12/12/06 Edition

You Better Watch Out...on DVD!
Andy Covers The Director's Cut of CHRISTMAS EVIL
Plus: Criterion Corner With GREY GARDENS, PANDORA'S BOX and More

Not to be confused with the more controversial, more exploitive “Silent Night, Deadly Night” films of the 1980s, writer-director Lewis Jackson’s YOU BETTER WATCH OUT -- also known as the pulpier titled CHRISTMAS EVIL -- has been issued on DVD a few times over the years, but never more satisfyingly than in Synapse Films’ new Director’s Cut edition (1980, 95 mins., R).

If you’ve never seen Jackson’s film -- and have the right perspective on it -- you’re in for a treat. Neither a gratuitous slasher film (despite having several bursts of gore) nor a perverse black comedy (despite John Waters’ presence on one of the DVD’s commentary tracks), “Christmas Evil” is a bizarre, at-times surreal psychological thriller about a toy maker (Brandon Maggart) wounded by a childhood trauma who simply loses all connection with reality one Christmas Eve.
You see, Maggart’s character, Harry, watched as his mother had an affair with Santa Claus one Christmas, and he’s spent seemingly forever since whistling yuletide carols and wishing he was Santa Claus.

Seemingly harmless and put upon (except for his obsession with marking down the peculiar “naughty and nice” patterns of neighboring kids), Harry eventually loses it after he’s pushed around at work by his boss and ridiculed by church-going yuppies...to the point where Harry’s Santa becomes one of his city’s most wanted while the body count begins to mount.

Though billed as a slasher movie, “You Better Watch Out” is too slowly-paced and not violent enough in the long run to satisfy hard-core horror fans. But at the same time, that’s not the kind of film Jackson’s movie is trying to be: though it’s clear that Harry is a few steps over the line in the sanity department, you come to sympathize with him as his obnoxious bosses care only about the bottom line and not the sick kids at the hospital where Harry wants to donate toys. Harry’s helpless victims are the people who’ve taken advantage of the purity of Christmas, as it were -- a message rammed home in the movie’s outrageously demented finale, which mixes elements of Clement Moore and “Frankenstein” and needs to be seen to be fully appreciated.

With an eclectic soundtrack that mixes portions of classic perennial tunes with an electronic score typical of the era, “You Better Watch Out” is one of the weirdest films of its type but also one of the most interesting “alternative holiday” offerings out there.

Synapse’s new 16:9 DVD transfer is culled from Jackson’s own print of the film, bearing his preferred title (“You Better Watch Out”) and running time, which is a few minutes shorter than other released versions. Jackson contributes a commentary track that was included in Troma’s old, out of print DVD, while cult director (and fan) John Waters joins Jackson in a new commentary recorded specifically for this release. Waters is actually quite good at asking Jackson questions about the production and its distribution, so the talk is a nice compliment to the director’s own, more technically oriented commentary and will come as a nice bonus for fans.

For other special features, some 26 minutes of audition tapes include tests from JoBeth Williams, George Dzunda, David Rasche, Michael Beck and Lindsay Crouse (what a bizarre alternate version that would’ve made!) among others, plus seven minutes of deleted scenes, storyboards, and highly amusing screening comment cards (my favorite: “Why???”).

“Christmas Evil”/”You Better Watch Out” isn’t a classic but it’s a unique and wild ride that’s managed to attract its own, small following over the years, though not horror addicts by and large, who undoubtedly prefer the less subtle and more crass thrills of the hideous “Silent Night, Deadly Night” films.

For curious viewers, Synapse’s DVD is a most welcome release perfectly timed for holiday consumption. If you’ve had enough of the sweetness and can’t stand to watch any more footage of folks rioting to get a Playstation 3 -- or the continued, crass commercialization of Christmas in general -- definitely give it a spin with the eggnog by your side.

New Criterions: Silent and Documentary Titles

Several intriguing titles comprise Criterion’s most recent DVD releases:

PANDORA’S BOX (133 mins., 1929): Four different musical scores accompany this double-disc edition of G.W. Pabst’s silent classic, starring Louise Brooks as Lulu, the showgirl who unintentionally causes ruin for all who come in contact with her open sexuality. With its explicit depiction of Lulu’s behavior, “Pandora’s Box” was a controversial film for its day, and as such has lost little of its potency over the years, becoming both a German classic and one of the more studied films of the silent era.

Criterion’s DVD set includes a restored high-def transfer of the movie’s definitive Munich Film Museum restoration; commentary by film historians Thomas Elsaesser and Mary Ann Doane; new subtitles; a 1998 documentary on Brooks entitled “Looking For Lulu”; a 1971 interview with Brooks dubbed “Lulu In Berlin”; new interviews with documentarian Richard Leacock (who directed “Lulu In Berlin”) and Michael Pabst, the director’s son; a stills gallery; and extensive booklet notes.

The odd, strange tale of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, meanwhile, is the subject of both a new musical as well the acclaimed 1976 documentary which inspired it, GREY GARDENS (94 mins.)

This bizarre, fascinating account of  Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ cousins, who lived in a dilapidated East Hampton mansion, has been restored on DVD by Criterion and complimented by the release of this year’s companion documentary, THE BEALES OF GREY GARDENS (91 mins.), offering outtakes, new footage, and extensive supplements.

The original “Grey Gardens” includes commentary by directors Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer; extracts from a 1976 interview with Little Edie Beale; interviews with fashion designers on the lasting impact of the Beales; hundreds of behind-the-scenes photos, trailers and filmographies, plus booklet notes.

“The Beales of Grey Gardens,” meanwhile, includes an introduction from director Maysles and an essay from the Village Voice’s Michael Musto. Both movies are framed in 1.33 full-screen and include acceptable mono soundtracks.

Rounding out the latest Criterion schedule is SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM (1968, 75 mins.), William Greaves’ unusual (to put it mildly) 1968 semi-documentary about a film crew left to their own devices in Central Park, making a movie almost in reverse through improvisation. What results from there is an almost indescribable “counter-culture” product that somehow manages to touch upon the mood of the moment and the process of filmmaking at the same time.

Greaves’ film gained a small cult following and is presented here alongside the director’s own 2003 follow-up, “Take 2 ½,” which was co-produced by Steven Soderbergh and Steve Buscemi, admirers of the original “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm.”

Extras on the double-disc Criterion set include a documentary on Greaves’ career with comments from colleagues Ruby Dee and Greaves’ wife Louise Archambault among others; the original trailer; and an interview with Steve Buscemi. Visually the full-screen transfer on the original film is just fine, while the sequel is presented in 1.78 widescreen and appears understandably healthier.

Capsule Round Up: New Titles From Echo Bridge

THE RON CLARK STORY (2006, 90 mins., Marvista/Echo Bridge): Solid TNT telefilm with Matthew Perry as Ron Clark, a teacher who leaves the suburbs for the tough inner city of Harlem. Perry’s admirable performance carries this well-intentioned and convincing inspirational tale, with credit going out to director Randa Haines for avoiding the usual sentimentality of “true stories” like this one. Marvista’s DVD includes several featurettes with the real Ron Clark, a fine 16:9 transfer and Dolby Surround stereo. Recommended!      

THE ADVENTURES OF THE BLACK STALLION: Season One (1990-91, 617 mins.): Early '90s cable series adaptation of the beloved Walter Farley books (previously brought to the screen in the outstanding 1979 film from director Carroll Ballard and producer Francis Ford Coppola) stars Mickey Rooney, reprising his role of trainer Henry Dailey. Young Richard Ian Cox steps in for Kelly Reno in 26 episodes produced for the Family Channel, offering positive values, messages, and of course horse action for boys and girls of all ages. Echo Bridge's complete DVD box set preserves the show's first season in okay transfers and Dolby stereo soundtracks.

MYSTERY WOMAN: SING ME A MURDER (2005, 86 mins., Echo Bridge): Kellie Martin has found another appealing heroine as bookshop owner Samantha Kinsey, who proves to be a younger Jessica Fletcher in this latest Hallmark TV movie (one of several starring Martin, with more already in production). Nina Siemaszko and Clarence Williams III co-star in this entertaining enough tele-film, preserved on DVD by Echo Bridge in a fine transfer with Dolby Surround stereo.

ANGEL IN THE FAMILY (2005, 88 mins., Echo Bridge): Ronny Cox gets a miraculous visit from his late wife Meredith Baxter in this sappy TV movie that’s livened up by the supporting performances of Natasha Gregson Wagner and Tracy Needham playing bickering sisters. Echo Bridge’s transfer and soundtrack are fine.

NEXT TIME: Our annual Aisle Seat Holiday Buyer's Guide! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to the link above

Get Firefox!

Copyright 1997-2006 All Reviews, Site and Design by Andy Dursin