In suburban New Jersey, on Christmas Eve 1947, a young boy named Harry Stadling sees his mother being sexually groped by his father, who is dressed up as Santa Claus. Heartbroken, the child rushes up to the attic and cuts his hand with a shard of glass from a shattered snow globe.
33 years later, an adult Harry (Brandon Maggart) works in a low-level position at the Jolly Dreams toy factory, where his colleagues consider him a “schmuck” and make fun of him. At home, he has taken it upon himself to become the next true Santa: he sleeps in costume, and his apartment is resplendent with Christmas décor. He spies on neighborhood children to see if they are being “good” or “bad” and keeps detailed records of their behavior.
Harry’s coworker Frank asks Harry to cover his shift on the assembly line in order to be with his family. However, on his way home from work, Harry sees Frank drinking with friends at a local bar. Distressed by the man’s duplicity, Harry breaks one of his dollhouse figures while humming Christmas tunes. The following day, he cancels Thanksgiving dinner with his younger brother Phil (Jeffrey DeMunn) and his family. Phil has been constantly angered by his brother’s odd behavior, while Phil’s wife Jackie (Dianne Hull) is more sympathetic.
At the company Christmas party, the owner of Jolly Dreams, Mr. Wiseman, announces that the company will donate toys to the children of the local hospital, provided production increases sufficiently and the employees contribute with their own money. Mr. Fletcher, one of the company’s high-ranking executives, introduces Harry to new training executive George Grosch, who devised the donation scheme. Harry is angry at both for not really caring about the children. That night, he fills bags with toys he stole from the factory and other bags with dirt.
On Christmas Eve, while gluing a Santa beard to his face, he enters a fugue state that has him convinced to truly be Santa Claus. Donned in his Santa suit, Harry starts doing his rounds on the van that he decorated with a sleigh picture, and that he believes to have been trained by Santa Claus’s reindeer. He first sneaks into his brother’s home and delivers toys for his nephews; then leaves a bagful of dirt at the doorstep of “bad boy” Moss Garcia. Later, Harry drops off toys at the hospital, where he is greeted cheerfully by the staff.
On the street, Harry is taunted by three young men leaving Midnight Mass and, in a fit of rage, he partially blinds one of them with a toy soldier’s sword, then murders them all with a hatchet. Later, Harry is welcomed at a neighborhood Christmas party, where people think he is just some harmless Santa impersonator; he dances and cheers everyone up and makes sure the attending children know they will have to be good boys and girls to receive their gifts. He then breaks into Frank’s home and murders him in his bed with a Christmas tree decoration, leaving toys behind for his kids.
On Christmas morning, his Santa suit disheveled and dirty, Harry returns to Jolly Dreams and activates the assembly lines, breaking all the toys, which he considers subpar. Later, his van becomes stuck in the snow on a beautifully decorated street with plenty of lights, sending him further into a delusional state. The residents shortly recognize him as the murderer and form a torch-bearing mob to pursue him.
Harry manages to free his van from the snow and drives to his brother’s house, where Phil has already started to suspect something is seriously wrong with his brother. Harry confronts Phil, accusing him to have been the root cause of his childhood trauma, as Phil was the one who revealed to Harry that the Santa they saw was actually their father. Phil quickly realizes that Harry is the homicidal Santa from the news, and chokes him unconscious. He loads him into the front seat of the van; Harry soon regains his consciousness, knocks Phil out and drives off again. The angry mob forces him and his van off a bridge; the van is shown to fly off toward the moon as a voice-over reads the end of “The Night Before Christmas”.
PRODUCTION/ BEHIND THE SCENES
Principal photography took place in late 1979 and early 1980 in various locations in New Jersey, including Union City, New Brunswick, Edgewater, Englewood, and Montclair. The toy factory featured in the film was a real toy factory in New Brunswick owned by Lynn Pressman, mother of the film’s executive producer, Edward R. Pressman; scenes shot at the toy factory were completed in early December 1979, with additional shooting occurring over three days in February 1980.
The origin of Christmas Evil, written and filmed under the You Better Watch Out title. predates even his experimental first feature. “Many years before, I had this mental image of Santa Claus with a knife in his hand, and became fascinated with the power of that idea,” he says. “It was just something that I saw in my head one night in 1970.”
After almost a decade on the drawing board, the final production came together as abruptly as a thunderstorm. “It was one of those amazing stories,” he says. “I went to a party and met someone who heard the story and told so-and-so, who was working with Ed Pressman, and he said, “I’ll produce your movie and I’ll give it to Ed, and if he likes it. we’ll be in production almost immediately. This all happened within two weeks.”
Enter Edward R. Pressman. the very definition of “maverick producer” and well-known for giving breaks to upstart young filmmakers like Brian De Palma. Oliver Stone and Sam Raimi. “I’m happy that the film is being rediscovered and appreciated, but as a producer I can’t really take much credit for it.” Pressman admits. “Really, it was Bert Kleiner’s baby the only film he ever produced. He used most of his remaining money to make it, and wound up not seeing anything come back from it. He died soon after it was made.”
Kleiner, a financier who made his fortune in the go-go/disco scene of the ’60s and had then recently helped out Pressman in the production of Old Boyfriends. was excited by Jackson’s vision and turned to the producer for help. Pressman gave Kleiner (who shares producing credit with Pete Kameron) and Jackson advice and provided the use of his family’s Pressman Toy Factory, which spared the filmmakers the costly task of building a set for the fictional Jolly Dream Toy Factory. Like Silent Night. Deadly Night and umpteen other slasher pics, the film opens with a child experiencing a traumatic event (young Harry learning from his older brother that Santa isn’t real) and flashes to the present, now-psychotic adult, but similarities end there. Instead of quick cuts and clichéd killer’s point of-view camerawork, Jackson uses lingering shots, intentional jump cuts and other tricks with time and space that almost border on the surreal. His confidence as a filmmaker is apparent early on. In the present, we see that Harry has become a stilted. sexless man-child intent on recapturing the purity of youthful innocence, when all that really mattered was Christmas. He is determined to make Santa real-watching children with binoculars from his grimy New York City tenement and noting their behavior in “Naughty and “Nice” books. At his day job as a foreman at the Jolly Dream Toy Factory, he tries to convince his crew of the importance of quality toy construction-but to no avail.
“Black comedy is a good phrase for how I saw it,” explains Pressman. “Bert was inspired by the success of Halloween. It was the success of that film that really gave Lewis script the green light. But a different holiday! Halloween has always been about the supernatural. Taking using him as an evil figure was a lot more bold for the time.”
“At the time we were going into production, the only similar movie out there that helped us really get funding was Halloween,” seconds Jackson. “And I was down on that movie. The notion of Halloween was essentially that you murder promiscuous women. Using the slasher genre is very much making a value statement you have a killer striking out at a part of our society, and that element in Halloween was sexual women. I found the whole notion repulsive.”
A big part of the success of Christmas Evil lies with its star. Brandori Maggart. A less gifted actor would have lacked the depth needed to make the character believable, and a better-known performer might well have sent the film into Hollywood camp á la What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Recognizable but unnamable even to film fans, Maggart has enjoyed an active career playing supporting roles in TV, movies and theater for over 30 years, including early work as an opera singer and as a Tony-nominated Broadway musical/comedy performer in hits such as Purlie and Helizapoppin.
“I attribute all the success of the film to Lewis Jackson, Maggart says from his Hollywood home. “Reading the script, there were a great many scenes that didn’t make sense to me. But when we were shooting. Lewis knew what he was doing and tried to explain it to me. and it all came together in the end. He definitely had a vision.”
Many will be surprised to learn that the psycho Santa was a member of the original cast of Sesame Street! “I was part of a character team named Buddy and Jim,” Maggart remembers. “We were like a Polish joke come to life, trying to solve problems and messing things up. I was on the whole first year. They were put out with me because I left to do Applause on Broadway with Lauren Bacall. They were real controlling, wanting to approve everything we did on the outside. They would certainly not have approved of Christmas Evil!”
At the open auditions, a young Kathleen Turner was one of the hopeful tryouts for the part of Harry’s sister-in-law (played in the movie by Dianne Hull). The production employed mostly Manhattan unknowns, and features the film debut of Jeffrey DeMunn and early appearances by Peter Friedman, Raymond J. Barry and Rutanya Alda. Sharp-eyed Home Improvement viewers will notice Patricia Richardson in a small role as one of the film’s many mean parents. The crew included future Big Easy cinematographer Alfonso Beato and Pulp Fiction editor Sally Menke. and the Christmas party dance scene not only features members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, but was choreographed by Meryl Streep’s brother!
Interview with Director Lewis Jackson
You wrote the script for You Better Watch Out/Christmas Evil over a period of 8 years. How long did it take for it to form into what we see onscreen? How much changed between drafts?
Lewis Jackson: The first draft of the script was very different, written in about ’72 and ended with Harry in Central Park, surrounded by helicopters beaming searchlights down on him. I don’t even remember if they killed him. Anyway, I hated it and put it in a drawer for years. In the mid-seventies, I took it out and did another draft, actually two and that is much closer to the final film except it was a much bigger budget project. People liked it but no one was willing to make it. I moved on and got a screenwriting deal in Hollywood. Cut to late ’78. A yurt in Vermont. My girlfriend at that time read the script and convinced me to go back one more time. I took out the more expensive scenes. In 1979, I found financing.
How did the rights for Christmas Evil slip away from you for a bit and how did you re-secure them? And is this why it’s no longer titled You Better Watch Out?
Lewis Jackson: One of my two producers was at one time a very wealthy man. Had sixty million dollars during the go go years of the ’60’s stock market which is a hell of a lot more money these days. He lost everything in a stock market plunge but became famous for paying everything back. He had always been looking for another killing and he thought the Christmas movie after the success of Halloween was his meal ticket. First I went over budget (actually doubled it) which is a whole different story. Then when it was finished, he had a deal with a good distributor but his demands drove the guy crazy and he backed out of the deal. That’s when I lost touch for a while. And in that interim, the film got sold to a schlock company that changed the name and eventually caused bootlegs to turn up everywhere and under many fly by night company’s names. It wasn’t till about 2004 that I decided to get it back. I got my original lawyer involved and got the blessing of my old second producer. We contacted all the bootleggers and claimed we had a copyright that no one seemed to have noticed. My print always had the original title on it.
There are elements of Freudian regression/death drive as well as Deleuzian notion on “becoming” (Harry’s life is a process of becoming, recovering, and ultimately destroying the idea of Santa) which reflects upon your interest in Hitchcock. Were you thinking of these philosophical concepts when writing the script?
Lewis Jackson: Freud was always, certainly back then, a strong influence in my life. As for the “becoming” part, I think that was part of my unconscious. I didn’t so much want to destroy Santa as reinvent him. And the film is concerned with a kind of left-wing notion of power. I was a big fan of the magazine, semiotexte. Deleuze actually wrote for it. Another big influence was Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology Of Fascism. I hope this doesn’t take away from the fun of the movie. (Hatched note: it doesn’t!)
Brandon Maggart is absolutely incredible as the disturbed Harry. He’s at once scary, sad, funny, normal, and homicidal. How did he come into playing the role?
Lewis Jackson: I lost my first Harry. George Dzunza, the bartender from The Deer Hunter (1978). We had different views of the story. He wanted to turn it into Marty. I was on a frantic search to replace him with very little time before shooting started. A casting agent suggested Brandon. He did a test, it was perfect. His background though was a Broadway musical comedy star. He was in Top Banana with Phil Silvers amongst other things. And he was on the first season of Sesame Street. I think all that came into how he played the role.
You’ve said that you didn’t intend to make a horror movie with Christmas Evil, how do you feel about it being co-opted into the horror film cannon? It probably didn’t help that it was released the same year as Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th or took place during a holiday like Carpenter’s Halloween.
I actually got the film made because of the success of Halloween. And I let the misconception stand to get the money. There are so-called horror elements but they are blended in with melodrama and surrealism.
The film certainly doesn’t fit within the subgenre characteristics of the “slasher” what are your thoughts about the “slasher” and the misleading association between it and Christmas Evil?
The influences beside Hitchcock and Lang are Sirk and Fassbinder. And by the way, I hate slasher movies. Killing girls who have sex was a very Reaganesque idea that still seems to play with evangelicals. I was offered an easter bunny killer movie because I had made a holiday killer movie. it’s repulsive. Just for the record, Friday the 13th sucks.
At Jackson’s insistence, Christmas Evil was shot almost entirely on location during the holidays, with only a few pickup shots filmed on sets built on a mock soundstage at a VFW hall in Union City. New Jersey. Famed European cinematographer Ricardo (Providence) Aronovich made Christmas Evil his first American movie after Jackson tracked him down in Vienna and begged him to do it. “It’s an amazing-looking film, though you cannot tell that from the video transfers floating around out there,” the director sighs. “If you saw it on the big screen, it would blow you away. It’s a totally different animal.”
“Eighteen hours a day, six days a week in subzero temperatures with that itchy beard on,” is how Maggart recalls his first major movie role. “I couldn’t even take a lunch break in that thing–they had to feed me through straws. Ugh, it’s painful even to recall.”
For Jackson, however, filming was a long awaited dream come true. “It was a wonderful experience,” he remembers. “There’s a scene where Harry’s about to climb on the roof of another worker’s house. It was supposed to be snowing, but we couldn’t afford snow machines. So basically we improvised-with giant fans in the middle of the street and cut-up plastic bags. And it actually worked. Here I was, standing on a crate in the middle of the street, and we made it snow, and it dawned on me that this scene I had thought up years before was now becoming a reality. It was a magical moment for me.”
Christmas Evil works as a rarity in the genre a genuine horror/comedy. Not a spoof, or so-bad-it’s-funny camp, but a delicate dance between screams of laughter and screams of terror. In its best scenes, like one in which the killer Santa escapes the authorities by being unwittingly dragged into a festive Christmas party. laughter allows for a release of tension. As wide-eyed kids and their tipsy parents dance and play with the murderous St. Nick, the audience giggles nervously, hoping these revelers don’t slip up and invite Santa’s rage, turning the party into a bloodbath.
Maggart’s edgy. fine-tuned performance never goes over the top or becomes self-conscious. “I had asked Lewis about trying to put some comedy in the movie.” the actor recalls. “But he was adamant about me playing it all straight.”
Many things make Christmas Evil unique, but it was two elements in particular that doomed the film to be pushed out of the range of acceptable B-movie fare of the day. First, Jackson and Maggart paint the character of Harry as a deeply repressed and disturbed violent schizophrenic, yet still spotlight his sincere. if misguided, caring. Sceries of Harry playing with children are genuinely tender and moving. and unlike other holiday horrors, the stalker is the character with whom audience sympathies
“He’s not a malevolent guy, he’s just ill,” explains Maggart. “In his mind, he’s doing things right. He definitely has his moral beliefs. He’s just dim. He’s a big grown-up kid who’s trying to do things the right way.” “It’s twofold,” adds Jackson about creating sympathy for a psycho. “I genuinely believe in Christmas and love Christmas. and so does Harry, and that shines through, Also, there’s a real sense of morality in the character. He’s dispensing justice. He’s punishing evil and corrupt people.”
Before shooting, Pressman, Jackson and Maggart all watched Fritz Lang’s M for inspiration on how to approach the killer Claus. “Peter Lorre’s character did terrible things.” explains Maggart, “but he has that speech when they capture him: ‘You people have a choice to kill me or not to kill me. I don’t have a choice. I have to do the terrible things I do.’ That’s what Lewis wanted a sense of sympathy, that he’s just a lost soul.”
The film’s climax. though, as Harry is forced over a cliff only to find his beat-up Santa van magically flying through the air, was the final stumbling block. A total surprise, the film’s closing irony elicits knowing smiles from a few viewers but confusion from most. “The first time I saw it with a real audience was on 42nd Street.” Jackson recalls. “There was a decidedly mixed reaction to the ending. It was supposed to be funny, and some people got it, but some people, even on 42nd Street, were deeply offended. When I wrote the ending, I felt very inspired, and knew what I was trying to communicate, but most people just could not get it. I guess that’s why it’s called a cult film only a certain amount of people will understand it.”
I was doing a play at the Astor Place Theatre in Manhattan-Dennis McIntyre’s Modigliani and we were a hot show. I guess as a result of that, I got offered this part, which I shot at the same time; we filmed during the day, and then I would go to the theater at night. It was not at Christmastime, but it was cold, and we shot one day in the rain, and as a result of that I got sick and lost my voice. And for the first and last time in my life, I missed a day of work [on the play). So another young actor took over for me, and ended up plunging a knife into his hand seven times, because in the scene, Modigliani destroys paintings with a knife and he had his hand underneath, and this actor had never used a real knife, had never destroyed a canvas. So some real bloodshed came out of that, and it was that event that made me say, “I will never miss a day of work again!” And I haven’t. – Jeffrey DeMunn
The film’s comic climate is aided greatly by a choice soundtrack of (uncredited) weird and forgotten holiday tunes, including James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto,” “Daddy’s Drinking Up Our Christmas” and a number of tunes from Phil Spector’s “Christmas Gift for You.” “I wrote the script with Phil Spector’s Christmas album on for all those years,” remembers Jackson. “It’s one of the greatest records ever made. Getting the rights to the music was a nightmare. There was this one old jazz number where they said we had to find each member of the orchestra and ask their permission to use the song! And this is for a record dating from 1934! I was hoping that maybe they’d release a soundtrack album, but it never came to be.”
Expecting an exploitation movie programmer and getting a dark, subversive neo-comedy. major studios and distributors passed on Christmas Evil. “I thought it had a shot, and that Lewis showed a lot of talent as a director,” says Pressman.
“But Bert couldn’t get companies to deal with it properly because of the content. We had similar problems with The Crow. where because of the tragedy that had befallen Brandon Lee. people wouldn’t touch it.”
“I always saw it as a black comedy, not a slasher movie.” Jackson says. “But people had a hard time seeing the film for what it was. I remember screening it for Hollywood people, and somebody said to me, “You know, if you had only had Santa break off one of the kids’ fingers and eat it, I could make you a millionaire.’ I swear that’s a direct quote. People just didn’t get it. I was criticizing the American way of life, and let’s face it-Hollywood is the biggest Purveyor of traditional American values.”
In addition to lukewarm industry response, Kleiner’s complicated deal with the investors caused the film to become entangled in a financial paper trail that prevented it from opening theatrically on its projected Christmas 1980 release date. During the second attempt, the controversy surrounding Silent Night. Deadly Night led to the MPAA clamping down on Christmas Evil, foreing a different ad campaign at the last minute and leading to yet another aborted opening. Finally receiving a seasonal release some time later, the movie only made it to a handful of theaters.
The film died a quiet death theatrically, but enough people caught it on video (as both Christmas Evil and Terror in Toyland) to give it something of an afterlife. TV Guide named it one of their top 10 Christmas features, and in his book Crackpot, John Waters devotes an entire page to the movie, calling it “a true cinematic masterpiece” and “the best seasonal film of all time.”
Years after making it. Maggart is admittedly surprised at the interest in Christmas Evil, and downright shocked to hear that sources as mainstream as Movie & Video Guide editor Maltin have chosen to give the film, and his performance. high praise. “I haven’t seen it in years, but I feel a lot of it is overdone. But that’s my fault. As far as the rest of the movie, I’ll take the fifth on that. Most people like some parts of it, and a couple of people were completely offended by it, and there were a few weirdos who thought it was really great.” the actor laughs.
Though he had to work with a smaller budget, Jackson found that because there wasn’t as much at stake, financially, he was able to stick to his vision—for the most part. He did lose some control over the final edit, and the title was changed. Jackson didn’t realize it would be called Christmas Evil until he was a handed a poster with that title.
Brandon Maggart as Harry Stadling
Gus Salud as young Harry Stadling
Jeffrey DeMunn as Philip Stadling
Wally Moran as young Philip Stadling
Dianne Hull as Jackie Stadling
Joe Jamrog as Frank Stoller
Peter Neuman as Moss Garcia
Scott McKay as Mr. Fletcher
Peter Friedman as Mr. Grosch
Burt Kleiner as Mr. Wiseman
Patricia Richardson as Mrs. Garcia
Mark Margolis as Christmas party accoster