LEWIS JACKSON: SANTA SLAYS ME

For anyone who felt like being a Scrooge during the holidays, Christmas Evil may be just the movie to warm your cockles. A true dark horse that seemed to come out of nowhere in 1980, director Lewis Jackson now seems sort of like a prophet. Jackson’s anti-commercialism arthouse/horror film is laced with plenty of subversive humor as it rears it’s ugly head on a holiday known more for excess spending and long lines than actual Christmas cheer. It brought us firmly into the Regan era kicking and screaming. Although it only had a limited release during its original run, “Christmas Evil” has acquired a nice following that continues to grow. Maybe we’ve gotten fed up with what the Television tells us Christmas is about and we look to “Christmas Evil’s” main character Harry Stadling as a symbol of a more innocent time. Or perhaps we’re just cynical as hell and have finally seen what Jackson was trying to tell us all those years ago. As he prepares for a definitive DVD release in late 2006 of his underrated horror gem, Jackson invited Film Threat to look back with him at the making of a should-be classic.

What was the inspiration for “Christmas Evil”? ^ The inspiration for the movie, came about one night in 1970 at Christmas time when I smoked a joint and had this image of Santa holding a knife in his hand. I didn’t start writing it for two or three years and when I did the first draft, I hated it and put it in a drawer for another couple of years. I actually wrote what I considered the first draft in ‘75 and ’76 and then rewrote that for another 3-4 months which is the basis for the movie although when I got the financing, I had to go back and take out some of the more expensive elements. My original conception of the crowd scenes at the end were really grandiose. With shots from the sky of hundreds of people running through the streets, looking like blood in the bloodstream.

Are you a fan of horror movies? ^ Only some and most of those are the earlier films like “The Black Cat”, “Incredible Shrinking Man” and “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers”. The films that began with the “Halloween” cycle I have no use for. Movies about killing girls who aren’t virgins I find despicable. Ironically “Halloween’s” success led to my getting financing and to my producer’s great dismay he didn’t realize what he was getting into because he couldn’t see the difference between my script and that movie. The thing about my taste in horror films as in most other genres is I like content and ideas that make you think. The studios have dumbed down their audience and are slowly losing them. And now when I look at a horror movie for the most part, I’m watching something I’ve seen a thousand times over. I did find the end of “The Blair Witch Project” interesting because it was so ambiguous.

It walks a fine line between art house and horror with a strong emphasis on character analysis. Was it a tough film to get produced? ^ Oh yeah. As I said in the last answer I got the money because people thought I would make a slasher movie and I never had any intention of doing that. I was totally wrapped up in Fassbinder at the time! I knew I was making if not an art movie then a foreign film. The funny thing is before I got the money I spent years getting the script rejected and then after I made the movie I spent years getting the film rejected. It took forever for the film to get any recognition, John Waters being the first to acknowledge it. You can’t imagine what it was like going to screenings and having NO ONE like the film.

Brandon Maggart is amazing. What stuck out to you most when he auditioned? ^ Well you’ll actually get to see it on the restored disc because I still have his B&W screen test. Something about the way he pantomimed carrying the sack on his back. I was looking for something visual to connect it and he gave it to me. His background was in theatre and musical comedy on Broadway and comedians make good dramatic actors.

Harry’s descent is expressed almost solely through nuances and facial expressions. Was that hard to capture and convey? ^ I only know one way to work and its mostly instinctive. I don’t think I was aware of anything more than the fact that I wanted to convey things visually. If possible I like the pictures to tell the story without the dialogue. Only later did I actually realize, when looking at the movie many years later, that much of what was happening seemed to be to possibly be all in Harry’s head. The only time I ever intended that was at the end when he crashes and imagines himself flying away.

On Troma’s DVD commentary track you mentioned that you couldn’t afford snow machines and used artificial snow from garbage bags. How did you get the snowfall to look so real? ^ It’s amazing what you can do if you’re inventive enough. I had gotten a price of $200,000 from Hollywood to fly his truck at the end. We wound up doing it for maybe $8,000. The snow was cut up plastic bags blown by giant fans plugged into generators. Since we really shot in the dead of winter, the brutally cold wind was really blowing and smoke was coming out of all the actors’ mouths because it was so cold. It helped make the atmosphere look real. Some nights we shot, it was 10 below zero without the wind-chill factor.

Harry’s apartment is amazing. You collected all that paraphernalia over many years didn’t you? ^ That was ten years of collecting every odd Santa Claus piece I could find. Every picture, every cup, every odd item. When we finished shooting I found that the crew had scarfed up much of the pieces and I only have one or two left.

Peter Neuman was adorable as Moss Garcia. Do you know what ever happened to that kid and how did you come up with his name? ^ I have no idea what happened to Peter but god was he a cute kid and very sweet in person. He really wanted to go through that Penthouse magazine and his mother wasn’t happy. As for the name, I just liked it, even wanted to change my own name to it at one point

You also mentioned on the commentary that a lot of what the audience is seeing is in Harry’s mind. How do you think the surreal ending went over with the general filmgoer? ^ I talked about the stuff in Harry’s mind earlier. As for the end, when I saw the movie on 42nd St. for the first time, the audience booed and threw things at the screen. But then again it is only in the last few years that audiences now find the film funny. Time has caught up to my sensibility. Or maybe the world has proved to be as dark as I imagine it to be. Did you know the film was a perennial on 42nd St for about eight years running?

“Christmas Evil” distribution history has been interesting. Can you fill me in on the details of its various releases on video? ^ I wouldn’t say interesting, I would say catastrophic. The film was originally supposed to have a theatrical release by a very reputable Hollywood distributor, Atlantic Releasing. But my producer was in great personal financial difficulty that had little to do with the film and he tried to make these business deals that involved the movie and its distribution. One day the distributor said to me, “I’ve gone along with Burt up till now but he thrown his seventh deal into the mix and I’m out”. From there the story gets murky. There seemed to have been two theatrical distributors, one on the east coast and one on the west. The one on the west coast planned a wide release through Southern Cal. but the MPAA nixed his ad campaign (this was at the time of “Silent Night, Deadly Night” with the controversy about the Santa slasher and my film got tainted by it). He lost a fortune on the campaign and didn’t have to money to start again and pulled all the bookings. On the East Coast, I’m not sure where it played besides 42nd St. I don’t know if John Waters saw it in New York or Baltimore. Somewhere in this time period, someone changed the name without consulting me (although from this point on, no one ever consulted with me about anything ever again). That is why I’m changing the title back to “You Better Watch Out”. I had nothing to do with the other title and as much as some people like it, I don’t because I think the word Evil is wrong for the story.

From that point on, the film kept appearing in video releases, two or three VHS versions, one that didn’t even know how to spell my name. [Then came] the DVD versions, which became kind of a joke with so many bootlegs. When Troma put it out, I was under the impression that they had the rights and so agreed to do a commentary. A few years ago, I was determined to get the film back and began going after each of the bootleggers until I got all of the illegal versions off the market. I subsequently found out that even Troma didn’t have rights and so now their version too is off the market. Thus next October the new DVD will be a full restoration with outtakes and tons of extras. Up until now, the film has never been seen in the right aspect ratio except in my personal print.

You’ve mentioned that you wished you should have expounded more on certain plot points. What would you have changed or added? ^ This is a hard question for me to answer after so much time but I think when I said that even though I don’t remember when I said that, I hadn’t seen the outtakes in a long time. There are at least two whole scenes that completely explain the back-story that will be seen on the DVD. I’ve shown them at the last few screenings I’ve had and they do fill in the plot. They were cut to speed up the movie and because they were anything but horror movie scenes. One especially, showing the brother’s job as a city Marshall was a fairly lefty-political comment.

“Christmas Evil” really bashed commercialism. Do you think things have gotten worse since then? ^ Are you kidding me? One of the reasons the film has become so accepted and seen as funny I think, is that if anything I’ve underestimated how crass America has become. Greed is the American religion. Whatever pious bullshit the church or the government tells us, it’s only about greed. Harry is an innocent gone wrong. But the movies don’t like innocents and they certainly don’t like making movies about the working class anymore. There’s no ambiguity left. No grays. Just finite right and wrong. It makes it easy to tell what they used to call the “great unwashed masses”, how to judge things in the most simplistic terms. God forbid they should see beneath the surface and realize they’re not even acting in their own best interests. Years ago, Hollywood actually made movies that acknowledged that. Today you get Spielberg and Lucas – two men without an intelligent idea in their head between them who single-handedly took all the content out of American movies. Spielberg has since tried to pretend he’s putting it back in but he’s a complete propagandist.

Your movie makes a lot of nods to classic horror films like “Psycho” and “Frankenstein”. What are some other influences and what directors inspired you? ^ This is a very big question since there are references to other movies throughout the film. I’m going to try to make some sort of list for the DVD. But I will tell you, I borrowed the gun turning and facing the camera in “Spellbound” in order to do the snow globe with Harry as a child. And I took a lot from Fritz Lang, both “M” and “Fury”. “Frankenstein” is an easy reference.

Where did you find out this was John Water’s favorite Yuletide flick? ^ Someone in a video store in ’83 or ’84 told me John had written about the film in his book Crackpot. It seems a little too egotistical of me to quote what he said. Needless to say it’s pretty great. We’ve become friends and he continues to support the film to this very day. He now does a great summary of the movie’s plot, which can be heard on the archives of Terry Gross’s Fresh Program on NPR.

Do you have a favorite holiday film? ^ I really like “The Apartment”. I only like parts of other Christmas movies. But the best Christmas scene is in “Meet Me In St. Louis” when Judy Garland sings Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas because it’s so depressing. The best Christmas movie is walking in midtown Manhattan when it’s all lit up. You’re then in your own fantasy world.

What films did you do after “Christmas Evil”? ^ I have written several films since then and thought I was going to make a couple of them but they never happened. There was a period I actually took a break from what can be a hellish business. Ironically now it looks like I’ll make at least one of those earlier scripts.

You recently acquired the rights back and are working on the definitive release for 2006. What can we expect? ^ The new DVD will come out in Oct ’06. I have the film, the outtakes, a ton of screen tests, including several with well-known actors and many other surprises.

Are you surprised by the longevity and growing cult status of your movie? ^ I wouldn’t have been when I wrote the film or when I was making it. But in the years following I would never have guessed. Today of course, I assure you I always knew I was right. There is a very rewarding feeling about the fact the film plays better almost a quarter of a century after it was made. It really doesn’t seem to have dated.

You recently produced a movie called “The Ghouls” starring Tiffany Shepis. Can you tell me a little about that? ^ I really had very little to do with “The Ghouls”. I just was mentoring the young director and he was grateful enough to give me a credit I didn’t really deserve.

Do you have any other projects in the works? ^ Yes. I am determined to now do a trilogy, which will essentially express my view of where we are at this moment of time. One film is about a cult killing people who drive SUV’s while talking in cell phones. At least that’s the high concept version. Another is about a man who gets hit with radiation and finds himself growing so cold only electricity can keep him warm and he becomes an electric junkie causing blackouts. The third is too complicated to summarize.




Posted on December 23, 2005 in Interviews by
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