In my interview with Red Christmas director Craig Anderson and star/producer Dee Wallace, we argued about whether the film was an exploitation movie. At the time, I hadn't seen the complete film, but now that I have, I've got to make my call. Though it might lack the nudity associated with the term, Red Christmas is an exploitation movie through and through, luridly diving into controversy while coating it in blood. Depending on your attitude, it’s either politically risky or gloriously wrongheaded, and could even be the opposite of what it’s meant to be.
Red Christmas opens with a montage of protesters and radio presenters fired up - for one reason or another - about the subject of abortion, concluding with the bombing of a hospital. It’s a bold start, putting the audience on edge before jumping into a mid-day Christmas get-together at the home of Diane (Wallace) and her inexplicably Australian children. Their holiday reunion, already fraught with an array of family disagreements, is interrupted by the arrival of Cletus: a deformed, hooded, hyper-religious figure bearing a letter marked “Mother.” As Cletus begins to kill family members, the truth emerges: he’s an abortion survivor (and bombing survivor, apparently), and he’s back for revenge on mommy dearest. At that point, things don’t look great for Diane.
The film that follows is one of the stranger viewing experiences of Fantasia 2016, as director Craig Anderson, jumping into feature filmmaking from a career of Australian TV comedy, delivers on the insane promise of his story solely by dint of failing to deliver a coherent movie.
What starts off looking cheap and rushed (and if there’s anyone who can identify a cheap, rushed movie, it’s me) soon gives way to a bewildering series of nonsense where nearly every creative decision is either questionable or objectively incorrect. Frenzied, impatient editing kills jokes dead and sucks away any suspense that might have been created otherwise. Dialogue scenes and action alike are built up of perplexing coverage that at times actively distracts from what’s meant to be going on. A preponderance of low angles, shots of inconsequential objects (and feet), and out-of-focus shakycam renders the action impossible to follow, as characters teleport from one room to another in a house that for all its lack of consistent geography might as well be the Shining hotel.
If it were just poorly made, Red Christmas would be a snore, but its filmmaking and themes are so all over the place that it enters the realm of perverse fascination.
First of all: the title. When you call a movie Red Christmas and market it with deliberately ‘80s-style poster art, you’re automatically placing the film alongside titles like Christmas Evil, Silent Night Deadly Night, and Black Christmas. But Red Christmas squanders every opportunity to build the holiday into its story or action. It’s Australian Christmas, for one thing, which means it’s set at the height of summer, but this is never commented on for international audiences. The sole narrative purpose of setting the film on December 24th is to get the whole family together, a goal which could have been accomplished in a number of ways more reflective of the story and themes. Though Anderson doesn’t build Christmas into his kills, he does use diverse weaponry like bear traps, grindstones, ship anchors, peanut allergies, and an umbrella. The kills, and a few clever reversals of audience expectation, would be great fun, if they were executed better. Instead, the camera cuts away awkwardly from every kill, either afraid to show them or unable to, robbing the audience of the money shots they desperately crave. It goes so far as to make some sequences - including the climax - unclear as to what’s actually happened.
Elsewhere, the film is packed full of head-scratching decisions. Cletus, the film’s antagonist (yes, his name rhymes with “fetus”), is introduced awkwardly in broad daylight, shuffling and mumbling like the Elephant Man, before suddenly becoming an unkillable murderer. One of many fumbled comedy beats sees a priest character hiding in a wardrobe to jerk off over the thought of other characters having sex. Another sequence, involving cellphones, is borderline incomprehensible as to what the characters are trying to accomplish. Characters act with inconsistent motivations; the script and directing gloss over key moments while giving inordinate attention to minutiae; setups are sledgehammered into the audience’s skulls but deprived of satisfying payoff.
Only Wallace - a veritable legend of genre cinema, with memorable appearances across multiple decades - holds Red Christmas together. Her performance is fierce, vulnerable, and completely committed to the script’s central conceit, overshadowing her co-stars and buoying the movie into an uneasy imbalance of quality. By turns shrieking with rage and whimpering with guilt, Wallace’s intensity is such that the film’s deranged story and inexplicable situations take on a haze of the surreal. It’s a paradox: Wallace alone makes the film watchable as drama, but her involvement only makes that drama more confusing.
The politics of Red Christmas are a minefield of mixed messages and mommy murder, and they get more difficult the more they’re pondered. Though intended as a pro-choice or at least a politically balanced movie, when viewed purely through the text, Red Christmas is hard-right pro-life. Half-hatred feints towards the right to choose can't distract from a message that your aborted babies will come back to haunt you - or straight-up murder your family. That the film exists within the framework of the slasher genre, with its tradition of killers punishing victims for perceived sins, supports this interpretation - as does the final shot, revealing that the film’s sole survivor is a newborn baby.
But is the movie judging Diane for having her abortion, or merely exploring judgements that society makes on people who do the same? Diane’s story is an uncomfortable and tough one, but one that feels true. Intensifying the film’s transgressive nature, it turns out she aborted the baby because it had Down’s syndrome, and she couldn’t handle another Down’s baby after raising existing son Jerry (Gerard Odwyer, spouting Shakespeare and delivering one of the film’s weirdest and least-committed-to twists). It’s easy to make judgements about Diane’s situation if you haven’t had to face it yourself, and indeed, it’s possible to view her as a horrible mother and person. Nearly every character slams her for her decision. For Diane, that’s the horror - the fact that she’s never been able to talk about this maelstrom of conflicting emotions. In this respect, the film acts as a mirror for the audience’s presuppositions.
On the other hand, Christianity is pretty roundly (and unoriginally) mocked throughout Red Christmas, so maybe it’ll simply offend everyone. At best, the film is confused as to what it’s trying to say. At worst, it cynically refuses to take a stand on a subject that’s nearly impossible to approach neutrally. Maybe if the film were better-made, it’d be easier to dissect its intentions and messages. Thanks to an obviously-rushed production, its aims and its results are frequently at odds with each other, simply because the filmmaking is so unclear.
If Red Christmas had been shot on celluloid in the 1970s, it would be part of the great pantheon of films that seem too crazy to be real. With better direction (or a longer shooting schedule), it would be a fascinating text for genre and gender representation study. As it is, it's 10,000% an exploitation movie, purely in the sense that it tackles tough, always-topical subject material from under a veil of genre cinema. Anchored by a genuinely great Dee Wallace performance, Red Christmas is a completely bizarre horror film, and the first I’ve seen in years to invent wholly new ways of being so. Regardless of its filmmaking quality, it's ripe material for fascinating post-film discussion.
In the post-screening Q&A at Fantasia, Anderson stated that he wanted to make a sequel, set another 20 years later. I can’t wait to see what madness would ensue with the addition of science fiction.