Director: Joe Begos
Stars: Riley Dandy, Sam Delich, Abraham Benrubi
The Yuletide slasher is as much a holiday tradition as the festive romcom, dating back as far as the subgenre itself, really. Bob Clark’s Black Christmas even pre-dates the slasher boom and is seen now as one of the blueprints of the ‘work’ to come. And then there are naughty-list favourites like Silent Night, Deadly Night, Christmas Evil and even the OG Tales from the Crypt segment “All Through the House” in which Joan Collins dices with a demonic Santa.
There are a smattering of modern equivalents, but the bulk of the staples exist comfortably within the bracket of the ’70s/’80s heyday. Leave it to Shudder and the retro appreciation of Joe Begos (VFW, Bliss), then, to recapture its gaudy spirit on delirious 16mm.
One person who is already sick of the season is record store retail worker Tori (Riley Dandy), who’d much rather get drunk and laid with an erstwhile Tinder date now that the working day is finally over. Ready and willing to waylay Tori’s plans is her friend and co-worker Robbie (Sam Delich), who pops the cork on a whiskey bottle that the two then carry through the wintry night unaware of an improbable evil that is about to go on the rampage.
The barest bones of exposition come via disregarded TV news reports which warn of ex-military robot Santas (yes, really) that are breaking their programming and running amok. It’s an openly goofy premise, but part of the treat of Christmas Bloody Christmas is how seriously it takes its central conceit. This isn’t wink-wink nostalgia, even if Begos leans heavy into the video nasty grime and neon that have become the shorthand for ’80s imitation. In a mode similar to Damien Leone’s Terrifier movies, Begos doesn’t mine the ’80s for kitsch, but for lean sincerity.
He ekes plenty of action and genuine suspense out of his Terminator-in-a-Santa-suit (Abraham Benrubi), but even this can’t fully sustain an 87 minute running time. To wit, Tori and Robbie, who spend much of the first third of the picture spitting hipster opinions back and forth as liberally as expletives, necking back the whiskey and turning Tarantino-esque dialogue into heightened but (for the most part) naturalistic interplay. The both of them are plenty obnoxious – Dandy’s Tori wears this as a badge of honour – but these extensive ramblings engender character, a sense of honesty as opposed to archness, and the kind of audience connection rarely tended to in slasher fare. The point isn’t really which Metallica album sucks hardest, its the chemistry between Begos’ leads and our earned affection for them.
Tori may well split audiences but, for this viewer, Dandy’s performance is a sparky and appealing gem; the bow that buttons this shlocky Christmas treat. Tori is reminiscent of Dora Madison’s Dezzy from Begos’ Bliss – brash, sexually confident – but to a notably different register. Part riot grrl, part femme jock. Dandy goes with it, and the role further evidences Begos affection for women who are strong and capable. Robbie – lovelorn and hopeful, a Jeremy Davies type – can barely keep up, though Delich makes him plenty game.
When carnage is required, carnage comes, and Christmas Bloody Christmas gets as much mileage as it can out of its meagre budget. Begos and his effects team remain faithful to the aesthetics they’re aping. While this isn’t a period piece, we’re firmly in the milieu of dummies, practical effects and pulpy in-camera explosions. Both of fire and blood.
By modern popular standards, its a thin piece. Tori is afforded no traumatic backstory to make her night-long fight with Santa more personally compelling. She just hates Christmas, so this is just as to be expected. As is an emerging trend, Christmas Bloody Christmas rejects ‘elevation’ and embraces simplicity. It runs on a chaos engine. Shit happens because shit happens. As a result this one’s aiming to delight and terrorise and the directness of that is readily enjoyable.
When it comes down to and embraces the Final Girl routine, it’s established a plucky heroine and a daft but ultimately effective nemesis. Begos plays the “it’s not dead yet” card over and over, mimicking a stand-up comedian’s ploy, only here the repetition registers dread with each laugh. It may be on-the-nose with its Terminator references, but that’s perfectly inline with the sense of overwhelming influence James Cameron’s sci-fi horror had on its era. Come the final showdown, video nasty VHS tapes are literally raining down on Tori and her foe.
Given that it opens with a succession of clipped fake adverts, Christmas Bloody Christmas openly recalls the Grindhouse double feature. The 16mm shooting gives it a thick, scuzzy, earthen vibe that means it succeeds aesthetically where many have failed. In fact, pull Planet Terror out of that double bill and replace it with this, and you’d be solid. As it is, for this viewer at least, I could stand to revisit this once a year as the season greets us. And if you’re torn between this and Universal’s sticky bauble Violent Night? Well, it’s a no-brainer.
Ho ho ho.