One of the wonderful things about Christmas and Christmas movies at this point of accumulated history is that people with mixed, muted, or otherwise less than ebullient feelings about the holiday have a rich variety of films to enjoy that share their mindset. So many that this sub-genre has its own canon of accepted classics.
Occupying a high and well-earned position in that pantheon is Lewis Jackson’s You Better Watch Out, otherwise immortalized to most viewers as Christmas Evil, the story of Harry, an isolated moax whose devotion to Santa and the spirit of kindness and vindication he represents in a mean-spirited world, and how that love turns into righteous violence against people whom he determines have spat upon that spirit. And the long journey both Jackson and his film have made could very well be the stuff of its own holiday drama – the inspiration of conceiving his idea in the early ‘70s and finally getting to shoot it eight years later, the gloom of watching others squander its promise and allow it to fade into obscurity, and the miraculous turnaround of regaining the rights, garnering a large supportive fan base including director John Waters, and taking it to the heights it deserved. It’s an uplifting underdog tale for all cinephiles, whether you prefer your movies from the Hallmark Channel that brought you The Mistletoe Promise or the Hallmark Releasing that brought you Night Train Murders under the title Xmas Massacre.
You Better Watch Out, as Jackson prefers to refer to it, is enjoying a series of nationwide revival screenings across the country. He graciously took time to answer some questions about its wider appeal, its potential relationship to other modern films and social concepts, and what he’ll be watching over the season.
Marc Edward Heuck: In the decade and a half since you were able to secure You Better Watch Out from limbo and put it back into people’s consciousness, what are some of the most interesting and/or pleasant things that have happened to you in that time of increasing awareness of your movie?
Lewis Jackson: The most pleasant things that happened in that period of time is recognition and finally getting paid for my work. Probably most of all, watching the film grow in recognition and stature in that period of time. Also traveling around the country to attend screenings.
MEH: Besides John Waters, who are other memorable or unexpected fans of the film that you’ve encountered?
LJ: Fans keep coming out of woodwork but there is no one like John who I consider the “godfather” of the movie and who single handedly put it on the map. I do appreciate the number of lists of the top Christmas horror films that place it at number one. (Although I do not consider it a horror film, certainly not a slasher movie.)
MEH: It’s been just over a decade since the deluxe DVD edition came out, and three years since the even more deluxe Blu-Ray came out. Have you noticed a specific effect these had on boosting the film’s profile and popularity?
LJ: Having a completely restored 4K has put a higher profile on the technical qualities of the film, enhancing the work of the world famous cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich. Not only on the Blu-Rays but on screening 4K prints in theaters.
MEH: The Blu-Ray added some really great new extras, particularly a long-lost trailer. Where did you find them?
LJ: What brought about the blu-ray was being given back original materials from the MGM vaults. The trailer was there but more importantly, a pristine print that could be digitally restored. There is a vast difference between the prints in the Synapse version and the VS version.
MEH: In 2010 I wrote an article comparing your film’s kinship with the underseen Patton Oswalt football drama BIG FAN, in that both protagonists are spurred to over-the-top behavior by intrusions from “normal” people in society that disapprove of their fetish. Do you think Harry, as you envisioned him, could have had a happier life of 24-7 Christmas love, or was he always doomed to snap?
LJ: I think you are missing something in the comparison to Big Fan which in its way I consider a kitchen sink movie grounded in a certain kind of reality. My reference point would be Taxi Driver. My film is fantasy, an updated A Christmas Carol. I’m dealing with the issue of illusion. It’s very influenced by animated movies. Harry is delusional and clinging to something he feels has emotion and a utopian view of life. He’s certainly not grounded in rooting for a football team.
MEH: Harry’s mix of guilelessness and danger is also mirrored in Rainn Wilson’s lead performance as a would-be superhero vigilante in SUPER, particularly in their mutual notions of right and wrong and how they should be enforced. At one point, he desperately wails, “You don’t butt in line! You don’t sell drugs! You don’t molest little children! You don’t profit on the misery of others! The rules were set a long time ago! They DON’T CHANGE!” Do you feel like you were ahead of your time in creating Harry, a lonely soul betrayed by a cynical society, when you see aspects of him emerge in noughties films and in real life?
LJ: Again, movies like Super are high concept ideas without the requisite underpinning. My movie in its own way is a political statement. It turned out to be criticism of Reaganism. That’s why it was so hated at the time it was made. It was filled with irony and cynicism that was rejected at the time by a shallow society. Ironically, it has proved to be more telling in the age of Trump where life is more cynical than my movie. The film was definitely ahead of its time. Kudos to me.
MEH: Harry is a very sincere character, he doesn’t play mind games and he’s not into ironic detachment. Do you see aspects of yourself in him?
LJ: I myself are sincere but full of cynicism which I can only convey with irony and to a degree surrealism.
MEH: How do you think Harry would fare in the internet age? Would he maybe find relief and solace with an online community of rabid Christmas lovers? Or would he perhaps get radicalized sooner after seeing the amazing cruelty that’s found daily there?
LJ: Luckily he comes before the internet age where his feelings and preoccupations would be lost in the ether of endless trivia and shallowness.
MEH: Do you yourself have any favorite Christmas movies, either sincere or offbeat?
LJ: My favorite Christmas movies are A Christmas Carol (the old sentimental Hollywood version rather than the more authentic English version), White Christmas, the Santa episode from the English movie version of Tales From the Crypt. I still watch A Christmas Carol every year.
MEH: It obviously took longer than you would have liked, but your film has become pretty firmly in the cultural canon. What element or elements do you think people like the most that makes them seek it out and/or come back and rewatch it?
LJ: It’s mythology, a fairy tale and a perennial which is what I always aimed for.