Studio: Artsploitation Films
Director: Craig Anderson
Writer: Craig Anderson
Producer: Craig Anderson, Belinda King, Bryan Moses, Dee Wallace
Stars: Dee Wallace, Geoff Morrell, Sarah Bishop, David Collins, Janis McGavin, Bjorn Stewart, Gerard O’Dwyer, Deelia Meriel, Sam Campbell
A mother’s shocking secret comes back to haunt her at Christmas when a mysterious man arrives to brutally murder her family.
“Red Christmas” left me with the impression that writer/director/producer Craig Anderson probably set out to make a full-on schlock shocker, something along the lines of Frank Henenlotter meets Lloyd Kaufman with a dash of Herschell Gordon Lewis to ensure nothing got too cartoony. Then, Anderson didn’t exactly get cold feet about going hog wild on the camp or the carnage, but he realized best interests suggested treating controversial themes with an eye toward earnestness instead of exploitation. Those second guesses and conflicting intentions create a tone so disoriented over which direction to take, the likeliest audience reaction is utter uncertainty over what to make of the movie.
The story starts with an abortion clinic bombing and the unexpected survival of a disfigured fetus whose termination is interrupted by the religiously-motivated blast. This is about as far from “safe” for a starting point as any holiday horror film can get, particularly one with a tongue of black comedy attempting to tickle its cheek.
20 years later, that fetus has grown into a mangled man named Cletus (groan), a cross between the Elephant Man and Belial from “Basket Case.” Cletus tracks down Diane, the woman who presumed him aborted, and finds his would-be mother celebrating Christmas with her extended family of bickering children and their assorted spouses. Diane’s fractured family gathering grows uneasier when she invites Cletus inside for some holiday hospitality only for him to spring the surprise that he is her long-lost, long-thought-dead son.
Her secret shame exposed, Diane clings to the longstanding lie that she only had a miscarriage those 20 years ago and the imposter in their midst is a liar. Cletus’ ass forcibly meets the lawn when he is swiftly thrown out the door, but his brother, sisters, uncle, mother, and in-laws have not seen the last of him. His rage triggered, Cletus later returns to the home after the tree is trimmed and the turkey is carved to do some sadistic slicing and deadly dicing of his own.
Not long into “Red Christmas,” I was confident it would be an irredeemable disaster. Dee Wallace is the only actor without an Australian accent, inspiring the question of how everyone else in her family ended up with one, including her brother. Early scenes include a drunken man pissing on another man, a pregnant woman smoking pot, and a minister spying on a brother-in-law having sex with his wife in the bathroom. Factor in that its Michael Myers is named Cletus because it rhymes with fetus, the film initially appears to be carelessly conceived for the sake of supposedly subversive snickers, and not something to be taken seriously.
As uncomfortable as the subject matter can be to confront, the film is just as unpleasant to look at. Haphazard camerawork with an obnoxious aversion to using a tripod appears shaky from rushed setups as opposed to an intentional aesthetic choice. And you certainly don’t need this sentence to tell you the movie was shot digitally on a low-end camera. Christmas light bulbs burn with an ugly, VHS video haze. Unmotivated colors drench one side of scenery while unbalanced contrast obfuscates the other in muddied darkness.
If it weren’t for genre giant Dee Wallace’s presence as Diane, “Red Christmas” might not appear like a professional production at all. There may be no better actress in horror as capable of playing the go-to mother figure with such an impressive range of warmhearted sweetness, frightening furtiveness, and fierce resolve. Wallace changes the cheap feel by keeping “Red Christmas” anchored in some sort of sincerity even when gushing blood sprays, taboo topics, or other actors go off the rails.
Director Craig Anderson knows what he has in Wallace, yet the smart way he utilizes her actually adds credibility to the notion that when its assets are regarded respectfully, the film fights against its nature to be a satirical splatterfest. When Anderson rears in the reins of offensiveness and low-rent atmosphere to go for straight thrills with a streak of social commentary, “Red Christmas” is exposed as the usual slog of hide and seek horror where victims have their heads ventilated via ax, appliance, or bear trap one at a time.
Handled differently, “Red Christmas” is a workable idea for an EC Comics-inspired revenge slasher. Challenging concepts involving unwanted pregnancies, dealing with Down syndrome, and the stress of dysfunctional family dynamics make for unconventional entertainment, though potentially thought-provoking material to frame within a fright film.
However, a misplaced undercurrent of comedy combined with a low-budget look leaves “Red Christmas” off the list of perennial Xmas classics like “Gremlins,” “Krampus” (review here), or either edition of “Black Christmas” (reviews here and here). As far as Christmas chills go, “Red Christmas” doesn’t even rank alongside any of the “Silent Night, Deadly Night” sequels, even if it has slightly more substance stowed away inside its goofy, gory core.
Review Score: 50