A good, old-fashioned, uncomfortable family Christmas turns into a Twilight Zone nightmare in this impressive hothouse horror/science fiction film. Johnny Kervorkian directed the excellent, low-key council estate ghost/vampire movie The Disappeared (2008), and again melds genre elements with state-of-the-nation business here, though it gets away from the drab realism of his debut and goes for something more stylised, like a Christmas episode of a soap opera infused with grand guignol dementia. Lurking in the background of Gavin Williams’ tight, theatrical script are elements from weird SF footnotes like the the 1953 film of Lewis Padgett’s ‘The Twonky’ (whose single memorable image is recreated briefly) and that Charles Band video rental classic TerrorVision – along with the more familiar overtones of Rod Serling (‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street’) and David Cronenberg (Videodrome). But it’s also very British, with abuse handed down from one weak patriarch to the next, women huffing about being doormats and tidying up the house, and a nasty seam of up-to-the-moment racism and paranoia. It’s played at sit-com pitch, but that doesn’t mean it’s not upsetting.
Nick Milgram (Sam Gittins) brings his Indian girlfriend Annji (Neera Naik) home to a family Christmas – after being out of contact with his family for three years. A smug lecture from his pompous office manager father Tony (Grant Masters) and a few racist snarls from ex-military policeman Granddad (David Bradley) suggest why he’s been reluctant to give up ‘the Christmas Doctor Who’ for an uncomfortable couple of days in the overdecorated family home, along with his desperate, peacemaking Mum (Abigail Cruttenden), and short-fused, pregnant sister Kate (Holly Weston) and her hulking but indecisive clod husband Scott (Kris Saddler). After a few unforgivable remarks, Nick and Annji decide to leave early on Christmas Day – only to find all the doors and windows sealed by shields that look like metallic licorice, and the television issuing green emergency instructions that Tony seizes on as support for his dwindling authority. The family reluctantly comply with orders not to eat supposedly contaminated food and inject themselves with syringes dropped down the chimney as if by a sinister Santa – and someone has a dire reaction to the shot, which still fails to convince Tony that the television doesn’t have his best interests at heart.
Further instructions – in sickly green or angry red, which allow cinematographer Annika Summerson to light faces eerily – tell the Milgrams to ‘one of your number is infected – isolate them‘ or ‘extract information from the sleeper agent’, giving justification for acting out their worst impulses and turning on each other. Eventually, someone looks into the innards of a spare television set … and realises this isn’t a government response to a terrorist attack or a bizarre reality TV experiment. Then, the enclosing biomechanics – which have snipped off fingers or pumped in deadly smoke – begin manifesting with slimily improvised tendrils that evoke Demon Seed or Tetsuo, and start making demands of this new Holy Family (a nativity is imminent) that make those of Colossus in The Forbin Project seem level-headed and reasonable. By starting with simple embarrassment, rudeness and racism – while playing a game, Kate refuses to believe ‘tumult’ is a real word – then delving into the long-term ways this family has been poisoned by their nastiest member – Grandad still calls his son by a demeaning childhood nickname (‘Squelcher’) – before we get far into the bizarro sci-fi stuff, the film keeps grounded in drama even as things go far, far over the top. There have been quite a few miserable Christmas horrors recently – this year’s FrightFest line-up includes The Night Sitter, Secret Santa and Lifechanger – but this is a rare, and cutting British entry in the carve-the-family-like-a-turkey genre.