“The best seasonal film of all time. I wish I had kids. I’d make them watch it every year and if they didn’t like it, they’d be punished.” –John Waters
It’s Yuletide, which means multiple airings of feel-good fare like March of the Wooden Soldiers, Christmas in Connecticut, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Elf, and so on. Some of the cable stations spike the eggnog with “anti-Claus” movies, movies that use the holiday as a punchline, like Bad Santa, The Ice Harvest, Gremlins, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Batman Returns (from which I derived the term). But no one’s showing the best of the “Santa slashers,” 1980’s You Better Watch Out…and that’s too bad, as underneath the horror trimmings there are few films more invested in the magic of Christmas.
Based on Waters’ endorsement (in his Crackpot compilation) I sought out a tape of the film in the mid-80s; by that time its writer-director, Lewis Jackson, had lost the rights to his one and thus far only movie and it was called Christmas Evil, a punning title that misrepresents its contents. Made at the height of the Halloween/Friday the 13th horror boom You Better Watch Out stands apart from it; the horrific elements are relatively minor as Jackson mines the legend of St. Nick for pitch black comedy. Think Taxi Driver in a red suit but that doesn’t quite capture this portrait of a very bad Santa, either. It’s a unique one-shot that Jackson spent a decade trying to produce, unlike the fly-by-night, controversial (and bloody awful) Silent Night, Deadly Night, which was yanked from theaters after two weeks when parents groups protested in 1984.
Families never got a chance to picket You Better Watch Out, which received little more than token seasonal distribution at Times Square and inner city grindhouses. The drunks and hookers in the audience didn’t fully appreciate its charms and probably better enjoyed Silent Night‘s Santa, who mounts a naked girl on sharp deer antlers. (Yes, I saw that film in its two-week run in Chicago’s Loop; the audience started throwing broken beer bottles around and my friend and I split during the co-feature, Charles Bronson in The Evil That Men Do.)
You Better Watch Out centers on sad-sack Christmas obsessive Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart), who has had something of a Santa psychosis since he saw St. Nick kissing Mommy in a rather private area one Christmas Eve. When not supervising the crew at the grim-looking Jolly Dream toy factory, whose union employees hate Christmas (the set was an actual toy factory owned by the family of executive producer Edward Pressman, who probably rates this credit lower than his films with Brian De Palma, Terrence Malick, and Oliver Stone), Harry spies on the neighborhood children, determining who’s good and who’s bad among them (the mother of the worst is played by Patricia Richardson, who went onto Home Improvement and sitcom fame). His younger brother Philip (veteran character actor Jeffrey DeMunn) and sympathetic sister-in-law Jackie (Dianne Hull) fret. When his no-good employers welsh on their charitable donations, it’s time for Harry to put on his custom-tailored Santa suit (modeled after Thomas Nast’s Civil War-era drawings) and determine who’s been naughty and who’s been nice…permanently.
Much of the film’s twisted charm is due to Maggart, who received a Tony nomination in 1970 playing the Hugh Marlowe part in the musicalized All About Eve, Applause, opposite Lauren Bacall. He co-starred in another musical that Comden and Green worked on, Lorelei, with Carol Channing and in 1980, the same year You Better Watch Out came out, played Nancy Allen’s john in Dressed to Kill. Santa has followed him around–he played a Kris Kringle character in a 1995 episode of E.R. and today, at home in Venice, CA, sports a Santa-ish beard. (Playing Santa may be like playing Jesus; you can’t really escape from it.) His kids include singing hellion Fiona Apple and cabaret chanteuse Maude Maggart. Hear Santa sing at his website. (He nervously hums Christmas carols in the movie.)
Of all the Christmas-set shockers, like 1974’s Black Christmas (whose director, Bob Clark, later got with the program made A Christmas Story) or the lead story in 1972’s Tales of the Crypt, where murderess Joan Collins fends off a homicidal Santa, You Better Watch Out is the one that really exploits Yuletide imagery and lore. A tri-state native like me, Jackson grew up watching the Thanksgiving Day parade, the lighting of the Rockefeller Center tree, and seasonal airings of Laurel & Hardy in March of the Wooden Soldiers on TV, all of which the film references (along with Geraldo Rivera before he went national). His personal Christmas memorabilia decorates the sets, which were lovingly shot by Ricardo Aronovich, who had worked with Alain Resnais and Jeanne Moreau and would go on to shoot films for Costa-Gavras, Ettore Scola, and Raul Ruiz. (Jackson had written him an admiring fan letter; for this rare U.S. credit he brought with him camera operator Affonso Beato, who later shot The Queen.) The film plays with several images of Santa–his Germanic forebear, Black Peter, who left soot marks on houses so evil spirits could ID bad kids, the Nast version, which popularized Christmas in the U.S., and the contemporary commercial stooge we’re all sick to death of by Dec. 25. But even Santa haters will get a kick out of the film’s unexpected ending, not that Jackson necessarily intended for it to end as it does.
The modestly financed film, which went overbudget when the much-admired Aronovich came onboard, ran out of money completely and was seized by the crew for several weeks until they were paid. Jackson was forced to give up his stake in it and endured the puny theatrical release and the recut Christmas Evil variant till the official DVD appeared in 2006, a quarter-century later (for some copyright reason the DVD packaging bears the Christmas Evil title, while the print has the preferred one). The disc has some nice extras, including audition tapes (it might have had a higher profile had JoBeth Williams or Lindsay Crouse gotten the part of Jackie), deleted scenes, storyboards, and hilarious preview screening cards (responses run the gamut from “Two hours of my life wasted!” to “Beats Bing Crosby!”). There are also two commentaries, one by Jackson solo, where he talks about shooting the film in subzero weather in the N.J. suburbs of Montclair and Glen Ridge in their pre-fashionable era, the visual references to Fritz Lang’s M and Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow (with Fred MacMurray as a depressed toymaker) and influences like Louis Malle and Jean Cocteau, whom the makers of Silent Night, Deadly Night were unlikely to have had in mind for their film. There’s also a second, amusing commentary with Jackson and the film’s No. 1 champion, Waters.
You Better Watch Out was a hit with my film-watching group (still going strong after 20 years) when I screened it. However you can see it, now it’s your turn to experience the movie Waters calls “It’s a Wonderful Life for me!”