The condemned: Red Christmas
The plot: This is easily the most confusing Australian pro-life Christmas horror movie ever made. While it may also be the only Australian pro-life Christmas horror movie ever made, that doesn’t change the fact that this is one deeply strange film. Despite a simple plot, the movie’s themes and politics are a total mess, to the point where I am more unsure now about what the writer-director was trying to say than when I finished watching it. Normally when assessing horror, a fairly reliable tactic is to remove the “horror” element from the film, and whatever’s left is what the movie is really about. But remove the killer/abortion survivor from this movie, and all you have left is a tangled web of conflicting motives—and not in the “What a rich and complex drama!” way.
Here are all the plot contours you need to know: The movie opens with a montage of pro-life protestors, featuring voice-over snippets of propaganda like “There are no arguments: You are terminating a human life.” Cut to a frantic montage of an abortion clinic being bombed mid-procedure. As the mom is rushed to safety, we see the bucket in which the fetus was disposed, with a tiny little hand (or what’s presumably meant to be a tiny fetus hand; it looks like a large, lanky hand, possibly of a P.A. who drew the short straw) reaching out of it, and a man ducking in to save it.
You can pretty much guess where this is going. Cut to 20 years later, where we see a retired mom, Diane (Dee Wallace), preparing a meal with her son and daughter to welcome her older children for Christmas dinner. Two older daughters, respective husbands in tow, arrive at the house to celebrate the holidays, greeted as well by genial Uncle Joe (Geoff Morrell). But in the middle of opening presents, a bandaged and robed man named Cletus (Sam Campbell) arrives and begins reading a letter addressed to “Mother,” forgiving her for trying to abort him years ago. The family gets understandably upset and throws the guy out with plenty of unnecessary violence. He gets pissed and comes back to enact bloody revenge on the family and thereby make his mother pay for her heartless pro-choice ways.
Over-the-top box copy: Pretty good, actually: “The only thing under the tree is terror.” I’m amazed that this hadn’t already been trademarked by some earlier Yuletide horror film. Given that wordplay, it was a bit surprising the script didn’t lean further into the dunderheaded ridiculousness of it all. “Plan C: Murder!” would also have been acceptable box copy.
The descent: Everything about the movie suggests this was a genuine labor of love from first-time horror writer-director Craig Anderson, who had previously helmed only shorts and television work in Australia, largely comedy and/or reality TV. There seems to be an entire documentary, Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare, that recounts the making of Red Christmas. The trailer conveys the distinct impression of a good-natured cinephile desperate to make a movie, the kind of sell-your-plasma-to-pay-for-the-equipment underdog story that it’s easy to rally behind.
Bizarrely, the film wants to play the issue of abortion deadly serious, with Anderson saying it was very important to him to have both sides represented in the movie. Which… doesn’t really hold together when you have a movie about a vengeful failed abortion. The scene with the procedure itself is already patently ridiculous, given that that is not how abortions work, but it’s fascinating that a director eager to make a bloody horror movie based on an absurdist premise wanted to be respectful of the debate. Not only that, but in real life, he seems to be firmly pro-choice (this is stressed in multiple behind-the-scenes features and press interviews). Abortion is readily available and legal in Australia (barring certain state-by-state restrictions) with the issue more settled than it is in the U.S., and while there’s nothing wrong with making a horror movie that makes cheap use of a hot-button topic to goose the audience—indeed, it’s a proud and time-tested tradition of low-budget horror—wanting to have his shock-value cake and the politically respectful eating of it, too, doesn’t really work.
Did I mention the killer also has Down syndrome? No? We’ll get to that.
The theoretically heavenly talent: Anderson’s big get, and part of the appeal of the title in the first place, is Dee Wallace, the mom from E.T. and horror icon thanks to her starring roles in films like The Hills Have Eyes, Cujo, Critters, Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake, and more. (Sure, she’s also been in plenty of garbage, but what longtime horror actor hasn’t?) She plays Diane, the mother, and tries single-handedly to hold the entire endeavor together through sheer grit. Wallace is nearly 70, but you wouldn’t know it from her performance here, where she runs, jumps, fights, and seems to do at least a good chunk of her own stunts in ways I can only assume American union regulations would frown upon. Delightfully, her family matriarch is the only person in the entire enterprise whose character doesn’t speak with an Australian accent.
The execution: The politics aren’t the only thing a little messy about Red Christmas. Whether a result of no money or just awkward planning, a number of camera shots here resemble the kind of “just set it down and try to get people in the frame” tactics applied in zero-budget run-and-gun filmmaking. Multiple times, a still shot finds people walking in and out of the scene, sometimes accompanied by edits where the same shot is intercut more than once with other moments to try and make it look less like a flat sequence.
Perhaps the most bizarre instance of this comes immediately following the first family murder, of Diane’s youngest daughter, Hope (Deelia Meriel). The pregnant daughter, Ginny (Janis McGavin), heads out to the lawn, where she discovers Hope’s corpse and emits a scream. Cut to: Son Jerry (Gerard O’Dwyer) attempting to put his shoes on, only to fall over, while the rest of the family, in painfully slow procession, steps over him to get outside and see what the screaming is about. If it’s meant to be played for laughs, it’s a tasteless one, given Jerry also has Down syndrome. But I don’t think it is, which makes it even weirder, a shuffling cortège devoid of any urgency, despite the youngest child having literally been split in two.
That’s an insane shot, but no more inexplicable than some of the other choices. During the opening credits, which actually feature a pretty decent Tangerine Dream ripoff, we see Cletus getting ready to make his bloody pilgrimage, and there’s a moment where the camera lingers on some explosives and a detonator he straps to his body. Does this come into play later on in any way? It does not. Similarly, Cletus kills the power to the home early on—only, he miraculously leaves just enough juice to keep all the Christmas lights on, despite the rest of the electricity being cut. How thoughtful! Oh, and a blender still has power, too, leading to the best kill of the film. I guess “cut the power” was replaced in the stage directions with “Cut, like, most of the power.”
Speaking of strange decisions, nearly every member of this family is a legit asshole. This is one of those tiresome horror experiences where almost all the characters treat each other like shit, constantly, for little reason. Pregnant sister Ginny smokes pot and drinks with abandon, presumably because she gives even less of a shit about her child’s life than she does about not ruining Christmas by screaming at her mother and/or sister every chance she gets, cycling through loyalties to different family members and character motivations like a Westerosi mercenary.
But don’t worry, because she gets one scene where she’s all smiles: When Ginny and her husband, Scott, get caught having sex in the laundry room by her spying brother-in-law (and reverend) Peter, she finds it hilarious, not upsetting. And when Uncle Joe busts Peter, does the shame-faced priest quickly return to the festivities? No, he shuts himself in a wardrobe in order to jerk off. You know, normal holiday stuff, from a character who it’s heavily implied is closeted. Not that anything comes from it narratively, as the script picks up and drops a good dozen or so character beats without explanation or integration into the plot. Diane, for example, is selling her house in part to give Susie money for fertility treatments, as she and Peter have been unable to conceive. Susie’s response: “God is all the treatment we need.” That… doesn’t make a lick of sense, Susie.
But all the really bananas stuff is saved for the main storyline. From the instant Cletus arrives at the house, people make inexplicable choices designed only to further the plot. If a robed, bandaged figure appeared at your doorstep on Christmas and read a letter forgiving you for a botched abortion, maybe the appropriate response shouldn’t entail trying to kill him.
Every time Cletus confronts them and tries to stop the violence (more than once, Cletus faces down Diane and asks if she loves him), someone shoots at him, or stabs him, or basically does their level best to keep the body count flowing. There’s a truly great moment when Diane, arguably the only one outside of pot-smoking Uncle Joe or Jerry with something resembling normal feelings and critical thinking skills, has gotten the remaining kids safely up the stairs and properly defended with a shotgun. She promptly turns around and starts heading back down. When asked where she’s going, Diane replies, “I’m going down to make sure it’s clear.” What? Your son-in-law just got an ax to the head and your brother Joe was strangled, Diane; I feel safe in suggesting it is not clear.
To the film’s credit, there are some cheerfully gory kills. Along with splitting Hope down the middle, the surprise ax-in-the-head to Scott is an unexpected treat, as is the best one of all, in which our pervert priest gets the back of his head blended into smithereens. Still, one of the best laugh-out-loud moments again goes to good, old Diane, who comes up with a decent plan to try and lure Cletus away while she fortifies the family’s position: Hide their cellphones throughout the property and then call them at random intervals, drawing Cletus to the sound and away from Diane. Only, Diane keeps her own phone, at which point this happens:
Strong problem-solving, Diane.
But ultimately, the politics of the film fly in the face of directorial intent. Regardless of not wanting to lambast either side, Anderson has made a movie in which the product of a failed abortion comes back to punish the woman for her “choice.” It doesn’t matter if you give Diane speeches about how it was the right decision for her at the time; your entire movie is structured around making her suffer. And suffer she does—the low point comes when she accidentally shoots and kills Jerry, thinking the noise in the hallway is Cletus.
Honestly, Jerry is the only character who gets a believably tragic arc, and it’s an unpleasant one based upon his all-too-real insecurities. Jerry overhears the news that Diane got rid of Cletus because she couldn’t handle a second child with Down syndrome, not after the death of her husband. Pointing a gun at his mother with tears in his eyes, he asks, “Do you want to kill me, too?” Yikes. That is serious and significant drama, and Red Christmas is wholly unequipped to deal with it in any way. Its attempts at dramatic stakes are unearned among the shrieking murders and bear traps over people’s heads. O’Dwyer, the actor who plays Jerry, sells his part of it quite well, but it’s like he’s been teleported in from a completely different movie, one where serious family drama is afoot. Instead, he’s up against a deranged abortion survivor whose eventual unmasking reveals a rubber mutant head not unlike the baby from It’s Alive all grown up, or possibly the spawn of a C.H.U.D. and Sloth from The Goonies.
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Honestly, this movie has a decent shot of enduring as a low-budget horror curio. It’s so deeply strange, both in politics and execution, and I can honestly say that while there are a lot of films like it in quality, none have the bonkers revenge-of-the-aborted angle, and certainly none possess an actor with Down syndrome giving the only soulful performance in the film. Apparently, the rest of the cast are fairly well-known comedic actors from Australia; presumably they thought it’d be a cack to shoot. So kudos, Red Christmas: There is no other film quite like you. Horror diehards will find much here to fascinate them.
Damnable commentary track or special features? I haven’t had an opportunity to watch the making-of doc, as it’s not widely available yet, but the Blu-ray boasts a number of bonus features. There’s an interview with O’Dwyer, who plays Jerry, and has some insights as to what he found interesting about his character and the movie as a whole; there’s a blooper reel, which is largely (and weirdly) blooper-free; a “deleted scene” that is actually two, neither more than a dozen seconds or so and neither contributing anything to the film; and a good-natured improvisational interview where O’Dwyer questions Anderson. The commentary track is genial and self-effacing on Anderson’s part, featuring him and O’Dwyer reminiscing on shooting, in which both come across as immensely likable. But the final bonus feature—a subsequent on-camera interview with star Dee Wallace—begins with a still image explaining Craig Anderson’s method of filming, and it’s awfully revealing: