Cletus is an aborted fetus who cheated death just like Jesus. Man, I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting to write that zinger. Straight out of Australia, writer/director Craig Anderson’s Red Christmas made its international premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival. A horror-comedy with gore to the wall, Anderson’s film takes a really wicked premise and uses it to playfully address the theme of a woman’s right to choose. The slasher, with its tradition of badass women, is the perfect playground to explore this theme, no doubt about that.
But somewhere along the way, Red Christmas loses steam in the monotony of stalk, kill, stalk, kill, rinse, repeat. Everything leading up to the killings is fantastic – really engaging, funny stuff with an entertaining ensemble. Then the murders begin and we dip into the familiar trappings of a slasher. Finally, Red Christmas closes on a really solid payoff. Just that middle part, dammit. If only it was as great as the bookends!
The film stars genre legend Dee Wallace (The Howling, Critters) as Diane, the matriarch of a family of adopted children. It’s a motley crew consisting of ne’er do wells, straight arrows, a Shakespeare junkie, and a surly uncle. Without force feeding us exposition, we learn a lot about these characters from the way they interact with each other. Do they all get along? Hell no, but there’s a current of love throbbing beneath the surface.
One major standout is Jerry, the aforementioned Shakespeare fiend. He’s played by Gerard O’Dwyer, an actor with Down syndrome. Not once is his disorder pointed out or mentioned by one of the characters. He’s treated just like any other character, which is great, because the dude is really, really funny and a bold voice of reason within Diane’s family dynamic. It’s not until Jerry learns a dark family secret near the end of the film that his disorder dictates action. And it’s fucking heartbreaking.
Diane’s family is all gathered at her home for one last Christmas before she sells the estate off. As they’re about to open presents, there’s a knock at the door. There stands a crooked, cloaked figure, with bandages covering his face. Diane’s big heart leads her to let him inside. Who would close the door on such a poor figure on Christmas? In his broken, wavering voice, the man explains that his name is Cletus, and he’s the fetus Diane aborted 20 years earlier.
* record scratch * Is this not the best slasher “villain” origin story we’ve heard in years? Maybe a decade? Turns out, the day Diane had her procedure, a religious zealot bombed the clinic and escaped with some half-dead fetuses. So Cletus (the fetus) was raised in secret under the shadow of religious fundamentalism. Now a grown man-thing, he would like to meet his mother and get some answers. It is Christmas, after all.
Needless to say, Cletus’ presence gives Diane’s family a wicked bad case of the creeps, so they kick his cloaked ass out to the curb. Rejected now for the second time in his life (I mean that without any political stance, c’mon), Cletus is out for blood.
This is the point where Red Christmas lost me a bit – when it began following the standard slasher formula. The set up and the Cletus character are SO good, I wanted it to dig deeper into him and his last 20 years. Instead, the great ensemble is picked off one by one, and Cletus doesn’t really express himself until the final showdown with his mother. By this point, Diane is amped to “abort” Cletus again, using the double-barreled method this time around.
Red Christmas has style out the ass. Shot by DP Douglas James Burgdorff, the film looks amazing. In that first act, when we’re meeting Diane’s family, it resembles an IKEA catalogue (with some rough edges). When the shit is hitting the fan, sharp colors carve across the screen. Even when the story feels monotonous and I was just waiting to hear more from poor Cletus, at least the film looked fantastic.
Red Christmas does what a lot of slashers don’t do: made me give a damn about the characters. In a big way. That’s why I wanted to see more than just them getting picked off like ducks in a shooting gallery. The moments at the end with Jerry and Diane, like I mentioned, crushed my heart to ash, but other than that, it was an assembly line of death for Diane’s big-hearted family. Merry Christmas in July, everyone.