You Better Not Cry: Four Films with an Evil Santa

I know that may be the new norm for stores in the U.S., but it feels wrong to hear “White Christmas” the first week of November.  And honestly, I don’t feel like I’m alone. Christmas creep has become an alarmingly common strategy to get people to shop early and shop often. It’s such a strange phenomenon. We seemingly wind our popular culture back 50 years for no reason except to make sure we max out credit cards and buy gaudy lights to display on our roofs.

I don’t want to sound like a Scrooge. I enjoy getting time off work to spend with family. But I do find myself wanting an antidote from the usual Christmas entertainment. There’s only so many times I can watch A Charlie Brown Christmas before I tire of hearing Linus read scripture. And even “alternative” Christmas films, like Die Hard and Gremlins, have become established mainstream holiday movies that are broadcast alongside How the Grinch Stole Christmas. For a long time, to me, it seemed like I couldn’t have Christmas cookies without listening to Bing Crosby on repeat.

And then I realized that I’m not alone. For decades, filmmakers have tried to provide the biggest alternative possible by turning classic Christmas symbols into sinister figures. Most people have treated these attempts with nothing but scorn, horror, or flat out ignorance. But each of these films tried to subvert traditional – and even nontraditional – Christmas entertainment by turning Santa Claus into a malevolent figure capable of extreme violence. There usually isn’t any moral lesson and certainly families don’t end up having themselves a merry little Christmas.  

I know most people will have a reaction along the lines of “can’t we just watch Rudolph for the 20th time?” But if you’re looking for something a different this holiday season, these films should help satisfy your cravings.

Christmas Evil – John Waters has long been a champion of Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out), citing it as his personal favorite Christmas movie. And if John Waters is a fan, you know the movie is going to be weird.

The movie is about a stunted man child named Harry who is obsessed with Santa Claus. He works at a toy factory and every single wall in his home is lined with Christmas decorations year-round. He’s convinced himself that he truly is Santa Claus and, on Christmas Eve, puts on the Santa suit and drives around town to give good boys and girls their presents (aka toys he stole from work). Those who have the Christmas spirit are rewarded by this dime store St. Nicholas. Those who take advantage of people at Christmas, like his coworker who lied about spending time with his family, are punished.

As he himself says to the children he meets, “If you’re bad…I’ll give you something…horrible.”

The film is not really horror film. It’s a pitch-black comedy about someone who loves Christmas because of what it represents to his stunted emotional development. Christmas is a time where nothing truly horrible can happen to good people and everyone is supposed to be their best selves. But unlike other films with Santa as the villain, Christmas Evil is sympathetic to Harry and his desires. He doesn’t necessarily want to harm people and ruin Christmas. Rather, he wants everyone to uphold the twisted version of the Christmas spirit he possesses.

The climax of the film has Harry confronting his brother about the traumatic incident where he witnessed “Santa” give his mother oral sex by the Christmas tree. The cynics in the audience know it was really a husband and wife spending an intimate moment on Christmas Eve, but the film is successful at making us see the world through Harry’s eyes. While I watched this movie, I wanted Christmas to be the childish dream Harry imagined. That was surely a lot more fun and satisfying than the view of his brother Phil or even my own cynical view of pop culture at Christmas. In Christmas Evil. Santa isn’t the malevolent figure. He’s the only person on the planet trying to ensure that the holiday spirit remains alive in an increasingly cynical world.  

Krampus- Krampus isn’t about Santa Claus directly. Rather, the creature is a foil of Santa who exists to punish people who have given up on the traditional family spirit of the holidays. The Engel family can barely stand each other and their youngest son wants nothing more than to go back “like the way it used to be.”

It’s an attitude that reminded me of the eye twitch I get whenever I hear Burl Ives in the mall. It’s becoming easier for people to dismiss Christmas as a silly façade to mask our true feelings. But we do it every year just the same.

Why? As recounted by Omi Engel in a stop motion flashback sequence, it’s to make sure Krampus doesn’t come back. In the context of the film, he has the power to toss people directly into Hell and uses a variety of Christmas toys and cookies (the gingerbread men are basically the mini Ashes from Army of Darkness), but his arrival symbolizes something much deeper.

As we’ve become more cynical with time, the threat of a Krampus like figure seems more real. Dysfunctional families have been treated as the new norm by pop culture, which makes it easier to laugh at something like Christmas. Krampus is the holiday trying to take back its importance from people who don’t pay attention to the opportunities it gives for people to connect. 

Max loses his faith in Christmas after his letter to Santa is revealed, where he lays out exactly what he wants. Not toys, but for his parents to love each other again. It seems cruel to punish Max for losing his faith after being mocked by his cousins, but that’s how horror works. Besides, it shows exactly what Max and his family are casting aside – each other. They may as well be dragged to hell because for all intents and purposes, they’ve been there for years.

I feel Krampus was targeting people like me who chuckle when they see stores put out holiday decorations. It may be annoying but abandoning the traditions can still leave behind devastation. Maybe you won’t be tossed into Hell, but there are always consequences.

Rare Exports- This Finnish film about a group of scientists discovering Santa and his elves. But this Santa isn’t a benevolent figure. Instead, he’s a giant horned demon who boils naughty children alive. He’s been in a giant burial mound for centuries, and he’s soon to be revealed to the world.

I’d be lying if I said this was a completely original film. Tonally, it’s a knock off of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Onni, the main child character, even slowly turns into a Kurt Russell action hero. There’s even a scene of the farmers standing by a giant hole a la the flying saucer in The Thing. The idea behind the failing business that finds itself gripped in the horror of Santa also feels very Carpenter-esque. The blue-collar people are the only ones who can ignore the messages those in power wish to convey.

And that horror occurs before the elves show up. Far from the cuddly figures in Coke commercials, they are depicted as sinister old men who want to free Santa so they may serve him. A part of their plan involves stealing every heating device they can find, including hair dryers. They’re also feral creatures who bite people’s ears off.

What exactly does it have to say about Christmas? For one, it’s trying to tie its mythology back into the original folklore that birthed these legends. Far from being a happy story, fairy tales and legends were used as cautionary stories to make sure that children grew up with the same values as their parents. Most of the Grimm fairy tales are horrifically gory and a “happily ever after” ending only occurred if the main characters didn’t end up horribly maimed in some gruesome way.

The Santa legends were no different. They were to encourage children to be good – not through toys, but so that children could avoid the horrifying punishment Santa would dole out to naughty children. Over time, we’ve commercialized Santa and made him a figure of fun. This film mocks those efforts (the farmers manage to kidnap an elf and hold it for ransom). The elves are trained to become mall Santas and are exported all over the world. It’s exactly how our popular culture has worked. The context behind Santa, not to mention the context behind the story of Christmas, has been morphed into something that people can literally consume.

But that’s not the most important statement the movie is making about Christmas.  

One of the most effective moments in the film is when Onni fears Santa and asks his father if he’s truly been good. It calls back to the original purpose of Santa. These weren’t just fairy tales. To the cultures that shared these stories, Santa and his ability to punish naughtiness was very real. Children were genuinely afraid of the Santa figures. This film tries to capture that fear and help the people who grew up with Coke commercials understand what these stories original meant to people.

Silent Night, Deadly Night – This is likely the most infamous film on this list. When it was originally released, the film generated enormous controversy and barely lasted two weeks in theaters. Even Siskel and Ebert took the opportunity on their show to accuse the makers of this film of collecting blood money.

The premise itself – in which a man turns into a Jason Voorhees version of Santa Claus after his parents are murdered by a thief dressed in the red suit – was enough to raise eyebrows. (Although Christmas Evil didn’t generate nearly as much press.) Slasher movies were also generating an enormous backlash from critics who felt they were little more than geek shows entirely dependent on their graphic violence to succeed.

Silent Night, Deadly Night is unique because it tries to do something different. Not only is the Santa Claus villain relatively shocking, but the film goes out of its way to explain why Billy, the killer, hates Christmas and why he would look at Santa as a figure of horror. It’s one of the few slasher films that explains the psychology behind the character and tries to understand the motivations behind the monster.

But the problem is it doesn’t do that very well. Silent Night, Deadly Night is completely serious and believes it’s a lot smarter than it really is. It’s debatable how possible it is to inject humor into the subject matter, but Christmas Evil had already done it. Harry is a fully realized character. Billy is the result of every other character making the wrong decision at the wrong time. What’s supposed to be meaningful (like having Billy play Santa for kids at a store) comes across as hopeless tone deaf. How else did they expect Billy to react?

Billy himself doesn’t come across as a sympathetic character. He’s a complete monster who treats adults and children equally. Unlike Harry, he doesn’t want anyone to have a good Christmas and doesn’t want to help any children avoid his fate. He just wants to “punish,” for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. We see Billy in a Catholic orphanage listening to Mother Superior talk about how punishment is not only necessarily, but morally good if punishment is called for. But how does that relate to Billy and Christmas? Again, Christmas Evil did this right by having Harry “punish” people who use Christmas as an excuse to avoid their responsibilities.

Is there anything worthwhile in this movie? Yes, kind of. Silent Night, Deadly Night is correct in declaring its premise to be shocking. The public backlash against the film demonstrates that. Also, there are a few scary scenes in the film, like when Billy gifts a child with a knife he’d just use to murder someone. There’s also a scene where a priest dressed as Santa is gunned down by the police – an event that should carry a lot more emotional weight. Still, the filmmakers are clearly trying to create something new and don’t want to copy Halloween or Friday the 13th. They try to make a new villain who is scarier because he could really exist.

I recommend watching Silent Night, Deadly Night after you’ve watched every other film on this list. It’s an antidote for Santa Claus is Coming to Town, but there are more effective antidotes out there.

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode One Hundred Thirty

 

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode One Hundred Thirty

After a brief interlude, Rob and Jon pick up and take off on another brilliant, explosive, insightful and hilarious conversation, personifying why you’ve made Radio City… so well-loved.

This episode’s topics include the going-off-the-track purpose of Sesame Street; Rudy Giuliani’s Ukranian associates being arrested; the National League playoffs where the Los Angeles Dodgers met an unsuspecting end to their post-season; the non-essentiality of the 4th Democratic Presidential candidates debate; the aberration of this year’s Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame nominees, the new album from Populuxe gets some serious scrutiny plus “In Our Heads” (naturally!) and even more…

…so as we’re wont to say, “kick back; make yourself comfortable and enjoy the ride with Rob and Jon.  You’re in good hands…”

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode One Hundred Thirty

The podcast will be on the site as well as for subscription via iTunes and other podcast aggregators. Subscribe and let people know about Radio City, as well as Popdose’s other great podcasts David Medsker’s Dizzy Heights and In:Sound with Michael Parr and Zack Stiegler.

Exit Lines: “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical”

If Jersey Boys is the model for the pop biopic genre, then the West End import Tina: The Tina Turner Musical is the middle–another excuse, after The Cher Show and a jukebox full of others, for a soaring central performance swaddled in glitz and tinsel. Adrienne Warren is all that as Turner, but the show that surrounds her is as hoary and hokey as most of its predecessors, and as redundant as its title. (What other “Tina” is there?) 

The R&B and rock goddess’ life has been packaged before, as the autobiography I, Tina: My Life Story (1986) and the Oscar-nominated adaptation What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), so any new telling is likely to have all the surprise of one of those unboxing videos found on YouTube. Still, the opening scene, where the Buddhist candles and chanting that would come to center the superstar merge with little Anna Mae Bullock’s hardscrabble, gospel-inflected childhood in Tennessee, raises hopes for something conceptually compelling. The promise fades: working with the co-writers of what the Playbill calls “the smash hit bio-musical Hij Gelooft in Mij,” playwright Katori Hall (of the impenetrable MLK fantasia The Mountaintop) adheres to the rags to riches template, and ticks off the chapter headings: Lonely Girlhood.  Dreams of Success. Life With Ike. Rigors of the Road. Heartache and Horror. Starting Over. Comeback. The show honors Turner’s accomplishments as an artist and inspirational survivor of poverty, neglect, and domestic abuse, but does so flatly, and the procession of tepidly written highlights and lowlights is numbing. 

Terrible person though he was Ike Turner was a live wire, and Daniel J. Watts gives him enough swagger, savvy, and bullshit charm to show why Turner stuck it out with him. He’s pretty much exorcised, though, by the second act, as she rebuilds her life and career, and Warren has to struggle with blander characterizations and co-stars. Tina is at its best when music takes center stage–the backstage tumult behind the Phil Spector-produced “River Deep–Mountain High” is vividly dramatized, as are the battles to update her sound for the synth-driven 80s (she initially hated what became her signature song, which gave the film its title). After she dismisses her awful mother, however, the show is done with drama, as Turner settles into romantic bliss with the much younger German music producer Erwin Bach and closes the door on her professional life. No disrespect but Hij Gelooft in Mij probably had a more colorful third act. 

As in her smash hit Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd drops in the songs where they’re needed dramatically, not chronologically, to lesser effect: “Private Dancer” doesn’t really speak to her post-Ike career chasm and is wasted, particularly when a subsequent cover of “Disco Inferno” in a Vegas dive does the same thing. That said Warren goes mountain high on every number and is never less than sensational, giving her all to put flesh and blood on the skeleton that is this canned Tina Turner musical. I felt for her when the show simply gives up and becomes a concert stage, saving two of her most famous songs for an encore performance. Tina: The Tina Turner Musical locks Adrienne Warren into a Tina Turner impersonation, when the star clearly had the chops to go beyond the surface of her extraordinary life.

Exit Lines: “Cyrano”

Peter Dinklage, relieved of his Game of Thrones duties, should make an excellent Cyrano de Bergerac, the dashing if proboscis-challenged hero of Edmund Rostand’s 19th-century classic. And The National, hitmakers in the realms of roots rock and alt-country, should be able to pull off a musical. So why does Dinklage in the Off Broadway musical Cyrano miss, and by more than by a nose?

For one thing, his Cyrano is missing his nose. It’s a major element for a Cyrano to forgo, which set me to wondering: are we to think that this Cyrano’s impediment is Dinklage’s stature? That makes no sense, given how the actor has parlayed it for an estimable career, and seems rather curious on the part of director Erica Schmidt, who is also the actor’s spouse. We’ve long since gotten over his height. But the answer may be staring me in the face: Dinklage, try as he might, can’t sing, or can sing, but only like Leonard Cohen with a persistent quaver. Did the nose make it that much harder to hit the notes? A fancy appendage didn’t stop Christopher Plummer from winning a Tony in 1973 for his singing Cyrano, and when Schmidt’s streamlined adaptation sticks to its source the actor is dashing and touching in equal measure. A musical Cyrano without a musical Cyrano is however  seriously tone-deaf.

As for The National, well, let’s say a cast album and their own album of their score is planned, and I’m looking forward to listening to the latter. There are adept singers in the show: as Roxanne, the object of Cyrano’s secret, tormented obsession, Hamilton alum Jasmine Cephas Jones offers what resources she can despite a lack of harmony with her co-star, and former Glee castmember Blake Jenner is adorkably clumsy as the handsome Christian, he of the famously scrambled scene where he tries to read Roxanne love letters actually penned by Cyrano. The band too is top-notch, giving us something for the ears in the absence of much for the eyes on a rather bare and indistinctly designed stage bigger than the one for most New Group productions. But the songs, pretty as some of them are, gloomy as most of them are, don’t register strongly as show music–they’re just sort of there, conveying neither soaring nor shattering emotion. (So it goes for the choreographic “movement,” a cliche by now, which only sparks during a battle scene.) What does it say for Cyrano that the best of its tunes, the plaintive “What I Deserve,” is given to the show’s nominal villain, De Guiche (Ritchie Coster)? Only that this musical lacks what its main character has in spades, panache.

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode One Hundred Twenty-Nine

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode One Hundred Twenty Nine

The reality of life is that it’s not always fun and laughs, even when doing something of a joyful nature, like Radio City… is for Rob and Jon.  This episode is filled with goodbyes, as tributes are put forth to Kim Shattuck, Ginger Baker, Rip Taylor and Barrie Masters – all too many to take in one week.  But, to take away some of the sting, The Beatles hit #1 in the U.K. and #3 in the U.S. album charts with the re-release of Abbey Road (!); Bernie Sanders lies about having a heart attack; the New York Mets fire manager Mickey Callaway – something that Rob has rallied for; Donald Trump’s public meltdowns spin out of control; R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe releases his first recorded solo track via his website, plus “In Our Heads” and a whole lot more!

Death is never a pleasant topic; saying farewell is hard.  But as you’ll find on Radio City…,  Jon and Rob handle it all with grace and dignity – and humanity.  Which is why this podcast connects so well…

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode One Hundred Twenty Nine

The podcast will be on the site as well as for subscription via iTunes and other podcast aggregators. Subscribe and let people know about Radio City, as well as Popdose’s other great podcasts David Medsker’s Dizzy Heights and In:Sound with Michael Parr and Zack Stiegler.

Dizzy Heights #66: Great Scots

The ‘song title’ thing was painting me into a corner. I needed a new angle, and despite doing a show about cities around the world, I didn’t have the idea to do geographically specific shows until about 18 months later. Sometimes it just takes that long for my brain to make the connection. Zzzzzt.

I started with Scotland for two reasons. One, I’ve somehow managed to interview a fair number of Scottish musicians (all of whom are in this show), and on top of that, it’s the strongest bloodline in my wife’s family, so we’re always talking up Scotland around the house. Once I discovered how many Scottish singers fronted non-Scottish bands, this show practically put itself together. And I have more than enough bands for a second volume, someday. This has been quite the educational experience.

Thank you, as always, for listening. Dizzy Heights is taking the rest of the year off, and will resume in January. Have courage and be kind, people.

Note: I mentioned that a band had six Top 10 singles from one album. They had six Top 40 singles. I regret the error. I also didn’t mention the Soup Dragons by name. I regret that, too.

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode One Hundred Twenty-Eight

 

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode One Hundred Twenty Eight

In trying to catch up with the world zooming past us, Jon and Rob continue their quest to bring you as much relief, honesty and information as time will allow them to – with their trademark style and combined sense of humor.  So for this episode, the boys tear apart the inane writing of CNN’s Chris Cilliza as he shills for Bernie Sanders; the ham-handed manner in which “protesters” climbed aboard the climate-change bandwagon; the Area 51 frenzy (!); Pete Alonso’s historic march towards baseball history; the passing on Grateful Dead collaborator Robert Hunter; Rob talks about Ken Burns’ PBS series on country music and reviews Big Star’s In Space, plus “In Our Heads” (naturally) and STILL more!…

If your day or week has left you dragging your feet and feeling emotionally drained, come join Rob and Jon…  you’ll feel a whole lot better.

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode One Hundred Twenty Eight


The podcast will be on the site as well as for subscription via iTunes and other podcast aggregators. Subscribe and let people know about Radio City, as well as Popdose’s other great podcasts David Medsker’s Dizzy Heights and In:Sound with Michael Parr and Zack Stiegler.