Christmas Evil (’80) By Michael Campochiaro of Starfire Lounge

Lewis Jackson’s cult classic Christmas Evil (1980)—or as it was known during production and before the distributor changed the name, You Better Watch Out—opened in a few theaters to little notice back in 1980. Then it mostly disappeared, only to see a revival of sorts in recent years on Blu-ray and streaming. For many of us it’s now an annual holiday watch. Christmas Evil has something special going for it that few other Christmas horrors do: it’s quite possibly the most pointed critique of the holiday season ever made.

Released during the slasher boom set off by Halloween (1978), Christmas Evil might’ve been marketed as a slasher (honestly, it was barely marketed), but that’s not what Jackson was going for. Like its anti-hero protagonist, it was an oddity, a methodically paced character study of an unstable, Santa-obsessed, middle-aged toy factory worker, which shares more in common with Taxi Driver than Halloween.

The film opens in 1947 when young Harry, his little brother Phil, and their mom secretly watch Santa Claus (their dad in disguise) deliver gifts under the tree. Later, after Phil flatly denies that Santa is real, Harry sneaks back downstairs, only to find a softcore version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” happening between sexy, lingerie-clad Mommy and horny and hungry Santa Daddy. Disturbed by seeing Santa putting his mitts (and mouth!) all over my Mommy’s lusciously nylon-and-garter-belted legs (and beyond!), he runs upstairs, breaks a snow globe in a fit of rage, and intentionally cuts his hand with a shard of the glass. Fade to red, and the film’s original title screen appears.

In present day 1980, we find Harry working at a toy factory and living in an apartment that appears to be decorated full-tilt for Christmas year-round. Stage and character actor Brandon Maggart plays Harry. He is excellent in the role, and also the source of one of my favorite fun movie facts: he’s Fiona Apple’s dad! What makes Maggart’s performance so effective is how he engenders such sympathy for Harry, who is looked down on by his coworkers, treated like a nuisance by his brother, and generally ignored by the rest of the world. He’s very much spiritually connected to Travis Bickle’s “God’s lonely man,” even talking to himself—or having total breaks with reality—in the mirror frequently throughout the story.

Harry already fancies himself a street-level Santa, clearly: he spies on the neighborhood children, keeping notes on who’s naughty or nice in a huge, leatherbound book. It’s chilling to watch him peeping through the kids’ windows, yet at the same time we never really feel any of them are in serious danger from Harry….well, except little foul-mouthed, Penthouse-reading Moss Garcia, who Harry seems particularly disturbed by because he represents the new, profane world of 1980 (“Negative body hygiene” and all) while Harry is stuck in an idealized 1940s fantasy life. That fantasy is important to remember as you watch the film. With Harry as our unreliable narrator, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not. Are people’s reactions to Harry filtered through his own fractured lens?

Harry’s breakdown seems fueled by an inability to reconcile his nostalgic, pure view of Christmas with the cynically capitalist way the rest of the adults in society see the holiday. Harry identifies with the children who still believe in the magic and wonder of Christmas, yet reality repeatedly shatters these notions, day after day, making it almost impossible for him to maintain his composure.

Seeing the adulation Santa receives at the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade triggers something in Harry. He immediately constructs a Santa costume of his own, builds toys in his workshop, and by Christmas Eve his mania is in full swing. He glues his Santa beard to his face (ouch!) and heads out to deliver some holiday cheer. He alternates between sweet acts of Robin Hood style kindness—delivering bags full of toys to a children’s hospital, which he stole from the toy factory after becoming completely disillusioned with the place—and cold-blooded murders. The bloodletting is spontaneous at first, but then calculated, as Harry sneaks into the house of a particularly crass coworker and murders the man in his bed while his children eagerly await Christmas morning, just down the hall.

As Harry’s Christmas Eve massacre carries into Christmas night, he has a series of encounters with holiday revelers, some jovial and some disturbing. After a final confrontation with his brother, who has deduced that Harry is the killer Santa the news media is reporting about, Harry drives off in his van, on which he has painted a Santa sleigh. Driving wildly, he crashes off a bridge and that’s when the film takes a turn for the surreal, as the sleigh-van literally flies off into the night, with Harry reaching a state of pure Yuletide bliss.

I tend to think Harry perished in the crash that Christmas evening, but it also appears that Phil is witnessing the flying van just as we are, so maybe not? Either way, Christmas Evil sticks with you. Jackson never directed another movie again, which is a shame, but at least his sincere, troubling, and borderline-genius piece of work has finally found its audience, all these years later. The allure of nostalgia is powerful, after all, making the core of Harry’s story all too relatable for many viewers.

Traumafessions:: Maniac (’80) & Don’t Answer The Phone! (’80) By Matt Forgit Author of You Better Watch Out: A Christmas Horror Comedy

Picture this, if you will: A goofy, sheltered, nerdy, chunky, sensitive, and guileless ten-year-old boy who watched Scooby-Doo and read Nancy Drew and Choose Your Own Adventure books. This sweet, innocent ten-year-old wasn’t interested in sports or hunting, like the other boys his age, and spent his time listening to Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, and The Go-Go’s cassette tapes and roller skating. Shockingly, this super-cool boy didn’t have a ton of friends. Unbelievable, I know.

Surprise (to no one) twist!: It was me. I’m talking about me. I’m still pretty goofy and chunky. Sadly, I never outgrew either of those things. Anyway, back then, my mom had a friend named Joy, who had a son my age, a mullet-haired kid named Todd. Joy and Todd asked if I’d like to sleep over at their house (something I was not great at— most of my rare youthful sleepovers ended with me calling my parents to come and get me in the middle of the night). My mom encouraged me to go. Joy was a fun, loud mom who resembled Demi Moore and let us drink soda, eat sweet treats whenever we wanted, and swore a lot. She and Todd took me to my first video store and asked me what I wanted to watch. Although I suggested such classics as Clue and Sixteen Candles, my wholesome recommendations were ignored. Joy and Todd rented the double bill of 1980’s Maniac and Don’t Answer the Phone!

I had never seen a horror movie. I had never seen an R-rated movie. I had seen Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and found them thrilling and amazing, not scary (I even had a Gremlins metal lunchbox and Gizmo doll). I still believed there was a monster in the car wash that would eat me, since my older neighbor Rob told me so (eat a bag of fried dicks, Rob!) and that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were real. I was not prepared for the psychological terror, gore, special effects, and extreme horror of Maniac and Don’t Answer the Phone!

We started with Maniac. Joy turned all the lights off and we sat in front of their big, boxy TV as we were introduced to sweaty, creepy, tormented Joe Spinell as the titular madman. Look, it’s New York City! I want to go to there! Wait— what’s a sex worker? Why was everything so grungy and dirty? Where was Molly Ringwald when I needed her? Then came the scalpings. And the mannequins. And the exploding heads. No matter how much the victims begged, pleaded, or prayed for their lives to be spared, he gave them no mercy. There was nowhere for them to run or hide. He was always there. I knew nothing about SFX or Tom Savini back then, so every note felt real and true, especially since the movie was filmed in a very matter-of-fact, almost documentary sort of way.

I cried inside for the poor lady who Frank Zito chased through the subway to the bathroom and stabbed. I shuddered as Frank Zito slowly sunk his knife into the poor lady he tied up and gagged. I hated every second of it. My world of Care Bears, Thundercats, He-Man, and Pound Puppies died a little that day, along with every doomed victim of Frank’s rampage. I could not take my eyes away from the screen. Joy and Todd seemed to really into it and cheered and laughed during the scary scenes. I, on the other hand, had that pre-diarrhea feeling throughout the whole film. And if I hadn’t been traumatized enough, the presumed dead killer’s eyes opened at the end. He’s not dead. I could be next. He might be waiting for me under my bed. My bowl-cut hair might end up on a lady mannequin.

But Joy and Todd weren’t done. They clearly did not notice my expression of sheer terror. It was time for Don’t Answer the Phone! Right away, the movie featured talk and images of the Vietnam War, pornography, psychology, twisted religious ideology, and another psychopath (this one named Kirk Smith) with deranged connections to a dead parent and predilection toward killing women. I knew nothing of any of those things. All I knew was if any of the scantily-clad ladies in the movie answered the ringing telephone, they were going to be strangled, throttled, chased, and killed as they screamed bloody murder. Somehow, Kirk Smith was always easily able to get inside their houses. That meant my house was not safe. I was not having a fun time at this sleepover. Nobody was having pillow fights or putting the undies from the first person to fall asleep in the freezer. This was Sleepover Nightmare, my own real-life horror movie. At the time, I was no Sidney Prescott. I was, at best, Chunk from The Goonies. These were not gentle, easygoing scary movies to delicately introduce me to the world of horror. These were full-on, in-your-face, how-much-can-you-take splatter flicks. I could not take any of it.

Yes, like E.T., I phoned home. I called my mom and she had to come get me at midnight to take me home to my own bed, where I stayed up all night long, staring at the closet because Frank Zito and Kirk Smith were hiding inside of it. I stared at our rotary phone suspiciously. I would never trust that ear-piercing ring again. I would never visit New York City, because that’s where the scalp-wearing mannequins lived. It wasn’t until Jason took Manhattan that I was willing to discover NYC. I kept my nightlight on, wondering who liked these sorts of movies, and why would anyone make something like that. I still have this penchant for dramatics and imagination.

It would be the next year, when my dad let me watch Friday the 13th Part 3 on Fox Channel 5, that my love for horror blossomed. From there, I rented April Fool’s Day, Chopping Mall, Night of the Creeps, and Waxwork, and watched The Fog, The Howling, My Bloody Valentine, The Hills Have Eyes, Spookies, Night of the Comet, Killer Party, Black Christmas, The Changeling, and A Nightmare on Elm Street on cable television. I discovered great, strong, capable final girls who fought back, like Ripley, Alice, Ginny, Chris, Trish, Nancy, Laurie, Sally, Jess, Regina, Samantha, and the like. I met Jason, Freddy, Leatherface, Michael Myers, Billy, Andrew Garth, and Harry Warden, who were genuinely scary and threatening, but not so much so that I couldn’t sleep at night. Though I’d had a rocky, jarring initiation into the world of horror films, I just needed to find the ones that gave me my groove back. I got it. Scary movies are fun, entertaining, and can be extremely cathartic and exciting. And though I still love Molly Ringwald, I have seen Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre more times now than I’ve seen Pretty in Pink.

BIO: My name is Matt Forgit and my first novel, You Better Watch Out: A Christmas Horror Comedy, is available on Amazon. If you’d be so kind and forgive me for this shameless plug, I’d appreciate if you’d check it out (and buy it!). I don’t have a huge publishing company behind me, so any and all support is helpful and very, very appreciated!

The Hand (1981)

In a strange turn of events, it turns out I rather dig Oliver Stone’s THE HAND. This is odd because I remember it boring the hell out of me when I watched it as a kid. To be fair to my younger self, 1981 was an incredible year for horror and it’s still easy for me to see why it paled in comparison to the more exciting and innovative films of that year. Additionally, it’s very possible I needed a lot more life experience to appreciate THE HAND’s bitter, misanthropic tone. There’s a whole lot of yelling and domestic squabbling in this flick and I’m sure my younger self was looking for a lot more murder and mayhem.

Now I find, if you can get past the outrageous premise, THE HAND is solid psychological horror and a compelling dive into insanity. Heck, the maddening journey Michael Caine’s hair endures is worth the viewing alone.

Caine stars as Jonathan Lansdale, a writer and illustrator of a CONAN-like comic strip that apparently his entire sense of identity relies on. One day he finds himself on the losing end of a road rage incident and his right hand is severed. Sadly the hand also goes missing and it is presumed to be lost forever (if only he were so lucky). Let me tell you, Jonathan does not adjust to his new predicament well at all. Soon he’s having black and white nightmares of his rotting paw crawling around stealing jewelry and visions of it strangling a homeless man (played by Stone himself). Landsdale landslides into several fun hallucinations including a lobster coming to life, a shower faucet nearly giving him the finger and even a giant hand attacking through a store front window.

Stone makes many an interesting directorial choice even if they don’t all work (I could have easily done without the scene involving a fake cat senselessly jumping through a glass window being shown twice- as it didn’t work the first time). His greatest decision may have been to completely drop the reigns on Caine and allow him to go as bonkers as humanly possible. I could watch Caine go mad forever especially when his sad descent is scored by the great James Horner (WOLFEN, DEADLY BLESSING). Sure, the pacing (literally) crawls at times but there are still so many layers to enjoy. You get a psychological thriller, a family divorce drama (complete with little Christina (Mara Hobel) from MOMMIE DEAREST), a student/teacher romance, a wife and yoga instructor affair, a monster movie, a revenge movie, a cabin in the woods flick AND thanks to an X-Mas tree murder- a Christmas horror movie! Just when you think THE HAND has finally stopped delivering the goods, the incredible Viveca Lindfors shows up! I’m really glad I gave this crazy flick a second chance, young-me didn’t know what he was missing.

Magdalena: Possessed by the Devil (’74) By Michael Campochiaro of Starfire Lounge

I was feeling under the weather recently so I did what any normal human being would do: I curled up in bed to watch a 1970s West German Devil-possession flick dubbed into English on YouTube. What, you don’t do that when you’re sick?

Truth be told, neither do I but sweet Satan am I glad I did this time. I’m not even sure how I stumbled upon Magdalena: Possessed by the Devil (1974); I probably have some lunatic on the internet to thank. And of course I have William Blatty’s The Exorcist to thank because that little book you may have heard of set off a possession frenzy in the 1970s that produced not only William Friedkin’s smash hit film adaptation, but also any number of movies and TV clones. It wasn’t just in the United States either. Those crazy Italians and the almost-as-crazy Spaniards made a bunch of knockoffs. Then the Germans said—Ha! Okay fine, hold my Hofbräu—and made the truly insane Magdalena (known stateside as Beyond the Darkness).

I don’t even know how to describe this movie…take The Exorcist, strip away any semblance of seriousness, age up the lead actress to a teenager, add in staggering amounts of nudity and vulgarity, and just let the madness flow like draught beer during Oktoberfest. The story is simple: an orphaned teen (Dagmar Hedrich) begins writhing around like she’s having sex with the air, telling every man in site to “stick it in her”, and generally behaving in all sorts of ways not typically condoned in polite society. When possessed, she relishes antagonizing a series of truly stupid and horny men. Eventually she’s in the care of two doctors who begin to realize there’s more to this than medical science will ever be able to explain.…much more!

Hedrich is to be commended for her performance. She absolutely commits to the madness. I swear she’s naked for half the film, at least, and not just naked but naked while running, rolling, fighting, and cackling her way through the story. Pardon the pun but she’s like a woman possessed.

Basically Magaldena is a German sexploitation film that happens to have satanic possession in it. After watching this crackerjack I felt less under the weather, and in fact, much better. Look, sometimes satanic possession is just what the doctor ordered.

Note: Make sure to visit MC at his home joint HERE!

The Fury (1978) By Michael Campochiaro of Starfire Lounge

Let’s get this out of the way at the start: I’m a Brian De Palma fanatic. Of the New Hollywood directors who got their starts in the 1960s and 1970s, many are certified legends with their own signature styles, but none of them can touch De Palma’s purely batshit crazy resume, especially during the 1970s. And during those years none of them worked as consistently within the milieu of horror as De Palma, either. From harrowing, Siamese-twin shocker Sisters (1973) to demented rock opera Phantom of the Paradise (1974) to telekinetic teen terror Carrie (1976) and beyond, De Palma crafted some of the most bizarre and memorable films of the decade.

Carrie is as close to a perfect movie as one can get. It’s quite possibly De Palma’s best, in my estimation—technical prowess, emotional impact, and excellent performances meld into something truly transcendent. That might be why the film he followed it with in 1978, The Fury—also about telekinetic teens—was practically doomed to second fiddle status from the start. That’s a shame because, while The Fury is far from perfect, it’s as compellingly strange as anything De Palma has ever made.

Part supernatural horror, part espionage thriller, with even some comic interludes that seem ported over from another movie, The Fury is the sort of movie that makes me feel confident to declare it unlike any other movie ever made. I like this strange mixture quite a bit, although the script is kind of a mess and inexplicably convoluted. It stars Kirk Douglas as a man on a mission, trying to rescue his supernaturally gifted son from a shady government organization intent on using him and other special kids as weapons in warfare. Douglas might seem an odd fit for this movie, but the man brings it! Whether he’s surviving speed boat explosions, leaping out of buildings in his boxer shorts, or applying shoe polish to his hair while munching on bacon (don’t ask), I’m just happy to go along for the ride with him. Ethereal Amy Irving (hot off her fantastic performance as Sue Snell in Carrie) as a telekinetic teen with extra-sensory perception is—you guessed it—ethereal. And like Carrie White, her character Gillian also kicks major ass in the end, and it’s glorious. John Cassavetes is deliciously dastardly and Andrew Stevens’ performance is intense—he’s really good at nose flaring. The death scenes are insanely gruesome and bloody in the grand De Palma tradition.

The Fury also contains plenty of the director’s signature style with some extraordinary shots, including a wonderful, lengthy, slow-motion sequence that is absolutely mesmerizing. I hadn’t seen the film in decades, but its slow charms are intoxicating, to the point that I can’t stop thinking about it since a recent rewatch. In that way, it’s the sort of movie that works its way into your heart and stays there forever.

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