Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Don't Open Till Christmas (1984): or, Die Santa Die!

I've gone on record before as saying that I generally just don't "get" the appeal of the Killer Santa movie. I mean, I get the whole "twisting something innocent and childish into something dark and wrong" thing. I can appreciate the fact that Silent Night, Deadly Night got a lot of squares bent out of shape when it came out in 1984, and the idea of people picketing a slasher flick because the killer dresses as Santa does give me a little bit of holiday cheer. (Come on folks, we're not saying he WAS Santa--that would have to wait until Goldberg's turn as St. Nick a couple of years back.) But once you get past the "OMG It's Santa and he's KILLING PEOPLE!" idea, there's really nowhere to go but down in my experience.

That's why for my nod to the season I chose Edmund Purdom's festive holiday offering, Don't Open Till Christmas. Also released in 1984, this is a Santa Killer movie with a twist--rather than centering around a Santa who kills a la 1980's Christmas Evil, this British production turns the formula on its head and gives us a killer who only kills Santas! You see what they did there?

I know, the plot sounds like it would be just as one-note as its inverse, and in truth it easily could have been. But due to some likable actors, a breezy pace, a serviceably intriguing plot, and an absolute barrage of entertaining and creative Santa kills, Don't Open Till Christmas manages to keep the Vicar smiling from start to finish. And that's more than you can say for last year's rancid eggnog--I speak from experience.

The movie wastes no time getting down to business, as we open with a drunken party-goer in a Santa suit stumbling out into the alley with his date, heading for his parked car and a backseat tête-à-cock. As they climb in and climb on, the previously stationary camera becomes a hand-held pov, the soundtrack fills with heavy breathing, and we approach the unsuspecting lovers--all to the tune of an obvious and hilarious synthesized Jaws score rip-off. After circling the car once, the POV character is shooed off by the annoyed and horny Saint Nick, who gets a knife in the ribs for his trouble! Which of course drops him like a rock according the b-movie biology rules. Ms. Claus manages to escape from the car and plaster herself against an alley wall before meeting the same fate.

After a credit sequence featuring a flaming Santa gnome, a nice minor-key music-box rendition of "Jingle Bells," and a mysteriously missing apostrophe, we're right back into the action. A fancy dress party is going on at the local discotheque, where Kate (Belinda Mayne) and her boyfriend Cliff (Gerry Sundquist) are helping Kate's father dress as Santa for the party-closing skit. Unfortunately Dad's delivery is interrupted by an unscripted SWORD THROUGH THE BACK OF THE HEAD, right there on stage in front of his horrified daughter! Someone is DEFINITELY on the naughty list!

"Ho-ho-HO-LEE SHIT!"

Next we cut to Scotland Yard, where Chief Inspector Harris (Edmund Purdom) and Sgt. Powell (Mark Jones) are discussing the recent rash of one-horse open slayings. "It was the costume he was wearing," the velvet-voiced Harris intones. "He was the victim...of another SANTA MURDER!"

And there you have the flick's set-up almost in its entirety. There's a maniac loose in London, raining jolly death upon anyone with the misfortune to cross his path dressed as St. Nick. Harris and Powell do their best to get to the bottom of things, but since "the whole of the West End is crammed with Santa Clauses!", containment proves difficult. The cops question Kate and Cliff, and it's clear that Harris counts Kate's flute-playing Significant Other as one of the top suspects. The herrings get redder when investigative journalist Giles (creepy Howard Stern/Jeff Goldblum hybrid Alan Lake) advises Sgt. Powell to keep a close eye on his superior officer. Powell laughs it off at first, but when Harris starts acting strange and proving oddly elusive to the tail Powell orders, the sergeant has to widen his net.

As I mentioned above, the flick moves along at a breezy pace, with plenty of amusing dialogue and off-the-wall character moments (such as the disappointment of Harris's sweet-old-lady housekeeper when she doesn't get to peek at the police photos from the murder scenes) to keep you smirking. Director Purdom does a great job as the harried but grimly jocular Inspector Harris--his voice and looks remind me of Albert Finney's best roles, and he carries a similar gravitas. Belinda Mayne is appealing if stiff as the grief-stricken daughter (though it has to be said she recovers pretty quickly from seeing Dad shish-kabobbed before her eyes), and Mark Jones also does well as the capable, wry sergeant. In fact all the actors are very likable, except for Sandquist (whose character is kind of a twat, so that's no fault of his acting) and Lake, who it's not much of a spoiler to say comes out of the herring barrel and into the open water fairly quickly.

Merry Christmas, kiddies!

The movie was never going to win any awards on technical merit. Besides a few good pov hand-held sequences and one or two effective lighting set-ups, the cinematography is fairly static, the shot-framing uncreative. To call the editing "slapdash" would be kind. And while many of the actors are likable enough, their delivery is often stilted and the dialog clumsy--sometimes hilariously so. Plus, with the killer's identity revealed definitively 2/3rds of the way through the flick, the movie's one claim on suspense goes out the window.

But Don't Open Till Christmas manages to overcome all these drawbacks with sheer entertainment power, thanks largely to the sequence of darkly hilarious Santa kills that pepper the plot development like bloody commercial breaks. Whenever you see a guy in a Santa costume stumble into frame, you know he'll soon become a cooling Corpse Kringle--and yet the kills are so varied and creative that it never stops being fun. For instance, in addition to the aforementioned opening stab and sword-through-the-head shots, we also get:
  • Strangled Santa roasting on an open fire (costume NOT flame resistant)
  • Santa eats a revolver (with amazing beard explosion)
  • Peepshow Santa sliced while watching the ho-ho Hos (excellent arterial spray)
  • An AMAZING convoluted sequence in which a Santa is chased by punk rockers, menaced by a rottweiler, takes refuge in the London Dungeon Wax Museum and scarpers through the torture chamber while narrowly avoiding the various medieval weapons the killer hurls at him, only to finally end up stabbed!
  • TWO Police Decoy Santas going down at a circus--one kicked in the gut with a shoe-knife and the other with his eye clawed out!
  • A guest appearance by Starcrash's Caroline Munro (as herself) in a SPECTACULAR disco lip-synch number, rudely interrupted by a Santa with a cleaver stuck in his head!
  • And then, of course, the infamous Santa-castrated-in-the-loo kill.
Somebody spiked my punch.

The movie also throws us a few curves once the killer is revealed, as a couple of major characters make rather surprising exits, one character disappears entirely and is never mentioned again, and the killer meets his fate in a surprising but satisfying way. Tack on a slam-bang ending and this movie definitely goes out on top.

Maybe some day I'll give one of those other Santa Killer movies a go with a more open mind, but it's hard for me to imagine enjoying any of them more than Don't Open Till Christmas. 3 thumbs for pure entertainment value. It's been released on its own and as part of dozens of public domain cheapie sets, including the so-far pretty good Mill Creek 50 Drive-In Movie Classics set. So if you're in the mood for some holiday cheer, pour yourself some egg nog, grab a candy cane off the tree, and settle in to watch Santa die, over and over again. You'll be glad you did.


prof. grewbeard said...

i agree that Killer Santas are pretty one-note and that's why i think the Tales From The Crypt segment featuring Joan Collins was so effective because well, it's short and to the point. we get no real backstory on the escaped Santa and that makes him scarier- he just comes out of nowhere. having the little girl let him in believing he's the real thing is the perfect touch!

Rev. Fred Phantom said...

I also have that Mill Creek box set and planned on checking it out soon. Looks like fun stuff indeed.

I agree about the "killer santa" thing too. Plus it's hard to beat Tales From The Crypt's "All through the House".

Karswell said...

Never saw this one, saw the box plenty at the vid store back in the day though, but...

Reason the Tales from the Crypt ep is so good is because it's not about Santa at all, but the crazy bitch what killed her husband and has now suddenly found herself turned potential victim.

Gene Phillips said...

I liked most of what you liked, Vicar, and in addition enjoyed the killer's goofy HALLOWEEN-ripoff "motivation"-- that his dad once cheated on his mum while dad wore a Santa suit, and therefore all Santas were evil.

At least the feminists should be glad of one slasher film where almost all the victims are male.

The ending's weird, too: I can't tell whether the "Final Girl" survives or not.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Hi Gene!

>>that his dad once cheated on his mum while dad wore a Santa suit, and therefore all Santas were evil

It seems to me that the song "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" is pretty much the whole motivation for every Killer Santa movie ever made, this one included (even though, as noted, this is more "Santa Killer"). To hear these filmmakers tell it, it's amazing that any father lives past his son's 9th birthday.

>>one slasher film where almost all the victims are male

True! That last screengrab is actually from a scene where the killer menaces a model wearing a Santa cape, but upon confirming she has breasts, lets her go. He *does* off a couple of women over the course of things, though, so he's not going to get any NOW awards, methinks.

>>I can't tell whether the "Final Girl" survives or not

Maybe you need to watch it again! ;)

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