What better time to review a Christmas horror film than Halloween, right? With that in mind, here’s my review of an obscure little grindhouse effort from the early 80s, Don’t Open ‘Til Christmas.
As the movie opens, we find ourselves in England with Christmas quickly approaching. The fog-drenched streets of London have apparently been besieged by drunk old men dressed up like Santa Claus. However, at least one citizen has taken things into his own hands by wandering the streets at night and killing anyone he comes across dressed as Father Christmas. Seriously, we see a lot of Jolly St. Nicks meeting an untimely end in this film. Most of them are done in by straight razor but at least one ends up getting shot and then another ends up bursting into flame and one Santa even ends up getting a spear driven through the back of his head.
That Santa had a daughter named Kate (Belinda Mayne) and Kate has a boyfriend named Cliff (Gerry Sundquist). While they make most of their money by standing out in the middle of street and playing the flute, Cliff also has a lucrative side job of being just a generally sleazy guy. The day after Kate’s father dies, Cliff tries to convince Kate to take part in a pornographic, Santa-themed photo shoot. Needless to say, Kate doesn’t react well to this and storms out. So, Cliff convinces another model to wear the Santa suit. That model is later caught outside in that Santa suit by the killer. However, after opening the suit and giving the camera an excuse to linger over the model’s body the killer leaves without harming her. This would seem to indicate that he’s only looking to kill men in Santa suits. Normally, I’d be all for this development because fair play is fair play except for the fact that its eventually revealed that the whole Santa suit thing is pretty much just a red herring.
(We’ll talk more about the film’s love of red herrings later.)
Anyway, Kate wants justice for her father but unfortunately, the police investigation is being headed up by Inspect Harris and you know that Harris isn’t going to be much help because he’s played by Edmund Purdom. Purdom appeared in a lot of Italian and Spanish horror films in the 70s and 80s and he was always the epitome of British incompetence. Purdom is also credited as being director here but again, more on that later.
Now, by the time the 100th Santa has been brutally murdered, you might think that people would just naturally stop dressing up as Santa Claus when they’re out in public but no, that doesn’t appear to occur to anyone. Instead, we get a mall Santa getting castrated while standing at a urinal. And then we get another one getting killed while visiting a local sex shop and talking to a character credited as “the Experience Girl” (played surprisingly well by Kelly Baker). Yet another Santa finds himself getting murdered while backstage at a TV variety show. His body is discovered by Caroline Munro (star of such classic films as Starcrash and Maniac) who plays herself and gets to sing a disco song before finding the body. She also gets to wear this really amazing red dress that I would kill to own because, seriously…
Suddenly, this guy named Giles (played by Alan Lake, who apparently died right before this film was released) pops up and tells Kate that he’s a reporter and he starts asking her questions about her father. Kate gets mad and tries to call up Inspector Harris just to be told that Harris is out for the day, taking care of some personal business.
Hmmm…could Harris be our killer? It makes sense since he’s played by Edmund Purdom.
Then again, Cliff could be the killer as well because, while Kate is doing all this, Cliff is making money by selling her sexual favors to his friends.
Then again, there’s also the possibility that Giles might be the killer because he promptly kills Kate.
Meanwhile (we’re only about 40 minutes in to the film by this point), the Experience Girl is being interviewed by Harris’s partner, a tall guy named Powell who hates women. The Experience Girl tells Powell that she would know who the killer is if she saw the killer smile. Powell tells her she’s an idiot. So, the Experience Girl goes back to work. Giles shows up and smiles. Experience Girl screams. Giles kidnaps her but instead of killing her, he takes her to his flat and chains her up. Giles explains that he’s a killer because Inspector Harris is his brother and Giles is jealous. The Experience Girl knows who Harris is despite the fact that we’ve only seen her meet Powell.
Speaking of Powell, he investigates Kate’s death and realizes he may have made a mistake dismissing the Experience Girl. Then he tries to open a car door and gets electrocuted until he eventually ends up blowing up.
Now, none of this qualifies as being a spoiler because, even at this point, there’s still nearly 40 minutes of nearly incomprehensible twists and turns left.
Like a lot of 80s grindhouse films, the production of Don’t Open ‘Til Christmas is shrouded in mystery. Shooting on the film apparently started in 1981 but the film wasn’t actually completed and released until 1984. Reportedly, Edmund Purdom was the original director but he ended up walking off the set. This led to screenwriter Derek Ford taking over the movie for two days before he was apparently fired. The film was then completed by Alan Birkinshaw (and possibly a few other people), working under the name of Al McGoohan.
Certainly, this explains why the film is such a huge mess but it’s also a part of the fun as watching the movie becomes a game of trying to figure out who directed what.
Since Purdom apparently never returned to the set after walking off, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that he directed all of the scenes that he appears in. (It also explains why his character disappears from the movie after the first 40 minutes.) These scenes are all distinguished by the general immobility of the camera. Purdom’s scenes are so static and so defiantly dull that they almost work in a strangely Warholian way. The actors wander into frame, the actors wander out of the frame, the out-of-focus lens rebelliously refuses to follow them.
The non-Purdom scenes — the scenes in which men dressed like Santa are graphically murdered and the scenes featuring the “Experience Girl” — appear to have snuck in from a totally different movie and often, they’re only link to anything we’ve seen in the Purdom scenes is some awkwardly dubbed dialogue. These scenes feel as if they’re drenched in sleaze. The camera not only moves, it lingers and it invades like a voyeur looking at dirty pictures in a public library. Unpleasant on their own, these scenes somehow become even more distasteful when viewed next to the aritificiality of the Purdom scenes.
It all makes for a very disorienting viewing experience and. while the film isn’t really well-done enough to ever become disturbing or nightmarish, it still had a very odd dream-like feel to it. Major characters wander through the film without every actually meeting each other. Seemingly important plot points are brought up just to be quickly abandoned and forgotten. Even all the multiple murders turn out to have very little to do with Santa Claus or Christmas. If nothing else, this is a unique slasher film in that the murders are pretty much just red herrings.
There’s a lot in this movie that doesn’t work but, as with many grindhouse films, that just adds to the charm of Don’t Open ‘Til Christmas. Even the ending — which everyone seems to criticize — is oddly appropriate in that it makes as little sense as everything else we’ve seen on screen. Also, like most grindhouse films, there’s a handful of memorable moments that actually do work. For instance, the killer’s mask is genuinely creepy. The scene where Giles chases the Experience Girl through the streets of London is also handled well and is even more suspenseful in that it takes place during the day as opposed to the expected dark and foggy night. And again, Kelly Baker is a sympathetic, if unexpected, protaganist in the role of the Experience Girl (though you get the feeling that the role was created and cast long after Purdom left the initial production). Finally, this is a film that epitomizes the spirit that makes the Grindhouse great — i.e., it may have taken two years and multiple directors and the end result might be kind of chaotic but, in the end, the movie got made.
This is one of those movies that has entered the public domain. The version I own is a part of one of those “50 Horror Classics” collections that Mill Creek puts out. As a result, when I watched the movie, it looked and sounded terrible. But you know what? That terrible transfer added a certain charm to the film. Don’t Open ‘Til Christmas is a movie that was meant to be seen with a lot of random scratches and faded colors flashing across the screen.
So, in the end, Don’t Open ‘Til Christmas is a pretty bad movie but it’s also an undeniably watchable and oddly memorable one. Plus, it features that really great red dress. Seriously, just to die for…