You Better Watch Out

You’ve survived Christmas, Christmas Eve, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but it takes Boxing Day — where the 19th-century British custom of giving one’s postal carrier (or other “tradesmen”) boxes full of money or presents the day after Christmas has transformed into a gridlocked mall hellscape of returned gifts and lost receipts — to finally push you over the line toward grabbing that axe and meting out some Yuletide Justice. The sick Saint Nicks of Silent Night, Deadly Night and Christmas Evil both have their strong opinions about who has been naughty and who has been nice; Billy Bob Thornton has nothing on these Bad Santas.

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Scream Factory has just released what should be the definitive version of Silent Night, Deadly Night, the most notorious of all Christmas slashers. Released in the fall of 1984 to much notoriety — according to the documentary “Slay Bells Ring: The Story Of Silent Night, Deadly Night,” part of Scream’s superlative package, distributor Tri-Star’s decision to blanket prime-time TV with ads for the film in early November ended up raising more ire in families than drumming up enthusiasm for it — the original film got pulled ten days after its initial release and the blowback from it — from family groups and critics such as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert — wasn’t parlayed into the kind of success-by-controversy that buoyed many earlier exploitation classics.

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Directed by Sunn Classics Films partner and “Grizzly Adams” creator (!) Charles Sellier Jr., the film is entertaining but slight and surprisingly draggy— it takes a good 45 minutes for the movie to get down to business, with the first half filled with a lot of dull backstory where we see lead Billy (played by Alex Chapman as a young teen), whose parents have been murdered by a gun-toting convenience-store robber dressed as Santa, further traumatized by the Mother Superior (acting coach and one-time John Wayne co-star Lilyan Chauvin) at the orphanage where he’s been dumped. By the time Billy (now played by Robert Brian Wilson) finally leaves the orphanage and goes to work at a toy store, we’ve already grown antsy; a stronger film would have focused more on Billy’s present and less on him being run through the wringer at the orphanage.

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Still, by the time Billy — who’s spurned by his pretty coworker and taunted by his supervisor — finally is forced into a Santa Claus suit and snaps, we’re ready for some mayhem and the film delivers, with Billy using everything from an axe to a claw hammer to, in the film’s most notorious scene, the antlers of a taxidermied deer head, to take out those he deems “naughty,” including topless ‘80’s scream queen Linnea Quigley, who meets her unfortunate end on the end of those antlers. The film doesn’t really deliver on its premise, though, and the climactic encounter between Billy and the Mother Superior is a let-down. It’s like the first draft of a screenplay which was never fine-tuned— the idea is there, but the execution, neither particularly fun nor all that scary, leaves much to be desired.

 

That being said, Scream Factory gives up a terrific presentation of this infamous film, with a solid new HD transfer of the theatrical version (along with a trailer and TV/radio spots) on one disc and an unrated version — the only way to go — where standard-definition inserts, mostly of gore footage that, save for the antler scene, is more tame than you might expect, have been added to the HD version. An early commentary with writer Michael Hickey, co-executive producer Scott J. Schneid and editor Michael Spence is augmented by an entertaining new commentary with Robert Brian Wilson and Schneid and an additional interview with the late Sellier, who has some great anedcotes about the production, particularly one regarding the discovery during the filming of the antler scene that Linnea Quigley didn’t own any underwear. Best is “Slay Bells Ring,” a 45-minute documentary that goes into detail both the making of and controversy surrounding the film, where you learn that Robert Brian Wilson — who wasn’t yet an actor — was discovered eating dinner with his girlfriend by the producer and the development of the project was taken away from writer Hickey and co-executive producers Schneid and Dennis Whitehead late in the game. A solo interview with Quigley rounds out the impressive package, which will certainly be a seasonal treat for the fans of the film.

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A stronger Psycho Santa story is Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out), writer-director Lewis Jackson’s 1980 thriller that takes a much more internal approach to the story. Here, Brandon Taggart — a writer-poet best known these days as being the father of singer Fiona Apple — plays Harry, a sad-sack middle manager of a toy factory who is disrespected by bosses, co-workers and even his brother Phil (Jeffrey DeMunn from “The Walking Dead”) who has been obsessed with Christmas ever since he was a child— and saw his father, in full Santa garb, fooling around with his mother on Christmas Eve. Disgusted by the immorality around him — even his porn-obsessed neighbor kid freaks him out — he finally reaches the breaking point when he learns that his company’s campaign to deliver toys to hospitalized children is just a publicity stunt. Gluing a Santa beard to his face and donning padding under a furry red suit, Harry turns himself into the Santa of his dreams— delivering the promised toys (which he steals from the assembly line) to the children and taking out anyone who gets in his way, ranging from a jackass co-worker to a snotty church-goer who mocks him.

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Director Jackson takes an artier approach — a climactic scene where Harry runs from an angry mob through a yard decorated with blazing-white illuminated plastic snowmen is visually stunning — that helps play up the more psychological nature of the piece, but it’s Taggart’s performance, equal parts believably sympathetic and dangerously off-kilter that makes the piece works as well as it does. Vinegar Syndrome delivers a fantastic Blu-Ray — the clean HD transfer makes the film look practically new — that’s marred by ugly cover art that makes it look like a standard-issue monster movie. Extras include deleted scenes (which don’t add much), a series of auditions (including JoBeth Williams and David Rasche of TV’s “Sledge Hammer!”), and a group of audio commentaries, including a terrific one with Jackson and the film’s number-one fan, John Waters, who exclaims “Santa’s having a breakdown!” at one key moment). Carry-overs from a previous Troma Films DVD release include an interview with Jackson and a very awkward bit with Brandon Taggart alongside Troma “star” Sgt. Kabukiman.

While Christmas Evil is the best of the two Holiday Horrors, both films get the job done— particularly if you’ve reached the last straw in dealing with holiday presents, cards, cookies and over-crowded shopping malls.

You can purchase Silent Night, Deadly Night from Amazon or directly from Shout Factory.

You can purchase Christmas Evil from Amazon or directly from Vinegar Syndrome.

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