You Better Watch Out

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You Better Watch Out (1980) is a low budget thriller that employs a number of exploitation film tropes to create a psychologically rich character study of a man coming undone. You Better Watch Out isn’t a typical genre film like Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) in that the spectacle of violence isn’t rendered for enjoyment but rather for genuine terror. This is a film that continually invests in the emotional life of its protagonist and by extension the viewer’s empathy.

You Better Watch Out follows down on his luck Harry Stadling (Brandan Maggart) as he endures a variety of humiliations, both professionally and personally, as the holiday season closes in. Harry’s world is entirely in his own mind where he keeps Christmas everyday of the year. His apartment is strewn with the trappings of the merriest of seasons. He spends his days working at a toy factory and his off-time spying on neighborhood kids, keeping an account of who is naughty and who is nice.

The portrait that filmmaker Lewis Jackson paints of Harry is akin to those gritty character studies of the early seventies. The fetishistic nature of Harry’s pathology recalls the Kurt Raab vehicles Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970) and The Tenderness Of The Wolves (1973). When Harry snaps just before Christmas and transforms himself into jolly St. Nick it isn’t just about exacting bloody revenge out of frustration for never finding social acceptance. Harry’s metamorphosis is about fulfillment; realizing his idealized version of himself by becoming someone whom he idolizes.

Jackson treats Harry’s pitiful descent into insanity with a tremendous amount of compassion. The cold, literary distance of Taxi Driver (1976) doesn’t exist in You Better Watch Out. The film is so affective that, even in the midst of his manic, and often deadly, Christmas Eve the audience continues to share in Harry’s plight as he passes out presents to children, visits a hospital and even as he slits the throat of a particularly mean co-worker.

As Harry’s Christmas Eve of terror turns into a Christmas day of rejection and despair Jackson turns the tables again. In the final act of You Better Watch Out the narrative turns into a manhunt thriller akin to Fritz Lang’s M (1931). As cop and neighbor pursues our wretched protagonist Jackson shifts styles again. Suddenly Harry swerves his van off a bridge but instead of crashing into a fiery doom his van, with Santa’s sled adorning its side, takes off into the night as Harry recites the final lines of The Night Before Christmas.

This ambiguous ending speaks to the manner with which Jackson has been addressing the figure of Santa Claus all along. Ideas of Santa exist only in the mind and are therefore entirely subjective. Jackson suggests this notion throughout You Better Watch Out. But one of the reasons that Harry becomes Santa, and why people reject his version of the myth, is that any discrepancy in the portrayal of the Santa character, in terms of a subjective viewpoint, is met with hostile rejection. By ascending into the heavens of that Christmas night Harry passes into urban lore; a new Santa that will either replace or coexist with the Santa we all know and love.

You Better Watch Out (retitled at various times Christmas Evil or Terror In Toyland) has suffered from its roots as a low-budget film. It is neither a straight drama, a slasher film, nor a traditional Christmas movie; it’s a kind of hybrid of the three that is unpalatable to most audiences. However the honesty and earnestness of its portrayal of Harry Stadling make it an incredible little piece of cinema.