Christmas Evil (Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack)
Released by: Vinegar Syndrome
Released on: November 18th, 2014.
Director: Lewis Jackson
Cast: Brandon Maggart, Dianne Hull, Jeffrey DeMunne
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Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart, star of Dressed To Kill and father of Fiona Apple!) was messed up at a young age when, one Christmas Eve, he saw mommy fooling around with Santa Claus after the kids were believed to be asleep in their beds. He was too young to understand that it was actually his dad underneath the beard and red cap, and the scene sent him running back to his bed, scarred for life, where he cuts his hand with a shard from a glass ornament.
Cut to the present day, or at least what was the present day in 1980, and Harry is a grown man working at the Jolly Dream toy factory. Unlike most of his co-workers, Harry takes pride in his work. He understands the impact that a well made toy can have on a child’s life and the happiness that it can bring, while the rest of the schleps at his job think only of trying to get off early and going home. Harry’s also obsessed with Christmas. He blows off Thanksgiving dinner with his brother and sister-in-law so that he can stay home and watch Santa Claus on the televised parade broadcast and his apartment is covered with pictures of Santa and all manner of Christmas décor.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that Harry takes this ‘Santa Claus thing’ a little too seriously. He spies on the neighborhood kids, peering through their windows and watching them with his telescope and recording their details in one of two books – Naughty or Nice. As Christmas fast approaches, Harry’s tenuous grip on reality starts to fade and then, on Christmas Eve, he finally snaps. He dresses up as Santa Claus, and heads out into the city to hand out presents to the good little girls and boys and punishment to all the rest.
Christmas Evil, or, as the title card on the print used for this DVD calls the film, You’d Better Watch Out, has more in common with Taxi Driver than it does with Silent Night, Deadly Night. The movie builds very deliberately and it details Harry’s breakdown before he snaps rather than placing him in the role of a killer from the get-go. Maggart’s performance and his mannerisms suit the part really well, and he comes across as suitably skittish at times but obsessive enough about his beliefs that you’ll have no problem believing him in the part. He’s pretty subtle for most of the movie, not really going over the top or hamming it up at all, instead playing the quiet type who teeters precariously on the edge of sanity.
While things do take a little while to get going, once they do the movie keeps its pace well. The ending is unexpected and the cinematography does a nice job of capturing a few claustrophobic moments as things progress. It’s interesting how the teasing and abuse from his co-workers and the general nuisance caused by overt consumerism in the culture that surrounds Harry affects his personality and mental state so much, and it’s also interesting how damn scary a big crazy guy in a Santa outfit can be. Kids are taught to love and to trust Santa Claus from a young age, so to have the character subverted like he is in this film can and does make for some truly eerie imagery and a few sincerely scary moments. Note that this is the director’s cut of the film and as such it runs a little longer than previously issued releases of the film.
Christmas Evil arrives on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome transferred in 4k from 35mm archival elements. Although there are instances here and there where you’ll not some element related quirks like cigarette burns around the reel changes, for the most part the transfer here is rock solid. Detail is vastly improved over the past DVD releases - the Troma one looked awful, the Synapse disc actually looked great and understandably this Blu-ray looks even better. Color reproduction looks perfect and texture and depth are consistently impressive. Black levels are nice and deep and there are no issues with compression artifacts, edge enhancement or noise reduction.
The English language DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio mix on the disc is also very good. There are a few spots here and there that sound less than perfect but these are infrequent and for the most part the audio is crisp and nicely balanced. Dialogue is always easy to understand and hiss and distortion are never problems. There are no alternate language options or subtitles provided here.
Lots of extras here. First up is an audio commentary from director Lewis Jackson who does a good job of explaining the ambitious nature of the film, how it was made completely independent of the big studio system. He talks about a few ideas that made it to the movie and a few that didn’t and how he’s happy to have gotten this version of the movie onto DVD. He explains the opening credits, how he tried to create a sense of fantasy for certain scenes, and how it took him ten years to finally get the movie made. Interestingly enough the Thanksgiving Day Parade footage in the movie was shot by his crew and wasn’t just lifted off of a television broadcast. There’s a bit of dead air here and there but Jackson does do a really good job of explaining the history of the movie in a fair bit of detail on this commentary. This track was recorded for the Synapse Films DVD release. An earlier commentary that appeared on the crummy old Troma DVD is also carried over here, again with Jackson flying solo. It covers a lot of the same ground but it’s good to see it preserved for posterity’s sake (it wasn’t included on the past DVD release from Synapse). He’s joined by Maggart here as well so that makes it worth checking out.
The Synapse DVD also included a commentary featuring Lewis Jackson joined by the one and only John Waters – and it’s included on this Blu-ray as well. An unabashed fan and champion of the film, Waters’ enthusiasm for this material and great sense of humor really add to this track and he and Jackson get along really well here, spilling stories and examining the film as it plays out. There is some interesting trivia here – listen for the two to point out Bruce Springsteen’s band member in one scene, and listen for waters to make a few interesting observations about various Santas. They tell a few amusing, related stories about various Santa experiences and Waters’ seems to get a kick out of pointing out some of the moments in the film where the kids look rightly frightened. Again, there are stretches where the two stop talking but this is still well worth a listen even if a lot of what they do is simply comment on what’s happening on screen. To Hell with It’s A Wonderful Life indeed! Listen over the end credits as it’s pretty interesting to hear the theatrical history of the movie and how it went over on 42nd St. during its theatrical run.
Rounding out the extra features (some of which are on the DVD disc, not the Blu-ray disc) is a generous selection of storyboards for three different scenes from the movie in slideshow format, the interviews with Jackson and Maggart originally recorded for the old Troma DVD, some original comment cards from a screening of the film, and twenty-six minutes worth of footage culled from the audition tapes shot while casting the movie. There are also six and a half minutes of deleted scenes on this disc as well. Most of this footage shows Harry at work and on the assembly line but there is some nice foreshadowing in here and a really creepy bit with a dollhouse that makes this worth skimming through. A theatrical trailer is also included. as are static menus and chapter stops for the main feature.
The Final Word:
A lot more interesting than your average holiday themed slasher film, Christmas Evil is actually surprisingly well made and at times even thought-provoking! Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray release is stacked, carrying over pretty much all of the previous extras and offering up the film in an excellent new HD transfer with lossless audio. This one is definitely worth the upgrade if you’re a fan.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!