Microbudget slasher movies from unknown filmmakers have always been ten-a-penny, and in the DV age they’re arguably all the more innumerable. Adding a recognised genre star always goes a long way to lifting such a film above the quagmire. Also, it never hurts to set your film on an annual holiday; all being well it might wind up making list articles as a perennial favourite. Australian writer-director Craig Anderson (making his feature debut, with numerous shorts and TV credits under his belt) has taken just this approach by enlisting Dee Wallace – star of some cult horror favourites (such as The Howling, recently re-released on Blu-ray), and one inarguable all-time classic (Critters, obviously; oh yeah, and that one ET) – to take the lead role in Red Christmas. However, while the holiday angle and the horror icon are all well and good, there’s also the small matter of whether the central concept is worth a damn, and whether the filmmakers have the means and the know-how to successfully pull it off; and here, Red Christmas falls short by a wide margin.
Wallace is Diane, a recent widow bringing her grown children – three daughters, a son and two husbands – back together for one last Christmas in the family home before she sells it and moves on. This is the cause of some tension between her children; but whatever grievances they may have, these pale in comparison to those of the troubled, hooded stranger named Cletus who unexpectedly arrives on their doorstep on Christmas Day. Wishing to be hospitable, Diane allows the stranger into the home, but his increasingly unnerving words and actions soon lead them to throw him out. But of course, this isn’t the last they’ll see of Cletus, who has one specific gift to give them all: bloody vengeance.
Australia has a rich history for sleazy trash cinema (‘Ozploitation,’ don’t you know), so it’s fitting that Red Christmas should go out of its way to live up to this heritage by means of some rather provocative subject matter. The film deals directly with abortion: the prologue centres on one such procedure which goes wrong, and it isn’t giving too much away to reveal that the aborted fetus somehow lives to become the killer Cletus (why yes, that is a rhyming joke). The film also deals directly with disability, as one of Wallace’s children (played by Gerard O’Dwyer) has Down syndrome, and it is suggested the killer may also. Then there’s the fact that one of Wallace’s daughters is nine months pregnant, which inevitably raises questions of just how far this particular sleazy horror flick is prepared to go. It’s an awkward balance, and one which Red Christmas all in all fails to get right. In aesthetic and basic concept, it seems to aspire to the fun slashers, but as things get pushed in a grimmer direction it all feels rather misjudged.
Then, of course, there’s the simple fact that Red Christmas is just not particularly well made. I was rather flabbergasted by a PR email quoting a review that calls this one of the most beautifully shot horror films since Suspiria, as the cinematography here really isn’t anything to write home about. While the use of bright coloured lighting is certainly striking, it’s hardly unprecedented – that same 80s-aping aesthetic is in evidence all over the place in recent years – and it does nothing to detract from how ugly the DV looks, particularly in the over-abundance of home movie-esque handheld shots. Nor are the performances of a particularly high standard; sure, no one completely shames themselves, and Wallace in particular is doing her best to make the most of what aims to be a pretty complex role, but none of it manages to make Red Christmas anything special.
I expect its lurid tone and content, plus that inevitable weakness for Christmas-set horror movies, will go some way to ensuring Red Christmas finds a larger audience than most ultra-low budget indie slashers. To my mind, however, there’s almost nothing here to make the film memorable, endearing or in any way worthy of revisiting.
Red Christmas is available in the US on Blu-ray, DVD and on demand platforms on 17th October, from Artsploitation Films.