Red Christmas

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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 6th, 2017 at 10:22 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

23 Responses to “Red Christmas”

  1. I’m glad you have reviewed this movie. I’ve generally been on the fence on this one. I have a question, though, on a scale of 1 to 10, how sleezy is the movie? I love slasher films, as you know, but there is something about really sleezy looking slasher films that upset me. The trailer really made this one look super sleezy. Not the plot, which is interesting, but just the kills. Does that make sense? Usually it’s the super gross shot of video ones.

    Vern, have you seen Girlhouse? That would be an example of a sleezy movie even though it looks professional. For some reason there are a lot of people that bag on that movie but I thought the villian was scary as fuck. Way scarier than the majority of slasher’s.

  2. Wow, this sounds amazing.

    Sternshein– I am someone who wishes that Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving” trailer were for a real movie, so i’m genuinely curious what you mean by sleazy as a turnoff in horror— like, trashy sex? Inexpensive production values as far as gore is concerned? Performances that kinda seem like the actors are actually upset and maybe got manipulated into doing stuff on film that they don’t feel ok with acting out? I’d wanna say I’m against all those things too, in theory— but in actuality, I can think of multiple movies I love where one, some, or all of those things is practically a hallmark of the movie’s appeal. Am i in the right ballpark, or is it something else that gets in the way for you?

  3. Grimgrinningchris

    December 6th, 2017 at 7:26 pm

    Stone has a bit to say about this one on her RANDOM ROLES from a while back over at the AV Club websight.

  4. Let’s talk about the sleaze factor in film/horror/slashers! Because I too find myself effected by it, though I struggle to qualify it.

    What I have so far: To me, the opposite of sleazy is classy. Like, Halloween is classy whereas Halloween II is a little sleazy. Just a little. It’s actually what endears me to it. Unlike Black Christmas, which I don’t hate but was just not into. So, does it have to do with the level if voyeurism for me?

    Slumber Party Massacre, meanwhile, was too sleazy for me to enjoy. As was Maniac. The Burning I’d one that I have wanted to check out for years but have so far demurred, partly due to the sleaze factor (and recent revelations certainly aren’t making it feel any less sleazy). For a long time, I felt like Sleepaway Camp would be sleazy, but the last few years, it sounds less and less so…

    If I have any revelations, more observations or examples, I’ll chime in. But what do you guys think?

  5. Whoa, i would say Sleepaway Camp is totally sleazy, albeit in the best kind of way. i’m starting to think this might be one a them highly personal definition situations…. some stuff is easier to define by example than explicit rules, i guess.

    regardless, we might as well just skip right ahead to the big question here: is the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre sleazy or classy? i want to say it’s sleazy, but i also consider it to be one of the great American masterpieces in any medium. and there’s nothing un-classy about the cinematography.

  6. Ancient Romans— interesting that voyeurism could be the key for your personal sleaze factor, considering, ya know, the nature of movies and all. In that regard, how does Psycho scan for you? Hitchcock seems like he was a pretty sleazy dude in real life, but i’ve never seen one of his movies that isn’t classy from the first frame to the last.

  7. You might need a VPN (or, you know, use your imagination) to watch this but our national broadcaster made a fly on the wall doco about the making if this movie that’s a very interesting watch…
    Oh and Vern I never post, but love your work dude.

    Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare

    Artsville presents a broad cross section of stories displaying the very best of arts documentary filmmaking in the country.

  8. psychic_hits – Great point about Hitchcock. Psycho/the rest of his ouvre come off as only appropriately skeevy and don’t cross a line into a territory where I don’t enjoy it anymore. Same with Chain Saw, which is thematically and aesthetically creepy and/or dirty but not sleazy, per se.

    Honestly, I basically don’t even really watch movies anymore, not like I used to. A couple a year, tops, and definitely no horror movies. I’ve simply lost my taste for them. (Age? Personal evolution? The world situation too dire?) It would be nice if this long-standing personal quandary motivated me to get back on the horse and, for example, finally watch Sleepaway Camp.

  9. LAKE OF FIRE fucked me up good when I watched it once back in 2008.

  10. Henry: The Portrait of a Serial Killer may be the sleaziest movie ever made. As my cousin put it-“that movie is gutter!”

  11. Ancient Romans: Have you ever seen MARNIE? It’s the one Hitchcock film I can think of that, for me, crossed the line into too sleazy to enjoy. This is mostly due to one character’s utterly horrible behavior, while the movie acts like it’s oblivious (which it may very well have been, raising the sleaze factor even more).

  12. Hey, this one was pretty good. It certainly wasn’t fucking around, which made me forgive some weird moments of incompetence. Like, every time anything more complicated than someone walking across the room had to be choreographed, I generally had to rewind to figure out what the fuck happened because there just wasn’t enough footage to stitch together to sell the sequence of events. You could practically smell the editor’s desperation sweat in the action beats. Shit was thin.

    And if you can’t afford elaborate gore effects, don’t IMPLY elaborate gore effects without showing them. Like, we know it’s stupid and impossible to bisect someone lengthwise with an ax, but we suspend disbelief because it’s a cool thing to see. Doing it offscreen gives you the worst of both worlds: You don’t believe it and you also can’t enjoy it. (Although I admit it was pretty fucked up to imagine the family coming out and seeing THAT on the lawn.) The part with the blender was pretty great, though. I wouldn’t have minded if that was the only “good kill” and the others went more for the emotion of the death instead of trying to promise splatter that they couldn’t pull off. Rely on the actors to sell the impact that you lack the budget to execute on the day. A good close quarters stabbing is always effective and practically free.

    Still, the not-fucking-around aspect should not be discounted. Most horror movies fuck around a lot these days so the ones that manage to abstain from fucking around should be aknowledged.

  13. So I read Vern’s review of Red Christmas a couple of months ago and thought the movie sounded pretty interesting, if poorly made. Then this morning I read a rather scathing review on AV Club, which made me come back to re-read Vern’s review and make sure I didn’t misremember it. Darn, it sounds even better now! Definitely need to check this movie out.

    P.S. I also thought Hitchcock’s Marnie was awfully sleazy, one of the rare times I couldn’t keep his reputation out of mind while watching one of his male protagonists, and his camera and script, belittle this woman.

  14. The AV Club’s film writing sucks nowadays. Between Iggy’s pretentious reference porn and the rest of the staff’s joyless, all-purpose snark, the only reviews they write that convince me to see a movie are the negative ones.

  15. I keep leaving and coming back (I don’t post there, just read) because I don’t care for other pop culture sites still. Yeah, the quality is bad now. Along with what you mentioned I’d dare say the writers and new commentators trying to out woke each other has also been a turn off. It’s not them pushing for all the good things that come from being ‘woke’ it’s the snarkiness of everything is shit that goes with it that makes it feel fake and just another excuse for them to ‘hate’ and show how much better they are. Even when they do have a good article or series it is never as good as it could be because they have to let their readers know how above it all they are still (see: their History of Violence and now the replacement Superhero article series). On top of that most of fun commentators aren’t there anymore or barely post at all. The currently commentators really encapsulate everything wrong with the polar-opposite of the AICN/IMDB commenting crowd: now if they don’t like something, they look for ways to say that the people who made it and the people who enjoy it are actually veritably ‘bad’ people (see: whenever Zack Snyder is brought up). Devin and his friends at BAD/BMD pushed that attitude hard and now it’s at AV Club and just about everywhere else.

    Maybe I’m just old and I’m just telling kids to get off my lawn?

  16. I’m not sure what the overall opinion of this movie is. I heard it offhandedly mentioned as being terrible on Shock Waves, I believe. But I know from Twitter that Brian Collins likes it. It could be that he and I are alone on it.

    I haven’t kept up with AV Club (not a judgment) but was honored that he acknowledged me on Twitter when he posted the last History of Violence column. It made me feel like I was a guy in the Furious Five or the Sugar Hill Gang or something.

  17. I recently got into it with some motherfuckers over the Snyder hate-on. I just don;t get it. His flaws and his strengths are both equally obvious to one and all, and you should be able to tell if he’s for you or not by now. Continuing to pay for movies you know you’ll hate is your own fucking problem. His only crime seems to be making not making movies the way some people want him to, but but otherwise he seems like a decent guy, and good christ he just went through a family tragedy so maybe show some class and not act like your precious little funny book franchise is the most important thing in the world, you pricks. The response I got? “Well, he likes Ayn Rand books so he must be a monster.”

    We do not deserve to win if this is the way the “good guys” behave.

  18. “Continuing to pay for movies you know you’ll hate is your own fucking problem.”

    Damn, I’m not sure anyone has ever summed up the entire state of the world more clearly or succinctly. Good on ya, Mr. M.

    (See, cuz Red Christmas is, like, Australian.)

    I do still read AVC, partly because I’m endlessly amused by the TV reviews, where a show they like will always get an A, A-, or, if worlds have collided, a B+, while shows they dislike will always leave me wondering, “Why in the heck are you still reviewing this show that you NEVER like?!” I mean, the reviewer doesn’t have to adore the show or be a fanboy, but I’d find their reviews a little more reliable if they at least occasionally liked it?

  19. Their TV reviews are also a clear case of what I call Workshop Syndrome. Having erroneously believed at one point in my youth that an MFA in Fiction was a thing worth a lifetime of debt, I have been in any number of writing workshops. I discovered a phenomena in which a person, when tasked with the job of critiquing something, will do so whether that person has any genuine criticism of the thing at all. This generally comes in the form of finding whatever standard element of the medium is less prevalent than other elements in any particular work and asking for more of it. Economical character development? “I think we need more character development.” A focus on interior monologue over external description? “I think we need more description.” One character kind of ambiguous? “I think we need to know more about this character.” Little thought is given to accepting or even understanding the story as is and trying to figure out why the author did it this way. It results in advice of the most generic kind that treats every story as if it were a cake recipe that requires the exact right proportions of every ingredient or the batter will not rise. This is completely different than the way one approaches a work that one experiences simply to experience it. We experience an author’s choices as choices, not as opportunities for criticism. This is what happens to an AV Club TV critic tasked with reviewing a show every single week, long after they’ve said everything they’ll ever have to say about it. I’ve seen them take sitcoms to task for their lack of character development, as if that is a thing that is required from a format whose main appeal is its sustainability and lack of stakes. It’s not real criticism. They wouldn’t honestly want these shows to do what they’re suggesting. It’s just that they had to say something when the professor called on them, so they pointed at whatever wasn’t there and said there should be more of it. It’s like criticizing a salad bar because it doesn’t have enough chicken wings.

  20. Yup, The AV Club has gone straight into the toilet, the only thing I genuinely enjoy anymore are Kevin Pang’s food articles, which if the best thing on your television and film site are articles about food, you’ve got a problem.

    And the comments now are almost a ghost town, almost everyone has left.

    The site was already on thin ice but the switch to Kinja has just totally fucking ruined it, why did they have to do that? I’m only sticking with it out of habit and because I’ve not found a suitable replacement, it breaks my heart because discovering the site in 2010 was such a revelation after years of Ain’t It Cool.

    And “We do not deserve to win if this is the way the “good guys” behave.” is such an apt statement Mr. Majestyk, I hate the way liberals operate nowadays, Donald Trump has had such a toxic effect on everything, I understand times are tough but people shouldn’t let him win by getting such a shitty attitude about everything.

  21. Caught this on Netflix last night and ho-lee cats, it definitely has that Aussie ‘anything goes’ flavor that I love. One of my fave slashers from the last several years for sure, and at least two or three kills are absolute jaw-droppers. Dee Wallace is great, Jerry is great, Cletus is great, and the pacing is pitch-perfect. It may be a ‘dumb’ movie, but it did activate one or two of my brain cells. Recommended.

  22. Jerome: If you can find a way to watch it, I’d recommend the documentary “Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare” about the making of the movie. I appreciated the movie more after seeing what the guy went through to get it made.

  23. Cool, thanks for the heads-up. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

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