(Originally published in OC WEEKLY, December 7, 2005)
When John Waters cites Lewis Jackson’s 1980 shocker You Better Watch Out (a.k.a. Christmas Evil, a.k.a. Terror in Toyland) as his favorite holiday movie, it’s not hard to see why. The film’s plot—concerning a boy who is traumatized by a glimpse of mommy kissing Santa Claus, grows up unhealthily obsessed with Christmas and is eventually driven to murder by the holiday hypocrisy of those around him—is exactly the sort of idea that might fuel one of Waters’ own films. But where Waters would play the story strictly for laughs, Lewis, in his sole directing credit, aims for a kind of Yuletide Taxi Driver, as we follow this poor Santa wannabe’s descent into madness. The film screened in December, 2005, as part of the Orange County Museum of Art’s John Waters’ Flicks Picks series (co-sponsored by the Newport Beach Film Festival), and we spoke with Lewis about the film’s enduring if twisted appeal.
OC Weekly: This movie has had at least three titles that I’m aware of. Why so many?
Lewis Jackson: Well, the film has a very tainted history. The original title was You Better Watch Out, the others came later. The initial producer ran into financial difficulties and there were all sorts of issues with the rights.
Didn’t the film enter the public domain for a while?
No, but bootleg versions have turned up all over the place. It’s taken me years to get the rights back, but now I’ve got them, and I want to release the film next year, with lots of extras, the deleted scenes and so on.
Will this screening at the museum feature the deleted scenes?
It will feature lots of additional footage. The version of the film that screened at the Andy Warhol museum as part of their John Waters series featured all the deleted scenes, but unfortunately Orange County [Museum of Art] can’t show 35mm; they can only do this on DVD. So I’ve gone in and reconstructed the film to the best of my ability for DVD. I have to say that none of this would have happened without John [Waters]. He really championed the film, he’s been beating the drum for You Better Watch Out for years, and he’s single-handedly revived interest in the film. He was on Fresh Air around Christmastime, and Terry Gross asked him what his favorite holiday movie was, and he said You Better Watch Out. The interview is in their archives online, you can probably still hear it there.
I understand the film was quite controversial when it came out.
Well, I took a lot of abuse. People misunderstood it and thought that I was attacking Christmas. This movie is about the mythology of Christmas, it’s about the good and bad, and this strange character of Santa Claus, and this icon that was created for us by Coca-Cola. It’s not an anti-Christmas movie at all, it’s about the mythology. But then later all of these Christmas slasher movies came out, Silent Night, Bloody Night, or whatever, and this movie got lumped in with all of those.
Your movie has some graphic violence, but I wouldn’t call it a slasher picture at all.
Yes. And it suffered for that, in some ways. The producer was looking at Halloween, and thought he’d have another one of those on his hands. The film was supposed to open in 300 theaters. But I shot the film in New York and then Warner Brothers flew me out to LA to edit it, and when we screened it, one of the millionaire executives told me, “You know, you could have a huge hit here, if, after he cut off one of their fingers, he ate it!” That’s a quote.
Good lord. Well, after this film you seemed to vanish. The ad copy for Troma’s DVD a few years ago says that you “came out of hiding” to do the commentary. What were you doing all those years?
The Troma DVD was done under false pretenses. I thought that Troma owned the rights, but of course Troma never does what they say they’re going to do. It turned out they’d bought the rights in a fire sale—there was literally a fire, and the people who owned the rights were bankrupt and Troma walked into the rubble and picked up whatever was lying around.
But what have you been doing all this time?
Well, the film was a very bad experience, it really seemed like if you try to do anything adventurous they call it trash, and afterwards I walked away from Hollywood completely for a while. I did a lot of writing, and there were a lot of things that I thought would happen, but they never did. And then interest in the film revived—I found out about a fan club in Pittsburgh, they’re here and there across the country, apparently—and seeing all of this has brought back my desire. Now I’m trying to do some other projects, and it looks promising. I have an idea for a trilogy I’m pursuing.
Can you tell me anything about it?
Well, I can give you a hint. One is about a cult in LA that’s killing people who drive SUVs and talk on cell-phones.
The other is about an astronaut who goes into space and encounters some radiation, and when he comes back to Earth it seems at first that he’s turned very cold, but eventually they figure out that he feeds on electricity; he’s become an electricity junkie. And then, when he makes love with his wife, she becomes like he is.
Wow! Good luck, those sound amazing. Finally, I have to ask if it’s true that you rejected Kathleen Turner for a role in You Better Watch Out?
Yes. I turned down a lot of people who ?went on to be famous. We had all sorts of people . . . Glenn Close! I still think that was one of my smarter decisions.