Christmas Evil isn't the sleazy Santa slasher you'd expect.
The film opens on Christmas Eve. A young boy named Harry wanders downstairs and spies his father, dressed as Santa, fondling his half-naked mother.
I know, I said the film wasn't sleazy. Stay with me.
Fast-forward thirty years and Harry (now played by Brandon Maggart) has developed an obsession with Santa. His shabby apartment overflows with Christmas knick-knacks and Santa artwork. He spies on the neighborhood children and catalogs their activities in large tomes dedicated to the naughty and nice. He even works in a dingy toy factory.
On Christmas Eve night, Harry dons his handmade Santa costume. At first, he's overjoyed as he delivers toys to children in a mental hospital. But then his attention turns to the naughty and his mood darkens. A chance confrontation turns violent and bloody. Harry flees, unsure what went wrong. He finds solace in a neighborhood Christmas party where he's the delight of the local children. But soon he's alone again, and the high of the party gives way to another dangerous low. More violence follows, spiraling out of control and leading to an outrageous finale that I dare not reveal, but which casts the film as a bittersweet fable.
I admit, I went in expecting a cheesy bit of exploitation but I came out impressed. I liked the film's production. There's nary a soundstage in sight. Everything is location-based, including the New Jersey exteriors. The worn, lived-in interiors give the film a documentary veneer and added authenticity.
But most of all, I liked the film's willingness to tell a different kind of story. It hit me during the third act, which sees Harry fleeing a mob of torch-wielding neighbors, that writer/director Lewis Jackson wasn't making a slasher picture at all, he was making a monster movie.
Consider the similarities to Frankenstein (1931). Both serve as cautionary tales. Frankenstein warned against playing God. Christmas Evil warns against playing Santa. It's a laughable notion until you consider it from a child's perspective. Moral absolutes like naughty and nice don't work in the adult world, but try explaining that to a child. The film commits to this premise.
To that end, Maggart's performance makes the film. His character is very much a child trapped in a middle-aged body, and Maggart convinces. The audience I saw the film with offered no snarky chuckles or giggles; they sat transfixed. Much as in Frankenstein, we come to care about this misunderstood monster. The script helps by ensuring Harry never harms a child. It reserves Harry's murderous outbursts for the film's real creeps: the other adults. It's an important detail that lets the film earn its ending.
The more I think about Christmas Evil, the more I admire it. Will it hold up to repeat viewings? I'll let you know next Christmas.