My favourite psycho Santa appeared in All Through the Night, the opening instalment in Amicus’ 1972 portmanteau Tales from the Crypt. Set on Christmas Eve, this miniature horror tale opened with Joan Collins killing her husband. As she prepares to dispose of the body, news comes over the radio of a maniac on the loose dressed in the traditional Santa get-up. Spotting the man in question outside, Collins is unable to inform the police without alerting them to her own crime. Her daughter, however, believes him to be the real Father Christmas and happily invites him into their home so that his killing spree may continue…
Part of the pleasure of All Through the Night was its simplicity. There was no backstory, just a psycho in red-and-white and a fake beard terrorising Collins through her suburban semi-detached. Christmas Evil, released eight years later, went for the opposite approach, choosing to get to know its killer Claus rather than present the viewer with a faceless maniac. For this particular psychopath it all dates back to Christmas Eve 1947 when, as a young boy, he witnessed Santa (actually his dressed-up father) squeezing mommy’s thighs in front of the fireplace. Fast-forward to the present day and little Harry is now in his forties and harbouring an unhealthy obsession with all things festive. Wearing Santa-alike pyjamas is the least of his quirks; spying on the neighbourhood kids and, quite literally, making a list to find out who’s naughty and nice is by far the more troublesome pastime.
Christmas Evil sticks with Harry for some time before the killings commence. There’s an eye gouging to be had, some axe attacks and more, but first we’re invited to spend a few days in his company. We spy along with him (little Moss Garcia rifles through an issue of Penthouse earning himself an entry in the ‘naughty book’ for “negative hygiene thoughts”), we work alongside him (at a toy factory, naturally) and we slowly get to know him as the mask of sanity gradually begins to slip. Admittedly we’re not quite dealing with a psychological portrait akin to Taxi Driver here (a more pertinent comparison would be something like William Lustig’s Maniac), but writer-director Lewis Jackson does offer up a little depth and nuance. As played by Brandon Maggart (the real-life father of Fiona Apple), Harry is at once sympathetic and repulsive. We can see that he’s a troubled individual, though also, perhaps, one who’s not beyond help. Or at least that’s the case prior to the stabbings and the slayings.
During his two audio commentaries (one solo, one with John Waters) Jackson reels off his various influences. Rainer Werner Fassbinder played a key part in inspiring the décor, Fritz Lang’s M earns itself a little homage, as does Joseph Losey’s The Servant. In keeping with such highbrow names and pictures, Jackson also sought out Ricardo Aronovich to become his cinematographer. The man who shot films for Louis Malle (Le Souffle au coeur), Alain Resnais (Providence), Costa-Gavras (Missing) and Raul Ruiz (Time Regained, Klimt) may not seem the most obvious choice for a modestly budgeted horror movie, but then his presence also points up the very fact that Christmas Evil isn’t your typical horror pic. Whilst it never achieves the heights of Fassbinder, Lang or Losey, such aspirations do at least elevate it above the majority of films of its ilk. Indeed, when compared to the killer Santa flicks that have emerged in its wake – Psycho Santa, Satan Claus, Santa Claws, Santa’s Slay, all those Silent Night, Deadly Night sequels – it’s something of a masterpiece of the genre. And the ending is just perfect.
Christmas Evil comes to UK DVD courtesy of the Arrow Video range. An extras-packed edition, it also provides a decent – if not quite perfect – presentation. The film is framed at 1.78:1 (anamorphically enhanced), uncut and in generally good condition, if a little washed out. Damage is minimal as are any side-effects from its transfer to disc, with the quality being such that you can certainly appreciate Ricardo Aronovich’s photography and the added class which he brings. The soundtrack appears in its original mono form and is similarly in mostly good shape. Optional English subtitles are also available for the hard-of-hearing.
Special features are plentiful, including interviews, deleted scenes, two commentaries and more besides. Writer-director Lewis Jackson pops up for both of the commentary tracks, one of which sees him appear solo and is chockfull of information, the other in partnership with John Waters (Christmas Evil’s self-proclaimed number one fan) and as chatty as you would expect. Interestingly, the Pink Flamingos director sees Harry as just another cross-dressing psycho, except here his kick is Santa rather than the opposite sex. Jackson also appears for a quick-fire seven-minute interview as does his lead actor Brandon Maggart. Be warned, however, that both of these were produced by Troma and as such are considerably less serious than the other extras. (Sgt Kabukiman even pops up for the Maggart piece.) Elsewhere the disc presents 25-minutes of audition tapes with an amazing collection of future stars: JoBeth Williams, Michael Beck, Lindsay Crouse, George Dzundza, Sledge Hammer!’s David Rasche and more. Unfortunately, tapes of the Glenn Close and Kathleen Turner auditions weren’t available. We also get three deleted scenes (totalling six minutes), a gallery of Jackson’s storyboards and a booklet containing, among others, pieces from Waters and Kim Newman.