John Waters has referred to Christmas Evil as “the greatest Christmas movie ever made,” but odds are you’ve never even seen it. It’s understandable as writer/director Lewis Jackson’s 1980 feature about a slightly unbalanced man who holds the world to Santa’s high ideals has never been on cable, barely received a theatrical run and has only been available on hard-to-find home video releases. Now thanks to Vinegar Syndrome the film has gotten a beautiful new Blu-ray release featuring a 4K restoration, three commentary tracks and a handful of other special features.
The movie is frequently billed as a “psycho Santa” flick, but it’s far from a slasher. Instead, the movie is more of a drama concerning one man’s descent into madness, and while there are some killings they occur late in the film. It’s an interesting and enjoyable movie all the same though with some bloodletting, some laughs and a very unexpected ending. We recently gave a listen to one of the three commentary tracks ‐ the one featuring Jackson and Waters together ‐ and we learned a few things along the way.
*A quick note on the audio setup menu: It appears two of the commentary tracks are swapped on the menu. Selecting the Jackson/Maggart one plays the Jackson/Waters, and vice versa.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for Christmas Evil.
Christmas Evil (1980)
Commentators: Lewis Jackson (writer/director), John Waters (connoisseur of all things different)
1. The film’s original title during production was You Better Watch Out, but it was changed without Jackson’s input. He first learned of the new title when he received a one-sheet poster from the marketers.
2. Waters used to show this film at his annual Christmas party.
3. The MPAA nixed the proposed newspaper ads which led the distributor to cancel a planned wide release throughout California. It still trickled out, but Jackson recalls the initial reactions being quite bad. “From who?” asks Waters. “From just about everybody,” replies Jackson. The expectation was that the film would be “another Halloween,” but the low body count and lack of gore upset horror fans.
4. Variety was one of the only magazines to give the film a positive review. “Well, at this point I can tell this story…” says Jackson before detailing what led to that review. They held a test screening in Pittsburgh as a double feature with The Elephant Man ‐ “I think David Lynch would like this movie,” says Waters ‐ and Jackson’s father-in-law was a reviewer at Variety at the time. “Oh an inside job!” exclaims Waters.
5. Jackson’s struggles with trying to get the film seen eventually burned him out, but reading Waters’ praise in his 1986 book Crackpot lifted his spirits (holiday and otherwise).
6. Waters has an interesting take on the film as he sees Harry’s desire as similar to someone wanting to get a sex change operation but instead needing “to pass as Santa.” He also sees the film’s and character’s fetishizing of Christmas through the attention to detail in the holiday tchotchkies.
7. The film went over budget leading Jackson to give up his points in exchange for more money. He owns the film now, and when Waters asks how long that effort took he replies “The last three years of my life.”
8. Jackson comments on the scene where Harry spies on a little boy through a window reading a Penthouse magazine. Apparently the kid kept the magazine leading to a conversation with a very irate mother.
9. Waters asks where Maggart is these days and if he’s aware the film is being re-released. Jackson says the actor is “very ambivalent” about the film as he had “moral qualms.” I’m assuming Maggart got past his issues as he appears on another commentary track.
10. The toy factory in the film belongs to Pressman Toys which is how producer Ed Pressman became associated with the film. “But his mother said you can’t use our toys,” says Jackson. “And when she saw the movie she wanted a disclaimer at the end of the film.”
11. George Dzundza was originally cast to play the lead, but when he arrived he immediately expressed interest in re-writing the script. Jackson replaced him.
12. Jackson was asked to make an “Easter Bunny horror movie.” He declined.
13. Maggart is Fiona Apple’s father. “Has Fiona seen [the movie]?” asks Waters. Jackson seems doubtful.
14. Jackson’s favorite moment in the film is when the little boy’s mom (Patricia Richardson, from TV’s Home Improvement) slaps the kid upside the head.
15. The director makes a cameo as a bartender during a party scene, and Waters says “I was only in my movies once, and I don’t think I’ll ever do that again.” The same scene features a cameo (on the TV) by the film’s producer. Waters asks if he’s the one Jackson fought with, and when the director says yes Waters asks if he’s still alive. He’s not, so Waters tells him “you can say whatever you want. That rotten crook.”
16. Both Jackson and Waters have immense movie knowledge, but they share a real deficiency when it comes to Christmas-themed horror movies. Not only do they continuously refer to Silent Night, Deadly Night as Silent Night, Bloody Night ‐ which is an actual film title from ’72 ‐ but they also think it’s about a psycho killing virgins and the only example of the Christmas-themed horror sub-genre. Ahem, Bill Goldberg and Santa’s Slay would like a word. (Not to mention Black Christmas, Rare Exports, Jack Frost, To All a Goodnight, Gremlins, Elves…)
17. Jackson interjects himself over the commentary at one point to say that the stretches of silence broken only by Waters’ giggling were probably due to Waters forgetting that he was recording a commentary.
18. The first kill doesn’t occur until the fifty minute mark. “I’m glad you did it at midnight mass too. They were in there being so judgmental.”
19. The dancing that Harry glimpses through the window was choreographed by Meryl Streep’s brother. Waters is unaware that Streep even has a brother.
20. The scene where Harry breaks into a house and kills a man in bed was shot in a real house, but the homeowners wouldn’t let them film in the bedroom. “Who lived there,” asks Waters, “Ozzie and Harriet?” They had to build the bedroom at another location.
21. Jackson’s efforts to find distribution for the film included a stop at Warner Bros. where he was told that “If you had only had Santa cut off a kid’s finger and then eat it you’d be a millionaire.”
22. Waters loves the film’s ending featuring Harry’s Christmas van flying into the sky as Harry recites the last lines of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Jackson adds that he attended a screening on 42nd Street “and the audience was throwing things at the screen.” Waters understands their frustration as “exploitation audiences always have a certain trouble with surrealism.”
Best in Commentary
- Waters: “Even Santa’s anti-union. I guess he would be.”
- Waters: “Oh god, nothing is worse on a movie set than a practical joke.”
- Waters: “Is she showing full bush there?! But she has what, like pantyhose over it… she has mashed bush.”
- Jackson: “This is the genesis of the whole movie. 1970, smoked a joint and saw an image of Santa Claus with a knife in his hand and then built the whole story around it.”
- Waters: “It’s hard work being a pervert.”
Waters’ enthusiasm for the film is clear even if his attention does seem to wander at times. His questions for Jackson range from wanting clarification on plot points to the more technical variety as he inquires about the extras, music rights, how certain effects were created and more. The two have a fun, engaging back and forth ‐ when they’re not forgetting about the commentary or answering each other’s questions by nodding ‐ and it makes for an entertaining listen.