Just in time for Christmas – especially since Vinegar Syndrome does not have any December titles forthcoming – CHRISTMAS EVIL hits Blu-ray/DVD combo to slay your holiday.
Ever since he saw Santa Claus kissing mommy (Ellen McElduff, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE) thirty-three years ago, Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart, DRESSED TO KILL) has had some stringent views on what it means to be "naughty or nice." Not only does he spy on the neighborhood kids to determine whether they end up with presents or a lump of coal, he also works at the Jolly Dream toy factory where - newly-promoted to management and missing the line – he tries to instill the joy of Christmas and the thrill of making good toys to assembly line workers. This holiday, however, a considerable shortage of "good will toward men" – from a Penthouse-reading little boy to a manipulative co-worker, a callous executive, and anyone else not in the Christmas spirit – causes Harry to don his hand-tailored Santa suit and take to the town with handmade toys (including toy soldiers that would definitely be recalled these days), hand-wrapped gifts, and a festive axe as he makes his way through his gift list (or is that hit list?)
An early Edward R. Pressman production – whose career spans from Brian De Palma's SISTERS and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, Terrence Malick's BADLANDS, the CONAN films, and WALL STREET through THE CROW and AMERICAN PSYCHO (with a number of nineties Abel Ferrara films in between), CHRISTMAS EVIL is a definitely singular viewing experience and a tour de force lead performance for character actor Maggart. Maggart's characterization is unfortunately let down by a script that dumps its build-up of the character's breakdown in the first act for a meandering middle and hurried end with some truly grisly murders (the gore is not too splashy but an eye-gouging and a slashed throat are disturbing because of the implements utilized), some pointless police investigation scenes, a torch-wielding mob, and a final shot capping the protagonist's delusion that will either have you chuckling or throwing something at the screen. Jeffrey DeMunn (THE HITCHER) plays Harry's younger brother Phillip, but a few tense scenes in with his wife (Dianne Hull, THE ONION FIELD) fail to give sufficient depth to his relationship with his brother and how feeling burdened with responsibility for him (even though Harry has somehow managed to hold down a job long enough to be promoted to corporate) has affected him as a husband and father. The film is more successful at gleaning suspense from scenes in which Santa's encounters with other characters could turn violent than in the killings themselves (the reception by the staff of a children's hospital to his gift of toys could have been cheesy but it manages instead to be the warm and joyous high point before Harry's final descent into madness. Had the film dared to be a bit more disturbing, it might have made a good double bill with DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE. Patricia Richardson (TV's HOME IMPROVEMENT) and Rutanya Alda (AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION) have small roles.
Not released theatrically until 1983, CHRISTMAS EVIL would soon become a home video eyesore as one of part of a line of shared titles – including Sergio Martino's THE STRANGE VICE OF SIGNORA WARD as BLADE OF THE RIPPER, Jean Brismee's THE DEVIL'S NIGHTMARE as THE DEVIL WALKS AT MIDNIGHT, Harald Reinl's THE BLOOD DEMON as CASTLE OF THE WALKING DEAD, Joy N. Houck's CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE as DEMON OF THE LAKE, Sidney Hayer's ASSAULT as THE CREEPERS, as well as SINNER'S BLOOD – in usually bottom-of-the-barrel quality from Saturn Productions, Interglobal, Regal Home Video, and Genesis Entertainment. The film then made the rounds on a couple of the Brentwood multi-film DVD sets in the same old transfer. Troma Team gave the film its first special edition in 2000 using an old video master but adding a commentary track and individual interviews with director Jackson and star Maggart. Synapse's 2006 edition featured a brand new anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer as well as two audio commentaries with director Jackson (the first solo and the second with John Waters), deleted scenes, audition tapes, and storyboard comparisons (these extras along with the Jackson and Maggart interviews would be carried over to UK Arrow Films release).
Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray and DVD combo discs feature a new widescreen (1.78:1) transfer derived from a new 4K scan of 35mm elements – bearing the title YOU BETTER WATCH OUT – that looks spectacular, doing justice to the details of the production design as well as the stylish lighting and photography of Ricardo Aronovich (whose more prestigious credits include Andrzej Zulawski's THE IMPORTANCE OF LOVE, Eduardo de Gregorio "ghost story" SERAIL, and Costa-Gavras' MISSING). The image is spotless save for the reel changes. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track is also in fine condition.
There are no new extras, but this combo release collects extras from both earlier DVD editions starting with the three commentary tracks: the Synapse-licensed one with director Lewis Jackson, the Troma-licensed Jackson/Maggart track, and the Synapse Jackson/John Waters tracks. Jackson discusses how ambitious he was on a low budget, meticulously storyboarding and going to France to approach cinematographer Aronovich (who was unaware of the inexperience of his camera crew), as well as how his lighting budget doubled the budget but paid off when the rushes were screened. He also mentions that it took over twenty years got recover his financial interest in the film after years of bootlegs under the CHRISTMAS EVIL and TERROR IN TOYLAND titles (YOU BETTER WATCH OUT is his preferred title). On the earlier Maggart/Jackson track, Jackson starts off by discussing how he feels the film was misunderstood as anti-Christmas by some and not gory enough as a slasher by others, the red and white color motif, his mistakes from inexperience (including some plot points that should have been more emphasized), and producer Pressman and his support for beginning filmmakers. He is also more focused on character motivation on this track while Maggart mainly recalls the shoot and prompts Jackson with questions. On the Jackson/Waters track, a jetlagged Jackson joins the film's "number one fan" who gives his recollections of seeing the film theatrically, writing about it, screening it at Christmas parties, and the film's fetishistic aspects. Jackson also mentions that the film was supposed to have a wider release, but the MPAA objected to the film's ad, the subsequent SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT controversy, its popularity at 42nd Street theaters, and the Pittsburgh test screening (and his own father's review). Jackson is more receptive to Waters' humor than Maggart's, and it is a better combination of anecdotes, factoids, interpretation, and ribbing.
The Blu-ray side of the package also includes storyboard and script pages from an amusement park scene that casts Harry's nephews in a less flattering light than the finished film, comment cards from a screening with remarks ranging from "of no value" and "beats Bing Crosby" to "should not be shown around Christmas, will give weirdos bad ideas" and "another reason to get Santa out of Christmas", as well as the theatrical trailer (1:43) with the CHRSITMAS EVIL title card. In addition to the film and aforementioned extras in standard definition, the DVD side of the package also includes the Troma disc interviews. Maggart (6:40) is interviewed by Chad Ferrin (UNSPEAKABLE) and Troma's Kabukiman – "Who's this freak here," Maggart asks – and expresses bewilderment at his friends who love the film, and his favorite scene being the surreal final shot. His daughter Maud – not Fiona Apple – drops by for a brief visit and scare by Kabukiman. Jackson (6:52), also interviewed by Ferrin, discusses the film's ten year development process, his earlier work (now lost), the film's troubled distribution history (resulting in bad prints, different titles, and various video releases), turning down Glenn Close and Kathleen Turner for Phillip's wife, and future projects.
The deleted scenes (6:31) include some bits about Harry's dissatisfaction with the company's implementation of his idea to bring back toy soldiers (which they cheaply construct out of plastic rather than lead as he suggested), a phone argument with his brother that gives a bit more background on each of their perspectives, an extension to the assembly line scene in which Harry cutting his hand recalls the pre-credits sequence, and a couple more blatant scenes of Harry's psychosis. The audition tapes (25:49) features not only Maggart's, DeMunn's, and McElduff's auditions but also some surprises like Richard Bright (THE GODFATHER) and George Dzundza (BASIC INSTINCT) auditioning for Harry, Wes Anderson regular Larry Pine (THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL), Michael Beck (THE WARRIORS), and David Rasche (TV's SLEDGEHAMMER) as Phillip, as well as JoBeth Williams (POLTERGEIST) and Lindsey Crouse (COMMUNION) for Phillip's wife (just as well that they were not cast since the finished film does not have much for her character to do). While some may want to hang onto their Synapse release out of brand loyalty, fans of the film can now bin their Troma disc without regret and ruin their holiday with Vinegar Syndrome's sterling upgrade. (Eric Cotenas)
BACK TO REVIEWS