RED CHRISTMAS is new holiday horror courtesy of Australia. I saw Dee Wallace’s name on the cover and I assumed, quite reasonably I think, that she’d have a small part but was the only big name person to sell the movie. Turns out she is legitimately the lead, and gets to be a full-on heroine who faces off with a deranged killer and also with the lingering memories of traumatic decisions made in her past. She takes charge and barks orders and in a stand out scene she has to tearfully assure her adult son with Down syndrome that she still loves him while she’s creeping through a dark house with a rifle. This is a good role for her!
It’s also a really interesting movie that does enough that’s right and/or unusual to make up for its obvious flaws. Yeah, the opening abortion protest is phony as hell, some of the digital cinematography during daylight is too clean and cheap looking, the family arguments that come up sometimes feel forced and inauthentic, its point-of-view on the touchy subjects it brings up is incoherent enough that it ultimately feels like button-pushing provocation. But in my opinion horror movies are sometimes allowed – even encouraged – to make you feel uncomfortable and maybe a little offended. It’s part of the deal.
Wallace plays Diane, matriarch of a family of mostly grown-up children gathering for one last Christmas at the family home in New South Wales. I say “one last” because she’s planning to sell the house, but I suppose it’s also true that many characters will not be able to celebrate Christmas after this. Except as ghosts.
It’s a diverse group. Her gruff, pot-loving brother (Geoff Morrell, ROGUE) is the other American. She has an adopted teenage daughter (Deelia Meriel) and an about-to-burst pregnant one (Janis McGavin, “Co-Ed Hottie,” SCOOBY-DOO) who sneaks off to fuck her husband (Bjorn Stewart) in the laundry room, and an uptight one (Sarah Bishop, uncredited party guest, THE GREAT GATSBY) whose priest husband (David Collins, MAYA THE BEE MOVIE [English language version]) spies on the fucking and then goes upstairs and jerks off in a closet.
But most of it’s not that crude, and the best example is Jerry (Gerard Odwyer), who has Down syndrome and never seems more or less than an equal member of the family. He has a great, jokey rapport with everyone and even his goofy sweater and Santa hat seem like part of his sense of humor that they love him for. No one condescends to him. I’ve never seen a character like this.
Same goes for Cletus (introducing Sam “Bazooka” Campbell), the monstrous killer pictured as a skeleton on the cover. Sure, his origin is crazy: he’s Diane’s youngest son, who she believes she aborted long ago. The clinic was bombed by Christian terrorists while she was there and little does she know the baby was rescued by one of them and raised as a zealot.
But it’s his whole vibe that’s distinctive. He’s as monstrous looking as the guy in THE FUNHOUSE, so he covers himself in bandages, but even that we don’t see much of because he hides beneath a Grim Reaper-like cloak. I don’t think he’s trying to look scary, that’s just what he’s comfortable in or something. (He says “it keeps my skin on,” whatever that means.) Walking to the house he crosses the property of some hostile outback redneck, and he doesn’t threaten him, he politely asks for directions. The way the guy reacts is pretty ridiculous, but I’m not gonna complain when, in the era of arty slow burn indie horror, there’s one where a guy gets his dick ripped off before the plot even starts.
Anyway, what really makes Cletus is his voice. He speaks odd, slow, but innocent, never remotely threatening, even after we’ve seen him chop up perfectly nice people with his ax. He behaves like Jason but he sounds like the Elephant Man. He’s just a very confused, very religious young man trying to confront his mommy about why she didn’t want him.
Also unusual: he just comes to the door and Diane (not yet knowing who he is) feels sorry for him and lets him in, right before they were gonna open presents. They sit there uncomfortably trying to figure out how to politely get rid of this weirdo who smells like pee. When he gets out of line nobody handles it well.
Before I continue I should address that this is Christmas horror and even though one of the best (BLACK CHRISTMAS) barely has any holiday stuff in it at all, I prefer when they do. This one passes the candy cane test because it has a Christmas gathering, presents, eggnog, discussion of traditions, family tensions, a Santa Claus costume and a glorious shot of a fancy Christmas tree falling over in slow motion. And I guess since Christmas is about a birth and this is about multiple births and unbirths, that’s something too.
Most of the cast seem to be comedians, but if there’s comedy here it’s darker and dryer than anything Americans would normally call by that name. Brutal death is dispatched to undeserving characters, starting with the nicest and (I noticed) the non-whitest. Diane must relive and admit to the most difficult secret of her past. That she chose abortion and kept it a secret offends the religious members of the family who believe it’s a sin, but the specifics of why she did it bring up even more upsetting issues.
The priest, Peter, really gets pushed by the situation too. Among other things, he finds himself praying to God as a distraction while trying to grab a knife for stabbing. It’s harsh. It made me uncomfortable that they’re all calling Cletus a bastard and a sonofabitch with such fervor as they fight back. Yes, for sure he is the wrongdoer here, massacring this family, proving that Diane wasn’t wrong to dismiss him as a “crazy Christian.” But you can also feel for him, since he survived, and he has this fucked up life and he literally gets pissed on for being ugly but he sees that she let all these other babies live, and even adopted one, and they seem to be doing well. I just think he deserves some acknowledgment of how fucked up that is. But also he deserves being re-aborted. He has earned that.
I guess it’s appropriate for a movie about this topic to be troubling and not pretend to offer any easy answers. On his commentary track first-time feature director Craig Anderson says he was inspired by Tony Kaye’s documentary LAKE OF FIRE.
And yet there is also an element to this movie that is, on some level, what we like to call fun. I can’t believe I actually get to say this but this is a 2017 indie horror movie that has good old fashioned good kills. I mean you won’t dig it as much if you’re a practical-effects-only purist, but this fuckin guy gets really extravagant when he decides thou shalt not not kill. I said “oh shit!” out loud more than once.
Also I like the title, but I do think it would suck if you were making a movie about communists invading on Christmas and now you had to come up with something else to call it because of these fuckin guys.
There are so damn many indie horror movies out there. They pour out like waterfalls. It’s the one type of movie that publicists email me about all the time and I’m afraid to watch them because there are so many more mediocre ones than exciting ones. RED CHRISTMAS really defies the odds, like a monster baby crawling out of a biohazard bucket in an exploded building and surviving. It’s weird and messed up and it probly shouldn’t have lived but since it did I welcome it into my home.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.