It’s that magical time of year again and nothing says Christmas like a deranged, knife wielding man in a grubby Santa suit (your yuletide traditions may vary). Last Christmas, I took a brief look into SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT. This year my gift to you is a full length rambling on one of the more esoteric killer Santa movies around, 1980’s CHRISTMAS EVE (aka YOU BETTER WATCH OUT).
Harry (Brandon Maggart) is traumatized as a boy when he sees Santa (actually his dad) getting down and dirty with his mom late one Christmas Eve. Skip ahead thirty years and Harry is a peculiar sad sack with a Santa obsession who works at a joyless toy factory. When not picking up extra shifts for his manipulative co-workers, he’s spying on the local children and keeping notes on who is being naughty and nice. After becoming infuriated by his boss’s plan to selfishly scam a charity, Harry super glues on a white beard and decides to become the jolly old elf himself. He breaks into people’s houses, bringing toys to the nice children, sacks of dirt to the naughty ones, and a spike in the eye to some snooty rich bastards. Harry’s sanity continues to deteriorate, and soon he finds himself hunted by both the police and a neighborhood mob bent on bloody justice.
I have to get this out of the way from the start. What the hell is with horror movies of this period and kids growing up into homicidal maniacs after catching their parents having sex? I have no doubt that would mess up a little guy, but drive him to murder? Where did we get that notion? Has there ever been a recorded serial killer who said, “Well, it all started when I walked in on my dad dressed like a French maid getting it on with my mom.” In horror movies, it’s almost guaranteed to fill a kid with repressed psychotic urges. It happens in NIGHTMARE and PATRICK. There is a variation on the theme in PIECES.
And it happens here. Young Harry sneaks down the stairs to witness Santa sliding his hands up his mother’s gams. That’s all it took to plant the murderous seed. At least Billy from SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT saw his parents being killed by Santa. I can understand how that could leave a mental scar. In comparison, Harry’s motivation for becoming a Yuletide slayer seems like an overreaction. I haven’t really researched this, to be honest, so maybe there is a precedent. Maybe the dude who wrote “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” went on a killing spree years later.
Pre-spree, Harry does an admirable job of trying to deal with his trauma on his own. As part of his flooding therapy, he has learned to love the shit out of the spirit of Christmas. He sleeps in Santa pajamas, has loads of Santa memorabilia tacked up on his apartment walls, and proselytizes to his co-workers at the toy factory about the importance of making quality toys and bringing joy to the children. Oh, and he watches children through binoculars and records their behavior in giant, leather bound books. That part is less admirable.
Those actions made Harry come off like a weirdo back then, but these days, it makes him seem like he should be behind bars for that alone. It’s a bit more than a warning sign. He also has an extremely harsh rating system for who is naughty and who is nice. Most of the kids on his block are courteous enough to make it in the nice book, but he gives the Penthouse reading Moss an entire page of demerits. One of them is for picking his nose. Back off, dude, the kid thought he was alone. Everyone has to pick their nose sometime. It’s not like he’s torturing cats, or, you know, spying on people.
All the kids seem to like him, though. They call out to him when he’s walking down the street, playing a game of “What Would You Wish For” with him. He’s pleased with all their answers until Moss wishes for a lifetime subscription to Penthouse. Harry doesn’t say anything, but his look screams, “Son of a bitch! You ruined it!”
This is a weird little horror movie. It's more of a slow burn character study, like WHEN A STRANGER CALLS or DRILLER KILLER, than a rampage movie like the SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHTs. Brandon Maggart does a great job giving this socially awkward basket case a bit of a sympathetic side. He delivers presents to disabled kids. He stands up for children against their selfish and oblivious parents. The final push that transforms him—body and mind—into Santa comes from his moral disgust at his greedy and corrupt boss. He has good intentions, but he has a messed up way of going about them.
Maggart's portrayal masterfully flows back and forth between compassionate and creepy as fuck. His giddiness as he makes his Santa suit and stuffs his sack with toys is heartwarming, but then he is seen working in his toy workshop surrounded by the twisted, evil play things he’s made. He breaks into a house with a knife, only to use it to cut the twine on all the presents he puts under the tree.
My favorite example of his conflicting motivation is when he is entertaining a bunch of kids at an office party he gets pulled into. Everyone is laughing and smiling when Santa says he will bring more gifts for the good boys and girls next year, but if they are naughty, he will bring them something…horrible. There is a beat of dead silence and then Harry bursts out laughing. The kids start laughing right along, but the awkward smiles and sideways glances from all the parents are priceless.
Most of the movie is about building the tension and dread that horrible things are going to happen, but there is one fantastically random payoff of violence. Harry is standing in front of a church that is letting out of midnight mass. A group of snobbish yuppies surround him and start making fun of him for handing out presents. One fop proclaims “I have superlative tastes.” Harry shows him a handcrafted toy soldier and then stabs him in the eye with it. He dispatches the others with a candy cane striped hatchet. I guess the most severe section of the naughty list is reserved for condescending pricks.
Maggart still manages to be sympathetic after this horrific outburst because Harry has a genuine desire to be Santa and bring joy to children, rather than simply be a maniac in a Santa suit looking for vengeance. It’s just not going well for him. There is a great scene where he attempts to enter a house though the chimney. His reaction changes from excitement at the thought of it, to disappointment when he realizes it won’t work, to panic when he gets stuck. He eventually frees himself, but it is nearly an unceremonious end to his new career.
Even though the movie plays up the tension when kids are around Harry, the worst punishment he doles out for “naughty” ones is delivering a sack of dirt to the doorstep of the Penthouse enthusiast. If he wasn’t so outrageously misguided and inappropriate, his relationship with the kids might be considered sweet. Near the end, when he’s hunted by the cops and looking bedraggled, a group of boys and girls spot him in an alley and surround him adoringly. The kids’ parents come around the corner and realize he must be the killer Santa everyone is talking about. One tough guy dad in a leather jacket comes at him with a switchblade, but the children form a protective circle around Harry. The bruiser’s daughter even attacks him, making him drop his knife, which she pick up and hands to Harry. I was expecting the moral of this story to be: “Kids, if you see a dirty Santa in an alley, don’t hand him a switchblade”, but Harry just runs away without harming the kids or their parents.
In fact, the only kid that ever gets hurt is Moss the pervert. When he tells his mom (played by Patricia Richardson, the mom from Home Improvement) that Santa is lurking in the bushes, she hauls off and slaps him across the face. The parents in this movie come off looking as bad as Harry, and sometimes worse. She’s the one who should get the sack of dirt.
Incidentally, a lot of familiar faces show up in tiny roles in this movie. Harry’s brother Phil is played by Jeffrey DeMunn, famous from Hill Street Blues, The Walking Dead, and everything Frank Darabont has ever done. Mark Margolis—Tio Salamanca from Breaking Bad—shows up briefly. Raymond J. Barry—Arlo Givens from Justified—is a police detective. It’s a movie that will have you saying, “Hey, it’s Whatshisname!” a lot.
Eventually, the story goes fully into FRANKENSTEIN territory with an angry mob chasing after Harry. With torches, even! Any Neighborhood Watch that keeps premade torches handy—in New York, no less—is not fucking around. No pitchforks, unfortunately. Harry can't even find sanctuary with his brother. Phil, furious at Harry for his poor life choices and generally being a bad brother, winds up almost choking him to death.
The film’s strangest turn is saved for the end. [Spoiler] As Harry drives off in his van with a sleigh panted on the side, he swerves to avoid the mob and runs off a cliff. Instead of plummeting to his death, Harry laughs in wonder as his van flies across the night sky, while a narrator recites the final line of “The Night Before Christmas”.
My first reaction to this was yelling “holy what the fuck?!” On reflection, however, there might have been a few subtle hints here and there that suggests this was more than a straight forward psycho Santa movie, like when it started to snow when Harry shouts “Merry Christmas!” Now that I think about it, maybe that wasn’t Harry’s dad fondling his mom by the fireplace, maybe it really was Santa. Or perhaps the magic of Santa lives in all of us.
But especially the creepy weirdos.
But especially the creepy weirdos.