Christmas in the workplace can be tough time to get through. There’s the parties, the coworkers in their ugly sweaters, wearable reindeer horns, and sing-alongs that test the very limits of our jolliness. And then there’s the annoying asshole that likes to remind everyone that suicide rates are at their highest during the holidays. “People get lonely and they can’t handle it,” this person might say. “They hate their families, their friends are travelling, and all that’s standing between them and the final cut is a mob of carolers knocking on their door.” Lewis Jackson’s Christmas Evil is kind of like that person, a party pooper that loves to highlight the worse parts of the season. In this case, though, it’s a souring of festivities that justifies itself thanks to its slasher sensibilities. Sometimes, people deserve the bad Santa treatment.

christmas evil

Christmas Evil—also known by its original title Better Watch Out, and its other name Terror in Toyland—follows Harry, a man with an unhealthy fixation on Christmas that stems from watching his dad groping his mom next to the family Christmas tree when he was a child. The dad was dressed as Santa Claus, whom Harry thought was the real thing at the time. This means that in his mind, he saw the real Santa Claus having his way with his mom. After this, he runs up to the attic of his house, breaks a snow globe, and then cuts himself with a broken shard. Game, set, match for Harry becoming a slasher.

Fast-forward to Harry as an adult. We see a man that wakes up in Santa Claus pajamas, humming Christmas songs to himself to start the day. He works in a toy factory, surrounded by people who couldn’t care less about the job. A series of slights, a fractured relationship with his brother (the first one to tell him Santa wasn’t real), and an interaction with a greedy company man later and his grasp on reality starts to unravel. He decides to become Santa Claus. His mission? Reward the good and punish the naughty. One stab at a time.

Christmas Evil stays true to the mission for the most part. It’s very convincing in how it builds up the conditions for Harry’s transformation into a vengeful Santa. In fact, the movie makes a very persuasive argument for the creation of a justified slasher. Not that it puts him in a morally righteous position. Rather, it puts in the work to show Harry did not lose his mind in a vacuum. It was a process aided by some truly horrible stuff perpetrated by some terrible people that forever turned what should’ve been the happies time of the year into the most traumatic.

Harry’s downward spiral spans his entire lifetime but is always rooted in Christmas, right to its very core. Christmas is about Santa, family, and presents, the three things that have been tainted by forces and people outside his control. His memory of Santa, for instance, is a badly healed scar inflicted by his dad when he dressed as old Kris Kringle on Christmas Eve and then stayed in costume to have very kinky sex with his mom.

Harry’s brother, aptly named Phillip (played by Jeffrey DeMunn), adds to this vortex of Christmas evil by playing the role of the bully brother, the successful sibling that ended up with a respectable job, a beautiful wife, two perfect kids, and his own house. Phillip resents Harry. He sees his brother as a problem he inherited from his parents, the thing that doesn’t fit with his perfect life. No jolly Christmas dinners filled with cheer on this front for Harry either. The family is held together by flimsy strands of connective tissue, more an obligation than a genuine institution.

And then we have Harry’s work, a toy factory called Jolly Dreams that specializes in Christmas-ready products. It’s made clear early on that the factory skimps on quality in favor of higher profits, putting the kids the toys are made for on the bottom rung of the priorities list. It all comes to a head when Harry learns the factory is donating toys to a children’s hospital on the condition production hits its mark and if the workers put in their own money to reach that goal. This ends up being the last straw for Harry. There’s no other viable choice for him other than gluing a Santa beard to his face and becoming the jolly red man to save Christmas.

The movie goes through tonal shifts with the grace of a flying reindeer dragging a giant bag of coal. Director Lewis Jackson couldn’t decide if he wanted a black comedy or a more serious exploration of the makings of a serial killer. The end result has more in common with William Lustig’s Maniac (1980) than it does something like The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), the former being an uncomfortably intimate look at the mind of a killer and the latter a more fun bit of bloodletting with commentary more clearly at the forefront. Rather than gleeful and gratuitous Christmas violence in generous amounts, Christmas Evil goes for a slow-paced descent into the mind of a deranged man who was wronged by the season he loved the most.

Harry’s portrayal is quite sad because of this, making for a tragic slasher. It hits harder once you realize becoming Santa Claus is his own way of trying to save Christmas. His approach essentially attempts to fight fire with fire, and it’s interesting that the people that get killed in the process aren’t presented as undeserving. And yet, each “righteous” slaying pushes him further away from core principals of the holiday he proclaims to be defending, especially as he sees it in his twisted mind. Lest we forget, Christmas is all about bring friends and loved ones together, alive. A bunch of corpses aren’t exactly the image of merriness.

It all comes to a head when the populace decide to take up pitchforks and torches to go and hunt Harry the Santa Claus down. It reminds somewhat of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), when Jack Skellington is attacked by artillery as he goes about dressed as Santa Claus in his skeletal sleigh, reshaping Christmas into what he thinks it should be. In Christmas Evil, Harry is pursued for mostly the same thing, though his methods are bloodier than Jack’s. Jack got tired of his holiday. Harry’s acting out of a need to rescue something foundational that was taken from him by the very things Christmas was supposed to safeguard.

You can’t help but feel sorry for Harry, a victim of seasonal expectations. His desire to finally get the Christmas he deserves, to finally get it all just right, ended up driving him to the point of madness. There’s a reason why Christmas can often be one of the most stressful parts of the year. It’s not automatically jolly. It’s a test of endurance focused on happiness, one that takes very little to derail. Lewis Jackson built a movie that showed just how easy it can be for every single component of the holiday to fall apart and ruin a lifetime of Christmases. In Harry’s case, it can be enough to bring a killer out of it. Turns out a bully brother, a miserable job, and a horny Santa is all it takes to turn Christmas evil.