This Australian-made terror-at-Christmas film – which makes surprisingly little of the holiday taking place at the height of summer in the Southern hemisphere – has some strong performances, but is awkwardly inconsistent in tone. Gore gags and horrid near-cartoon characters suggesting a gruesome, cynical romp but a streak of muddled downer seriousness about the abortion issue which limits the potential for fun holiday horror.
Widowed Diane (Dee Wallace) welcomes her extended family and assorted hangers-on to an isolated house. Ginny (Janice McGavin), her pregnant eldest daughter drinks heavily, tokes joints and goes out of her way to antagonise her besuited, strident, childless Christian sister Suzy (Sarah Bishop). Diane’s son Jerry (Gerard Odwyer) is a Downs Syndrome adult she’s about to shuttle into assisted living so she can sell up and take a trip to Europe, which prompts Ginny to start another row. After the first arguments, over trivial as well as important matters, Cletus (Sam Campbell) turns up at the door in a Grim Reaper cloak with stained bandages over his face, earnestly wishing to read a letter to his mother … who turns out to be Diane, who thought she lost a baby she planned to abort during the protest bombing of a clinic twenty years earlier. When Diane has Cletus thrown out, he returns with an axe to get revenge on his mother by slaughtering her family and guests. Repurposing the letter-from-an-aborted-foetus gambit of pro-life propaganda as an embarrassing set-piece is a smart idea, but Cletus is a ridiculous creation. He has a briefly-glimpsed alien/insect domehead under his hood and talks like John Hurt as The Elephant Man – an old-fashioned movie mutant, in contrast with Odwyer’s unstereotyped performance as a Downs sufferer with a sense of humour and an emotional range.
In a messily-handled development, Jerry is horrified to learn his potential brother’s backstory and starts questioning Diane’s love for him. It ought to be poignant when Jerry tries to give his Santa hat to his abused brother, but after the comedy axe bisections and incidental murders of innocent folks, it’s just ridiculous. The thrust of the film is to criticise Diane for being selfish for taking her decision to abort Cletus, but the Christian characters are depicted as useless, hypocritical bores. During the crisis, they go in a corner to pray and are little help, while Suzy’s ponytailed pastor husband Peter (David Collins) talks Cletus into praying with him, then reaches for a knife as they are on their knees and tries to stab him. How Cletus survived his blurry origin sequence and what he’s been doing all these years – or whether he’s a supernatural creature – seems beyond the purview of director Craig Anderson’s script. He’s an oddly pathetic menace, but the success of his rampage is down to the screenplay forcing his victims to make extremely stupid choices and blundering into his way.
A couple of gore gags are neat in a 1980s sort of way – Peter has his head jammed onto the blades of a blender and his eyes go red as they liquefy then erupt in geysers – but there’s little suspense. It’s unusual for a film like this to have an older heroine, and veteran Wallace (The Hills Have Eyes, The Howling) has an intensity which overwhelms the mostly-Australian supporting cast. She gets to show a range as the troubled yet tough mother of a difficult brood, but her final act – sacrificing herself to save at least a grandchild – is undermined by poor staging.