A deep dive into ‘Christmas Evil’, the warped 1980 psychological horror film with a cult following
The kids have gone to bed. You’ve just had to endure Hoodwinked for precisely 80 minutes. You don’t know why they wanted to watch it. It’s not even a Christmas film. The clock strikes midnight; Christmas Day. Die Hard? Bad Santa? Hoodwinked Too! (Hood vs. Evil)? Or if you’re feeling especially daring, the festive B-movie slasher film Christmas Evil.
Referenced as John Waters’ favourite Christmas film, you might just be able to conjure up an idea of what this film is going to be like. In fact, the king of camp ‘trash’ was a major influence in the films DVD re-release, publicising the B-movie to fans of cult cinema, homemade horror and all things not too ‘Christmassy’. Elevating the film out of the bargain bin and into the knowledge of cinephiles.
The tale follows Harry Stadling, a single man who works on the assembly line of a toy factory during the Christmas period. Scarred by childhood trauma, he decides to physically embody Santa Claus, gifting goodies to all the good little boys and girls and punishing the naughty ones. It isn’t exactly the merriest of tales but anyone afraid of losing their Christmas cheer, fear not, this is a surprisingly uplifting story which outsmarts its B-Movie origins.
Harry develops an obsession with the holiday season, fueled by the childhood trauma of discovering the identity of Santa (or lack of). It’s an unhealthy obsession, one which involves the documentation of the local children’s behaviour in a novelty-sized note-book, an ode to the festive father. His frustrations when they misbehave are equally disturbing and ludicrously delightful. He’s a Santa devotee. An elf with all the toy-making abilities and Christmas devotion but with none of Will Ferrell’s charm.
Assembling dolls and other miscellaneous plastic shapes at his workplace ‘Jolly Dreams’, is a monotonous task, especially when the reality of the store couldn’t be further from its name. ‘Jolly Dreams’ has none of the saturated reds and greens, none of the presumed perfumed aroma. Instead, the space couldn’t have been constructed to look bleaker. Even during the Christmas party, it looks as though any ounce of joy has been vacuumed from the space, leaving only the sarcastic phrase ‘if it’s not a jolly dream it’s not worth having it’, plastered on the back wall.
If this all sounds a little drab that’s because, for much of the first half, it is. It takes the unusual choice of a B-movie to spend good time and effort building the protagonists’ relationships as well as his psychotic tendencies. It’s a refreshing joy in a film you’d expect to get right into the stabbing, slitting and slicing of various crude plasticine models; and it’s certainly a surprise when you realise that the first victim doesn’t fall until just before the hour mark. It’s not a typically bloodthirsty affair either. Director Lewis Jackson prefers to linger on the victims from afar, focusing on bystanders’ pain, discomfort and grief as opposed to the grisly details. It’s the film mirroring the intentions of the main character. Michael doesn’t go out seeking violence, his core aim is to replicate and try to better the efforts of the fictional Santa Claus. If someone gets in the way or threatens his idea of Christmas goodwill then it’s their fault for being a bad little man (or woman).
He isn’t just bringing sorrow and slaughter to the townsfolk, he’s also delivering the virtues of St.Nick. He dances with children at a Christmas party, hands out gifts and revels in his newfound fame. A new identity which radiates popularity and importance, quite the deviation from his introverted mentality. His efforts are sometimes futile, the task of squeezing down the chimney, he discovers is almost impossible. He instead opts for breaking through the back door.
This all culminates in a local witch hunt, an angry mob, pitchforks, flaming torches and a finale reminiscent of a mash-up between Miracle on 34th Street and Repo man. It’s an oddly gratifying conclusion to a largely distasteful film. A metaphorical transcendence and physical ascension. You’d be hard-pressed to find a slasher film ending quite so zany.
Considering its cheap horror roots, it’s a surprise that they handle the issue of mental health with such care. To sympathise with a murderer in a video nasty B-movie is no mean feat. Although his actions are both barbaric and absurd, his mental reasoning behind them can be justified within his warped world. He is Santa Claus, deliverer of joy and happiness as well as grief and sorrow to those who dare misbehave. He takes the iconic character’s magnetism to bring joy to himself and others. Just for one day he can be, and embody, not just someone else, but a beloved Christmas celebrity.
It would be dishonest to say that this is ‘Christmas Evils’’ intentions, however. As it says in the name, the murderous rampage is what they want you to enjoy and remember. Intentional or not though, they’ve created something far more compelling. An ode to the seasonal father from the depths of depravity.