by Oscar Mardell
In a recent interview for Metacritic, the screenwriter Josh Miller disclosed something of his intention behind Violent Night (2022):
it was very much an idea of, ‘What if you did Die Hard, but with Santa Claus?’ But I think what we liked about that idea was thinking of all the action movies from the late ’80s and ’90s we grew up with that were set on Christmas. People forget that the first Lethal Weapon technically takes place during Christmas. So, I think it was the idea of, ‘Why has no one made that type of R-rated action movie but that’s also just as much a Christmas movie as Miracle on 34th Street?
Missing from this rollcall, however, is Lewis Jackson’s Christmas Evil (1980). It mightn’t be an ‘action movie’ per se, but it’s uniquely loaded, both with enough R-rated violence for it to have been banned in the UK during the Video Nasty panic, and with enough festivity for John Waters to have called it ‘the greatest Christmas movie ever made’.
Traumatised one Christmas Eve by the discovery of his mommy kissing (or, rather, canoodling with) Santa Claus, Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) grows up to be a socially-dysfunctional adult, pathologically obsessed with Christmas and with the Santa-like task of listing the ‘GOOD’ and ‘BAD’ behaviours of the local ‘GIRLS AND BOYS’ (Suzy Lovett’s caring for her dolls, Moss Garcia’s enthusiasm for Penthouse Magazine, respectively). By profession, Harry is an accountant in a toy factory called Jolly Dream – though he is savagely mistreated by his colleagues, who think him a loser, and wholly disillusioned with his employers, whose greed-driven business model holds little place for the sheer joy that Harry finds in toys. Exasperated one Christmas Eve, Harry enters a fugue state and comes to identify as none other than Santa himself: donning a fluffy red suit and affixing a wispy beard to his chin; stealing toys from the factory and gifting them to hospitalised children; all the while, tomahawking his managers in the streets and suffocating his co-workers in their beds. The Christmas miracle here is that the delusion turns out to be real: Harry, it transpires, is actually Santa and possesses his magic as such. Hence, in the film’s closing sequence, we see his van ascending, sleigh-like, through the falling snow and towards the shining stars above – leaving every other Christmas movie flailing in its wake and proving Waters’ assessment wholly accurate.
In a 2007 interview for the BBC 4 documentary Comics Britannia, the graphic novelist Alan Moore disclosed something of his intention behind Watchmen:
There is that element of: wouldn’t [superheroes] be a joke if they were in the real world? But there’s also a poignance to the characters. Wouldn’t these characters be somehow kind of sad and touching in the real world?
… You find that, yes, superheroes in the real world are kind of funny. They’re also kind of scary, because actually a person dressing in a mask and going around beating up criminals is a vigilante psychopath. That’s what Batman is, in essence. And we came up with the character of Rorschach as a way of exploring what that Batman-type, driven, vengeance-fuelled, vigilante would be like in the real world – and the short answer is: a nutcase.
If Christmas Evil (which Jim Knipfel at Den of Geek has rightly dubbed ‘the Taxi Driver of Christmas movies’) has a moral to its story, it’s best understood, I think, as the obverse of Moore’s position: a person dressing in a wispy beard going around giving presents to sick kids is also a ‘psychopath’; it makes no difference whether he’s driven by vengeance or by charity; in ‘the real world’, Bruce Wayne would be a ‘sad and touching’ (albeit, obscenely wealthy) loser like Harry, and Father Christmas a ‘nutcase’ like Moore’s Rorschach. And it’s for this reason that Christmas Evil exceeds even Charles E. Sellier, Jr.’s Silent Night, Deadly Night (1974). The affect of the latter (and of its spinoffs) consists, I think, in oxymoron: it jars (and, occasionally, amuses) because it conflates two figures which are understood to be opposites – Santa and the psychopath (something similar is achieved by Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), whose Jack Skellington engrosses because he combines – or, at least, attempts to combine – the incompatible roles of Santa and undead spook). The affect of Christmas Evil, by contrast, consists in tautology: Jackson’s film is more jarring (and, consistently, more amusing) because it reveals that those same two figures were synonymous all along – Santa was always a psychopath, and ‘Christmas’ (at least, the modern-day incarnation of Christmas) was already, in a manner of speaking, ‘Evil’: a holiday which, from the outset, has been presided over by a ‘nutcase’.
There’s an odd sense, then, in which Christmas Evil qualifies not just as a Christmas film but as a Christian film – a sense in which the festive feature favoured by the Pope of Trash is truly Papal. Though he doesn’t state it in such terms, Harry’s principal grievance with his employers lies in the fact that they are perverting charity: they are planning to donate a (limited) number toys to a (limited) number of the children in the hospital not because they care for those children but because the gesture constitutes what Harry’s boss calls ‘good business’ – that is, sound financial sense. The problem here is that reason and love (as Bottom the Weaver – another magical loser – might have put it) are keeping too much company together. Harry’s own charity, by contrast – his pathologically gifting just about every toy from the factory (with bloody hands, unannounced, and at a ludicrously inconvenient hour) to all of the hospitalised children – is comically free of reason: not only is it the gesture of a clownishly-unprofessional ‘nutcase’, making zero financial sense, it also appears to lack an ulterior motive (it certainly isn’t a form of strike-action, for example: Harry is dogmatically anti-union). For Christmas Evil, then, the truly charitable deed, the wholly selfless act – indeed, the properly Christian thing to do – is, by definition, an ‘insane’ undertaking; crucially, however, it is one that’s worthwhile – sacred, even – for this very reason. Pure philanthropy, the film appears to acknowledge, is far too precious to be undertaken by anyone besides the total amateur; true love is only known by those who are giddy with love, glimpsed by those who are blinded by it. Doubtless, it was this that led G.K. Chesterton, (who routinely described himself, before his conversion to Catholicism, as an ‘Orthodox Christian’) to remark, ‘If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly’. And it was probably a general awareness of the same that led the multi-billionaire and founder of CNN Ted Turner to describe Christianity as ‘a religion for losers’ (‘How very true!’ was Simon Leys’ inspired response, ‘What an accurate definition indeed!’). For Christmas Evil (as for Leys), the miracle of Christian kindness consists precisely in the fact that its greatest practitioners are, by definition, ‘losers’ ‘doing badly’. Those who fret each year about the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas need look no further than Jackson’s B-movie masterpiece.
But what drove Harry to insanity? What made him so obsessed with Christmas in the first place? On the face of it, the obvious answer would seem to be: his particular experience of what Psychoanalysis calls the Primal Scene – that is, his bearing witness to his Mother and Father (Christmas) ‘underneath the mistletoe’. In this respect, Christmas Evil appears to anticipate Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000). In that film too, there lurks the suggestion that pathological attitudes towards Christmas (in the Grinch’s case, hatred rather than adoration) originate in the child’s intrusion upon its parents’ festive sex. A flashback sequence depicts the Grinch’s entry into Whoville: ‘We were having our annual holiday get-together’ explains his mother in a voice-over, but it’s clear that she’s speaking in euphemisms – we’re shown the guests tossing keys haphazardly into a communal bowl, and it’s understood (though, I admit, probably not by the film’s target audience) that by ‘holiday get-together’ she means ‘yuletide swinger’s night’. In this respect, both The Grinch and Christmas Evil appear to accept at face value the idea that all neuroses are caused by the image of parental coitus: that the child’s development, as The Case History of the Wolfman (1914) puts it, is ‘positively splintered up by it’. But Freud would quickly revise this idea, positing in his Introductory Lectures (1915) that the Primal Scene ‘may be encountered in all neurotics if not in every human being’ (my emphasis). For this Freud, the experience of having witnessed (or even, for that matter, having imagined) their parents having sex, far from turning children into ‘nutcase[s]’, might well be something which they have in common with everyone else – which is to say, something that makes them perfectly sane. And Christmas Evil, I think, gives due credit to – indeed, depends upon – this revision in a way that The Grinch, for all its subtlety, does not, for Harry’s backstory isn’t simply disturbing, it’s also tremendously funny, and it’s funny precisely because it’s ridiculous – because every member of its audience knows full well that neither picturing nor walking in on Mommy and Daddy having sex (or, in young Bruce Wayne’s case, being murdered) would actually turn a child into a ‘vigilante psychopath’. Harry’s origin story is not just a textbook example but a knowing parody of the Hollywood formula which attempts to lend its outlandish characters ‘psychology’ by furnishing them with a ‘motive’ – a model which The Grinch, by contrast, simply follows verbatim.
Yet Christmas Evil is still more complex than that formula, for the central enigma of Harry’s ‘motive’ remains unanswered: ‘Who is it with his mother on Christmas Eve?’ Harry’s brother insists that it is their father in a Santa costume, and that Santa isn’t even real; Harry, however, is adamant that it’s none other than the real Santa. Crucially, the film doesn’t provide confirmation either way. And this, I think, is just as well, because the dichotomy is a false one. Even if it is Harry’s father, the question remains: ‘is Father Harry real?’ And by this, I don’t simply mean, ‘Does he actually exist?’ but, ‘Is his power located in some objective reality, or is it, like Santa’s, merely illusory?’ In other words, ‘Is the authority invested not only in fathers but in men generally to decide what constitutes ‘BAD’ and ‘GOOD’, ‘Naughty’ and ‘Nice’, and to punish and reward accordingly, something which has, like the power of Father Christmas specifically, no basis in fact, but is simply maintained via common consensus? Can patriarchy – literally, the rule-of-the-Father – be understood as an arbitrary tradition that we are compelled to accommodate? We all know that it’s bullshit (right?), so why do its toys (pay disparity etc.) keep turning up each year?
Some good answers are yielded, I think, by the scene in which Harry affixes, before a mirror, the wispy beard to his chin (a scene clearly inspired by, and yet more complex than, Travis Bickle’s ‘You Talkin’ to Me?’ in Taxi Driver). Once that beard is on, Harry begins to tug at it – as children do to mall Santas in order to determine if they are real. Satisfied that it isn’t coming off (and convinced, therefore, that he is the real Santa), Harry cackles, manically, ‘It’s me! It’s me!’ At first, the scene is simply funny because it’s so obviously a misidentification: the beard only holds because Harry, as we’ve just seen, has glued it on; besides, even if he hadn’t glued it on, Harry couldn’t possibly be Santa – who either (as Harry’s brother had insisted) doesn’t exist at all, or else (as Harry had maintained) already exists. But mistaken identity is, in a way, always true identity. In Christmas Evil’s final shots, Harry’s van heads heavenward, as only Santa’s sleigh can do – making it crystal clear that he who can’t possibly be Santa is Santa. It’s tempting to offer a crude-Freudian reading here: to suggest that the movie’s final sequence represents some Oedipal fantasy on Harry’s part to be the man who gets to fondle his mother. But there’s nothing to indicate that the shot depicts anything less than the (diegetic) reality – no subsequent ‘wake-up’ scene, no ‘Most Rare Vision’ soliloquy, nor anything besides the name of the toy factory to suggest that the van’s ascent is just some ‘Jolly Dream’. Accordingly, Christmas Evil leaves us with a subtler message: to misidentify as the Father (Christmas) is to correctly identify as the Father (Christmas); patriarchal authority is founded not in biological reality but in the miracle of make-believe – that is, in drag.
From this angle, it might seem strange that Harry objects so strongly to Moss Garcia’s pornography habit – for many, the degraded baring of women’s bodies, the publicising of their innermost privacies, is central to the patriarch’s project; especially strange, given how much enjoyment Harry himself derives from spying on his female neighbours’ nakedness. Harry’s issue with young Moss, then, appears not to be in Penthouse’s imagery as such, but in the fact that, by perusing that imagery, Moss, too, is enjoying himself – that is, threatening Harry’s monopoly on pleasure. In this respect, Harry bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the directors of Jolly Dream, whose entendre-laden motto (‘If it’s not a Jolly Dream, it’s not worth having’) betrays not only their desire to monopolise the toy market, but the similarity which that market bears to the libidinal economy (to my ear, it also contains a perverse echo of Christ’s dictum in John 14:6, ‘no one comes to the Father, but by me’). Hence, the question raised by Christmas Evil isn’t just ‘What should we do at Christmastime?’, it is also, ‘How can we disrupt the patriarch’s exclusive hold on enjoyment?’ The answer to both, I think, is a queer one: put on clothes which altogether confound his categories of ‘GOOD and ‘BAD’, ‘BOY’ and ‘GIRL’; dress in the robes of the saint who coddles to death, of the Father (Christmas) who (s)mothers.
About the Author
Oscar Mardell lives in Auckland, New Zealand, where he teaches English, French and Classical Studies. His poetry and essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including War, Literature & the Arts, The Literary London Journal, 3:AM Magazine, PopMatters, DIAGRAM and Terse. He is the author of Rex Tremendae from Greying Ghost and Housing Haunted Housing from Death of Workers Whilst Building Skyscrapers.