Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Christmas Evil (1980)

As a counterpoint to more wholesome festive film fare comes Christmas Evil, a camp and entertaining effort from the glory days of the Slasher movie.

The plot centres on Harry Stadling, a boy who had his childhood illusions about Christmas shattered while watching his dad dressed in a Santa suit, groping his mom. Cut to thirty odd years later, and Harry now works in a toy factory, desperately trying to recreate those illusions for a new generation of kids. However, after a series of humiliations at work, Harry suffers a breakdown and starts to think that he is Father Christmas - although this Santa seems just as interested in punishing the naughty as rewarding the good.

Christmas Evil came out during the height of the Slasher film boom (He Knows You're Alone, Maniac, Terror Train, Don't Answer the Phone, and of course, Friday The 13th all hit cinemas in the same year), helping to kick-start a sub-genre of Santa themed killers (To All a Goodnight, Silent Night Deadly Night etc.), but is distinct from many of these. Firstly, although it is a sexual incident that drives the plot, and the killer is acting as a punisher (two staple tropes of these sort of films), the killings are not carried out as punishment for sex. Rather, they are done as a vengeance for the humiliation that Harry suffers, and his anger at people exploiting Christmas for commercial gain at the expense of goodwill.

Christmas Evil lacks the high level of grubby sleaze of others in the genre, instead going for a lurid (in a camp way), and exaggerated, almost dreamlike feel. This can be seen in the use of juxtaposition of jolly Christmas songs in the overall context of a slasher film, the portentous dialogue, odd camera angles, and sometimes ludicrous plot twists (such as the idea that a man dressed in a Santa costume could stab three people outside a busy church, drive off in a van with reindeer painted on the side, and the authorities would have trouble finding him.) Granted, the sight of Harry obsessively spying on young children through binoculars looks possibly more unnerving nowadays than on the time of release, but there is no suggestion that he is deriving any sexual gratification from this.

As a contrast to the fanciful, disorienting, illusion that Harry increasingly sees the world as, is the grimy reality of life in a small industrial town, with the small minded people who live and work there. The best of them are, at heart, good people who just want to work and provide for their families, while the worst would rather exploit the goodwill of someone like Harry, an oddball dreamer, who will never fit into the hard-drinking macho world of his colleagues.

Of course, in many ways this is still a traditional slasher, with many of the familiar tropes such as bloody killings with sharp objects and a grating wonky synth soundtrack. However these both work perfectly well within the overall over-the-top feel of the film.

Christmas Evil ends with a classic horror archetype, the tragic monster hounded by a torch wielding mob – a mob that seems to have their flaming torches suspiciously close to hand, suggesting this may not be the first time they have behaved like this. The pursuit takes place through increasingly surreal looking streets lined with white snow and glowing Christmas decorations, and it is ambiguous as to how much of this is in Harry’s imagination. There is a wonderful slightly expressionistic touch in the final shot, with Harry’s van flying off a bridge, but the angle hinting it could be heading into the sky, suggesting that, in his mind at least, Harry may finally get his wish to be Santa Claus.