Red Christmas

By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 21, 2018

STREAMING BANNER 2
NETFLIX
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


WHAT IT IS XMAS
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.


WHAT IT DOES XMAS
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.


HOW IT DOES XMAS
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.


AppleMark

“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?)


RED CHRISTMAS INNER 2

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.


RED CHRISTMAS INNER 3

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
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Pooka!

By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 19, 2018

STREAMING BANNER 2
HULU
Released Dec. 7, 2018
TV-MA – 1hr 23min
Directed by Nacho Vigalondo
Starring Nyasha Hatendi, Latarsha Rose, Jon Daly, Dale Dickey


WHAT IT IS XMAS
Struggling actor Wilson (Hatendi) takes a job as the corporate mascot for the year’s most wanted Christmas toy – Pooka. As the holiday season stretches on, he begins to lose himself in the role, until it becomes difficult to tell whether he is Pooka…or Pooka is him.


WHAT IT DOES XMAS
Pooka! is a clever and atmospheric reality-bender that details a man’s descent into madness as he loses control over his life while his worst tendencies are poured into the toy character he portrays. By design, it grows increasingly difficult to tell when things occurred or if they even happened, yet all the disjointed elements begin to converge neatly upon its conclusion.


HOW IT DOES XMAS
Pooka! is not actually a standalone film, but the third monthly episode of Hulu & Blumhouse’s ongoing anthology series Into the Dark, which is a collection of unrelated feature-length films…? I understand that The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, and Masters of Horror – among similar anthology shows – also had unconnected episodes, but none of them could have existed independently in their finished forms as full movies like these installments could. Into the Dark is bound together though by the thinnest of premises, in that each film is released at the time of year to which its plot coincides, but that now means that each one will likely be compared to the proceeding chapters, no matter how irrelevant the connection. I prefer to judge this on its own merits, so from here on, I’m going to act as if the series concept doesn’t even exist.


POOKA INNER 2

“Yeah, sure – we can sell these to kids. Those little idiots buy whatever – it doesn’t matter. Lunch?”


With that out of the way, it’s time to talk Pooka! It can be quite difficult to manufacture an iconic character, and that endeavor might be the common thread between horror creators and toymakers. It takes the right blend of appearance, presence, presentation, and premise to make something that’s both instantly attention-grabbing and truly memorable. Would Freddy Kruger be so noteworthy without Robert Englund’s performance or his bladed glove? Jason Voorhees didn’t really hit his stride until stumbling upon his trademark hockey mask in his franchise’s third entry. So, does Pooka capture that kind of magic? For the most part, yes.

Like a toy at the center of a horror story should, Pooka possesses that prime middle ground between adorable and grotesque – cute and cuddly, but with big dead headlamp eyes. In miniature, it resembles the unintentionally creepy Furby, with its soul-piercing stare and illusion of sentience, but blown up to mascot-size, it acquires the looming menace of something like Freddy Fazbear from the Five Nights at Freddy’s games. You could guess at a glance that this uncanny monstrosity would be primed to steal the show, and while it does fill the antagonist role nicely, all the other elements of Pooka! round out the movie into an experience beyond a simple killer toy.

Director Nacho Vigalondo doesn’t have the deepest filmography – Colossal, Timecrimes, Open Windows, and his Oscar-nominated short film 7:35 in the Morning are the standouts in a 20-year career short on feature-length efforts – but he has developed a reputation for playing with the narrative constructs of time and place in a satisfyingly bewildering manner that he only builds upon with Pooka! Protagonist Wilson often finds himself disjointed out of sequence between what he’s doing and where he is versus the things he does while inhabiting the increasingly malevolent being of Pooka, to the extent that he begins to have actual confrontations with the destructive beast, until they are finally no longer one and the same. It’s an enthralling thing to watch, and Vigalondo elevates the material through his craft. Working on a limited budget, he conveys all this mind-bending and reality-warping through classical techniques of unnatural lighting, creative framing, and use of non-Euclidian geometry, and it makes for a stylishly standout film.


POOKA INNER 1

*rolls up newspaper* Now that’s a bad Pooka! Bad! *hits with newspaper, loses arm*


That would count for far less if not for the acting, and Nyasha Hatendi really nails it as a man coming unglued just as his life is coming together. Even in his calm moments, there’s a maelstrom of volatile and potentially destructive emotions that exist just beneath the veneer of Wilson, and Hatendi balances these elements just right to keep him sympathetic yet unnerving throughout. There’s just no telling what he might be capable of as he spills more of his dark side into the looming body of Pooka, and that generates the suspense that carries the film. The supporting roles are not to be overlooked either, as they convincingly form the rest of the narrative world that Wilson seems positioned to shatter – Latarsha Rose standing out as the woman unfortunate enough to catch Wilson’s eye just before his head-first plummet into madness.

If anything disappoints, Pooka! could have used more money to truly refine the movie further. At times, it looks like it was shot for the small screen when it had numerous big screen moments to share. Whether it could have made any money as a theatrical release, I couldn’t say with certainty – it would have definitely been a risk – but it might have been a risk worth taking. With more budget, a longer shooting schedule, and better filming equipment, Pooka would have only gotten better. As it stands, it feels more like a modern, feature-length, classic episode of Tales from the Darkside, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Pooka! gets a rating of
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On the Radar – Secret Santa

By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 18, 2018

ON THE RADAR LOGO XMAS

Part of the magic of the holidays is coming together, spending time, and sharing food & presents with those we love. That’s a thing we like to think, right? In an effort to idealize a season that we’ve laden heavily with expectations and romanticized notions, many actually experience a sharp spike in anxiety when confronted with the prospect of buying the right gifts, preparing the perfect meal, arranging the most elaborate decorations, or enduring awkward and cringe-inducing gatherings with barely tolerated relatives. What if all that self-inflicted stress, those delusional ambitions, and repressed passive-aggressive loathing boiled over into an unrestrained orgy of blood-letting and brutality? Secret Santa would be the result.


ON THE RADAR SECRET SANTA INNER 1

When it’s three hours into Christmas dinner and your relatives are giving you that ‘drop the weapon’ look, it’s time to lay off the eggnog.


The Pope family, well-monied from their involvement in the pharmaceutical industry, have assembled for their annual Christmas party, and for the most part, dislike each other rather thoroughly. The over-bearing matriarch, her acid-spitting first husband, the offensive uncle, the horndog half-brother, his stripper girlfriend, the secretly cruel and conniving sister, the depressed one – they’re an upper-class white American potpourri basket. While they’re generally able to trudge their ways through the yearly ritual, not so much this time, as someone has spiked the punch bowl with a little something from the family business – an experimental military-grade truth serum that will have everyone speaking their unfiltered minds. However, this descends into chaotic savagery, as the waspish clan is no longer able to resist their darkest impulses either.


ON THE RADAR SECRET SANTA INNER 2

“I told you a juicer was a terrible gift idea, Susan. Now look what happened…”


Director Adam Marcus and co-star Debra Sullivan have received praise for penning a script that doesn’t hold back, full of razor-sharp wit, outrageous offensiveness, and loads of vicious violence. The plentiful gore is offered up by legendary SFX artist and co-producer Robert Kurtzman, whose work includes From Dusk Till Dawn, Scream, It Follows, and numerous entries in the Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw, Halloween, and Evil Dead franchises. This also marks the first horror film by Adam Marcus since his debut 25 years ago – the absolutely bonkers and super-divisive Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday.

I’ve personally always liked that much-reviled movie for all its irreverent, splattery, and batshit crazy charm, so I’m extremely curious to see what a quarter century of experience has brought to the guy who delivered the fever dream entry of the Friday the 13th series. Secret Santa has already been released in the UK by the Frightfest Presents label, and there, it has so far proven to be a love-or-hate experience too, but I suppose that’s always better than audiences responding with a collective shoulder shrug. Word on an American release has proven to be confusing, at best. While there’s no announcements from any official outlets, IMDb states its US date as today, and have seen that reflected elsewhere, but without any solid confirmations. Considering that, sometimes, films are dropped on VOD or streaming with less fanfare than a trip to the grocery store, it’s not impossible, but probably unlikely. Either way, as I’m eager to watch this, that would be preferable to having to wait another year to see it, which is also possible.


In other On the Radar news, the red-band trailer for previous feature Braid was released several days ago. Here it is:



On the Radar



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Saint

By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 17, 2018

STREAMING BANNER 2
HULU
Released Dec. 18, 2011
Language: Dutch
Unrated (equal to rated R for graphic violence, language, and brief nudity) – 1hr 25min
Directed by Dick Maas
Starring Egbert Jan Weeber, Caro Lenssen, Bert Luppes


WHAT IT IS XMAS
Saint Nicholas was actually an evil guy, and was finally taken down by angry villagers who had enough of him and his gang’s rampaging. So, every time a full moon falls on the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas – December 5th – he and his murderous ruffians, the Black Peters, return from the grave to go on a killing frenzy.


WHAT IT DOES XMAS
While it’s not quite splatterstick – the distinct brand of deliriously sick displays of absurd violence best represented by Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 and Peter Jackson’s Braindead (Dead Alive), Saint is not far off. It balances its goofy charm with an alternately serious approach that generally works. Yet, it’s important to note that this is an unmistakably Dutch creation.


HOW IT DOES XMAS
Saint was one of two European evil Santa movies released in 2010, but the American release was delayed a year, presumably not to compete for a limited market with Finland’s Rare Exports, which is almost inarguably the superior of the two movies. At a glance though, the Dutch iteration does appear the more interesting of the two, promising a blood-soaked high-energy experience with a supernatural zombie Santa cutting a swath of destruction through the streets of Amsterdam compared to the more desolate and brooding atmosphere of the Finnish film. However, that’s not entirely how it plays out.


SAINT INNER 1

The mall Santa took some questionable liberties with his costume this year.


When Saint does set its sickle upon action, that’s when it shines brightest. The main protagonist’s first meeting with St. Nick and his band of Yuletide slayers, who dispatch his buddies in brutal fashion before he makes a narrow escape, is a particularly stand-out scene. The highlight of the movie, which honestly makes any of its shortcomings forgivable, is a police chase of Zombie Santa as he navigates his horse (he rides horseback in Dutch tradition) along the rooftops of a city neighborhood that ends in a spectacularly unlikely manner – it truly is as awesome as it sounds. There’s several more neat moments like this throughout, and they’re satisfying when they arrive, but what’s in between leaves a lot to be desired.

First, despite nailing the look, the titular villain falls somewhat flat in screen presence. That key moment needed to really infuse his character’s moments with dread just never arrives. It could be because Saint is tonally all over the place – not comedic enough for proper parody or scary enough for effective horror, its elements only partially blend together and it’s noticeable. The pace is likewise up-and-down, as every time St. Nick and the Black Peters (which is probably the name of a rock band that played Glasgow nightclubs in the ’80s) made their escape, the movie slowed to a crawl.


SAINT INNER 2

“Look, I’m just the guy’s ghost horse. I consider myself blameless in all this.”


That leaves us with a bevy of underdeveloped characters – the grizzled police detective that survived Killer Santa as a child and no one believes, the handsome young bloke wrongfully arrested for the murders so that he can be in the right place at the right time to become an accidental hero, his pretty girlfriend who is pretty and his girlfriend, grizzled police detective #2, etc. – and their uninteresting goings-on. It can be a slog watching the protagonists piece together a mystery that the audience already knows in its absolute entirety, and it feels like the runtime padding that it is. One last point of contention, however, is not to be held against the movie, but could concern a prospective viewer all the same – this movie is very Dutch. Never mind that the premise itself centers upon specifically Dutch holiday traditions, there is a number of presumed jokes involving Dutch cultural references that flew so far over my head, they might qualify as being in orbit. Again, that’s not a critique of the film – American movies do this often with no consideration for international audiences, especially with comedy – but it is a component that is lost for those of us on the opposite side of the Atlantic, and likely most outside of The Netherlands in general.

In all, Saint is a fitfully fun but rather unmemorable Christmas horror flick. It’s worth a watch for anyone looking to break up the more sugary holiday offerings with some zany bloodshed, but it’s not much of a prime candidate for annual revisits. Except the rooftop chase scene – that was exceedingly cool.

Saint gets a rating of
DECENT ICON

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Better Watch Out

By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 16, 2018

STREAMING BANNER 2
SHUDDERHOOPLA
Released Oct. 6, 2017
Rated R – 1hr 29min
Directed by Chris Peckover
Starring Olivia DeJonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould, Virginia Madsen, Patrick Warburton


WHAT IT IS XMAS
Bickering, over-protective parents Robert and Deandra (Warburton & Madsen) leave their 12-year-old son Luke (Miller) in the care of his longtime babysitter Ashley (DeJonge) as they head off to a Christmas party. The maturing lad has developed romantic feelings for the young woman, but as he awkwardly attempts to make a move, an unexpected guest makes a move of their own.


WHAT IT DOES XMAS
Better Watch Out is a home invasion psychological thriller with big twists to the classic formula that is, in turns, darkly comic and relentlessly sadistic. It also happens to take place during the Christmas season.


HOW IT DOES XMAS
It’s now easy to see why Better Watch Out – with its high production value, novel concept, and cast of both up-and-comers and established names – would get such a low-profile release around…Halloween? Ok – that part I don’t get, but the rest of it became quite obvious. This would be an impossible movie to market. The less you know about it, the better, and it’s obviously difficult to put butts in theater seats without letting the people those butts belong to know exactly what they’re in for. Instead, it’s something meant to be stumbled upon – to be approached blindly, and as such, that also makes it difficult to present a spoiler-free review, but here it goes.


CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 75

In an effort to be as spoiler-less as possible, what would have been an image from the film has been replaced by a doubtlessly miserable cat in a Santa hat.


Better Watch Out is a movie that delights in its twists, each one with darker implications than the one proceeding it, and like the earlier works of M. Night Shymalan, each one threatens to lose the viewer if they’re not willing to accept it (interesting note: this film reunites Olivia DeJonge & Ed Oxenbould, the two young leads of Shymalan’s The Visit). Whether it be from a logical bridge too far or from sheer disgust at the unexpectedly and increasingly sadistic offerings, it’s guaranteed to polarize and alienate. It’s not even particularly gory – what violence there is generally occurs off-camera or from obscured angles and aftermaths shown in the background – nor does it fixate on physical torture, with the bloodshed occurring in quick and sudden bursts. Instead, the focus is upon the mechanizations of a psychopath, who prefers to toy with minds and manipulate emotions before launching into the next insidious phase of their cruel campaign. While that particular story has been told numerous times before, there’s still plenty of surprises to be had throughout this one.


BETTER WATCH OUT INNER 2

You can’t eat a Christmas tree, you adorable little idiot.


Director-cowriter Chris Peckover orchestrates all of this holiday havoc with a sure and confident approach. While not ambitiously stylish, the framing and camerawork are used creatively to capture the escalating descent into mayhem. Along with his only other feature, 2011’s Undocumented – a politically-charged ‘torture porn’ effort – it’s apparent that he specializes in highlighting realistic motivations for displays of human depravity. While the scope of Better Watch Out is the smaller of the two, it does allow for a greater examination into a dangerously troubled mind. We also get compelling performances from all the young leads, as they convincingly convey new dynamics in their characters with each progressive narrative leap.

This is, however, a Christmas movie only on a surface level. There’s lots of imagery and music therein to remind us that it is, in fact, very much Christmastime, but that fact has only the most incidental of effects on the plot. I am a member of the ‘Yes, Die Hard is a Christmas movie’ club though, so I must rule in favor of this movie’s holiday credentials. So, if you’re in the mood for a maniac movie this Yuletide season that places psychological menace over gruesome visuals and doesn’t feature a killer Santa, then this might be just what you’re looking for, provided you’re willing to go along with it. I can’t stress enough that it’s best to know as little as possible beforehand, so avoid the trailer, stay off the IMDb page, and you’ll be set.

More often than usual, results will vary wildly depending on preferences and expectations, but from me, Better Watch Out gets a rating of
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