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Director:  Craig Anderson

Screenplay: Craig Anderson

Starring: Dee WallaceGeoff MorrellDavid Collins 

Review: David Stephens

As soon as the calendar hits November, it should just mean Guy Fawkes celebrations for Brits and Thanksgiving hi-jinks for those across the pond. In reality it means that every shopping centre and high street is crammed to the gills with Christmas junk as soon as Halloween bids adieu. Merry Commercialism y’all! At least as we get into December it means that the season of goodwill gets a skewering, as festive chillers like the upcoming “Better Watch Out” visits cinemas, with a host of similarly themed Indies popping down the chimney to DVD shelves and VOD boxes. So here we have “Red Christmas”, an Australian horror filmed in the rural Southern Highlands of Queensland. It’s directed and written by Craig Anderson, who has done plenty of work in comedy and TV in Oz. Headlining the cast is Dee Wallace, although perhaps best known to the mainstream as Elliott’s mother in “E.T.”, she’s an absolute genre icon having appeared in a shedload of classic horror flicks; from “The Howling” (most adorable werewolf ever!) and “The Hills Have Eyes”, right up to the recent “The Lords of Salem”. After a successful stint on the festival circuit for the past couple of years – including Fantasia and Frightfest – it’s now on home media in the US and UK at this most “wonderful time of the year”. So YGROY does its best Jim Carey impression and prepares for a miserable Christmas…

Starting (rather uniquely for a Christmas film) at an abortion clinic twenty years ago, it shows pro-life protesters congregated outside the building. An unidentified zealot bombs the place and during the confusion a surgical procedure is interrupted. When an aborted foetus is abandoned the bomber chances upon it and notices signs of life, which leads him to carry it away. Now in the present day we meet Diane (Wallace) and her slightly dysfunctional family. After the death of her husband, she’s due to sell up her remote house and travel to Europe. For the last Christmas together, she hopes to bond with all of her offspring, including her beloved son Gerry (Gerard O’Dwyer) and her two feuding daughters. So the scene is set for a massed celebration on Christmas Day, complete with the usual familial trauma. However, a strange disfigured shape is limping towards the house, clad in a dark cloak and bandages. After a rather sick and bloody run-in with a foul-mouthed farmer, he makes his way to the gathered family, announcing himself as “Cletus”. (“Mr Cletus, may I take your cloak?”). Being a good Christian, and it being goodwill to all men season, Diane lets him into the house. But she soon regrets that decision as the family are put into peril, when long forgotten secrets lead to bloody retribution…

“Red Xmas” is an admirably bitter and dark take on Christmas. It also blends in a whole heap of contentious issues and subjects you wouldn’t necessarily associate with tinsel and mistletoe. The pro-life aspects are quite often front and centre, with viewpoints given to both sides of the argument. Although judging by online interviews with the director, the plot is meant to be an almost absurdist slant on slasher films and exploitation and not an obvious attempt at any kind of social commentary. Nevertheless the aspects around abortion have caused some lively debate on some sites. It does however give a bit of pathos to the antagonist and make him more than just a motiveless killer. Alongside that, the storyline also takes some time to aim some well-deserved shots at enforced jollity (“Why can’t we just open presents like normal people and forget all this Oprah bullshit?”), ludicrous family arguments (“You don’t put a meringue in the fridge!!”), and the hypocrisy of extreme religious fervour.

Cleetus himself is quite a good creation. Cloaked like a psychotic Ghost of Christmas Future from Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol”, he evokes memories of the bag-headed Jason Voorhees from “Friday the 13th – Part 2”. There’s some good n’ vicious slayings as well; long-division by axe, umbrellas in the head, and a splendidly gruesome death-by-blender moment. Given that there’s a solid attempt to give some sympathy to Cletus - with his pleading “Elephant Man” vocals and tragic backstory - his bloody actions are merciless. The glimpses of his ugly mug are the stuff of pure 80’s exploitation though. Otherwise the gory SFX are low-budget but still very effective.

It’s something a tad beyond a simple slasher though, especially with the mature themes and suchlike. It does really benefit from a cracking contribution from the always-reliable Wallace, who knocks it out of the grotto with a strong turn as the fiercely protective matriarch. Also, worthy of mention is the excellent performance from O’Dwyer, an actor who lives with Down syndrome himself who portrays Gerry as a sweet and strong counterpoint to the murderous Cletus. The cast are supported by a very strong soundtrack and some neat visuals; the Death-like Cletus stumbling through woodland, two characters facing-off against a back-lit Xmas tree – both of which are accompanied by dark versions of popular carols. Perhaps most surprising though is the way that the aftermath of some onscreen deaths are dealt with. There are no quick screams and onto the next sequence. The discovery of certain bodies is actually filmed in a harrowing and emotional way, giving their demises a certain heft that is sometimes lacking from slashers.

Whilst some of those slasher elements are shot with real style and innovation, certain tropes are fumbled slightly and come across as a bit bizarre. Whilst we confess to not knowing a great deal about rural emergency services in Australia, the whole situation with contacting the police is pretty weird. One quick call to a local sheriff is the only perceivable nod to the authorities, and the rest of the time mobile phones (with apparently full signals) are used only to call each other or just as distractions. It’s all bit odd, as are some of the decisions regarding firearms and retaliatory actions. One character uses a sawn-off shotgun at a huge distance from the target, whilst another shoots a target several times from point-blank range… and still misses. We know we’re talking about “logic” in a slasher film, but the propensity for pretty much every single character to run off on their own at some point, gets a bit tiresome as well.

Other than that, this is a very dark and unusual take on festive horror, which at least has some fire in its belly and tries to do things a little differently. Some elements don’t always work, and the more contentious subjects sometimes sit uneasily in the framework. But it still has some cool horror, some good performances, and a nicely unwholesome take on twee sentimentality. Don’t expect to feel jolly afterwards, but then… that is sort of the point. Happy holidays!

DVD Extras: The Grinch who stole the extras. Nothing here… which is a bit disappointing as the US Blu-Ray has some commentary and interviews. Bah, humbug! The film is also available in a box-set with “All Through the House” (good) and “Silent Night, Bloody Night – The Homecoming” (not so good).

“Red Xmas” is a warped and slightly bitter slasher that strays from the norm, and shows no goodwill whatsoever. The plot doesn’t really bear up to any scrutiny, but it does have some real style and inventive gore. There are some killer performances from Wallace and O’Dwyer as well. The more controversial elements give it some edge (although they sometimes feel out of place) and overall it’s a pretty good feel-bad festive experience.
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