You Better Watch Out: An Interview with Lewis Jackson

By Michael Varrati

Much like Santa Claus, it’s been a whole year since I last saw Lewis Jackson.

However, considering the cause of the filmmaker’s notoriety, that we would be reunited at the holidays is fitting.

To the cult film community at large, Jackson is most well-known as the writer and director of Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out), a prototypical holiday horror film with a turbulent history that laid the foundation for a whole subgenre of killer Kris Kringles.

Long heralded by John Waters as the “greatest Christmas movie ever made,” Jackson’s film has travelled a long, strange journey from its initial release. Disavowed by the studio that produced it, and long held captive by bootleggers, the movie seemed destined for filmic obscurity. However, thanks to Waters’ constant championing and a small, but fervent fan base, the movie was resurrected and rediscovered by horror audiences the world over. Now, Christmas Evil is widely accepted by fans of fright as one of the single best and most important holiday horror films ever committed to celluloid.

For all of the film’s trials and triumphs, Lewis Jackson has lived through each bump in the road. Although the filmmaker admits the journey has been a bittersweet one, he also displays a twinkle of pride for how far his film has come.

Last Christmas, we here at Midnight Mass HQ were treated to an audience with the man himself when our cult leader, Peaches Christ, put together a large holiday spectacular to celebrate Jackson’s masterwork (an event you can read more about here). With all of San Francisco’s finest ghouls in attendance, we gathered round as Lewis Jackson told harrowing tales of his own little holiday horror.

None would say that Lewis Jackson’s path to cult prestige has been an easy one. But through his story, horror fans can see a true miracle of the season: Proof positive that the power of belief can save art, and that a truly great movie will always eventually find its home.

Christmas Evil remains my favorite of holiday horror films. It’s a pensive piece that relies more on human emotion than petty scares, and is truly reverent of the season during which it is set. Furthermore, I find the story of its creation even more fascinating. For a film that was once nearly lost to time, it has become the definitive tree topper of terror.

Luckily, Lewis Jackson was more than willing to take a break from his busy schedule of checking the naughty and nice lists to sit down and talk with me once more about his holiday masterpiece. From the film’s rocky beginnings to its resurrection at the hands of John Waters, we left no stone unturned in discussing this festive fright film.

Read on, my dear children of the popcorn, and learn how Christmas miracles do come true.

Although your film is widely known to audiences as Christmas Evil, it was shot under the title You Better Watch Out, which is retained in the film’s opening credits. I know you prefer the original title to the one the film currently bears. Could you speak to the name change?

I had nothing to do with it. There was a period of time I had lost control of the movie completely and it was floating around in other people’s hands. The film was in the hands of bootleggers, and somewhere in that process the title was changed to Christmas Evil. It had nothing to do with me. I always hated the title; I felt it really misrepresented the film

Because the title has floated along all these years with the film, have you grown to like it anymore?

No. What’s ironic is the title on the Synapse release of the DVD is You Better Watch Out, because they are using my print, which is how we restored the film. It’s a different cut than the cuts of Christmas Evil that were played on 42nd Street and other places. It might even be a different cut than the Troma version of the DVD and the bootlegs, because I made adjustments to the film when I got it back. When it plays on Turner Classic Movies in a few weeks, Turner is using my restoration of the film, which is You Better Watch Out, and that’s how they’re advertising it. There’s no reference to Christmas Evil.

Well, regardless of title, your movie has become something of a celebrated cult classic. You mentioned that the film is going to be shown on TCM, and it is also regularly brought to theaters this time of year, often at event screenings like at the Warhol Museum or our own Midnight Mass. What’s it been like watching your movie reach this celebrated status, especially considering its tumultuous past?

It’s very rewarding, there’s no question about it. When I first made the film, I was vilified. It wasn’t seen as a black comedy, it was seen as a failed horror movie. At one point, when I was still editing, Warner Bros. flew me out for an advance screening of the film, and they pulled me out while they watched it. When I walked into the room after, it was very quiet, and one of the execs said to me, “If you only had Santa Claus cut off a kid’s finger and eat it, you’d be a millionaire.” I was totally shocked.

There was no recognition of what the film was until John Waters discovered it and wrote about it in an article that first appeared in Rolling Stone, and then later in his book Crackpot. He had all these quotes about how it was the best Christmas movie, and how if he had children he’d make them watch it every year or he’d beat them. All that stuff came from John and that started this whole thing, but it was very, very slow.

Although celebrated now, I know the film had a series of struggles initially upon release. In addition to distribution issues, I know you’ve gone on the record as saying the film put a serious halt to your career. What exactly happened?

It’s a rather complicated story. You see, when I got my producer, he was a guy who had been very famous on Wall Street. He had made a ton of money in the 1960s, and then lost it all, something to the tune of 66 million dollars, if I’m remembering correctly. But he became famous because he paid it all back. He was one of those honorable guys in that way. He was a real character.

I was introduced to him and he thought the script was a good way to make money. Halloween had just come out and studios were really interested in holiday horror films. We had an initial budget of $450,000.

When we went into preproduction, I had sent a letter to the cinematographer, who was world famous, and I asked him if he would even think of shooting this small movie for me. He said, “Come see me,” and I flew to Vienna, where he was shooting, and spent a week there. I had storyboarded the whole film, explained to him how I wanted the color to work in terms of variations, and he liked the idea and agreed. It shocked me. He flew over, and we had three days left in preproduction. So, they immediately took him out to rent lights. When my staff got back, I could see that they were white in the face, they were freaked out. It turned out his lighting budget was $250,000, which in a $450,000 film is ridiculous. I had to go back to the producer and ask for more money, as well as give up points on the film.

When we finally got the film shot, we went in to do the mix, and I found out that the woman who I had hired to do the sound, unbeknownst to me, was getting ripped on coke all day long. So, when they put up the reels on the first day of the mix, there were only tiny pieces of sound in there. Everything was empty. We were shocked, and suddenly desperate. We had booked and paid for all this time in the studio, and I was originally working with non-union, but then I had to pay more to bring in real union sound editors, who worked around the clock for days, and the budget skyrocketed again.

So now, this guy (the producer) who was investing in something that he thought he could get a quick turnaround on was basically in the hole. So he started making deals with people. He made a deal with a company in California to distribute, but tied in all his financial dealings into it. I flew out to L.A. from New York, and the head of the distribution company told me, “I can’t do this, he’s making this the most complicated financial deal I’ve ever seen, so I’m backing out.” At which point, the producer stopped talking to me for a little while and started selling the film in any way he could, which left it open to bootleggers. That’s when the title changed and I lost the movie for a very long time.

It was many years later that I decided to try and take the film back. With my attorney and the help of the second producer (the first had died), I went after the bootleggers…and there were a lot of them. I eventually got rid of them all, and it finally culminated with Troma. They claimed they had the rights, but that was nonsense, and I got my film back.

Ironically, we discovered that the source, each cut that was being utilized by the bootleggers, could be traced back to one guy. He was a B-Cowboy actor living in the California desert who had been running some low-rent film school in which he charged kids to go to school, but in fact just made them work on his own low-budget films. On the side, he was running a bootleg operation. This guy had my movie.

…and you have no idea how he got the print?

No. There’s a world of possibilities.

Well, you’ve already mentioned him, and obviously we can’t discuss this movie’s history without talking about John Waters. Is it fair to say that Waters essentially rescued the film?

Oh yeah, easily. I had given up on it at some point. You can only fight city hall for so long, you know? Then, John had his people call me. They said he was doing this art show at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and was doing a film festival in conjunction with his exhibit. He wanted to know if I would come to Pittsburgh and show the movie. It was very nice, they put me in a nice hotel, we showed the movie on a Friday night and a Saturday afternoon, and it was a lovely experience. It was the first time I got to see the movie with an audience that actually liked it! Afterwards, a family came up to me and was so enthusiastic about the film. They loved it!

After the process of trying to get the movie back, I approached John about doing the commentary on the DVD, and he agreed. When I restored the film, I flew to Baltimore, and he and I went into a room together and recorded the track.

It seems everywhere John is, I cross paths with him. Last week, when the film was screening in London, John was there doing his Christmas show two days beforehand. He does this annual Christmas stand-up act, and he always talks about the movie. So, since he was there, he promoted the screening. It was very nice of him. He’s still doing things for the movie. He has been the godfather of the film.

Of course, John Waters was also the one who helped bring the film to Midnight Mass last year. Since it was briefly mentioned, I have to ask: How did you enjoy the Peaches Christ experience? Did you ever suspect when you were making this movie that one day it was going to be honored by a drag queen dressed as Santa Claus?

-laughs- You know, for long time, I didn’t think it would be honored by anyone. I loved the experience at Midnight Mass. It was fantastic. Any event that is built around the movie is tremendous for me. I get a kick out of it.

In my stunted career, I have a long history of getting close to making movies, and then something happens and it falls through. But, from about mid-November to the end of the year, I relish all these moments where people celebrate my film. Then the doors close for the year, and I’m back to struggling again.  But, to have my film celebrated, whenever it is…it’s a real treat.

What’s the genesis of the story in You Better Watch Out? What led you to create the character of Harry and his psychotic fixation on the holidays?

The genesis was an image in my head. It was 1970, around Christmas, and I was basically a hippie living down in Greenwich Village. I had smoked a joint, and had an image of Santa Claus with a knife in his hand…and I was very taken with it. For a couple of years, I tried to come up with a way to make that one image into a script. But, I didn’t really like what I was doing. At one point, I had done a script and put it in a drawer and didn’t take it out again for a couple years.

Sometime later, someone insisted that I go back and rework the script, and I did. Suddenly, I had this story that actually worked, and I was lucky enough to ride the tail of Halloween, which opened up the gates of holiday horror. It was not a genre that really existed before Halloween. Black Christmas had come out, but Black Christmas was really just a slasher movie with a few holiday decorations. There’s nothing seriously to do with Christmas in that film. Perhaps the one film that was a serious Christmas story prior was a movie from 1971 based on Tales from the Crypt. One of the episodes in it was about a psychotic Santa Claus. It’s an effective little piece. But that was really the beginning of the end of holiday horror until Halloween. After that, everybody felt like they could do a holiday-themed film. It was just a new, exploitable genre.

Ironically enough, I got offers after the movie, but they were horrible. They wanted me to make an Easter Bunny killer movie, and I just recoiled. It sounded ridiculous.

Your film is often cited as having laid the foundation for a slew of killer Santa movies that would come later, but unlike those films, your movie isn’t really a slasher film. In fact, I understand that’s a term you don’t like.

No, I don’t. To me, slasher movies tend to suggest a kind of movie from the Reagan-era, representing certain conservatism. Slasher movies are really about killing girls who decide to have sex. They’re horribly right wing, that whole “if you’re not a virgin, you’re going to die” motif. It’s very much a part of what happened when evangelicals ran wild when Reagan became president, and it kind of pervaded the zeitgeist. I just despise all of that; I think it’s really horrendous. I consider my movie more left wing. It’s more concerned with the working class, the abuse of power, and corporations. I feel it also works in conjunction now with Occupy: Wall Street. It begs that whole question as to what are our moral principles.

I’m going to riff on that thought: Harry is a working class character. Although psychotic, would you say that he’s as much a victim then of the working class as he is a perpetrator of his crimes?

You get into dangerous ground there. He’s psychologically impaired. You can’t justify murdering people, and the only thing I can point to is Anthony Perkins in Psycho. Is that justifiable? As he says to Janet Leigh in the movie, “We all go a little mad sometimes,” but you can’t really have sympathy for him.

So, as a storyteller, you’re definitely not trying to set Harry up as an antihero?

No. First of all, I’m much more detached about the whole thing. It’s a black comedy. It’s about that kind of irony: Whatever he may think, he’s still crazy. There’s no getting around that. I’m much more interested in playing with the Christmas imagery. Everything I did was an attempt at a new take on the classic images of Christmas.

I still won’t let my daughter watch the movie, she’s eleven. But, the other day we were talking about Santa Claus. I have all these picture books that I based scenes from the movie on, and I hadn’t looked at them in over twenty years. So, in revisiting them with her, I was really shocked to see that everything in the movie really just came from classic images of Santa Claus in one form or another. It’s all about an ironic take on Christmas, while still celebrating the holiday. In its own way, the movie is still very much a Christmas movie. It does understand the holiday.

Of course, people misunderstand. I didn’t find out until many years later, but a woman who was working on the film was cursing me out almost daily because she thought I was demeaning her religion.

You’ve previously stated that filmmakers like Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock were huge influences in how you crafted the visual style of the movie. You’ve also heavily cited German expressionist Fritz Lang as a major source, stating that your movie was very much derived out of his work. Could you elaborate on these influences?

Fritz Lang’s M is an essential influence. The scene towards the end of the film, where the kids protect him from the parents, that whole sequence was my attempt at recreating that expressionist filmmaking from Germany. It was meant to evoke that tone. You know that Peter Lorre in M is another one of these characters that seems pathetic, but you can’t really feel sorry for him. That had a major impact on me.

The other reference point that I’ll tell you about is at the beginning of the film, when Harry has the snow globe. There’s a famous shot in Hitchcock’s Suspicion where the guy turns the gun on himself. You see this gigantic shot of the gun pointing at the camera. Hitchcock actually had an enormous gun built to create the effect. So what I did was create a giant snow globe to look exactly like the small one, so that I could do that shot of it in the foreground.

It’s a beautiful shot. Do you still the snow globe, by chance?

No. In fact, I have very few of the props. The crew seems to have absconded with most of the things. Everything you saw in the movie, on the walls, in his apartment…it was the result of ten years of collecting Christmas paraphernalia. The first question I got from John Waters was the same thing. He wanted to know if I still had it all, but sadly, I don’t.

Is it true you turned Kathleen Turner down for a role?

Yes, for the part of the wife, one of the leads.  I also turned down Glenn Close. You know, it shows you how cool I was.

The person I had originally cast in the role was Lindsay Crouse. She had agreed to play the part, and just around that time she met David Mamet. They fell madly in love, he wrote a play for her, and she bowed out.

That said, the cast that is in the final film is really remarkable. What was the casting process like?

The casting process was long and arduous, because we didn’t really have the budget for a casting director. Someone was doing it for a while, and I had to fire them, so I wound up having to see every person myself who came for whatever part, no matter how small. It was a real pain.

Originally, I had cast George Dzundza, a remarkable actor who played the bartender in The Deer Hunter, in the lead. We started working together, and he wanted to rewrite the script. When I started listening to his changes, I said, “I can’t do this. We’re going into production, I don’t have the time, nor do I have the inclination.”

So now, here we are, beginning to shoot in a couple weeks, and I don’t have a lead. At this point, I was finally put in touch with a really good casting director who agreed to help me find someone. One of the people he sent up was Brandon Maggart. Brandon was so good in his audition. He really was remarkable. His background was Broadway. He had been in a show called Top Banana with Phil Silvers, and later went on to be one of the leads in the first season of Sesame Street. He has this amazing quality that I really feel he brought to his performance and the film.

Since we’ve mentioned how your film influenced other holiday horrors, can I ask if you’ve seen any of the other “killer Santa” films? Do you have a favorite?

No. I liked the Tales From the Crypt one, and if we’re talking about Christmas movies, I liked Gremlins, but none of the killer Santa movies. I stay away from all that. I feel that nobody touches it in an honest way, it just becomes a means to an end. So, I’m not really interested in seeing them.

So, what’s on the horizon for you? I know at one point you said you might write a book about your experience making the movie. Are you still interested in doing that? Or perhaps you’ll return to directing?

I have a great script that I’ve had real trouble getting made. It’s a sci-fi movie about an astronaut working on solar energy, he goes up in space, and gets hit with some kind of radiation. He comes back, and finds himself turning cold. They think he has hypothermia, but he discovers that electricity keeps him warm. So, he becomes an electric junky. He then makes love to his wife, and she gets this thing…and they become an electric couple. They’re going around and blacking out parts of California. It has the same sensibilities as the Christmas movie in the sense that it has a lot of irony, and is very visually oriented. But, it’s been a problem getting it made, because it doesn’t fit the mold of what movies are about anymore. There are special effects, and it’s costly.

So, at the moment, I’ve been focusing on writing dark stories. Roald Dahl kind of stories, and I’m still working my way through that. But, I’ve done a variety of things throughout the years, so don’t cry for me, Argentina. –laughs-

Well, I look forward to whatever you have next, and I also know that cult film fans will always be appreciative every Christmas for your wonderful movie.

Thank you. It’s the one blessing. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

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