For some of us, nothing says “Merry Christmas” quite like an axe-wielding Santa.
If you’re the type who’s gone looking (or if, like me, you spent the mid-80s working in a video store next to a trailer park) you’re well aware that there’s an obscene number of Santa slasher pictures on the market, dating back at least to the early ‘70s. But it would be unfair to lump You Better Watch Out (more widely known today as Christmas Evil) together with the likes of Silent Night, Bloody Night.
Writer/director Lewis Jackson’s 1980 film is different. In fact it’s not a slasher film by any stretch. It’s less a blood-soaked parade of slaughtered teenagers than a character study about a man of principle who is pushed past the breaking point. What it is, more specifically, is the Taxi Driver of Christmas movies.
Harry (prolific character actor Brandon Maggart in a rare star turn) loves Christmas. He really loves Christmas. He loves Christmas more than anybody.
As a boy, his younger brother told him Santa didn’t exist, but even after seeing his mother more than kissing Santa on Christmas Eve (a future standard in Santa slasher films) Harry refused to let go of the idea. Santa meant more than presents, he was an ideal of human generosity and kindness. He was innocence and morality personified and Harry would spend a lifetime trying to prove that Santa still mattered.
By the time he became an adult it had become a mania. He leaves his decorations up all year long. He hums Christmas carols in July. He loves Christmas so much that he takes a job working on the assembly line at a toy factory.
But more than a mere elf, Harry wants to be Santa himself. He dresses like Santa and prances about the house. He even takes to spying on the neighbor kids and keeping lists of who’s naughty and who’s nice.
But something’s wrong.
While Harry takes great pride in his workmanship, wanting to make toys that some girl or boy will love for years, he finds his co-workers to be lazy wage slaves who think he’s a fool and a sucker for working so hard. When he’s promoted off the assembly line to a desk job, he finds the management is more concerned about the bottom line than the quality of the toys. Nobody has any Christmas spirit at all. It just ain’t right.
While in Taxi Driver Travis was waiting for “a real rain to come,” Harry is looking for all the proper notes that will come together to form “The Tune.” Finally, at the company Christmas party with all that greed and cynicism on display in one room, Harry finds the Tune he’s been looking for.
After a mirror scene (again on a par with the mirror scene in Taxi Driver) in which Harry swings between giddy joy and rage as he makes his final decision, he dons his Santa suit and makes the rounds of the city, distributing toys to deserving children and brutally murdering greedy, smug, self-centered adults. The police, meanwhile, based on eyewitness accounts, are also making the rounds of the city arresting every Santa they find.
The success of the film (which is also John Waters’ favorite holiday gem) is due in no small part to Brandon Maggart’s brilliant performance. It’s a rare thing to say about the lead in a grainy, low-budget horror movie, but despite all the insanity and the killing, he manages to turn Harry into an extremely sympathetic character. After all, he simply expects that people will behave with some common decency and a little selflessness—that they’ll care about one another and be nice. Is that really too much to ask? Santa was someone, maybe the last one, who not only kept track of who was naughty and nice, but who doled out justice as well. Children needed to believe that someone in the world could promise them a little justice, right?
In one of You Better Watch Out‘s funnier and more disturbing scenes, Harry (as Santa) offers a few kindly words of advice to a group of children and their parents:
“Be good little girls and boys. Listen to your parents and do what they say. Obey your teachers and learn a whole lot. If you do this, I’ll make sure you get wonderful presents every year…But if you’re bad little girls and boys then your name goes into the bad little girls and boys book. And I’ll make sure you get something…horrible.”
Maggart somehow makes every layer of Harry’s personality believable. When he’s on the street or at work, he’s virtually invisible. When he dons the Santa costume he becomes bigger than life, a different character completely. And when he’s home alone he’s nutty as a jaybird. Both his joy and his simmering rage are real and it helps us understand why the people who are killed later in the film (he’s very selective), well, they all deserved it.
A lot of the credit is also due Lewis Jackson in his sole directorial effort. Although he’s borrowing heavily from Scorsese, he makes it all work in a different context. We get a few cutaways to other characters (the cops, Harry’s brother), but for ninety-five percent of the film we’re seeing the world through Harry’s eyes and, as a result, it’s slightly distorted. The decent characters Harry meets are angelic, while the bad characters are slimy and despicable.
This distortion continues to subtly increase as the film moves along and Harry loses touch with reality until, near the end of the killing spree the world has taken on a dreamlike quality and he finds himself being chased by an angry mob carrying torches. It’s a clear nod to the classic Universal horror films, except in those the townsfolk generally weren’t chasing Santa Claus.
At the film’s end we know what happens—all the evidence is there if you pay close attention—but what we see on the screen is pure fantasy. It’s a sharp bit of filmmaking from a director who turned You Better Watch Out into much more than it could have been. 35 years later it’s a film that still stands apart from and above that flood of killer Santa movies that followed.