Any good slasher movie worth its salt gives us a villain that has some traumatic event that sets off their murderous frenzy – their trigger if you will. In this installment, the focus is on the maniac behind the slayings in New Year’s Evil, Richard Sullivan, aka “Evil.”
In December 1980, Cannon Films released New Year’s Evil: a neon-tinged, new wave body-count frenzy, directed by Emmett Alston. In the leading role of funky, famous radio disc jockey “Blaze” is Roz Kelly (who, prior to her three-episode guest stint on Happy Days as Carol “Pinky” Tuscadero, had been a photographer for New York Magazine, snapping shots of celebrities like Andy Warhol, Neil Diamond, and Jimi Hendrix). Grant Cramer, minimally known to genre-heads for his roles in movies like the sex comedy Hardbodies and carnival horror Killer Klowns from Outer Space, portrays her son, Derek. The film’s gimmick is a killer, Richard Sullivan (television stalwart Kip Niven), who calls himself by the moniker “Evil,” and sets his sights to murder one ”naughty girl” when the clock strikes midnight in each time zone, ultimately focusing the end of his violent spree on the disc jockey herself. We learn Blaze is actually his wife – drawing the killer’s bloody ire through mixed up feelings spawned by his perception of her neglect, doubled by the anger brought on by his issues with how he thinks women in general treat him.
Some of the trashier slashers of the ’80s use the hatred of women as the killer’s motivation, to which New Year’s Evil is no exception. In the confessional at the end of the feature, Evil wags his finger as he tells Blaze “Ladies are not very nice people. They are manipulative, and deceitful, and immoral, and very, very selfish.” Coming from a homicidal maniac, the line sounds a little rich. But unfortunately, at least in these times, the “I’m fed up” sentiment aligns with “Misogyny Manifestos” spit out by clueless trolls at various times across social media. As Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell writes in her essay “Misogyny and Homicide of Women”: “Male self-esteem is based on the impossible model of invulnerability, perfect competence, fearlessness, virility, power, and always winning. Oppression of women or other classes or races enhances the power of men. The extreme oppression insisted upon by those described as being macho is often enforced by violence and is associated with shakier self-esteem than that of the normal male.”
Later, Campbell states that “violence may be the most appropriate way to protect one’s honor, to show courage or conceal fear, especially fear of revealing weakness.” Evil kills these women because his jilted feelings have manifested into something uglier and more aggressive as he fights to retain some idea of his own self-worth. We can choose whether or not to sympathize with such a villain but granted, with one who has such disdain for other humans (notably women), doing so can be very difficult.
Psychologically, Evil’s motivation seems to stem from a type of egomaniacal psychosis with a side of an inferiority complex. According to certain psychological treatment, we learn “this [egomaniac] often feels unappreciated by others and will take great strides to make him or herself happy over the happiness of others.” One symptom of this is fishing for compliments (“[egomaniacs] love receiving compliments and if they struggle with an inferiority complex, then they need those compliments to feel secure in a relationship or situation.”). Additionally, Evil feels ridiculed when Blaze ignores him, so he turns the ridicule back onto others, namely the women he slays; “[the ridicule] makes [egomaniacs] feel better about themselves, but the judgment is more a case of trying to draw judgment away from themselves and placing it onto others.”
Lastly, we come to exaggeration, exemplified by Evil mentioning he killed one of the women because he felt she had short-changed him (“the people who tend to over-exaggerate details of an event tend to struggle with egomania and inferiority complexes because they want to overemphasize their worth to others”), but perhaps he may not consciously be doing so. Before the revelation that Blaze’s husband is the killer, the police discuss theories as to the killer’s motivation. The cops even go so far to mention real-world serial killers Son of Sam and Zodiac as they say the maniac is triggered by egomania–which they’re right about, but in the wrong way. Evil isn’t out to kill his wife just because she’s popular as they believe; he’s out to kill her because her popularity drags her away from him. It’s always “me, me, me” for this guy, leading to his broken, murderous fury.
The feature is also one of the best snapshots of Cannon Films’ coked-fueled oddities of the 1980s: we journey along Evil’s odyssey through drive-ins (where our killer tangles with a biker gang), the desolate Los Angeles streets, mental hospitals, and disco bars — the latter whereupon he uses one of the film’s most hilariously sleazy lines, “There’s a big party up at Erik Estrada’s place,” as a means to pick up a prospective victim. One really has to remember a time when saying going to a CHiPs cast member’s house was a guaranteed panty-dropper.
Then pretty much immediately afterwards, out from left field the film throws us a scene where Evil has a bizarre discussion of various trendy mentally transformative “self-help” movements (like “EST” or Transcendental Meditation) with that same potential victim. Evil is visibly squirmy in this scene as he listens to the blonde disco hottie babble on about her nail-biting habit and her friend’s “nervous diarrhea,” but in a red flag to the audience he states in that moment, “You’re exactly the sort of girl I was expecting to pick up in a place like that.” It’s yet another signal of how Evil feels powerless by women, adding to his desperate, violent motivation.
In these ways, New Year’s Evil is a film unafraid to give social commentary, especially with the idea of misogyny as a kind of disease that spreads from person to person and that can be handed down from generation to generation. Evil laments that his wife is metaphorically “castrating” him and worries that the same thing is happening to their son. We see Derek slowly going mad over the course of the film due to his mother’s absenteeism and dismissal, evidenced by him ripping up his mother’s pantyhose and wearing them over his face. In the same discussion on the killer’s motivation, the cops throw out the theory that the killer is fixated on mother issues, hence the mutilation of the victim’s breasts (an image we are thankfully mostly spared). But this angle seems to work more for Derek, who is angry that his mother is too busy trying to put on her own show to share in his joy of landing a lead television role himself. The film ends with Derek wearing his father’s creepy mask inside the ambulance driving his mother to the hospital with a corpse sitting shotgun, setting up a sequel that everyone had to know wasn’t coming.
The movie runs a swift and predictable 85 minutes, rarely deviating from set-up beats through Evil’s path of psychotic behavior. He knocks off his victims at a fairly reliable pace, skimping mostly on the gore. The score, however, by Laurin Rinder and W. Michael Lewis is competent enough to follow the major beats of a slasher movie. The soundtrack is arguably one of the best parts of the film. The glossy, Hollywood-style new wave ambiance makes New Year’s Evil feel like an ’80s kin to Brian DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise. The instantly catchy title track by Shadow runs over the opening credits, a earworm burrowing into our brains as easily as a knife might go into the soft flesh of one of Evil’s victims. The bands featured on Blaze’s radio/television simulcast “Hollywood Hotline” play their tunes at regular intervals throughout the feature, maybe causing the film to come across as more of a musical slasher – especially considering the themes of the songs often revolve around the film’s plot. Lending some credibility to the picture, the songwriters for the titular tune are Roxanne Seeman (who has worked with major artists like Phil Collins, Bette Midler, Chaka Khan, and The Sisters of Mercy), and Argentinian jazz musician Eddie Del Barrio (who has frequently collaborated with the likes of Stan Getz, Herb Alpert, and Earth, Wind & Fire). The folks behind the song “New Year’s Evil” really worked hard to promote it by sending singles to radio stations, but the soundtrack album itself didn’t actually come to fruition as a full release until many years later in March of 2020 when it was finally released digitally.
Despite any positive radio play for the film’s title song, New Year’s Evil had less than favorable reviews upon its release; notoriously anti-slasher Chicago critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both panned the feature, respectively slapping the movie with zero stars and one and a half stars. In fact, New Year’s Evil feels like it could have been one of the myriad trashy slashers they targeted as sexist and repulsive on their television program. If one treats horror films like a narcotic, then New Year’s Evil is the stepped-on street junk that might blow up your veins before it hits your heart. It’s no great shakes, in other words. But if you need the high of the hit before your heart stops, you could honestly do worse than New Year’s Evil. At least it delivers what it promises on the tin, a maniac stacking up a body count on one of the most jubilant days of the year coupled with the slinky, sleazy, synthesized excesses of the Cannon Film Group.