You Better Watch Out for Christmas Evil! (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Christmas Evil is a surprisingly good entry into the holiday horror pantheon. Yeah, this is slow (and if you got it from Netflix, the print wasn't too pretty), but man... I was constantly surprised by how effective it was. It's hard to believe this came out well before Silent Night, Deadly Night, given how much that one seems to owe to this flick. In short, it's like Silent Night meets Maniac, focusing on the killer as the lead character and studying his growing dementia. You keep thinking "okay, I know exactly where this is going," then it surprises you by being better and more dramatically compelling each time.
This is the story of Harry (Brandon Maggart), a man who loves Christmas like no other. He has advent calendars on the walls, he dances around his apartment to jingle, dresses up as Santa Claus and even checks up on the local neighborhood kids to see if they've been naughty or nice. And by "checks up," I mean he watches them through their bedroom windows with binoculars. Yeah, there's something wrong with this guy and everybody knows it, especially his frustrated, put upon brother. But Harry manages to maintain his job at the toy factory, so everybody just leaves him to his own devices. But this Christmas, people's cynical and selfish treading on the holiday spirit is going to push him too far, and he's going to have to take the Yule into his own hands. He's ready to take on the mantle of Santa Claus himself, and make the people celebrate right if it kills them.
Yeah, it's cheap and looks it, but seeing one of the later restorations goes a long way to making it look more professional and deliberate. But it's still a far cry from a glossy studio film. This is more of an independent character study of madness and a fun, twisted holiday story. But it's not bloody; it's not even really a slasher. I'm not even sure this film needs its R rating. But it's smart, well acted and clearly made by a filmmaker who cared about what he was creating, which sets it well apart from most of its peers. And as dingy as it might look, got some decent production values when it needs them. Also, the ending is surprisingly terrific! No way you'll see it coming unless the marketing spoils it for you, so be careful watching trailers or even looking at posters for this one.
Now, there have been a number of DVD releases for this title, which as you can see, we're about to delve into big time. But one important distinction to note is that the 2006 DVD from Synapse is a new director's cut of the film. All previous releases were of the theatrical and traditional home video cut that played on TV and VHS. And now all subsequent releases are this new director's cut.

So what's the difference, you might ask? Not much. The title card has been changed from Christmas Evil to You Better Watch Out. Then the biggest difference is that one scene, at about 15:20, has been cut. It's the bit where Harry starts getting delusional and cutting himself on the assembly line. Yes, the director's cut is shorter and missing footage, not the other way around. And that's basically it, except for a few frame trims at the ends of a couple scenes. The most obvious one is at 27:50, where the director's cut's shot of Harry walking down the street towards camera has him taking about three steps less. The only noticeable cut is that assembly line scene, and I don't even get the point of that. The main complaint this film gets is that it's too slow or boring. And yeah, this really isn't the kind of movie for seekers of easy, short-attention-spanning thrills. But it works as a slow burn if you like that kind of thing. And if you don't, then then cutting just that one scene and a few odd frames certainly isn't going to change anybody's minds.
Christmas Evil used to lie in the muck of pseudo-public domain unenforced copyright Hell. There's plenty of cheap, grey market discs of this title, including in those 50 horror movie packs. In fact, I've got one of those for us tonight. Remember when I posted about the uncut version of Final Terror being on that dollar bin DVD double-feature from East West? Well, the other half of that double-feature was, you guessed it, Christmas Evil. But it was actually Troma that gave us the first special edition release of this title in 2000, and you can just imagine what it means when Lloyd Kaufman describes their edition as "lovingly mastered" in his introduction. But it was finally Synapse that restored Christmas Evil to its rightful owners (getting it taken off those 50 packs) and remastering it for the first time in its correct aspect ratio in 2006. And most recently, in 2014, Vinegar Syndrome gave it a brand new 4k scan for its blu-ray debut, and including all the extras from both the Troma and Synapse DVDs. So is there any reason to hang onto the older releases? Let's take a look!

Oh yeah, and Vinegar Syndrome's release is a combo pack, so we've got both DVD and blu-ray disc to examine there.
1) East West DVD, 2) Troma DVD, 3) Synapse DVD,
4) Vinegar Syndrome DVD, 5) Vinegar Syndrome blu-ray
So, there you go. Troma's special edition looks exactly like the grey market PD discs that came before it: fullframe, tape-sourced and even interlaced (it's a still shot, so it's not too obvious, but you can see it in the first set of shots). But at least it's open matte, so it's not really losing much on the sides. It's just boxy and misframed.

Synapse corrects that and provides a far superior widescreen image. They do actually manage to find a little extra info on the sides, but it's mostly about matting the tops and bottoms. But the real improvement is how clear and defined the image is, as opposed to the soft, smudgy mess of the old transfers. Christmas Evil no longer looks like it was shot on video; it's an actual film.
upper left: Troma, lower left: Synapse, upper right: VS DVD, lower right: VS blu.
But Vinegar Syndrome has found even more room to grow. This isn't just Synapse's transfer slapped onto an HD disc (although that wouldn't have been anything to complain about), it's a new 4k scan of 35mm elements, which I would say pulls out a little more detail and clarity, although a lot of that could just be down to the higher BD compression. Still, even though it gets to the point what's additional detail and what's grain, there's no question we see the most on the new blu. We can finally make out these kids' eyes. And this new transfer, which keeps the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, finds even more picture on the left, right and bottom. It also has a little more natural color timing, which kind of harkens back to the older editions; although those are bleeding messes, so it's hard to say. But you can see Synapse is decidedly warmer than the VS in the first set of shots, and cooler in the second.

Synapse did a good job cleaning up the old hissy mono tracks of the past DVDs with their Dolby 2.0 mono. But Vinegar Syndrome naturally trumps that with its lossless DTS-HD Master audio mono. None of these releases include subtitles, though, unfortunately. If you need those, you can import the Arrow DVD, which by all accounts is essentially a PAL copy of the Synapse DVD.
The one thing Troma did right was extras. The East West DVD of course has nothing, like all the other grey market releases, not even a trailer. Now yes, Troma's disc is full of junky Troma trailers, Kaufman interviewing a young man pretending to be mentally retarded and a "radiation dance." But it's also got good stuff, actually related to the film. Somebody there cared enough to put in the effort and expense to secure an audio commentary with the director Lewis Jackson and star Maggart. And they also recorded separate on-camera interviews with each of them; they're a little junky, but good. This disc also has a collection of storyboards and audience comment cards from the film's initial screening. And while the fold-out insert is mostly a catalog of other Troma DVDs, one side is dedicated to the film and its extras, which is nice. Troma also has the best cover, if you ask me. I mean, what is going on with VS's cover? There are no goblins in this movie!

Synapse couldn't get Troma's extras for their release of the director's cut, unfortunately (except for the storyboards and comment cards), but they did come up with a bunch more great stuff. They recorded a new audio commentary with Jackson to more or less replace the older one. And then they got another one with John Waters, who is apparently a huge fan of this film. So that's fun. And Synapse also has a nice insert with a personal note from the director. Then they include several deleted scenes (including the assembly line scene taken out of the director's cut) and over 25-minutes of audition footage. What's cool about that is we don't just see early readings by the stars of the film, which is interesting in itself, but auditions by many actors who didn't get roles in the film, including some pretty famous people like Larry Pine, David Rasche and JoBeth Williams!
Happily, Vinegar Syndrome has managed to round up all of the extras both the Troma and Synapse releases. Admittedly, the three commentaries get pretty redundant, but none of us should have to choose between the input of Brandon Maggart or John Waters - we need it all! And we get it, although be careful if you're one of those guys who sells the DVD half of combo packs to offset the costs of the blu-ray, because VS put many of the extras only on the DVD copy. Now, HD couldn't have done anything to help Troma's video interviews or the old audition tapes anyway, but unfortunately that means the deleted scenes are SD only (and on top of that, like on the Synapse DVD, they're interlaced). So if you want to composite an ultimate theatrical cut, it's gonna be imperfect.  :P  One neat plus of the VS set, though, is they've finally included the trailer. No other release has had it, and yeah a trailer's just a trailer, but VS has done a high-end 4k scan of it, so it looks great.
So, at the end of the day, I kind of prefer the original cut to the director's cut, but the difference is minimal enough that it's not worth forgoing the excellent quality of Vinegar Syndrome's blu-ray, with its definitive transfer and collection of special features. It's the ultimate release I'd never thought we'd see for this offbeat little flick. But you know that East West DVD only costs a dollar, and it gives you both the uncut Final Terror and the longer version of Christmas Evil, and it retails for literally just one dollar (it's 65 cents on Amazon as of this writing!), so you might want to scoop that up on the side if you're a completionist like me.

2 comments:

  1. I remember the ending of this movie made me and my friends laugh out loud. I didn't see that one coming!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ha! I'm reading 'The Horror of It All' by Adam Rockoff, and he gives honorable mention to the ending of 'Christmas Evil' in a section called "Greatest WTF Moment in Horror."

    He goes so far as to say that the ending of 'Christmas Evil' is nuttier and more outrageous than the ending of 'Sleepaway Camp'. Right on!

    ReplyDelete