Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Brandon Maggart’s portrayal of Killer Santa Harry Stadling in Christmas Evil.
If there is one holiday that horror fans love almost as much as they love Halloween, it’s Christmas. Something compelling happens when you drop a slasher in the middle of the holly jolly season. It gives audiences the opportunity to view Christmas through a grimmer lens, drawing into question how purely joyous this time of the year really is.
Between the savage materialism of Black Friday sales to the increase in depression and suicide rates through the winter months, there’s an undercurrent of melancholy and violence that flows through this season. Holiday horror movies can provide a unique framework to explore these darker edges, and the subgenre’s most iconic character is the Killer Santa.
However, films that feature Killer Santas are often painted in broad brush strokes. They prioritize the salaciousness of putting a bloody ax in the hand of Old Saint Nick over needling into the psyche of how someone becomes a murderer in a Santa suit. Even when a Killer Santa is given a backstory with a modicum of nuance, like Billy Caldwell in Silent Night, Deadly Night, the films themselves don’t give their actors much room to really explore those subtleties before they’re hacking and slashing their way through the holidays.
From the French slasher Deadly Games (a.k.a. Dial Code Santa Claus) to the famed opening segment of the 1972 film Tales from the Crypt, murdering Santas are typically positioned strictly as remorseless maniacs — like Michael Myers decked out in an ugly Christmas sweater.
The same can’t be said for Brandon Maggart’s performance as Harry Stadling, the Killer Santa at the center of Christmas Evil. Released in 1980, well before Killer Santas came in vogue, Maggart and director Lewis Jackson used the trope to paint a multilayered portrait of a man suffering from unchecked childhood trauma that warped his entire life around the holidays.
This isn’t your run-of-the-mill slasher movie either. Christmas Evil is like a holiday-themed spin on Taxi Driver or King of Comedy, where we watch a character slowly fall into a downward spiral of self-destruction.
But Maggart’s Harry isn’t like Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. While both characters have a sense of justification as they go on their killing sprees, we’re never allowed to fully despise Harry because Maggart fills his character with such heartbreaking sadness. Maggart plays Harry as an incredibly broken man, and this choice allows the audience to truly empathize with his character, even as the blood begins to flow.
Harry’s path to becoming a Killer Santa started as a child. One Christmas night, he stayed up late with his mother and brother to watch Santa descend their chimney. Harry is awe-struck, but his brother is less than convinced of Santa’s legitimacy.
Wanting to prove him wrong, Harry sneaks back downstairs only to find mommy doing a little more than kissing Santa underneath the mistletoe. Shocked, he runs up to his attic and smashes a snow globe on the floor. As the image of Santa feeling up his mom swims in his head, he picks up one of the globe’s glass shards and slices his palm open. The visual metaphor couldn’t be clearer. Harry’s perception of Christmas and Santa Claus has been irreversibly shattered.
This opening moment becomes the emotional foundation that Maggart builds his character around. In the next scene, we see Harry’s life has been enveloped by Christmas. He wears Santa pajamas, does his morning exercises to the lighthearted melody of “Winter Wonderland”, and lathers his face in shaving cream to look like a bushy white beard.
Staring amusedly at his Santa-like reflection in his bathroom mirror, Harry accidentally nicks himself with his razor. The shock of the pain instantly transports him back in time to the moment he cut his hand on his childhood snow globe. As the joy drains from his face, Maggart switches emotions on a dime. His rosiness is replaced by a blank stare, his eyes lost in a sea of painful memories.
This begins Harry’s slow descent into madness. Maggart and Jackson slowly tease out his evolution into a murderer through a series of scenes that take place in front of a mirror, calling back to this first moment we see Harry dressed like Santa.
When Harry attends a lavish party thrown by the corporate fat cats at his toy factory, he stops by his work locker to throw on a jacket. As he straightens his tie in a mirror, we see a twinkle appear in his eye and Maggart’s face lights up with joy. He touches his finger to his nose and smiles, mimicking the expression Santa gave him as a child.
He’s so earnest in the moment that it’s devastating to watch Harry snap out of his reverie. A sudden jolt runs through his body and he slowly slides his hand down his face, wiping away his cheery expression into yet another blank stare. It’s a moment that Maggart fills with quiet anguish, a physical representation of the mask that Harry wears to hide his true face from the world.
Later in the film, as Harry slips on his Killer Santa suit and glues a fake beard to his face, he stares again into a mirror. Just like with his shaving cream beard in the opening of the film, Harry becomes transfixed by how he looks. We see in his eyes this recognition that he’s finally becoming the person he’s always wanted to be.
Like how a kid tugs on a mall Santa’s beard to see if it’s real, Maggart begins to violently pull on his own. With each tug, Harry’s fantasy that he actually is Santa crystallizes. Maggart gives Harry a symphony of emotions in this moment, his giddy laughter building to a crescendo as he cries out to his reflection, “It’s me! It’s me!”
But the way Maggart plays this moment, the audience can’t be sure if his tears are of happiness or of horror. Has Harry finally come into his own, or has he inadvertently trapped himself in the nightmare that’s haunted his entire life?
That Maggart gives the audience the space to ask that question is at the heart of why this Killer Santa is elevated above all others. Maggart doesn’t play Harry as some cut-and-dry murderer wearing a Santa costume, but as a man broken by childhood trauma, allowing the audience to empathize with someone who’s lost all sense of self.
The same year that Christmas Evil came out, another Killer Santa movie hit the screens called To All a Goodnight. It follows a killer dressed as Santa as he murders a bunch of students at a finishing school following a prank gone wrong years before. It’s a classic setup to a slasher movie, but that’s what it ultimately is: a simple slasher.
The Killer Santa movies that came after it, from the Silent Night, Deadly Night series to the cadre of Krampus films, are all spins on the same old idea. Let’s take a beloved children’s character and turn him into a monster, either literally or metaphorically.
This is why Christmas Evil, and Brandon Maggart’s performance, are so unbelievably unique to this subgenre of horror. Rather than making the character a rote horror movie maniac, Jackson and Maggart present a complex character study into the psychology of a murderer – that just so happens to take place around Christmas.
Maggart gives Harry the tragic qualities of a man incapable of reckoning with something painful he experienced as a child. If Harry had been able to confront that trauma, maybe he would’ve been able to channel his love for Christmas into bringing joy — rather than terror — to the children in his community.
I’d actually go so far as to say that the empathy we feel for Maggart’s Harry is similar to another famous holiday horror icon: Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Just like Harry, we don’t necessarily want to see Scrooge punished for the pain he’s caused; we want him to see the error of his ways and get the help he so desperately needs.
After all, what is the true meaning of Christmas if not the wish that everyone can find peace and joy during the holiday season?
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