You Better Watch Out!
Christmas has always been the most spiritually profound and emotionally packed holiday -- for all the good and bad that entails -- and this is reflected in the wide range of Christmas films that have been produced. The Christmas holiday, so richly encrusted in legend and fantasy, has proven to be particularly fertile ground for cultish variations on its theme, staking out its own territory within the cult film genre. No other holiday affects us so deeply, inviting us to believe -- or disbelieve -- with such emotion. The myths and fantasies of Christmas create a season of emotional extremes -- a season that demands goodwill and humanitarianism while dealing out dashed hopes and a record number of suicides.And like anything passed down from antiquity and bathed in a halo of religious purity, it begs for reaffirmation as well as debunking -- prompting both maudlin veneration and blasphemous, bloody satire as filmmakers seek to offer modern updates on age-old motifs.Christmas cult movies can be divided into two distinctly opposite types: those which seek to reaffirm the goodness in the human soul, and those that use the festive trappings of the holiday season and the pervasive spirit of trust as an ironic counterpoint to humankind's evil urges -- setting up Christmas as an impossibly idealized concept begging to be defiled.Films falling into the former category are usually soaked in nostalgia and tagged with tear-jerking happy endings, and we are all too familiar with them -- "It's a Wonderful Life," "A Christmas Carol," and "Miracle on 34th Street" are three of the best known. But those films falling into the latter category -- Yuletide troublemakers -- offer some interesting fun that sometimes seems almost therapeutic.During a season where there is so much pressure to be virtuous, some people naturally rebel. It's the perfect time of the year for things to go disastrously -- sometimes hilariously -- wrong.Cult filmmaker John Waters was always keenly aware of the potent duality inherent in Christmas, and included unforgettable Christmas scenes in his two biggest underground hits. If others saw Christmas as a time to look inward and find the goodness, Waters saw it as a time to look inward and find the weirdness. In "Pink Flamingos" (1972), the nefarious Connie and Raymond Marble mail gift-wrapped dog shit to 300-pound-transvestite Divine on Christmas as a holiday carol blares on the soundtrack. In "Female Trouble" (1974), Divine plays the role of teenage schoolgirl Dawn Davenport with glorious implausibility as she towers above her parents. Unhappy with her present, she flies into a rage on Christmas morning, stomps the unwanted gift to pieces like a bull elephant, and pushes the Christmas tree over on her mother in a scene that many consider to be Waters' most hilarious.The shopping season of 1974 also brought "Black Christmas," Bob Clark's stalk-and-slash-fest to keep everyone in festive spirits. Ex-Juliet Olivia Hussey gets terrorized in this fan favorite, and cop John Saxon does what he does best -- hang in there long enough to pick up a paycheck.While John Waters adopted a more mainstream style in the '80s, other filmmakers, like Jon Moritsugu, held firm to the low ground, and it is in his short movie from 1988, "Sleazy Rider," that another notable underground-style Christmas burlesque appears.A wholly irreverent parody of "Easy Rider," "Sleazy Rider" is a crude, low-tech trash tale of two mean teenage biker chicks on Harleys who terrorize the innocent, take drugs, and generally act awful as they trip across the country. At one point they arrive in Pleasantville, USA, and, looking for gas, invade the home of a abnormally cheerful and wholesome middle-class lady played with nauseating niceness by Wendy Edwards. Of course, when they break into her home it happens to be Christmas! They destroy her house and Christmas tree and slash the stuffing out of her stuffed donkey to boot -- only to later succumb to Christmas cookies poisoned with PCP and LSD that she slips them with the sweetest holiday smile.Other cult films offer dark permutations on the sacrosanct figure of Jesus. Although not particularly a Christmas film, Roman Polanski's 1968 cult masterpiece, "Rosemary's Baby", gives the proverbial manger scene a twist by placing the devil's baby in a crib surrounded by grinning witches instead of the gentle Wisemen and shepherds.In the absurdly low-budget 1975 TV movie, "Christmas 2025," a young James Cromwell stars as a playful Christ-like figure named George who encourages freedom, hope, love, and spontaneity in a bleak, repressed future where the very utterance of the word "Christmas" is punishable by death. George is eventually arrested, tried, and executed by the fascist authorities who then face rebellion. This is undoubtedly Cromwell's most bizarre role, and it's amazing that his career survived it.But in America the face of Christmas is the face of Santa Claus, and old St. Nicholas offers a host of dramatic and perverse film possibilities. After all, he's a fat man in a weird costume with a face concealed by hair who sneaks down the chimney into your house without permission and messes around while you're asleep.Santa has long served as a tempting target of sometimes pornographic parody, and has also been cast as an inscrutable menace who disguises depravity behind the gleeful grin of the nicest man on earth. (Anyone to whom we give our complete and unqualified trust is naturally in a position to betray that trust and become malevolent.) A sinful, slaughtering Santa is more shocking than Halloween's stock procession of witches, goblins, and devils precisely because he is cast against type.In the '80s, while the splatter film genre was still going strong, a number of variations on the "evil Santa" theme cropped up in several commercial horror pictures that explored the dark core at the heart of the fat man in red. The 1980 film, "Christmas Evil" (aka "You Better Watch Out" aka "Terror in Toyland"), centers on the dangerous delusions of a toy factory foreman, played by Brandon Maggart, who was traumatized as a youth when he witnessed his mother having sex with "Santa" -- an experience that left him obsessed with all things Christmas. He indulges in the rituals of Christmas, such as keeping lists of children who are "naughty" or "nice." Finally, costumed in a Santa suit, singing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," he sets out on a murderous rampage. (The film's tagline was "He'll Sleigh You.") The picture was re-released in 1983.In 1984 the Charles Sellier-directed splatter film, "Silent Night, Deadly Night," stole the spotlight. The film centered on an ax-wielding psychotic disguised as Santa, and, despite the fact that it was a very effective little horror movie, it was universally and savagely slammed by critics upon release. Roger Ebert, America's most influential movie critic, worked himself into a self-righteous rage over the movie on his nationally syndicated TV show, damning it as indefensible bad taste. And this from a man who once co-scripted a film ("Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," 1970) about an LSD-tripping gay hermaphrodite mass-murderer running around in a cape and fake tits and swinging a sword. Hermaphroditic killers on acid we can all tolerate -- apparently -- but not a bad Santa!The outrage over "Silent Night, Deadly Night" was overwhelming and exceeded anything that the Halloween films ever provoked. Theaters were picketed and angry editorials were dashed off across the land. "What's next?" moaned critic Leonard Maltin. "The Easter bunny as a child molester?" Thanks to the outcry, the film achieved minor cult status and spawned a sequel in 1987.Santa has been known to disturb the wee ones on a much subtler level, too. The nightmare sequence that opens the visually stunning French cult film "City of Lost Children" begins innocently enough, but the first kindly Santa who enters the little boy's room soon turns into a roomful of sinful Santas, one of whom hits the hip flask and throws up on the poor kid's floor.Of course, Santa can be just as freakish being good. Witness the 1959 Mexican kiddie Christmas movie that K. Gordon Murray unleashed upon unsuspecting American children in the 1960s: Santa Claus, directed by none other than schlockmeister Rene Cardona Jr. In this epic, the "right jolly old elf" battles the mischievous "Old Pitch" forthe soul of a peasant girl who desires a doll for her present, and a rich boy who longs for nothing more than the loving attention of his nightclubbing parents. Other portrayals of Santa rendered the old fatty as a more benign if simply bizarre figure: who can forget Crispin Glover's brief but effective cameo as a loony psycho Santa in David Lynch's 1990 film, "Wild at Heart"? And who can forget the 1964 film, "Santa Conquers the Martians"? Everyone would like to, apparently. The story unfolds as Santa and two earth kids are kidnapped by green Martians and a robot. Santa is forced to make toys until he leads a revolt and escapes back to earth just in time for ... Christmas! Acclaimed as one of the worst movies ever made, this poverty-row science-fantasy oddity, directed by the obscure Nicholas Webster, was certainly one of the most outlandish. The film's cult status is enhanced by the fact that Girmar, the green Martian midget, was played by the eight-year-old actress who would grow up to trade in trash of a more mature nature, acting with camp abandon in films like "Butterfly" and "Lonely Lady" that were loaded with incest, perversion and rape. Yes, Pia Zadora. But it was as Girmar that she made the greatest contribution to cult lore.Santa might escape from Mars, but it seems no one can escape from Christmas. A sackful of some special Christmas cult flicks can help make it more bearable. Whether St. Nick is showing someone the meaning of life or hitting someone with a hatchet, Christmas is a day that brings out the devils and angels alike -- some of them captured on film.