Two Films of Christmas Horror and Hate

As of this writing, it's December 25th and my Christmas celebration began with a domestic squabble with my on-again/off-again domestic partner. Things got uglier and fists got introduced into the equation. Like a gentleman (or a coward who realizes that a 'Domestic Violence' rap is not going to look very appealing to my newly-found corporate masters,) I did not return the barrage of head and body shots that were thrown by an emotionally and physically damaged woman who had skipped her medication for the last 3 days. When that wasn't enough, she went to the kitchen and grabbed a knife for the purposes of helping your humble narrator shuffle off this mortal coil. After disarming her, she left briefly and then returned to try and cause more chaos and bedlam. Amidst threats of legal repercussions and the old "my mom is going to come over and shoot you" line, she finally hit the road while bragging about the stack of Christmas presents waiting for her in Cartersville. My present to myself is a TPO against this crazy broad, but who is that going to stop?  Sorry to lead off a review of two Christmas classics like that, but situations such as the one above are a reason these movies are venerated as so. For a lucky few, the holiday seasons are one of tremendous goodwill and cheer, a time to spend with family and friends. For most of us, who have precious little family and little to no true friends...it's a completely different ballgame. To our silent minority, the season does nothing more than exacerbate the loneliness and hurt that we feel knowing that we live and will die completely alone. The protagonists of these two films know that feeling all too well.

 

We're starting off with Lewis Jackson's seminal 1980 Santa Slayer Christmas Evil, known also as You Better Watch Out and Terror in Toyland. A bit of a buried gem, most of the attention this release has generated came from bad taste auteur John Waters, who spent a nice section in his book Crackpot praising the film as well as making an appearance on both the DVD and Blu-Ray audio commentaries. I understand his feelings on the film well, because it's obvious that something different is afoot from the very first frame.  Harry (a sterling performance by Brandon Maggart) is a wage-worker with a serious Christmas jones. His passion for the toys that his factory produces stands in stark contrast to the assembly-line attitude of his peers. In a creepier subplot, he stalks the neighborhood children with binoculars to keep a ledger on his Good and Bad Girls & Boys lists. After getting pushed way too hard for the last time, Harry puts his Santacentric plan into action with wildly unpredictable results.

 

It's easy to see why Waters and a passionate cult following (including the editor of this site) love this movie so much - Lewis Jackson clearly showed up to play, and it's a shame that he never really ventured into the feature film world again since his debut is a clear showcase of a fully-formed talent primed to explode. The real star of the film, however, is Ricardo Aronovich's sumptuous cinematography. The entire film looks and feels like a degenerate Norman Rockwell painting, with gauzy textures and bright colors giving the production a handsome shade of dead red. Every frame is carefully composed and could stand well as an art piece divorced from the content therein.  That said, it's a shame that I didn't like the film much more than I wanted to. The main problem with Christmas Evil is its genuine lack of suspense along with a generally goofy tone that clashes considerably with some of the content. During the showdown between Santa Harry and a mob of neighborhood hooligans, this textural inconsistency shows out in full. What should be a moment of emotional devastation for our sympathetic protagonist is turned into a joke by a torch-wielding throng straight out of a 1930's Universal monster movie. The less said about the out-of-left-field ending, the better.  All in all, I'm giving Christmas Evil high marks for doing something markedly different with the material but marking down points for creative schizophrenia. Is it too late to ask Lewis Jackson to do another film, though?  Score: 3 / 5

 

From this point forward, expect my dance with bad vibes to end because we're training eyes upon a Holiday classic for the Hate Generation here. A motion picture with considerable balls and accidental genius to go with its cynical wit and feisty fromage. We're talking Charles E. Sellier Jr.'s 1984 masterpiece Silent Night, Deadly Night.  It's the story of Billy (played as a child by Danny Wagner and Jonathan Best, and essayed as an adult by trade show kingpin Robert Brian Wilson,) a young man with a troubling Santa problem. After getting scared by his Grandfather's dire warnings about a violent visit from Santa, Billy (and his family) have the rotten luck of encountering a carjacking rapist/murderer duded up in Santa garb on the side of the road. As he grows up, his mindset is warped even further by a cold and cruel Mother Superior, who expresses her own pent-up sexual and psychological frustrations through bondage and discipline. Working at a toy store, Billy seems to have a grip on his hang-ups until a skating accident forces him to confront his personal demons head-on, sparking an outbreak of sadistic and cruel violence that somehow finds its' way back to where it all began.

 

When released in 1984, Silent Night, Deadly Night had the misfortune of being targeted by a group of mothers out in Milwaukee. Fearing a controversy around the time of their IPO, Tri-Star Pictures pulled the film from release and dumped it in the hands of exploitation specialists Aquarius Releasing. It found a whole new life on video and Tri-Star's loss is your gain. Seeing this film for the first time is a confusing experience. Yes, there is comedy of a sort in this film...but absolutely none of it is silly. What jokes come through are filtered through a heart of blackened misanthropy, which could be a result of clever screenwriting or just a happy accident. The scenes of violence (and yes, there is considerable gore and splatter here) are made even more intense by the drawn-out nature of the whole thing. Nothing is clean, everything is protracted and cruel and strangely sexual in places. The threat of sexual violence and rape permeates the entire film, and that's understandable - Billy's first experiences with sexuality came as his mother was being molested on the side of the road. Events and meanings cross-reference and double-back through the entire film. Clearly, there was way more thought put into this film than most slashers of that era.  What makes it even more saddening is the sense of very real tragedy that covers the entire 85-minute running time. Everything that happens could and should have been prevented through time, care, and love. Even in the middle of a psychotic rampage, it's impossible to deny our sympathy to a killer who has clearly suffered as much if not more than his victims. No matter how hard he tries, Billy becomes what he hates and fears the most...just as we all will.  In short, Silent Night, Deadly Night is one of the best horror films of the 80's and a clear reminder to take inventory in what you have in this world, because you never know when someone will come around and destroy it. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to tend to my wounds and get ready for a Christmas party. Happy Holidays from my house to yours.  Score: 5 / 5

 

Written by David Austin