Our midnight screening of Christmas Evil this weekend may come as bit of a surprise to the unfamiliar. Heavily marketed as a slasher movie, it’s almost anything but. Instead it’s smart, emotional, hysterical, wonderfully acted, and beautifully shot. Yes, a man dressed as Santa does kill some people but not that many and there’s no silly slasher “rules” at play here. Christmas Evil (also known in its original title You Better Watch Out) is really a narrative about childhood trauma and the emotional struggle to belong. Hatched is honored to have been able to interview the film’s director, Lewis Jackson, who in addition to being very candid, has also shared these wonderful film stills with us. So please, don’t be naughty and enjoy…
You wrote the script for You Better Watch Out/Christmas Evil over a period of 8 years. How long did it take for it to form into what we see onscreen? How much changed between drafts?
The first draft of the script was very different, written in about ’72 and ended with Harry in Central Park, surrounded by helicopters beaming searchlights down on him. I don’t even remember if they killed him. Anyway, I hated it and put it in a drawer for years. In the mid-seventies, I took it out and did another draft, actually two and that is much closer to the final film except it was a much bigger budget project. People liked it but no one was willing to make it. I moved on and got a screenwriting deal in Hollywood. Cut to late ’78. A yurt in Vermont. My girlfriend at that time read the script and convinced me to go back one more time. I took out the more expensive scenes. In 1979, I found financing.
How did the rights for Christmas Evil slip away from you for a bit and how did you re-secure them? And is this why it’s no longer titled You Better Watch Out?
One of my two producers was at one time a very wealthy man. Had sixty million dollars during the go go years of the ’60’s stock market which is a hell of a lot more money these days. He lost everything in a stock market plunge but became famous for paying everything back. He had always been looking for another killing and he thought the Christmas movie after the success of Halloween was his meal ticket. First I went over budget (actually doubled it) which is a whole different story. Then when it was finished, he had a deal with a good distributor but his demands drove the guy crazy and he backed out of the deal. That’s when I lost touch for a while. And in that interim, the film got sold to a schlock company that changed the name and eventually caused bootlegs to turn up everywhere and under many fly by night company’s names. It wasn’t till about 2004 that I decided to get it back. I got my original lawyer involved and got the blessing of my old second producer. We contacted all the bootleggers and claimed we had a copyright that no one seemed to have noticed. My print always had the original title on it.
There are elements of Freudian regression/death drive as well as Deleuzian notion on “becoming” (Harry’s life is a process of becoming, recovering, and ultimately destroying the idea of Santa) which reflects upon your interest in Hitchcock. Were you thinking of these philosophical concepts when writing the script?
Freud was always, certainly back then, a strong influence in my life. As for the “becoming” part, I think that was part of my unconscious. I didn’t so much want to destroy Santa as reinvent him. And the film is concerned with a kind of left-wing notion of power. I was a big fan of the magazine, semiotexte. Deleuze actually wrote for it. Another big influence was Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology Of Fascism. I hope this doesn’t take away from the fun of the movie. (Hatched note: it doesn’t!)
Brandon Maggart is absolutely incredible as the disturbed Harry. He’s at once scary, sad, funny, normal, and homicidal. How did he come into playing the role?
I lost my first Harry. George Dzunza, the bartender from The Deerhunter. We had different views of the story. He wanted to turn it into Marty. I was on a frantic search to replace him with very little time before shooting started. A casting agent suggested Brandon. He did a test which is on the DVD. I thought it was perfect. His background though was a Broadway musical comedy star. He was in Top Banana with Phil Silvers amongst other things. And he was on the first season of Sesame Street. I think all that came into how he played the role.
You’ve said that you didn’t intend to make a horror movie with Christmas Evil, how do you feel about it being co-opted into the horror film cannon? It probably didn’t help that it was released the same year as Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th or took place during a holiday like Carpenter’s Halloween.
I actually got the film made because of the success of Halloween. And I let the misconception stand to get the money. There are so-called horror elements but they are blended in with melodrama and surrealism.
The film certainly doesn’t fit within the subgenre characteristics of the “slasher” what are your thoughts about the “slasher” and the misleading association between it and Christmas Evil?
The influences beside Hitchcock and Lang are Sirk and Fassbinder. And by the way, I hate slasher movies. Killing girls who have sex was a very Reaganesque idea that still seems to play with evangelicals. I was offered an easter bunny killer movie because I had made a holiday killer movie. it’s repulsive. Just for the record, Friday the 13th sucks.
I read that you made a soft-core and drive-in movie before Christmas Evil. What are the titles for these and where did these films get screened?
I made The Deviators in 1970. It played in one theater in New York next to the Latin Quarter. And other cities I don’t know. At some point, someone added hardcore footage to it which I’ve never seen. As is my want, my version was a perverse comedy based on episodes from Kraft-Ebbing.
I made The Transformation (A Sandwich Of Nightmares) in 1974. It was based on an underground comic book story about a vamp who ran a snake cult. The story was not long enough so I bracketed it with an prologue and epilogue about the making of the film. The prologue being optimistic. The epilogue being a record of what a disastrous experience the production had been. It played in drive-ins around the country. Not too long ago, someone sent me ad from a drive-in in Buffalo. Sadly, I had prints of both movies but my first wife put them in storage. We got divorced and she said the storage company got broken into and the films were stolen. Ah marriage!
It has taken a long time for the film to finally find an audience that appreciates its complexity. In addition to the rights and distribution conflict, why do you think it took to gain recognition? How did John Waters help in making this possible?
It took a long time to get recognition because for a long time it was misunderstood and got hateful reviews from horror magazines who wanted more blood and guts. John wrote about it wonderfully in the mid ’80’s in his book Crackpot which is when I realized I wasn’t a crackpot. About six years ago, he had a series of art shows around the country in museums and invited me to screen the movie in the film series that accompanied them. And of course, he did the commentary on the DVD.
What have you been working on since Christmas Evil? Are there any other hidden gems waiting to be discovered?
I’ve had many projects that have gone down the tubes. And my magnum opus, A sci-fi film called Chiller which I have been trying to get together for more years than I’d like to remember, has never happened. It’s a story about a man who gets hit with solar energy and get addicted to energy. An electric junkie.