Silent Night, Deadly Night exploded onto the scene in 1984 amidst endless controversy, as it was the world's first Christmas horror film to feature a killer Santa Claus. Parental groups and critics rallied against it and its tasteless subject matter and marketing, which was plastered everywhere with the image of Father Christmas carrying an ax. Horror fans ate it up with a spoon though, as this film actually BEAT Wes Craven's epic A Nightmare on Elm Street at the box office on their opening weekend. The film was eventually yanked from theaters in response to the controversy, but its legacy was already cemented.
However, it WASN'T the first “psycho Santa” movie. That honour goes to today's film, 1980's Christmas Evil, or You Better Watch Out as it was originally known. Written and directed by Lewis Jackson, this film came and went without making a sound but has gone on to earn a substantial cult following in the years since. I'm choosing to review this one not because I seem to only review horror themed holiday films, but because this is LEGENDARY for having one of the most WTF endings in movie history. That's certainly more than enough to earn it a spot in my review queue, so let's see if it can live up to the hype with A Ghoul Versus Christmas Evil!
We open on Christmas Eve, 1947 in Anywhereville USA, to a shot of a festively decorated suburban home. A mother and her two young boys watch from the staircase as “Santa Claus” comes down the chimney, coughing from all the soot. He gets to work delivering presents, as we jump cut to later where the two boys, Harry and... Philly? Philly? It's short for Philip, but I must say I've never heard it shortened like that. Anyway, Harry and Philly argue over whether that was just their dad or the real deal.
Harry, whom one could describe as “Creepy Hellchild” decides to settle things by talking to his parents. He finds them downstairs getting frisky, dad still dressed in the Santa outfit. I say frisky, but really dad is just running his hands over the mother's stockings. This shocks Harry, so he runs upstairs to find his William Shatner mask and- oh, wait. Wrong movie. He goes upstairs to the attic, where he smashes a snow globe and uses the glass to cut his hand open. Yes, that's a PERFECTLY sane reaction to something so tame!
We jump ahead to present day, where we see Harry has grown up to be... slightly odd. He has a house full of horror movie issued dolls, his walls are plastered with photos of Santa, and he loves to laugh at himself in the mirror as he shaves. As he shaves, he has a flashback to that HORRIBLY TRAUMATIC day thirty some years ago where he saw Santa stroking his mother's leg. He's- he's still hung up on that?! They're were fully clothed, I've seen more explicit stuff on the ABC Family Channel!
Well, maybe this is just a one off thing and he hasn't grown up to be a complete freak- nope, there he is spying on his neighbours' CHILDREN with binoculars. Oh dear. We learn he does this to see if they're being naughty or nice, and has actually been keeping an obsessively detailed record of all their deeds in a giant book in his house. Okay, but I'm sure he's at least not a sociopath at his job at the Jolly Dream toy factory, right? Actually he isn't, he just got promoted to supervisor and seems to be doing decent with the negative that no one respects him. After getting roped into working an extra shift by one of his coworkers named Frank, he storms home and breaks a doll while bitterly humming “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.
On a lark, he returns to his childhood home where an adult Philip now lives with his wife Jackie and their two boys. Harry spies on them through the window, watching them passionately make out on the couch after sending their children to bed. See, THIS would have been at least a little bit more jarring for Harry to see instead of Santa caressing his mother's LEG. The next day Jackie makes Philip promise to be nice to Harry, whom is expected over soon for Thanksgiving dinner. Harry calls to cancel though, so he can stay home and obsessively watch the Thanksgiving Day parade on TV so he can ogle Santa. Uh huh, that is SO the decision I would have made too. The film just kind of wanders around for awhile doing absolutely NOTHING for a very long time, the only thing worth noting is we see Harry gradually preparing to be Santa on Christmas, preparing a costume, building toys, and going as far to paint a sleigh on his van.
Christmas Eve finally arrives and he goes about his night, kicking it off by breaking into Philip's house and sloppily leaving some presents under the tree. He drives out to a state mental hospital for children to deliver bags of toys he stole from work, which actually is a touching little scene. Maybe I was being too harsh on Harry, maybe he's not that bad of a guy after all! Let's see what heartwarming job his next stop will bring! He heads to the church where his boss is attending Christmas mass, the movie having established earlier that his boss is a total asshole that is lacking the holiday spirit. I bet Harry is going to change his mind! Harry stands outside, waiting for the churchgoers to exit at the conclusion of the ceremony. Two of the first men to leave begin to make fun of Harry, so he pulls out a toy soldier out of his bag as a peace offering. And by that I mean he SHOVES IT IN THE GUY'S FUCKING EYEBALL!
Now THAT'S what I call a tone shift. Harry pulls out an ax and begins gingerly hacking up everyone in sight, hopping into his van and speeding off. He parks outside of a building where a dance is being held, taking the time to celebrate with everyone for awhile before he remembers there's more heads that need a splittin', so he leaves to hunt down some more of his coworkers. After unsuccessfully trying to go down a chimney in a scene that only serves to make this boring movie even longer, Harry simply enters through an open basement window in the house of his next victim, Frank. He finds Frank asleep in bed next to his wife, trying to smother him with his bag but that doesn't work so he slits his throat open with the star topper on their Christmas tree. Practical!
The next morning we catch up with Philip and Jackie, who are worried because Harry hasn't shown up for Christmas yet. Yeah, I wouldn't be losing too much sleep over his absence. Harry wakes up in the back of his van, now parked outside the Jolly Dream factory. He goes inside and turns on all the assembly lines, because why not? We cut to the police station where they are going over potential suspects for last night's murder spree, the two cops in charge making a lot of inappropriate jokes about the situation. Did they just TRY to make a movie with the most unlikeable characters humanly imaginable, or was this just something that happened organically?
Harry calls Philip to say a whole lot of nothing, bringing up his “tune”. See, the whole movie Harry has been ranting about finding the right notes for his tune, which meant nothing then and continues to mean nothing now. He drives to a rich looking neighbourhood, talking a walk to admire all the decorations when he gets surrounded by a group of kids who thank him for their presents. Their parents round the corner, horrified at what they see because Harry matches the description of the murderer all over the news. One of the fathers pulls out a knife and begins advancing on Harry, the kids surrounding him to protect him.
When one of the mothers tries to stop the father from killing a man in front of their children, Harry takes this as his cue to head for the hills. The father reaches into his pocket and pulls out an Insta-Mob (TM), as he now has a group of torch wielding allies to hunt down Harry. I'd ask why such an affluent community all carries Frankenstein-quality lynchin' torches on their persons, but there's only like ten minutes left in this thing so let's not prolong this any longer than we have to. Harry escapes the mob, driving to Philip's house to confess everything. Philip, as sick of Harry as the rest of us at this point, strangles him to death while Jackie watches and half-heartedly tells him to stop. It's okay Jackie, we're not going to judge you for not trying harder.
Philip, horror dawning over what he's just done, drags Harry outside and throws him in his van. Harry isn't dead though naturally, opening his eyes and punching him out. He starts up the van and leaves, finding the way blocked by the mob. Damn, they move quick! He drives through them, ending up going off a nearby bridge... and here's where the film earns its legacy. Instead of crashing to the ground below, the van begins to FLY THROUGH THE AIR AND INTO THE SKY.
Cue the credits.
Certainly didn't expect that! After ninety minutes of complete realism, let's just end the movie with Harry flying to the fucking moon! Or did he? With an ending like this you're bound to get alternate interpretations of what actually happened, and one of the more popular ones it that it was all a dying hallucination Harry had. There is some credible evidence to this because when the mob tries to cut Harry off we can see Philip chasing after the van. Philip falls and rolls down a hill into some debris, making a crashing sound. Many people think the crashing sound was really Harry's van, but then we see Philip looking up at the sky awestruck instead of looking down, so who knows?
I'm sure this was all intentional on Lewis Jackson's part, because without the ending Christmas Evil would have been an immensely mundane movie that would have faded into deep obscurity without it. Not to say that this was a BAD movie, because everyone was doing their best and delivered some fantastic acting for a slasher movie. Harry's actor, Brandon Maggart, deserves immense praise as he put on what I can easily call one of the best performances in a horror movie that I've ever seen. The writing certainly wasn't there for him, but damn if he didn't give every line his all. And if you ever want a piece of trivia to throw at somebody, Maggart is the father of singer/songwriter Fiona Apple.
But let's talk about the writing, which is what has kept this a cult movie instead of something much bigger. The plot here is after learning Santa isn't real, Harry is basically driven insane and spends the rest of his life trying to infuse the world with Christmas spirit. Now that's fine, I can accept a slasher movie where the killer's crazy because he's crazy. The problem is the rest of the story is dedicated to trying to rationalize his crazy, only we don't get to SEE any of this! The film periodically cuts to Philip constantly talking about what a loser Harry is and the burden of taking care of him, yet we never see HOW this plays out due to the time jump.
At the end when Harry comes to Philip's house, he babbles about the point of everything he was doing was because of Philip's lack of belief in Santa. You mean that one scene thirty years ago where they argued about Santa for ten seconds? That's the impetus to justify Harry's inexplicable murder spree? This really needed to follow their lives over the years, leading UP to the murders. I would have even been happy with even ONE scene of the brothers interacting with each other, throwing out some lines of exposition to set up any of these elements. But I suppose it was MUCH more important to watch Harry dance with people at Christmas party for an entire scene. It's almost like this started off as a different story about two estranged brothers before the slasher element was introduced, but Jackson couldn't be bothered to hammer this out into a cohesive script.
Setting all of that aside though, this is still among the better Christmas themed slashers as you're ever going to find thanks to the all to rare of concept of making the acting front and center of everything. The entire film has an ominous dread to it as you're just waiting for that one thing to make Harry snap, because you know he has a lifetime of psychoses to work out as violently as possible. The killings themselves are quite tame for horror standards, but that works in this movie's favour because they have a lot more weight to them. Definitely a movie I can recommend if you're looking for a smarter slasher, and DEFINITELY one I can recommend if you're looking for a good holiday one.