My notes on Secret Santa, which screens at FrightFest on August 27th.
Every year seems to bring a fresh Christmas-themed horror farce … ranging from Krampus, which I loved, to Better Watch Out, which I really didn’t. Though Christmas horror has been a thing since Black Christmas and You Better Watch Out, the current run of seasonal splatfests take their dramatic cues more from people-behaving-badly-at-Xmas comedies … ranging from The Ref (aka Horrible Hostages), which I loved, to Jingle All the Way, which I really didn’t. The traditional Christmas story, which 90% derives from Dickens, presents a domestic miracle that reforms a miser or reassures a hapless soul that family feeling is a support against all the world’s woes … but these films present family and home as existential nightmares, and any form of reform and reconciliation is doomed to go horribly wrong. The trappings of Christmas make it all worse.
Director Adam Marcus, who’s shaped up a lot since Jason Goes to Hell, opens with a slow-motion tussle slightly reminiscent of the shopping frenzy that began Krampus as a family literally tear into each other over Christmas dinner and a snowglobe used as a bludgeon … then we flash to ‘four hours earlier’ and various folks in the extended Pope clan (plus hangers-on) converging on an isolated home amid the snows for a celebration no one is exactly looking forward to. Recovering alcoholic April (A Leslie Kies) warns her eager new beau Ty (Michael Rady) that her mother Shari (co-writer Debra Sullivan) is a domineering diva, but even she’s taken aback by how appalling the woman is – as she tries to force her sober daughter to drink potent punch or get April’s turkey-allergic overweight sister Penny (Ryan Leigh Seaton) to tuck into high-calorie poison stodge. Also pitching up are Shari’s horny stepson (and one-time lover) Jackson (Nathan Hedrick) and his surprisingly smart stripper girlfriend Jacqueline (Michelle Allaire), rambling tactless homophobic uncle Carter (Curtis Fortier) and Shari’s not-yet out gay son Kyle (Drew Lynch). Also in the mix: Shari’s alternately toadying and vicious sister Carol (Pat Destro), caterers who include Kyle’s boyfriend, and white-bearded but un-Santalike estranged patriarch Leonard (John Gilbert), an unethical pharma tycoon with anger issues.
After a reel of waspish sniping, wittily written by Sullivan and Marcus, and wince-inducing insults, the cutting remarks segue into actual cutting as everyone who’s drunk the spiked punch starts feeling hot, telling uncomfortable truths and going on a violent bender – with later side effects that include special make-up effects yellow pustules and Fulci-style innards-puking. It’s a Very Special Christmas entry in the Cabin Fever franchise or a holiday version of the recent genre trend for disastrous dinner parties (The Invitation, Coherence, etc). A fresh twist on the psycho infection drama is that these rich, status-obsessed folk sabotage any attempts to alert the authorities because they still hope to salvage their reputation and lifestyle even after the first few fork murders. There’s a reasonable mystery thread about which of the guests contributed the extra ingredient that counts as a ‘secret Santa’ present, but that gets lost as the awful behaviour turns into a free-for-all massacre. Though the gruesome stuff is effectively guignolesque, the real bite comes from the nasty truths – as handsome, slick Ty owns up that he’s only wooed April in order to land a gig as lawyer for her father … for which transgression he’s disproportionately punished with a gross-out gag that’s mercifully seen only in long shot. Other guests have their own secrets – which all tumble out to prolong the agony. It falters a little when it tries to find genuine sentiment among the last folks standing, and straggles towards a standard infection-type horror movie ending but is mostly wickedly funny through and through.
A mostly unfamiliar cast give it their all – with Sullivan, Hedrick and Seaton especially embracing the madness. Like most Christmas horrors, it uses a lot of traditional songs for ironic contrast – several versions of ‘I Saw Three Ships’ – and finds a way to make gruesome use of turkey trimmings like Christmas tree ornaments.
NB: in a move calculated to irk filmographers, its copyright date is 2016-17. Compensation comes in the witty opening credits, which pick out ominous threats from letters in the cast and crew’s names.
Here’s the FrightFest listing.
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