, that element is there but I prefer to take it at face value as a dark character study. It is the Taxi Driver of killer Santa movies. This is largely due to the performance of Brandon Maggart who goes all-in and imbues the character with the right amount of pathos and tragedy that leaves you feeling helpless as you watch Harry fall further into darkness. You want him to find redemption because deep down you know that he is a good man, just misguided and deeply disturbed. Sadly, you realize that things can only end badly but you can’t look away as he passes the point of no return. The scene where Harry dons his beard for the first time is equally sad and frightening. Maggart, in that moment, shows us a man who knows he is on the brink of madness and steps right off, all the while shaking when he laughs like a bowl full of jelly.
The feeling of anxiety that is maintained throughout the film is only heightened by the score, which sounds like a warped Christmas record being played at the wrong speed. It makes things seem slightly unbalanced, just like the lead character. As depressing as this all sounds, the film is alive with Christmas imagery. Vintage decorations are on display and shots of late 70s New York during the holidays almost feels down-right cozy at times. If you take away all the madness and murder, you’ve got yourself a movie that is filled with the Christmas spirit. With a gritty slow burn direction and a great lead performance, Christmas Evil is a Christmas classic for those who don’t mind a darker depiction of the holidays.
For those who have yet to celebrate a creepy Christmas, here are a few suggestions for some more holiday horrors. Black Christmas has a feeling of dread that runs from its ominous opening to its chilling climax. This movie is bleak. Expertly directed by Bob Clark (who later gave us A Christmas Story) this laid the groundwork for many slasher movies to come. Never have the holidays felt more desolate and cold. This is what it feels like to slowly suffocate in despair.
Inside is not just a home invasion movie, but also a body invasion movie, as a pregnant woman must defend herself against an attacker out to get her unborn child on Christmas Eve. Brutal and unflinching in its violence, this taut French thriller is made even more disturbing by its subject matter. This is not just a mindless slasher, however, as it carries a deep sadness throughout all the bloodshed and deals with motherhood on a primal level. Though not overtly Christmas-themed in its aesthetic, it is hard to deny a story about a child about to be born on that particular night.
Finally there’s Cuento de Navidad: A Christmas Tale. Taking place in Spain during 1985, the plot revolves around a Goonies-esque group of kids, who instead of finding treasure, discover an injured woman dressed as Santa trapped in a large hole in the woods. When they find out that she’s a fugitive on the run for bank robbery, they decide to keep her stranded and use torture and extortion to force her to give up the money. The crew starts to deteriorate as they become consumed by greed and the moral dilemma of what they are doing. This is something we’ve seen in many movies before but these kids are ten years old! If movies have taught us anything it’s that 80s kids are supposed to do the right thing, not starve and taunt somebody with internal injuries! When the convict escapes, you find yourself rooting for the kids to get their comeuppance as the lines between who is good and bad become so blurred by this point. Cuento de Navidad has got a healthy dose of dark humor with a mean streak that is a fun alternative to the usual deluge of saccharine seasonal movies this time of year.
I think that Christmas is big enough to include both the sincere and the scary. After the Christmas specials are over and the kids are asleep with visions of sugarplums and what not, turn the lights off, put in a movie and see what’s waiting for you in the dark. Happy Horrordays everybody!