When little Harry sees his Dad in a Santa Claus outfit, groping his mother one Christmas Eve, life changes for the quiet little boy. Thirty odd years later, you’d better watch out in this 80s horror classic from the small but perfectly formed micro-genre of Yuletide Slashers.
Because now – all grown up and disgruntled by his dead end job in a depressing toy factory – he’s making a list, checking it twice and descending into a self-created Christmas nightmare where he is Father Christmas and his judgement is final! Dressed as St. Nick, Harry is going to show his bullying co-workers and all the other naughty people what the true spirit of the season is… Run for your miserable lives, the vengeance is going to be swift and bloody!
In your hands is a true dark Christmas oddity that cult movie kingpin John Waters described as “greatest Christmas movie ever made.”
eyelights: its unpredictability.
eyesores: its unpredictability. its editing. its heavy vibe.
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
As I was researching horror films that revolve around Christmas, I stumbled upon a curious little ditty called ‘You Better Watch Out’. Released in 1980, the film, which is better known as ‘Christmas Evil’, tells the story of a middle-aged man whose loneliness pushes him over the brink at Christmas: initially intending to spread good cheer as Santa Claus, he winds up terrorizing his neighbourhood instead.
Almost every reference to ‘You Better Watch Out’ suggests that it’s a slasher film, but what’s surprising is that it’s more of a character study. What the picture really is is the exploration of a descent into madness: one moment Harry is giving out gifts to local kids and being kind to everyone, and then another he’s exacting some form of revenge on the people he feels slighted by in his life. All as Santa Claus.
Unfortunately, we don’t really understand why the guy is so obsessed with Christmas and what his problem is (Was it because he saw his mom making out with Santa Claus as a kid? Really?). We also don’t fully understand why he spirals downward, what his intentions are or exactly what he’s hoping to get out of this. All we know is that we’re seeing someone losing his bearings, with no sense of what he will do next and why.
This is both a good and bad thing. On the one hand, it leaves you guessing the whole way through and it surprises you at every turn: just when you think he’ll lose it he doesn’t, and what appear to be plot contrivances end up being red herrings. That’s pretty good. But, on the other hand, ‘You Better Watch Out’ feels aimless because you don’t have clue where the picture is headed. In that sense it’s unfulfilling.
It also suffers from a few lapses in logic, like the fact that Harry is driving a very singular van (which not only could not be mistaken for another van, it actually draws attention), and yet no one can track this guy down. And then there was that sequence at the end, in which he gives a bunch of kids some gifts and they consequently end up protecting him from their parents. That left me a bit skeptical.
But I did like that the picture wasn’t just an aimless slasher film. Even though Harry’s deeper intentions aren’t explored we understand his sense of isolation: he feels like a disappointment to his family, he’s the butt end of jokes at work, and he was promoted out of the one thing he really liked doing – working on the toy line at the factory. This is a man with a gaping hole in his soul who needs soothing.
Maybe that’s why he grasps at the so-called magic of Christmas: for artificial relief.
The guy sleeps in Christmas pajamas, has Christmas decoration in his house, hand sews his Santa costume, even paints up his van with a sled on it. He takes Christmas very seriously and gets upset when people don’t share his Christmas spirit. He even spies on the neighbourhood kids to make a list of who’s naughty and nice – and doesn’t take kindly to the naughty ones, going so far as stalking them in order to scare them.
Ho ho ho!
It’s a chilling tale and I would have liked it much more if it wasn’t so bloody depressing. It’s hard to watch someone start low and proceed to going even lower – especially since none of this seems to be his fault. He’s deeply wounded. You can’t help but feel for the guy, even though he’s doing horrible things; you would want him to get some help and get better, because he’s actually a nice guy with decent intentions.
Unfortunately, Brandon Maggart, who plays Harry, doesn’t make the character very sympathetic: in his hands, he seems ill, creepy, and although that might have been fine for the part in some regards I would have liked to be attached to him more. It didn’t help that his performance wasn’t always naturalistic, creating another layer of remove. This was a problem across the board, but it could have been worse.
Having said this, given the picture’s low budget, I was surprised by the number of locations and the amount of camera work there was for what is ostensibly a trashy b-movie. There were even some truly gorgeous shots, like when Harry walks up the illuminated suburban street. Wow. And the score also had its moments, mixing a holiday vibe with something a little bit more eerie. Not bad all things considered.
But make no mistake: ‘You Better Watch Out’ is no grand cinema.
Still, I give it extra points for being so unpredictable that none of the usual clichés played out; the moment you thought you knew what was going to happen next, it took a hard turn. And the fact that it’s more about character development than cheap thrills also scores it points in my book; it’s an unusual and intriguing piece that makes for decent counter-programming during the holiday season.
Date of viewing: December 21, 2014