Saturday, December 09, 2006
A Christmas Gory
Tonight is my turn to host the screening for Nous Allons au Cinema, which I've been part of for eight years. Amazingly, the seven-cineaste-strong group has been convening since fall 1989. The first films I showed were two shot by future director Nicolas Roeg, Fahrenheit 451 and The Masque of the Red Death; Onibaba, Burn!, The Vikings, Zabriskie Point, Ulzana's Raid, the original Gojira, and Shaun of the Dead (a group favorite) were my other selections. We kicked off the year at our place, with a Chinese New Year's-themed showing of the Hong Kong film Rouge, in a handsome new edition; as we managed to come full circle in a year, a feat rarely achieved given schedules and vacations, I decided to end on the same festive note that we began, with a holiday party and a Christmas movie. But not just any Christmas movie.
Here's the abridged text of the e-mail I dispatched via Polar Express to John, Liz, Rosemary, Roger, Sara, and Sydney (Michael and Otto will be joining us, too, along with Lora, who's on KP duty and will probably avert her eyes during the scary parts):
"The best seasonal film of all time. I wish I had kids. I'd make them watch it every year and if they didn't like it, they'd be punished."--John Waters on our holiday Nous Allons attraction...
YOU BETTER WATCH OUT (1980; AKA CHRISTMAS EVIL)
THE FILM: I wasn't going to do a holiday theme. But as we discussed this is the first time I can remember since my membership began in 1998 that we completed a cycle within a year, which is cause enough for celebration. And as I got us started with a different holiday theme in January I decided to bring us full circle. Call me sentimental.
Our cinematic offering, however, is anything but, though I trust it will put a slightly warped smile on your face as we wade into the seasonal slog. I wasn't planning to show a holiday-themed film but when I found out that a brand-new DVD of YOU BETTER WATCH OUT was due I decided to pounce. Based on Waters' endorsement (in his CRACKPOT book) I sought out a tape of the film in he mid-80s; by that time its writer-director, Lewis Jackson, had lost the rights to his one and thus far only movie and it was called CHRISTMAS EVIL, a punning title that misrepresents its contents. Made at the height of the HALLOWEEN/FRIDAY THE 13TH horror boom YOU BETTER WATCH OUT stands apart from it; the horrific elements are relatively minor as Jackson mines the legend of St. Nick for black comedy. Think TAXI DRIVER in a red suit but that doesn't quite capture this portrait of a bad Santa, either. It's a unique one-shot that Jackson spent a decade trying to produce, unlike the later, fly-by-night, controversial (and bloody awful) SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, which was yanked from theaters after two weeks when parents groups protested in 1984.
Families never got a chance to picket YOU BETTER WATCH OUT, which received little more than token seasonal distribution at Times Square and inner city "grindhouses." The drunks and hookers in the audience didn't fully appreciate its charms and probably liked SILENT NIGHT's Santa slasher, who mounts a naked girl on sharp deer antlers, better. [Yes, I saw that film in its two-week run in Chicago's Loop; the audience started throwing broken beer bottles around and my friend and I split during the co-feature, Charles Bronson in THE EVIL THAT MEN DO.] YOU BETTER WATCH OUT centers on sad-sack Christmas obsessive Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart), who has had something of a Santa psychosis since he saw St. Nick kissing Mommy in a rather private area one Christmas Eve. When not supervising the crew at the grim-looking Jolly Dream toy factory, whose union employees hate Christmas (the set was an actual toy factory owned by the family of executive producer Edward Pressman, who probably rates this credit lower than his films with Brian De Palma, Terrence Malick, and Oliver Stone), Harry spies on the neighborhood children, determining who's good and who's bad among them (the mother of the worst among them is played by Patricia Richardson, who went onto HOME IMPROVEMENT and sitcom fame). His younger brother Philip (veteran character actor Jeffrey DeMunn) and sympathetic sister-in-law Jackie (Dianne Hull, in a role JoBeth Williams and Lindsay Crouse tested for; their audition tapes are part of the DVD's special features), fret. When his no-good employers welch on their charitable donations, it's time for Harry to put on his custom-tailored Santa suit, modeled after Thomas Nast's Civil War-era drawings, and determine who's been naughty and who's been nice...permanently.
There are other Christmas-set shockers (BLACK CHRISTMAS, which has been remade; the original was directed by Bob Clark, the future director of A CHRISTMAS STORY) and non-Christmas flicks set on the holiday for irony (GREMLINS, LETHAL WEAPON, DIE HARD). But YOU BETTER WATCH OUT is the one that really exploits Yuletide imagery and lore. A tri-state native like me, Jackson grew up watching the Thanksgiving Day parade, the lighting of the Rockefeller Center tree, and seasonal airings of the delightful Laurel & Hardy feature MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS on TV, all of which the film references (along with Geraldo Rivera before he went national). His personal Christmas memorabilia decorates the sets, which were lovingly shot by Ricardo Aronovich, who had worked with Alain Resnais and Jeanne Moreau and would go on to shoot films for Costa Gavras, Ettore Scola, and Raul Ruiz. (Jackson had written him an admiring fan letter; for this rare US credit he brought with him camera operator Affonso Beatto, whose handiwork as cinematographer is on view in THE QUEEN.) The film plays with several images of Santa--his Germanic forebear, Black Peter, who left soot marks on houses so evil spirits could ID bad kids, the Nast version, which popularized Christmas in the US, and the contemporary commercial stooge we're all sick to death of by Dec. 25. But even Santa haters will get a kick out of the film's unexpected ending, not that Jackson necessarily intended for it to end as it does.
The modestly financed film, which went overbudget when the much-admired Aronovich came onboard, ran out of money completely and was seized by the crew for several weeks till they were paid. Jackson was forced to give up his stake in it and endured the puny theatrical release and the recut CHRISTMAS EVIL variant version till this official DVD appeared, a quarter-century later (for some copyright reason the DVD packaging bears the CHRISTMAS EVIL title, while the print has the preferred title). The disc has some nice extras, including the audition tapes, deleted scenes, storyboards, and delightful screening preview cards, which we'll be sure to watch (they run the gamut from "Two hours of my life wasted!" to "Beats Bing Crosby!"). There are also two commentaries, one by Jackson solo (where he talks about shooting the film in subzero weather in the NJ suburbs of Montclair and Glen Ridge in their pre-fashionable era, the visual references to Fritz Lang's M and Douglas Sirk's THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW, with Fred MacMurray as a depressed toymaker, and influences like Louis Malle and Jean Cocteau, whom the makers of SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT were unlikely to have had in mind for their film). There's also a second, amusing commentary with Jackson and the film's No. 1 champion, Waters.
I've got on at length about this obscure but apt-for-our-entertainment-and-edification picture. This is probably reading enough. But a few online readings (and listenings) you can check out:
The Internet Movie Database entry is here, at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0081793/. The user rating, based largely on bleary cut prints, can be ignored. You might want to consult the comments and the external reviews but it may be best to come in cold.
Brandon Maggart's website is here, at http://www.brandonmaggart.com/about.htm. Much of the film's twisted charm is due to its star, a Tennessee native (born 1933), who received a Tony nomination in 1970 playing the Hugh Marlowe part in the musicalized ALL ABOUT EVE, APPLAUSE, opposite Lauren Bacall. He co-starred in another musical that the dear departed Comden and Green worked on, LORELEI, with Carol Channing and in 1980, the same year YOU BETTER WATCH OUT came out, played Nancy Allen's john in DRESSED TO KILL. Santa has followed him around--he played a Kris Kringle character in a 1995 episode of E.R. and today, at home in Venice, CA, sports a Santa-ish beard. [Playing Santa may be like playing Jesus; you can't really escape from it.] His kids with ex-wife Diane McAfee include singing hellion Fiona Apple. Hear Santa sing! (He nervously hums Christmas carols in our movie.)
Some of Thomas Nast's Santa drawings are here, at http://www.sonofthesouth.net/Original_Santa_Claus.htm. Nast, whose pointed political cartoons helped expose and break up New York's infamously corrupt Tweed Ring, is the guy to praise or blame for today's Christmas cheer, but is not responsible for the insistent music on this site. More on Nast's interesting life and times is here, at http://www.historybuff.com/library/refnast.html. [I read a fascinating biography about Boss Tweed over the summer.]
And a word from John Waters, courtesy of NPR. Two audio selections here. The main one, from 2004, is about his annual Christmas party in Baltimore (how do we get invited?), tied in with his Christmas album of shunned songs (which I'll play for you) and another, from 2003, is a reading from CRACKPOT about his manic holiday spirit. They're linked here (the 2003 one at the bottom of the page): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1558280
Come on over and see the movie Waters calls "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE for me!""
There'll be lasagna and Christmas cookies. Eggnog, too. Wish you were here.