Sunday, December 4, 2022

Christmas Evil (1980) : Deck the Halls with Despair

Christmas Evil
--a.k.a. You Better Watch Out-- has gained a reputation as a rather obscure holiday horror film, and doesn't really fit into the typical killer Santa category. It's admittedly a bizarre film.  At its start, it's even a little slow and boring. But upon closer inspection, you can see the main character's decline into mental fragility coming into full view. The holidays are a precarious time for anyone who has had any trauma or loss in their life, and our sad Santa is suffering from a particular kind of PTSD.

On Christmas Eve, young Harry Stadling and his younger brother witness Santa Claus putting gifts under the Christmas tree.  Shortly thereafter, when Harry should be in bed, he hears murmuring and goes downstairs to take a look.  He sees Santa and his mother fondling each other and looking to take things to the next level.  Shocked, Harry rushes to the attic where, in the throes of hurtful dismay, he cuts himself on a snow globe he throws to the floor.

Thirty-some years later, Harry is weirdly and thoroughly obsessed with the man in the red suit.  He awakes each morning to a Christmas carousel alarm, plays carols all day, and has his entire apartment decorated for Christmas no matter what month it is.  He himself even dresses like Santa to sleep.  Though it's obvious he has some mental health issues, Harry manages to hold down a low level management position at the Jolly Dreams toy factory.  His co-workers make fun of him behind his back and trick him into working extra shifts on the assembly line making toys.  

Perhaps the most disturbing is Harry's habit of watching the neighborhood children to see who is "nice" and who is "naughty", taking it so far as to have two giant books in his apartment that he documents his findings, as in "Billy has impure thoughts" and "Susie is a little darling". While this is a disconcerting situation, it never quite gets to a creepy sexual level, thankfully. 

Harry comes to genuinely believe that he is the true Santa Claus - and he doesn't like how "bad" not only the kids but the adults, have become.  When one of his co-workers asks him to work a shift so he can be with his family, Harry agrees - only to discover Frank drinking and carrying on at the local pub.  

Harry's brother Phil invites him to Thanksgiving dinner with his family but Harry can't be bothered, and cancels last minute. He's still enraged about his co-worker lying.  He also gets upset when he finds out the owner of the Jolly Dreams factory is duplicitous in his idea of donating toys to kids - it turns out the staff has to work overtime and donate their own money.  

All of these things prey on Harry's mind until he pretty much snaps.  He dresses as Santa, steals toys from the factory, and paints his van like a sleigh. It's obvious that at this point, he truly believes he IS Santa Claus, and feels the need to exact revenge - while at the same time providing toys for the disadvantaged (and "good") children.  He takes off, starting with a local hospital, where he leaves bags of toys.  When he arrives at the local church right after Christmas Eve services, he is teased by a bunch of local yokels, and that's when he truly begins his reign of terror, killing the men and then quickly driving off, heading next to his co-worker Frank's house and then to the company Christmas party.

It's such a sad story, to be honest.  The depths of Harry's mental illness are not immediately recognizable, but come out in droves once he is pushed over the edge.  I think everyone can relate to having the holiday blues - or even getting completely overwhelmed and stressed out by all the expectations, but Harry's lapse of reality is next level. The worst part is that he has no one to help him.  His brother and co-workers surely all noticed that he was teetering on the edge of madness.  The trauma from his childhood caused the odd obsession with Santa, even pushing into believe he WAS Saint Nick himself.  

While some could see this film as not worthy of a watch because it does take its time to engage viewers, building poor Harry's tale of mental sickness slowly - which in turn makes it all the more believable.  The more angry he gets, the more delusional and reckless he becomes, culminating in his expected -- and quite frankly, pitiful-- downfall.  

The way society treats its "outcasts" is one of the reasons why the amount of mental illness that goes undetected and untreated is so high, particularly in America. It's a disgrace that more care is not taken.  We all should be watching for signs of depression, anxiety and other mental struggles in our families, friends, co-workers, neighbors.....anyone.  Sometimes people just need a friendly hello.  Sometimes they need intensive therapy.  It's not always easy to see, and it's not always easy to get involved, but it's something we all should be more aware of.  

I don't mean to be preachy, after all, this is just a horror movie.  But within the 90+ minute running time, there are plenty of examples of things to watch for - in the movie, and in real life.  And that gives "You Better Watch Out" a whole new meaning, doesn't it?

1 comment:

Caffeinated Joe said...

I've watched this one a few times over the years, and the other day I was reading a chapter on it in the Yuletide Terror book and decided to rewatch, again. This time, my wife watched with me. She thought it was just weird, but she isn't as into the older, lower budget things. For me, I felt that sadness this time. You don't get a ton of time to feel bad for his victims, we mainly stay with this dude as he gets more depressed, angry and then over that edge. Even the people who are the only two who supposedly care about him don't help. His brother is just angry that he hasn't lived up to some potential, disregarding his obvious mental health struggle. His sister-in-law does have a soft spot for him, and voices this to her husband, but doesn't push past his denial. Sad.