New Year’s Eve: a time for celebrating, reflecting, and setting new goals. Unless you’re the killer in New Year’s Evil, and then it’s a time to pick off a new victim when the clock strikes midnight in every time zone across America—the ghoulish but inspired gimmick that propels Emmett Alston’s 1980 cult classic.
New Year’s Evil is part of the wave of holiday-themed horror movies that came out after Halloween’s smash success; there was even another 1980 release set on New Year’s Eve starring that film’s Jamie Lee Curtis, Terror Train.
But New Year’s Evil has its own gleefully trashy thing going on beyond ripping off the holiday idea. Main character Diane (Roz Kelly, aka Fonzie’s girlfriend Pinky Tuscadero on Happy Days)—stage name “Blaze, the first lady of rock,” a woman unafraid to match her blush, lipstick, and eyebrows to the same shade of pink—is a popular Hollywood scenester hosting a new wave-themed New Year’s Eve concert being broadcast live from the Sunset Strip. There’s a call-in element so viewers can vote for their favorite song of the year, which is how a creep calling himself “Evil” (Kip Niven) is able to tell Diane “I’m going to commit murder at midnight!” He calls from a pay phone using a voice changer—and though he dons a variety of disguises, he doesn’t cover his face with a mask until the movie’s very last act, an instant tip-off that this is someone Diane knows very well. Perhaps even someone in her own family, which seems more likely once we get to spend some time with her son, Derek (Grant Cramer), a pouty aspiring actor who feels neglected by his famous mother.
Honestly, New Year’s Evil isn’t much of a whodunnit or even a why-dunnit (while slasher movies love to be about revenge, “he’s just a kill-crazy maniac” is also always acceptable). One of its biggest strengths is the ticking clock that paces the murderer’s crimes—he’s determined to kill as the New Year arrives in New York, Chicago, Colorado, and California, since each location is being celebrated on Diane’s telecast; he has a grand plan of tape-recording each death and then calling Diane back to make her listen.
But the setting of New Year’s Evil is its real draw: Los Angeles circa 1980, seen through the eyes of a low-budget horror filmmaker, is the sort of place where punks pile into convertibles and blast their music as they drive down Hollywood Boulevard, where biker gangs flip off Mercedes-driving serial killers dressed as priests, where a drive-in (showing a horror double-feature, natch) provides a convenient place to hide, and where a pick-up line might involve enticing someone with the promise of “a big party up at Erik Estrada’s place.”
The backstage drama aspect is also a lot of fun—New Year’s Evil constantly cuts back to the concert in progress, and we see it being beamed on TV sets and hear it over the radio when the action’s moved elsewhere. While the “hits of the year” aspect is fictional (you won’t have heard of any of the bands or their songs) they’re undeniably catchy, especially the movie’s theme, which we hear as the opening credits roll and about 10 minutes later when it’s performed on the show.
The film’s world of pill-popping show-biz weariness and putting up a glam front for the camera is perfectly distilled in the character of Diane/Blaze, who’s just as emotional about being stalked by a killer as she is about making sure the event is a career high point. And while her curiously absent husband is at least partially to blame, there’s no more tragic figure than Derek, a kid who’s heard her say “I’m sorry, I forgot you were here” so many times it’s turned him into a person who fashions masks out of pantyhose and talks to himself in hotel-room mirrors.
While there is a certain attempt to keep New Year’s Evil rooted in realism—at one point, a police psychologist character appears for one scene to explain what might be motivating the killer—the movie is mostly content to careen along, fueled by nervous energy, a lot of hairspray, sporadic bloodshed, and the grimly inevitable sense that “Evil” is going to exceed his body-count goals.
When the killer’s identity is finally confirmed, you won’t be surprised by who he is or why he’s decided to go on a seasonal slaughter spree. However, he does have an unexpected flash of optimism to share: “This has been a very bad year for me. But midnight starts the first day of my new life!” He’s dead wrong, of course, but New Year’s Evil is still goofy enough to suggest that even a psycho might make some positive resolutions for the year ahead.
New Year’s Evil is streaming on Amazon Prime and Paramount+.
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