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Film Review: Red Christmas

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Horror legend Dee Wallace, best known for her roles in The Hills Have Eyes, The Howling, and Cujo, stars in the Ozploitation slasher flick Red Christmas.

Wallace plays Diane, a mother of four who gathers her children together for a final Christmas before she sells the family home. Despite Diane’s desire for this to be “the best Christmas ever,” sibling tensions soon rise, particularly between religious conservative Suzy and her outspoken sister Ginny.

Whilst the family bickers, a bandaged stranger named Cletus arrives at the house with a letter addressed to ‘Mother’. The family’s initial pity gives way to anger and suspicion as Cletus espouses his extreme religious views. When rejected by Diane, Cletus embarks on his revenge.

The premise is standard, but the themes aren’t. When the film’s not busy dismembering various members of the cast, Red Christmas concerns itself with a fraught social issue: abortion. The aftermath of a bombing at an abortion clinic twenty years ago threatens to tear the family apart, figuratively and literally.

All in all, it’s not a bad setting for a horror film. That’s perhaps why it’s such a shame that Red Christmas is so uneven. The film’s message about abortion is unclear, and so the viewer’s endorsement of its politics is likely dependent on their sympathy (or lack thereof) for horror protagonists.

For a film made in 2016, it’s pretty controversial. When secrets from Diane’s past are finally revealed, she’s universally decried by her family members, many of whom are far less sympathetic than her. It’s unsettling to watch a character who would voyeuristically spy on his brother in law having sex condemn Diane for her past when she has no real support from anyone.

Motherhood is a means of punishment for almost all the women in the film, even in its absence. Suzy’s infertility isolates her whilst Ginny’s pregnancy incapacitates her, and Diane is forced to watch her children and their loved ones get picked off one by one. There are plenty of more interesting ways of exploring motherhood in horror than to simply punish the female characters.

Another transgressive element of Red Christmas is its attitude towards disability. Diane’s youngest son Jerry has Down’s Syndrome, and he’s played with great pathos and anguish by actor Gerard O’Dwyer. For the most part, the film doesn’t treat Jerry any differently to the other characters, which is to be respected. Yet a controversial twist involving Down’s Syndrome is thrown in to stoke family dramas, and never really given proper attention between the brutal murders.

As social commentary, Red Christmas doesn’t quite hold water, and it doesn’t stand up as a B-Movie either. Cletus’s true identity is rooted in an absurd concept, which certainly isn’t always a bad thing, but the film doesn’t treat it with the light, playful touch that the idea demands. Red Christmas is light on jokes, and those that make the cut are pretty weak.

Whilst the film is beautifully lit and boasts a strong cast, the murders in the first half are uninspiring. Several of Cletus’s victims are dispatched in precisely the same manner, and the technique loses its impact on every repeated instance.

The gory set-pieces later in the film make up for lost time, but Red Christmas doesn’t quite deliver on its promise of blood. The pacing of deaths later in the film leaves little time for them to register with the viewer. Instead, the suspense of the conclusion is lost in the sudden surge of violence.

All in all, Red Christmas can’t decide whether it wants to be a horror with a social conscience (however uncomfortable we may find it), or a shlocky slasher film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. A passable entry from director Craig Anderson, Red Christmas is occasionally thrilling but not the stuff of Christmas magic.

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