Red Christmas had its world premiere at Fantasia last weekend, and I had the good fortune to interview its director Craig Anderson and star Dee Wallace. At the time of the interview (it was a last-minute appointment), I’d seen the trailer, the marketing collateral, a few scenes from the film, and the festival brochure write-up, which described it as “an exploitation film with heart and considerable guts.”
BMD: I have to apologise, guys - I haven’t seen the whole movie, so I only have a pretty general overview of what it’s like.
Dee Wallace: Well that’s too bad. Are you coming tonight?
BMD: I am.
Craig Anderson: Great!
BMD: This film sits in kind of borderline exploitation territory - it’s an intense genre movie about a hot-button topic. How do you think exploitation films can create empathy?
Wallace: Do you think it’s an exploitation film?
Anderson: I think it deals with exploitation subjects. It’s not produced as an exploitation film.
BMD: Well, maybe I should define “exploitation.”
Wallace: Let’s do that first!
BMD: I’ve always found this fascinating. First off, there’s the “blood and boobs” definition…
Wallace: Which is not this film.
BMD: You’re right, it’s not. But it is a horror movie about abortion.
Wallace: No. I don’t think that’s true...it’s more that an aborted kid comes back and kills all his family. But this film is not about abortion, and to represent it that way would be incorrect.
BMD: Again, I haven’t seen the whole movie.
Wallace: And that’s why I stopped you, because I think the word “exploitation” doesn’t really…
BMD: It also said that in the festival booklet.
Anderson: I don’t think it communicates like an exploitation film.
Wallace: I’m still confused about what you mean by “exploitation.”
Anderson: It’s the idea of an outlandish or outlying idea, that’s addressed in the film, that you wouldn’t normally be allowed to address.
BMD: It’s different than if it was a straight-up drama.
Wallace: Oh. Okay. So, if you write the article, and you use the word “exploitation,” you’ve gotta include that definition, I think, because otherwise we’re a blood and guts movie with a lot of tits and ass, and that’s not what we’re doing at all. In America, “exploitation”...
Anderson: It’s a bad word.
BMD: Yeah, for sure.
Anderson: For instance, there’s another movie about abortion - about a woman surviving her abortion. It’s made by the Christian Right. It’s called, I think, October Baby. It could almost star Mandy Moore. It’s about this woman, she’s 18, she’s going on college break, she finds her mother, then she finds her abortion clinic, and they say “you were aborted, but you survived.” And she’s in love with this guy, and it’s like a Disney movie. In respect to that, there aren’t many movies that deal with abortion in a huge way. So ours can kind of look like exploitation. It takes that idea of, “what if that person who was aborted got angry and then killed the family?” So there is that element to it. But that’s not the way we tell the story. We tell it in a more subtle way.
Wallace: It’s a piece of information that you get at the start of the film, then the rest of the film is the ride of this unrequited love of his, trying to find his mother, and being sent away and not accepted, and his revenge for it.
Anderson: I was careful in writing it too. I met with lots of academics, and focus groups made up of women, to not take the first draft or second draft, and to not to feel like it’s saying “we should feel guilty for having an abortion.” I think that’s very important, because that’s not my belief and what I want to get across. But I’ve seen this film by Tony Kaye, a documentary called Lake of Fire. He directed American History X. And you know, he’s a bit of a nut, but he’s an awesome nut. And this movie is a two and a half hour, black and white documentary, and it covers every side. I was fascinated by all the sides of the abortion debate. So this film tries to encapsulate all the sides.
Wallace: One of the things that really drew me to the script. I went, “Wow! I’ve never seen any horror film try to deal with horror from this subject, from this point of view. This is new. This is innovative.” And I like that. It’s intellectual.
BMD: It’s also rare in the horror genre to have empathy from multiple angles. In any other movie, your antagonist would just be a monster.
Anderson: It took many drafts, and a year and half, to get it right. I thought, if I was going to make a smallish film, and make all my friends work really really hard, I should pay them the respect of doing what I could do for years in advance: I could write it better. So I made sure I sat down many times and gave it out to people to get notes, and made sure everyone had a point of view.
BMD: How do you ride the line of dealing with this subject material in a genre that often isn’t taken very seriously?
Anderson: I love horror. I love reading books about horror, academia about horror. I think it’s always underrated. There are things going on in horror that affect stuff. People often go, “oh yeah, in sci-fi in the 50s we had atomic scares and so there were aliens,” and I’m like, chill out. Horror does that so much better, because it deals with really ethereal and inner psychological things, instead of “yeah, it’s about invasion fears.” Horror does a much better job of dealing with things that we don’t talk about. And it’s not considered enough. People don’t look at it enough. So I read a lot of academia about horror. And one of the things I thought [about this film] was that this is a horrible story. The essence of the word “horror” is that it’s dealing with something horrible. And then I looked at Greek tragedies and the way they were written. The way that you’d put two characters who have paths that meet, and they have a misunderstanding, then carry on with this misunderstanding.
So this character Diane doesn’t think it’s possible for an abortion to survive. That’s a stupid thought. And this dude is raised by a religious nutjob, who says “you must kill the family that didn’t want you.” And they finally meet, and they sit down and have a cup of tea together, and they don’t understand that. And when they miss the opportunity to work that out, it becomes a tragedy. So the rest of the film, I’ve thought of and written as a tragedy, as opposed to a horror. The horror happens to occur, but I think of it as a tragedy.
BMD: As an outside observer to the violent side of the abortion debate [Anderson is Australian], how did you approach illustrating the hospital-bombing by the religious Right?
Anderson: As an Australian - [to Wallace] I don’t think I’ve ever explained it - we don’t really have an abortion debate. We got lucky. We have them, and we have midwives take care of people if there’s a problem. Once in my life, I’ve seen people at the front of a clinic praying. But we don’t even really have clinics - it occurs in hospitals, by the same people who deliver the babies. It’s really idealistic. But when I look at the American world of reproductive rights, it’s really binary, and it’s really full of confrontation and conflict.
Wallace: It’s all about religion, and the juxtaposition between “love your brother” and “God is love” and “you don’t have the frickin’ right to do anything that you want to do, because I’m right, because I’m a member of the church.” So when I read it, it was just the norm for me. Well, it wasn’t the norm, but it was certainly a scene that could absolutely happen. And has. Not just in America, by the way.
Anderson: We still have a lot of terrorism problems in our country, which I think is also to do with religion. But most of my research that made the film what it is is American stuff. That’s where the issue is most vibrant, and often misrepresented.
BMD: There’s a whole other conversation about misrepresentation that we could have right now. I mean, when did you shoot this film?
Anderson: November last year.
BMD: How was it making this film right in the middle of the so-called debate around Planned Parenthood?
Anderson: When we finished shooting, Dee emailed me from Melbourne and said someone just shot up a clinic. Which was just amazing. It’s always timely. It’s bizarre - it shouldn’t be. But our rights are always under threat by the conservatives. It’s very scary to think that any time, it could come back. State by state, they’re being taken away. Once you start looking into it, which I did while writing, I was like, “this is in trouble.” It’s good to talk about it. Even if it makes people angry, and they come down on the wrong side of it, at least people are talking about it. It’s hidden, and feminist groups and women’s activist groups are trying to say, “hey, why isn’t anyone doing anything?
Wallace: It’s a big point in our political rights.
BMD: Who do you hope sees this film? Other than as big an audience as possible?
Anderson: I hope horror fans see it. I’m interested in women seeing it. I hope it doesn’t make anyone upset. It may, but I think that’s inevitable.
Wallace: Everybody. I think that what we’ve spent so much time talking about is really a set-up for the rest of the movie. And it is a point that’s very different that hasn’t been exploited - there’s that word again! - in another horror film. But Red Christmas is a horror film. It’s a horror ride. And it has some social comment within it, but to sell the film as a social commentary or something, I think would be false.
Anderson: I’d love my mum to watch it. I think she’d love the first part of it. She’d go “yeah, this is alright.” And then stuff would go bad, and she doesn’t like horror films, because she gets scared. But at the end of it, I’d hope it’d make her think. She’s one of these anti-choice people - or pro-life, as they call themselves - and it would be excellent for her to watch it, and for it to chip away, so she can see it’s not as easy a decision. That’s what I would love people to take from it.
BMD: In the last few years, there have been a ton of throwbacks to 1980s genre films. Dee, how does it feel to have gone through that era and now see the throwbacks happening?
Wallace: What are your examples?
BMD: House of the Devil, The Guest, Slither. A bunch of films at this festival - including Bad Blood, which is playing tonight opposite Red Christmas.
Wallace: My feeling is that in the ‘80s, we weren’t under the threat of not using special effects. Audiences have come to expect and demand great special effects. And what we traded in the interim is taking time with very good performances to create relationships. I think it’s been lost a lot, which is one of the reasons why I love Red Christmas. It’s that much of the horror is based on the fact that this family is coming together for each other. Even trying to understand the aborted child’s part, and his point of view. But ultimately, he’s killing people in our family. But you care that he’s killing people in this family, because you’ve taken time to see the family. See the different relationships that are going on, see them fighting for each other. One of them’s having a baby. I think we’ve lost so much of that finesse because of special effects, and I think that Red Christmas walks a really perfect line between all of that.
BMD: It’s got a personal side to it?
Wallace: Absolutely. I think horror films have become slasher films. “Hi, here’s our seven main characters; let’s watch how gruesomely we can kill them all; bam bam bam.” You don’t have any time to care about anybody. If you go back to a perfect ‘80s picture like Cujo, we spent a third of the picture creating the relationships, what was going on with the people, and the mother-son relationship. If you didn’t have that, who cares if the dog got to everybody? That’s kind of what we’ve lost, I think.
BMD: That gives the more visceral elements more impact, too.
Wallace: Absolutely more impact. It ultimately isn’t the blood and guts that’s the impact, it’s the emotional loss that’s the impact. The horror of “this person I love, I couldn’t do anything for.”
BMD: That’s great! Thanks a lot, guys.
Wallace: Looking forward to seeing you tonight!
For more on Red Christmas, check out my review of the film.