Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 12

Christmas Evil (1980)

Though “Silent Night, Deadly Night” got all the press, it was far from the first Christmas-set horror movie. It wasn’t even the first movie to feature a murderous Santa Claus. The low budget and very odd “Christmas Evil” must have slipped under the radar. The last feature credit of director Lewis Jackson, the movie was ignored for years. Various public domain releases exist, under titles such as “You Better Watch Out” (the original title and the one on the DVD) or “Terror in Toyland.” Over the years though, mostly thanks to vocal fan John Waters, “Christmas Evil” is finally developing the cult following it’s always deserved as one of the weirdest Christmas movies ever made.

Harry Stadling is a strange, lonely man. As a child he watched his father, dressed as Santa Claus, perform oral sex on his mother. This scarred him for life. Even into adulthood, Harry harbors an obsession with Santa Claus and Christmas. He spies on the neighborhood children, writing down which have been naughty and which have been nice in a large book. At his job at a toy factory, he was recently promoted to a factory manager. This has made Harry aware of the greed of the industry. Combined with an increasingly rocky relationship with his brother, Harry starts to snap. Slowly, he transforms himself into Santa Claus, giving gifts to the innocent and punishing the naughty.

Those expecting ninety minutes of Santa slasher slaughter will be disappointed in “Christmas Evil.” The film is instead a slow-paced character study, closer in spirit to “Taxi Driver” than “Friday the 13th.” To Harry, Christmas is his religion and Santa is his patron saint. He believes in living the season all year round. Giving to those less fortunate, as a selfless act of charity, is an important concept to him. Greed, on the other hand, violently disgusts him. When he sees the corporate greed around him, especially a token and insincere effort to give to a local mental hospital, it pushes him closer to the edge. Harry also believes Santa is a moral arbiter. When he murders his obnoxious bosses or a lazy co-worker, it’s less an act of personal revenge then it is an ethical judgment. There’s something weirdly personal about Harry’s quest against ruthless capitalism. Director Jackson wasn’t just trying to capitalize on the scandalous image of a murderous Santa Claus. Instead, “Christmas Evil” seems to be his reaction to the rampant commercialization of Christmas.

Compared to the trashy heights of “Silent Night, Deadly Night” or the sinister slasher action of “Black Christmas,” “Christmas Evil’s” horror will seem far more low-key. Harry is kind of creepy, from the beginning. His house is decorated for Christmas year round. When he spies on the town’s children, the movie seems to be directly commenting on how Santa Claus is kind of creepy. This builds towards a sequence where he hides outside a naughty boy’s home, caking the house with muddy handprints and leaping from the bush to grab the kid. Brandon Maggart – perhaps better known as Fiona Apple’s dad – is totally convincing as a quietly off-putting person. There’s an inevitability to his rampage. When he finally becomes Santa, Maggart begins rambling about “singing his tune” and getting the world to sing with him. When the murders come, they are not explicitly gory. There’s a toy solider eye-gouging, blows to the head with an axe, and a throat slicing with a star. Yet the body count remains low. “Christmas Evil’s” horror comes from getting audience to simultaneously sympathize for and be creeped out by a genuinely weird character.

Though effective as a psychological thriller/character study, I don’t think that’s the reason “Christmas Evil” has developed a following. Instead, the movie’s oddball sense of humor ties the picture together into a very strange whole. Harry shakes his head dismissively when a naughty little boy requests a lifetime subscription to Penthouse for Christmas. After dancing seemingly for hours at a Christmas party, while in full Santa regalia, Harry gives a grim warning to the little kids present… Which he follows up with a hearty “Ho-ho-ho!” After the news of a murderous Santa Claus hits the wire, the police round up all the Santas they can find, forcing them to shout “Merry Christmas” as boisterously as possible. After a group of angry parents correctly identify Harry, the kids group around him, protecting Santa Claus. It doesn’t work and an angry crowd of torch-weaving people are chasing him down the street. There’s a certain degree of surreal oddness to “Christmas Evil.” The audience is likely to laugh, especially with the dreamy, ambiguous ending. How intentional these laughs are is hard to judge. Lewis Jackson seems like a smart guy though so I’m pretty sure it’s intentional.

I have no doubt that “Christmas Evil” isn’t for everyone. It occupies that weird grey zone where it’s probably too slow paced and character-driven for most horror fans but still too horrific for most drama fans. This is the stuff cult classic are made of though. For those that are patient or can get on its strange wavelength, “Christmas Evil” is likely to become the oddest of Christmas classics. If nothing else, it features a strangely hypnotic performance from Maggart and some clearly personal writing from Jackson. [7/10]

3rd Rock from the Sun: Jolly Old St. Dick

“3rd Rock from the Sun” probably should have been a really hacky, shitty sitcom. It had a ridiculous high concept premise: Aliens come to Earth, disguised as humans, and attempt to fit in with the populace, with wacky results. In many ways, it was a crappy sitcom. However, writing that was cleverer then you’d expect and a fantastic cast made the show frequently hilarious. Like any sitcom that had a decent run, “3rd Rock from the Sun” received a Christmas episode.

As December rolls along, the Solomon family finds themselves interpreting the Christmas holiday. Dick misunderstands the purpose of his office’s Secret Santa tradition. Tommy tries to find the perfect gift for his Earthly girlfriend, August. Sally and Harry, meanwhile, get temporary Christmas jobs at the local mall. However, after a few mishaps, Dick looses the Christmas spirit and begins to question the purpose of the holiday.

As I said, “Jolly Old St. Dick” has a fairly routine script. Naturally, it doesn’t take too long for Dick to reclaim the holiday spirit and the episode ends on a happy note, with everyone dancing to Christmas carols. What makes the episode hilarious is how the cast handles a number of sight gags. Dick constantly yanking away the mistletoe over the office’s door and calling it a “weed” is funny. When he spies a random tree on someone’s lawn, and tries to cut it down with a chainsaw, that gets a good laugh. John Lithgow’s reaction when he draws his Secret Santa choice is incredibly funny. Honestly, I think half the laughs in any episode of “3rd Rock from the Sun” come from Lithgow’s facial expressions. When he discovers the bell ringer at the mall will say “Merry Christmas” every time he puts a coin in the bucket, that had me laughing like a crazy person.

There are some other worthy gags. French Stewert was never better utilized then he was on this show, as the dim-witted Harry. His reaction to the mall Santa not being the true Santa, which is then followed up with a sequence in a bar, is a good one. The conclusion to Tommy’s subplot gets a decent laugh. Kristen Johnston’s Sally has maybe the weakest subplot, involving a job as a gift-wrapper in the mall, but even that pays off in a decent scene of her redistributing gifts. The most madcap moment in the episode has Dick pelting carolers with Christmas decorations. Those with a low tolerance for laugh tracks, of which I usually count myself, may be put off by this one. Yet this re-viewing really reminded me how much goofy fun “3rd Rock from the Sun” could be. [8/10]

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