When we think about maniacal Santa Clauses in horror, we often go straight to the axe-wielding Billy from Silent Night, Deadly Night, or the homicidal madman who stalked Joan Collins in the Tales From the Crypt movie segment “…And All Through the House” (or its TV episode remake from 1989). For what it’s worth, all these classics have been unseated in my personal Psycho Santa Hall of Fame after a viewing of Christmas Evil, a story that’s more about the psychological unraveling of a factory worker than it is about a body count. In fact, it has far more in common with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver than any other Christmas horror story around.
Lewis Jackson’s Christmas Evil follows Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart), an oddball of a human whose obsession with Santa Claus began when he shockingly discovered the truth about Santa. When he was just a boy he witnessed his mom getting sexed up by his dad, who just so happened to be donning a Santa suit (disturbing on multiple levels for a kid!). From there, Harry was never quite the same, growing up to be a slightly off pushover who’s often belittled by his co-workers. Unbeknownst to them, Harry has troubling tendencies to say the least. His apartment is strewn with toys and Christmas decorations year-round. He spies on neighborhood children and keeps notes about them in books marked “Naughty or Nice.” He sleeps in a full Santa costume believing that one day he will truly be Saint Nick incarnate. He’s mentally shaky at best, but the warning sirens are blaring.
After agreeing to cover a colleague’s shift at work, Harry finds him out drinking with friends at the local bar, causing Harry to dissociate and run amok. He enters a fugue state and the loose screws that compile Harry’s brain start plummeting to the floor as he approaches the brink and sprints past it. He decorates his white van with pictures of a sleigh, and steals toys to deliver to a nearby children’s hospital just like a real-life Santa. Later, when taunted by some punks on the street, he stabs one in the eye and murders them all with an axe. He seesaws between charity and homicide, sanity and insanity, wreaking havoc, instilling fear in parents, and, of course, seeking revenge on his lying, condescending jerk of a co-worker.
What’s great about Christmas Evil is that it doesn’t follow expected slasher storylines and tropes. Harry’s journey from slightly disturbed to completely unhinged parallels that of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, the 26-year-old honorably discharged Marine who finds himself bitter and alone in the turbulent streets of New York City. Travis seems distressed, either from his service experience, childhood, or maybe both. He takes on a job as a taxi driver to help deal with his chronic insomnia, though whatever truly haunts him remains a mystery. New York’s sleazy dysfunction starts to bite at him. He trains obsessively, while his inner monologues darken. He buys a number of weapons from an illegal gun dealer and even goes so far as attempting to assassinate a senator. Like Harry, there’s some good to Travis. He makes it his mission to free a young girl named Iris (Jodie Foster) from the clutches of prostitution and a pimp named Sport (Harvey Keitel). However, the dingy porn clubs he frequents and the city’s bleak aggression pull out the craziness in Travis. The film’s conclusion is chaotic and bloody—the best city in the world having played a significant role in Travis’s mental deconstruction.
Though Travis is given a redemptive ending after his psychotic break, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Harry isn’t granted that same atonement. (You just can’t hack people to death on the steps of a church and get away with it. Maybe if they were pimps and druggies à la Taxi Driver… but even then, the jury’s out). Both films show how one’s external environment can negatively influence pre-set psyches. While Harry’s frisky parents and factory life woes don’t carry the weight of an ex-Marine’s harrowing past, the characters’ mental taxation is comparable. Harry is unable to redeem the horrific things he’s done, though; he’s too far gone by film’s end for that. His ending includes being chased by an angry, torch-carrying mob as he signs off in an unforgettable blaze of infamy.
You won’t read a single Christmas Evil review that neglects to note it’s John Waters’ favorite Christmas movie. Perhaps the actor/director’s support has helped the movie achieve and maintain its cult status, though I’d also lend oodles of credit to Maggart, who perfectly embodies a man who’s slowly losing his grip while living on the edge of fantasy and reality. Throughout his fantastic performance, Maggart earns pity for Harry. As he goes from mad to madder, we ride shotgun in his “sleigh,” shaken and stirred by the insane facial expressions and physicality Maggart serves up for the camera. By movie’s end, the fun is just as delirious as Harry.