Red Christmas (2016)

AUGUST 30, 2017


I thought it was a little weird that Red Christmas, an increasingly rare addition to the holiday slasher canon, would be released in August, but Silent Night Deadly Night 2 was released in April, so they're at least closer to the namesake season*. But "weird" was the order of the day with the film anyway, which on the surface is a holiday slasher in the vein of Home Sweet Home, in which our targets are a family of adults and their various partners as opposed to the usual group of college kids or whatever. But the devil's in the details, and I assure you I was not prepared for the number of fairly taboo subjects that were not only addressed in the film but part of frequent conversation, as well as the killer's motive. I'm not in the mood to get into arguments/debates about these topics, so I'll just let you know if you have VERY STRONG OPINIONS! on things like abortion, infertility, religion, and Downs syndrome, this might be a movie (and review) you should skip.

Any film that focuses on a family getting together for the holidays is going to showcase some dysfunction, so when one of the adult sisters (the mom of the family is Dee Wallace, so that should clue you in, roughly, to the ages of everyone involved) chastises another over the latter smoking when she's pregnant, and Wallace's brother mocks one of his niece's husbands over his religious beliefs, I didn't think much of it - par for the course of these things. But this one goes a bit deeper: the aforementioned religious guy might be a closeted homosexual, as he races off to masturbate in a wardrobe (?) after seeing his brother in law's bare ass, and the pregnant sister returns the insult to her sister by mocking her inability to get pregnant at all, which in turn leads into a brief discussion of using scientific methods to get pregnant instead of trusting in God/nature. These are all kind of touchy subjects, and not always handled delicately (and by "not always" I mean "pretty much never"), so when you see the '80s style poster and read the generic plot description, you might not expecting to be confronted with a topic that might be a sore spot.

Then there's the Down syndrome topic, which is actually the least of its worries for a while - no one treats the character (Jerry, Wallace's son - the patriarch of this clan passed away earlier in the year, we are told) any differently or even mentions his situation. But it ultimately ties into the abortion subplot, and that's where things get a bit dicey (SPOILERS AHEAD!), as we learn that twenty years ago, Wallace got pregnant again after Jerry and when she discovered that baby would have Downs as well, she aborted it, because it was hard enough with Jerry and she didn't want double the stress. Combine that with what we've already learned (and isn't really a spoiler as they tell us fairly early), which is that the killer is actually that would-be aborted fetus, who survived and became a mutated killer, and you have a movie that is bound to rile up the folks who like to scream and shout (read: tweet) about how "problematic" our movies are rather than actually do anything to contribute to the good of the world.

Luckily, I am not one of those people, so I just went along for the ride. The writer/director, Craig Anderson, has a comedy background and has said in interviews he set out to make "a stupid movie", and the trailer also touts its comedic bent. so I don't think it's wrong to not take these serious matters all that seriously. I wouldn't say it's an outright comedy (or even "horror comedy") but it has that offbeat tone like Frank Henenlotter or the Black Christmas remake, where you aren't laughing out loud but just appreciative of the sick sense of humor and a "no sacred cows" kind of approach. That's right up my alley, and you all know how desperate I am for more slashers (especially on the big screen, albeit in as limited a form as this), so forgive me if I wasn't offended by the idea of using abortion as a backdrop instead of the usual "A prank went wrong and now he's out for revenge" kind of killer motive. Like I said, if you have strong opinions on the subject maybe you won't be as charmed by the film, but for what it's worth I think it helps that the movie isn't preaching to either choir - on one hand, the fact that the killer (named Cletus) SURVIVED his abortion (don't ask for details how this worked, the movie doesn't offer any) gives plenty of weight to the "it's a living thing" side of the argument, but if that living thing grows up to be a serial killer...? You can't accuse the movie of picking a side on that one. Plus, the heroine is Wallace's character, who a pro-lifer would probably see as a monster for her actions, but then she spends the rest of the movie doing everything in her power to protect her (adult!) children, so the "bad mother" argument pro-life types often employ doesn't quite work. It's almost like it's a difficult topic with no easy answers!

As an experiment, though, let's say the movie was silent and it was just another slasher where a guy in a costume (a cloak and bandages - he kinda looks like Darkman) wreaks havoc on a group of people, free of any weightier subject matter. Would it work? Well... no, probably not, alas. Some of the kills are pretty great, and Cletus has a late-period Jason affinity for using a variety of objects (including but not limited to a blender, an anchor, and a peanut allergy), but the direction and editing often makes them unsatisfying and in some cases completely confusing. In fact this sort of thing plagues the entire movie; for example, there's a scene where Wallace aims a gun at the killer from a very short distance and fires multiple times, yet whether or not she hits him is never made clear (this follows a scene where it seems like SHE is shot accidentally, but where that bullet landed is anyone's guess since she falls to the ground but wasn't hit). The geography of the house is also puzzling, with the killer seemingly teleporting in and out of rooms at times because there's no other way to explain how he was able to sneak up on a character or exit the room without the others being able to tackle him. At one point we see him using a lattice (nod to Black Christmas?) to get into one particular room, but unless they had the things on every wall of the house it doesn't explain all of the other times he was able to pull off his movements.

The characters often make baffling decisions as well, and I don't mean the usual "running upstairs instead of out of the front door" kind of stuff. Out of nowhere, Wallace decides to collect all of the cell phones (there are only three including her own) so that she can scatter them around the house, and then her son-in-law dials those numbers from his hiding spot - the idea, I guess, is that Cletus will hear the ringing and make his way to those victim-free spots while she carries out a task elsewhere (if the movie wasn't over a year old I'd swear this was a nod to the Friday the 13th game, where you can turn on radios to distract Jason - it doesn't really work). It's weird enough that she comes up with this plan instantly, but then she neglects to hide her own phone, so when it rings she screams (almost definitely giving away her location) and tosses it roughly ten feet away from her and stays in the same spot, self-destructing her own wonky-ass idea and putting herself at more risk to boot. There's also a character with a peanut allergy, something she apparently doesn't think too much of since Anderson decides the best way to convey this information (foreshadowing) to the audience is to have this adult absentmindedly reach into a bowl of peanuts (Wallace sees her and stops her from doing it), as if she was a 5 year old who didn't understand their own medical conditions.

So yeah, it's one of those movies where you get the sense that things were reverse engineered from previously decided upon beats, no matter how convoluted or unnatural they might seem to the audience. At the end of the credits we are told to visit, which has a trailer for an upcoming documentary about how difficult it was to make the film, so that might explain some of the confusing edits (if anyone can explain the final showdown between Cletus and his opponent, I'd love to hear it), as there might not have been time/resources to film the proper coverage and Anderson just had to make do with what he had and hope the audience could fill in some of those blanks. But that excuse can only go so far; a lack of funds couldn't possibly be to blame for such headscratchers as a redneck neighbor threatening to put Cletus "out of your misery!" before urinating on him, or why Anderson frequently shows the characters' feet. Outside of their (again, expected) spats none of the characters are hateable, and Anderson did a pretty good job at making it hard to tell who would be the next to die, but their often alien-esque behavior kept any true suspense at bay, as my eyebrows were almost permanently raised during the scant - but still somewhat padded - 82 minute runtime.

But there's really nothing else like it, and it was too damn peculiar to dismiss. I was never bored, it got the basics more or less right, and it inspired a conversation that lasted nearly an hour afterward, which is more than I can say for at least 50% of the slasher films I've ever seen. And even if it made the movie's "point" a bit difficult to pin down, I genuinely like that Anderson wasn't coming down hard on either side of the topics he brings up (though there seems to be very little affinity for traditional Christianity), so pro-life and pro-choice people alike can find something that backs up their beliefs. And that goes for even the smaller things; I might be reading too much into it, but there's a nasty fight between the two older sisters over whether or not a meringue should be refrigerated, and when I went home I looked it up, finding: "let the pie stand at room temperature in a draft-free spot before serving it. After a few hours, however, it will need to be refrigerated", so I guess they're both right, which is like everything else in the movie. If Anderson's saying anything, I think it's that people don't always make the best decisions, but that doesn't mean someone else should be telling them how to live. Which, if that was his conscious intent, is a damn fine message to spread, though I'm not sure why he opted to make it in a film where a blender goes through a guy's eyeball.

What say you?

*I'm not just pulling that movie out at random - there's a clear homage to it in the film (it involves an umbrella), which delighted me to no end as most folks are likely to pay homage to one of the original's kills (the antlers, usually).


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