Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, December 10, 2018

NO ENCORES: Don't Open Till Christmas (1984)

1. Don't Open Till Christmas (1984)
Director: Edmund Purdom

Another reason Christmas horror movies are so common is that the holiday, perhaps more than any other American celebration, is loaded with well known iconography. Not only does subverting these images make for easy shock value but it never hurts to have a globally recognized symbol you can stick on your movie poster. In other words, there are a bunch of killer Santa Claus movies. Even by the early eighties, it had been done before. Which may be why Dick Randall, producer of sleazy weirdness like “Pieces” and “Slaughter High,” thought flipping the script might be a worthy idea. “Don't Open Till Christmas” is a film where Santa Claus is not the killer but the victim. It is also the sole directorial credit of star Edmund Purdom, a character actor who appeared in dozens of European genre films.

It's a week before Christmas and creatures are stirring on the streets of London. Some scrooge is murdering Santa Clauses. At a Christmas party, Kate and her friend Cliff witness her dad – dressed as Father Christmas – get speared through the head. Inspector Harris from Scotland Yard is on the case. Harris himself receives a gift, instructing him not to open it until Christmas, which is linked to mysteries in his own past. Kate and Cliff investigate the case themselves. Yet will any of them be able to stop the yuletide massacre? Will Santas ever be safe again?

I've heard mostly negative things about “Don't Open till Christmas,” so I was surprised to find the film establishing an eerie tone from its opening minutes. The opening credits are presented against the image of a melting Santa candle, which establishes the unwholesome mood. That first scene – a necking couple in a car being murdered by a point-of-view killer – is stock-parts slasher movie. Yet the throbbing synth music, darkly lit street, and heavy breathing killer makes for a spooky combination. The film is also focused just as much on chase scenes as gory murder sequences. A really weird scene has a Santa being chased through a wax museum house of horror, the creepy location being excellently utilized. Later, another Santa is chased by the billhook-wielding killer through the backstage of a theater. The scene is rather impressively edited to Caroline Munro, as herself, singing on-stage. While never exactly scary, the film does understand the basic building blocks of generating on-screen tension.

With its focus on police detectives and a largely unseen killer wielding a straight razor, it's almost a giallo. The sleazy atmosphere, which includes a nude woman being threatened and peep show being a plot point, certainly feels similar to one of the groddier Italian thrillers. Yet its slasher elements are clear. The killer also wears a mask, a translucent plastic face that creepily accentuates his eyes and smile. The murder scenes, meanwhile, are frequent and gory. Santa-related violence includes gut stabbings, throat slashings, eye gougings, impalements, and face bashing. The killer employs numerous bladed instruments, a spear, a gun, brass knuckles, and even a hot grill to off his red-suited victims. The most disturbing death involves a portly Santa being castrated at an urinal, blood spurting onto the porcelain. There's a definite in-your-face intensity to the deaths. 

As a mystery, “Don't Open till Christmas” works less consistently. The film presents a number of red herrings: A sleazy tabloid reporter, a nudie photographer. Even the homicide detectives themselves come off as somewhat suspicious. The viewer does wonder which one of these could be the killer but mostly because the actual investigating is fairly uninteresting. What sleuthing that does occur is primarily delivered through expository dialogue. Yet when the reveal of the killer's identity comes, it's paired with a genuinely surprising event. “Don't Open till Christmas” ends on a very grim note.

As the killings continue, one of the detectives note that Santa Claus is practically a religious figure, especially to kids. “Don't Open till Christmas” seems relish in the disconnect between Santa as the ultimate wholesome figure and the very flawed men who play him. Most of the murdered Santas commit some sin before being offed. They are drunk and disorderly, fuck their girlfriends, oogle women, visit peep shows, flick the bird, deal drugs, swear and smoke. Most of this is relatively normal, if somewhat sleazy, behavior. Yet it's not the kind of stuff Santa Claus is supposed to do. Of course, the origin of the killer's psychosis is tied directly in with this idea. It's an interesting concept “Don't Open till Christmas” forgets about for long stretches of its run time and doesn't do nearly enough with.

The film's cast is all over the place. Purdom does a decent job as a detective who has been left cynical by all the horrors he's seen on the job. Belinda Mayne is mildly interesting as Kate, the closest thing the film has to a proper protagonist. As her quasi-boyfriend, Gerry Sundquist is somewhat annoying. Alan Lake, who committed suicide before the film was released, has a sweaty uneasiness that suits his role. Kelly Baker rather randomly assumes the role of final girl near the end but proves likable enough. The most amusing thing about the credits is the number of Santa variants listed there. Where else will you see characters named “Dungeon Santa” or “Drunken Santa?”

It's not hard to figure out why Edmund Purdom never directed another movie. He only agreed to appear in the film if he could direct it. Production, however, was hectic. Purdom quit before production ended. Sexploitation veteran Derek Ford took over for two days before editor Ray Selfe was brought in. (Ford's involvement certainly explains the gratuitous nudity.) Purdom, ultimately, returned to finish the film. Constantly changing hands caused production to roll on for two years, the movie being almost entirely re-shot. Considering this, it's amazing that “Don't Open till Christmas” works nearly as well as it does, even with a messy last act. Ultimately, I found the film fairly effective. The combination of grisly violence, gritty atmosphere, and twisted holiday glee makes for a decently entertaining time. [7/10]

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