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December 22, 2016

You Better Watch Out

by Franz Patrick


You Better Watch Out (1980)
★ / ★★★★

When Harry was a boy, he saw Santa Claus go down the chimney, deliver presents under the tree, and leave where he came in. But his brother, Phil, said Santa was not real. Harry, disappointed, went back downstairs to confirm what he had seen. However, his mother was there with his father, dressed up as Santa, and the two were engaging in a sexual activity.

About thirty years later, we learn that Harry (Brandon Maggart) has not yet recovered from his discovery. Once he encounters anything related to his favorite holiday, his mind goes back to a place of anger. He has a plan. On Christmas Eve, he will not only dress up as Santa but actually become him. By giving presents to the nice children and punishing the naughty ones, he hopes that children will cement their belief in Father Christmas.

“You Better Watch Out,” also known as “Christmas Evil” and “Terror in Toyland,” is far from an effective horror flick, but it does have a few scenes with fine touches that hint at its raw potential to entertain. What we have here is a terribly confused screenplay. While Harry is a killer, somehow we are supposed to sympathize with him because he is not in control of his fractured mind. This can work but only if the material has a solid understanding of the complexities of abnormal psychology. But since the film barely scratches the surface of a troubled mind, a lot of it comes off as sick.

I liked the several seconds of Harry making his Santa outfit from scratch. There is no dialogue and so the attention is on the images. Maggart is a good fit for the role because he is able to convey a manic hunger in his hands as his character caresses the red cloth. But there is not enough scenes like this. Most of the time, we see him slowly losing his temper in public and in front of his co-workers. I argue that truly disturbed people, the ones functional enough to take the time to plan out their attack, are very good at hiding their true natures. Once they strike, we are shocked because they seemed so normal.

The kills are cheaply executed. There are only a few of them but there is neither energy nor originality in the violence. We might as well be watching a slideshow: one shot depicts the raising of the hatchet, the next shot is of the weapon making contact with a body part, and the last shot involves blood gushing out. These are accompanied by music that is real loud and annoying, a sign that the filmmakers do not have the confidence to let us interpret that the images are horrific. A supposedly terrifying music had to be there to lead us.

Because the script lacks strength, it is all the more reason for the filmmakers to allow the images to speak for themselves. With the exception of Harry creating his Santa suit and the scene involving Harry as Santa being invited at jubilant gathering—drinking, dancing, and handing out gifts—the images lack spark. You can get up and not look at the screen for five minutes or so and not miss anything. This is never a good sign.

Written and directed by Lewis Jackson, “Christmas Evil” might have been better off as a psychosexual horror-comedy. I was amused by Harry being so easily upset by a boy looking at Penthouse magazines. (He spies on the neighborhood kids using a pair of binoculars—what a creep!) I wished that his disgust toward anything that relates to sex or sexuality had been explored more. Why not have a woman (or man—whichever) at work be interested in him physically and allow the story to go from there? After all, his madness is directly related to what he saw during Christmas ’47.

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