By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 21, 2018
Released Oct. 17, 2017
Unrated (equal to rated NC-17 for graphic violence & gore, strong thematic content, language, and brief nudity) – 1hr 22min
Directed by Craig Anderson
Starring Dee Wallace, Geoff Morrell, Janis McGavin, Gerard O’Dwyer
Diane (Wallace) has gathered her bickering and quarrelsome family together for Christmas when an unexpected and previously unknown relative arrives at the front door. Disbelieved, rejected, and literally thrown out the front door, the spurned man opts to seek revenge, besieging the home in a blood-soaked night of terror.
Red Christmas is a cold sober serious Grand Guignol drama that tackles extremely heavy themes and uncomfortable subjects while also being a schlocky splatter fest that approaches its chosen material with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Yes, those are indeed two opposite things.
The opening line of Red Christmas is ‘Abortion is a huge issue on both sides.’ The film then proceeds to depict the bombing of an abortion clinic, with the culprit successfully escaping, but not before rescuing a still-living fetus in a biohazard bucket from a procedure interrupted by his deed. The opening credits then show in montage the surviving child enduring a physically abusive and religiously pious upbringing by his savior, the theocratic terrorist. If the movie has said anything loudly and clearly at this point, it’s that it isn’t here to mess around.
That’s why it’s so baffling when Red Christmas does, in fact, choose to mess around. For starters, the name of the tragic antagonist of the film is Cletus. Cletus the Fetus. As a joke, it’s about as subtle as a brick to the head. In appearance, he shambles around in an almost comical fashion, adorned in a black cloak and hastily wrapped bandages that makes one wonder how he’s even able to see, let alone be capable of stealthy attack – honestly, he seems much better suited as a character conceived for an edgy sketch show that traffics in tasteless humor. As a crescendo to the utter ridiculousness surrounding this villain, his big reveal has him resembling a certain cartoon chihuahua from a popular ’90s Nickelodeon show. Cletus would be a perfect match for the unapologetic take-no-prisoners irreverence of the Troma catalogue – that is, if it wasn’t for the rest of the film surrounding him.
“STIMPY! YOU EEEEEDIOT!!!”
There’s a vastly different and diametrically opposed set of dynamics at play throughout Red Christmas whereupon Cletus once more becomes a clumsy intruder. Before his arrival, it is a very straight-laced, if maybe somewhat quirky, portrayal of a dysfunctional family struggling to come to grips with the widowed mother’s decision to sell the home that the now-adult children grew up in. Afterward, when dealing with the aftermath of each murderous attack, it is a high-caliber tragedy, highlighting the trauma of each progressive death while posing troubling and thought-provoking questions about abortion, religion, mental disability, personal responsibility, and parenthood and not pretending as if any of them have clean and simple answers. Make no mistake – at the times when this film hits its stride, it’s uncomfortably powerful and powerfully uncomfortable – that is, until Cletus comes bumbling back into the picture, which generally serves to suck the life out of the room (oh shit – did I just make a pun?)
Maybe if you lie down and prop your feet up on something, that’ll help stop the bleeding. Trust me – I earned a first aid merit badge when I was a kid.
Like many low budget efforts, the acting tends to be uneven, but it needs to be said that Dee Wallace straight up delivers a tour de force here that frankly deserved a better – or at least, more consistent – movie in which to shine. She provides Diane with a fascinating complexity – a woman who truly has given much for her family, only to be second-guessed, guilted, and then ultimately subjected to the cruelest of emotional gauntlets, all for decisions that dare to take her needs into consideration for once. She portrays a true mom – a sweet and nurturing soul who hides a fierce warrior just beneath the surface who’s frankly had enough bullshit for one lifetime. She undergoes a metamorphosis each time one of her children are taken by the one she never wanted, ranging from shock, inner strength, despair, and ultimately, pure animalistic rage. Honestly, it’s a pretty amazing performance and I must admit that I forgot what she was capable of.
She’s not alone in this regard either. Gerard O’Dwyer as Jerry is something of a revelation. Early in the proceedings, as the adult son with Down syndrome – whereas O’Dwyer likewise has the condition – Jerry enjoys reciting Shakespeare and has to intervene as mediator into his sisters Ginny and Suzy’s bitterly nasty arguments. Later, however, once the bloody chaos has begun, he is thrust into an existential crisis by some upsetting information that causes him to question everything he has known, and O’Dwyer brings such charm and gravitas to the role, his scenes tend to pack the most dramatic punch. Again, like with Wallace, his is a performance that deserved a more esteemed platform – one where absurd wackiness didn’t keep obliterating the atmosphere.
This is hardly the only questionable decision made throughout Red Christmas.
Now, despite all my slams against the peanut-butter-and-tuna-fish-sandwich tone that permeates Red Christmas, that is not to call writer/director Craig Anderson’s debut effort a failure. His first feature does include some inspired performances, stylish vision, and undoubtedly bold storytelling. I particularly enjoyed the use of Christmas lighting to produce an Argento-esque ambiance to many of the later scenes. It also occurred to me that many of the uproariously gory death sequences in his film carry with them a grueling subtext, in that they resemble numerous different abortion techniques. Now, it’s a whole other discussion as to how prevalent any of these more distressingly gruesome practices actually are – or whether they are still in use, or what context in which they are used, or to what extent the entire subject might be distorted by propaganda – but the sheer audacity on display in presenting a film where a man who survived an attempted abortion kills his mother’s family, one by one, incidentally using the very techniques of the procedure he improbably survived is absolutely jawdropping, or at least it would be if played straight.
To think of the movie that could have been if only the role of the antagonist had been approached with more grounded dignity as opposed to so much cartoonish goofiness – it speaks to a profound amount of potential that Anderson has as both a horror director and screenwriter. I hope he follows this up with something that is equally provocative, but does not offer any easy outs by allowing the audience to chuckle away the discomfort and tension so readily. This could have been an acutely powerful horror film that, without equivocation, confronted both sides of an extremely divisive social debate. Instead, it’s a hot mess that still succeeds in being challenging and outrageous, if not always in the manner that it seems to intend.
Red Christmas gets a rating of