With another post-Facebook Christmas settled, we’ve seen more fresh reminders that its capitalist excess is still a revelation to some, and so it is with the lesser dark or satirical takes on the holiday in cinema. When even junk like Jingle All the Way is quick to take this jab, the superior films will either reduce this to a quick and ambivalent acknowledgement or use it to launch off to farther sinister parts of its identity. Glass Doll Films has fulfilled that enterprising pessimism for us this year by re-releasing Christmas Evil, a 1980 horror cult classic that steers clear of any negative preconceptions from its cheesy title (foisted upon it during a fragmented theatrical distribution as a replacement for the frankly superior title You Better Watch Out) and portrays a damaged Santa zealot with engaging though patchy style.
“Twas the night before Christmas…” begins the intro, in which young Harry Stadling witnesses Santa Claus pop down the chimney, leave his gifts and disappear with a charming wink that literally lights up his beaming mother. It’s too good to be true, but Harry desperately wants it to be, and goes sauntering out of his room again past stair banisters that writer-director Lewis Jackson frames like a jail of his own making. What he sees next locks him inside and throws away the key: “Santa”, obviously a boy-toy of some kind, feeling his mother up in a luminous show of trash that makes John Waters’ endorsement a no-brainer. The jolly red man isn’t real, and the disillusionment has a devastating Freudian tinge. Fast forward thirty years and we come face to face with Brandon Maggart, who is wonderfully defeated and deranged as Harry’s grown-up self; a middle-managing sap who brings good cheer in an attempt to expel his own unhappiness. His self-imprisonment in the magic myth has become a vivid reality, judging from the constant carol music and Kris Kringle paraphernalia filling the space in his shabby apartment, and this season will be the one where he finally tries to force everyone else into his understanding, not by escaping the cage but by making its walls bigger.
This is more coherent a contextualisation of Harry’s state of mind than the mix of factors the story provides, though not for lack of effort. The most concerted move by Jackson is his inclusion of Harry’s older brother Philip, played by The Walking Dead‘s Jeffrey DeMunn, who is faced with a Catch-22 in that he can’t leave his younger sibling to his own devices but can only make him more insecure with scrutiny. This thread is mostly spun in dialogue between him and his wife (Diane Hull in a thankless role), cut against Harry’s increasingly strange and disconnected activities that border on pedophilia, include spying on children, making hand and mouth mudprints on their houses and writing comically succinct descriptions of their (mis)deeds in hand-written Good and Bad lists. Unfortunately, the sum total of this psychology isn’t so coherent. He talks repeatedly about finding the notes in a figurative tune for people to hear and understand, but this solipsism seems be caused by elements that shift with the whims of each shadowy scenario he wanders into. The striking editing layers finds jerking cuts and parallel action that may not quite fill these gaps, but make the journey through his head more compelling than a drive-in feature typically bothers to be.
What makes this enjoyable nonetheless is Maggart’s performance, first and foremost. He looks remarkably like someone sucked the joie de vivre out of Bill Murray, and yet donning a traditional Santa Claus outfit turns him into a lord of jolliness, with a booming voice and twinkling eyes that turn chillingly glazed-over on a dime. There’s strangely little carnage for a film with a trailer that ends by paraphrasing the tagline of Halloween (“The Night He Dropped In”), so it’s great that we have such a great performer to more than make up for these cheap thrills being absent. What also wrings life out are his interactions with others, including not just his brother but his fellow middle-class schmoes in a job at toy-making factory Jolly Dreams. Jackson gets the pet peeves of the festive workplace down especially well, since part of the plot hinges on one of Harry’s subordinates (Tyrone Holmes) taking advantage of him to get time off, and there is an incredibly lively Christmas party staged for Harry to quietly lose his mind in, and not just because of the heinous disco-cover carols being spun. Their CEO goads his employees into donating to charity via a pre-recorded TV message, so when Harry finally glues on a beard and goes riding around in his “sleigh” (a ricketty van), there’s a cathartic element in him literally sticking it to the rich elites who proliferate a exploitative corporate side of the giving season. It’s broad satire that loses steam in the last half-hour as he goes slinking around the neighbourhood, but with both Maggart and a switched-on director at the wheel, it’s a dark and delightful surprise anyway.
I can scarcely think of a better way to appreciate the film than Glass Doll’s Blu-Ray release, which includes something in its special features that should become as much a fixture as the blooper reel: a montage of the audience response cards from test screenings. An amazing range of emotions comes out of this, from dismay (“What were you trying to prove?”) to shrugging amusement (“beats Bing Crosby!”), and it even tacks on an easter egg for people who watch to the end. There are also short, candid interviews with Jackson and Maggart, and while the Troma crew conducting these have no higher values than a grad school assignment, they shed light on the reality of the movie’s issues, both distributive and creative. We learn, for instance, that even the film’s writer-director feels that there are gaps in the protagonist’s psychology that he wishes he could rectify.1 In this way, even when creating the high-def transfer, it’s quite possible to honour its scrappy qualities, and the team at Glass Doll deserve high commendation for pulling it off.