YOU BETTER WATCH OUT (aka: CHRISTMAS EVIL)
(director/writer: Lewis Jackson; cinematographer: Ricardo Aronovich; editors: Corky O’Hara/Linda Leeds; music: ; cast: Brandon Maggart (Harry Straddling), Jeffrey DeMunn (Phillip Straddling), Dianne Hull (Jackie Stadling), Joe Jamrog (Frank Stoller), Marian Vitale (Mrs. Stoller); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Burt Kleiner/Pete Kameron; ; 1980)
“The film is noted for starting a sub-genre of the jolly St. Nick as a psycho slasher killer.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Writer-director Lewis Jackson helms his only film, a black comedy cult favorite Yuletide psychological thriller that offers a pertinent character study on a grownup crushed by his brief disappointing childhood experience with Santa Claus and is traumatized for life. It asks the question what makes its loving anti-hero a homicidal killer. Though there are many splendid scenes, there are also too many low-points that kill the film’s pace and leave it stumbling around in the dark trying to get a grip on what it exactly wants to say about the Christmas spirit.
The film is noted for starting a sub-genre of the jolly St. Nick as a psycho slasher killer. How one perceives it as a Christmas film depends on one’s taste and values, as it seems more suited for the viewer who is not afraid to stray far afield from the traditional Christmas movie. But this is not a Christmas classic, it’s merely a strange movie with limitations in its production values, storytelling and wooden acting from the kiddies–but, it’s a weird film that can creep you out without turning you off.
It opens with a flashback to 1947, Christmas Eve,when Harry Straddling, a believer in Santa Claus, as an eight-year-old climbs down the house stairs from his bedroom and discovers his mom being groped by Santa Claus in the Christmas decorated living room. Harry’s 6-year-old brother Phillip doesn’t believe in Santa Claus and tells his dreamy-eyed brother that Santa is merely pop in disguise, and not to worry. But Harry worries, and this one incident is blamed for Harry going-over-the-edge.
We return to the present in 1980 and sad-sack Harry (Brandon Maggart) is a loner adult, who works for the Jolly Dream toy company where he was just promoted from the assembly line to a low-level executive position because of his push for making quality toys. This stand makes Harry unpopular with some of the more vocal workers, as it seems to them to be a pro-management stand to make them work harder without any reward. They fail to realize that Harry is obsessed with Christmas and the giving of toys as presents to children, and still believes that toys are important for kids to have so they can experience the joys of life. In a creepy Peeping Tom way, Harry spies on the neighborhood kids and keeps a book on who is naughty and who is nice. For one girl he jots in his Santa book that she is well-behaved, but for one boy he notes after catching him reading a Penthouse magazine that he has bad hygiene.
Harry’s normal brother Phillip (Jeffrey DeMunn) lives in an upscale suburban house with an attractive wife (Dianne Hull) and two well-behaved young boys. Phillip can’t help belittling his loser brother, though trying to be protective, interested in his mental health and always inviting him over for the holidays.
The nutty Harry finally acts out his desire to be Santa Claus on Christmas Eve by dressing for the part and bringing presents in a van, in which he painted on the side a sleigh, for all the needy children at the local hospital. But Harry becomes insanely violent when three nasty parishioners leaving a church verbally mock him on the outside steps and he retaliates by brutally stabbing them to death with one of his toy soldiers and smashing them with an ax. Harry then goes to the home of Frank (Joe Jamrog), a bully assembly line worker who mocked Harry and tricked him into working his shift on the assembly line, and after leaving presents for his children smothers to death Frank while he’s sleeping with his wife. A police hunt for the psycho Santa is on the way on Christmas Day, with a funny scene of all the city Santas being put through a police station lineup with Frank’s wife asked to identify the killer Santa. Meanwhile the concerned people in town hold torches at night searching by foot for the killer, someone they are prepared to lynch (a reference to the Frankenstein film, to show how the mob doesn’t understand the monster). Harry is now completely deranged, but on the street the children like him even if their parents don’t. The climatic scene has Harry arrive at Phillip’s house, still dressed as Santa, and with his brother realizing that he’s the killer–Harry admits he has been a failure and feels the world is a poorer place because adults don’t believe in Santa like most did as children. With that the loony Harry, who wanted to do good deeds and just wanted to be liked by the children and respected by their parents, rides his Santa van over a bridge and joyfully wishes all a Merry X-mas.
It’s an odd film that sets an eerie atmosphere and has a haunting performance by Maggart, but ends on a rather dour note. The pathetic boring loser, losing all his marbles, believes that it’s his mission in life to kill the hypocritical adults who take the joy out of Christmas for the kiddies. The story is not helped when the filmmaker can’t quite articulate what he’s driving at (aiming for the theme of the Frankenstein film that society is the real monster, which becomes hard to carry off after all of the vicious murders by the psycho Santa). The spotty narrative is missing a few ingredients even if it remains entertaining as a curio that acts as a possible anti-dote to all those inane cheery holiday flicks that always flood the market during the Christmas season.
REVIEWED ON 12/21/2011 GRADE: B https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/