I first discovered 1980's Christmas Evil (a.k.a. You Better Watch Out and Terror In Toyland) when I found it in one of those 10 packs of public domain horror movies that Brentwood/BCI Eclipse was putting out a few years ago. Based on the title I had assumed this to be a Christmas slasher flick along the lines of Silent Night, Deadly Night, but there's a bit more going on here. Try to imagine Taxi Driver as a Christmas movie and Travis Bickle as a man obsessed with the idea of making Santa Claus real. Christmas Evil isn't in the same class as Scorsese's flick, but both are stories about loners with dark obsessions, and Christmas Evil makes for some fun if seriously twisted holiday viewing.
Harry Stadling had his belief in St. Nick brought to a tragic end at a young age. To paraphrase the classic song, he saw mommy getting busy with Santa Claus (actually, it was his Dad in costume), and he hasn't been quite right since. Harry grows up to become a man with more issues than National Geographic, and he is driven by the idea of making Santa Claus real in his own way. He spies on the neighborhood children with binoculars, keeping track of which ones are naughty and which ones are nice, (the kid with the Deborah Harry issue of Penthouse is a particular troublemaker) and he works at the Jolly Dream toy factory. His recent promotion to management doesn't allow him to work on the assembly line, and he misses working directly with the toys. His relationships with his co-workers are strained because to them it's just a job and they don't take the business of toy making seriously.
When Harry finds out that the factory's promise of toys for a children's hospital is little more than a publicity stunt, he dons the familiar whiskers and costume of Kris Kringle and loads his van up with stolen toys. Harry's glee at seeing the snow white beard glued to his face is utterly disturbing. He delivers the toys to the hospital in full costume and character, and it is obviously the high point of his life. Things take a darker turn when Harry, dressed as Santa, waits outside a church for the owner of Jolly Dream Toys. He can't reach his boss through the crowd, but manages to take out three obnoxious churchgoers with a hatchet and a toy soldier. He takes things even further by invading the home of a co-worker who had conned Harry into covering his shift. I think this is the only time I've ever seen murder committed with a Christmas tree star. Santa is quickly placed on the most wanted list, and everyone wearing the suit is rounded up and questioned by the police. The ending of the film is positively insane and I'm still not sure if that's a good or bad thing. Suffice it to say you will be left scratching your head.
People looking for non-stop horror action will be disappointed as the blood doesn't start to flow until well into the movie, but the film works because of its believable representation of a man's descent into insanity. Bradley Maggart is thoroughly convincing in the lead, Harry's brother Philip is played by veteran actor Jeffrey DeMunn (who can currently be seen in The Mist), and Patricia Richardson who played Tim Allen's wife on Home Improvement has a small role as the mother of a naughty child. A little judicious editing might have helped with the film's slower moments, but if you're looking for a very non-traditional sort of Christmas movie then give it a look.
There are several versions of this movie available on DVD. The aforementioned Brentwood/BCI Eclipse version is still available as part of their Tales of Terror 10 movie pack, with a scratchy but watchable fullscreen print. There's also a version being distributed by Troma which appears to be the same one Brentwood/BCI Eclipse offers. The definitive version appears to be the one offered by Synapse Films, which presents the film in widescreen with a bunch of extras including an audio commentary from director Lewis Jackson (this was his only feature) as well as a second commentary track in which Jackson is joined by John Waters. Waters was not involved with the making of the film, but he has been its most outspoken supporter for years.