Saturday, December 15, 2018

December to Dismember: SECRET SANTA (2015)

Sometimes I feel like maybe I'm a bit too stringent with modern low-budget horror films. They are so easy to make, these days, and require so little money to produce, that every douchebag who thinks they are hilarious while doing shots with their asshole friends (see 2018's MOTHER KRAMPUS 2), can crank out a "horror" movie and actually make a couple bucks doing it. Wading, nostril-deep though these movies can make one pretty cynical, so when something comes along that is just shy of the mark, it makes it all the more painful.

Decidedly falling into the category of "a group of college friends make a movie", SECRET SANTA (not to be confused with the forthcoming film from Adam Markus of 1993s JASON GOES TO HELL), has trouble hitting the mark, but gets lots of points for trying.

A couple of college girls, Jenny and Clarissa (Keegan Chambers) come home early from the bars. Since Clarissa is chundering drunk, Jenny dumps her on the floor and goes to her room to find a secret Santa gift on her bed. Opening it to find a filthy, well-used power drill, she opens her door and shouts "whoever is screwing with me, it's 10pm on a Friday and I'm sober, so I am not in the mood!" Finally, someone has written a character that my college-age self can relate to. After taking a shower, because that's what girls do, she returns to her bedroom where the gift giver turns out to be a black clad, balaclava-wearing nutbar who proves to her that the drill, while dirty, is in fine working order by drilling out her eye. Damn, I was just starting to like her.

Fortunately for the viewer, as well as the killer, this appears to be a sorority house of sorts, except it is completely free of obnoxious Greek letters. So I guess it's just a house with a bunch of girls in it.

Cute and peppy Nicole (Annette Wozniak) in order to pay for her school tuition, has a sideline business involving lingerie, large vegetables and a web-cam. Her boyfriend Bryan (Brent Baird), is completely unaware of this as he is totally devoted to her. Well, aside from that one night with Clarissa, of course. There is also Liv (Nicole Kawalez), who is secretly dating Professor Ramsey (Tony Nashed), who is supposed to be significantly older, but is pretty much the same age. They plan on announcing their copulation-ritual bonding at a Christmas party that the girls are having at the house later on that night where they will do the old secret Santa thing. Ramsey is briefly flagged as a potential killer as he has a secret Santa gift in his drawer. One of a few weak attempts at throwing out some red herrings. There is also the hyper-active Dwayne (Geoff Almond), who doesn't study for tests, drinks lots of coffee and snorts white powder leading to comically erratic behavior. Surprisingly, he's not as annoying as he sounds.

Most of the running time of the movie is character pieces, such a Dwayne getting wired and sitting down to cram for the next day's test. Of course everything that can go wrong does and he ends up totally unprepared and tweaking in class, at one point hallucinating that Nicole's face is contorting like a bad Blumhouse horror movie. This finally leads us to the lame Christmas party in which Liv makes hors d'oeuvres out of Nicole's erm, used vegetables and we get lots of awkward silence after Liv's new BF and everyone's teacher, Ramsey, shows up. While the movie cruises along amiably enough on the cast's likability and some fun throw-away jokes, once your jokes turn into a '90s "Saturday Night Live" sketch in which everyone sits around in uncomfortable silence, my holiday generosity starts heading for the door. If I want to watch a movie that has long moments of silence, I'll watch a creepy Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie, thankyouverymuch.

In addition to bringing the movie to a screeching halt, this silent night plays with the awkwardness of Liv's new boyfriend being not only everyone's professor, but significantly older and a big fan of tweed sports jackets with elbow patches. While the role was clearly written with someone like Martin Mull in mind, what we get is a guy who is pretty much the same age as Liv and is very clearly not the stiff, whitebread type. Making things worse is the fact that Nashed seems even more lost in the role than his character. This really hurts the film's latter half, but the most glaring problem is... c'mon, everyone say it with me: "I thought this was a horror movie!?"

While written and directed by one man, Mike McMurran, the film is about a schizophrenic as they come. The majority of the movie is a rather enjoyable, low-budget college student comedy. Occasionally, first timer McMurran suddenly remembers he's trying to sell a horror movie and throws in some jarringly out of context gore sequences that I think he might be trying to play for laughs. Annoyingly he also feels that the whole thing needs to have the faux-grindhouse video filter with fake scratches, lab-marks and faded color. Personally I find this a major drawback on a horror film, but on a movie that is essentially a light comedy, featuring modern technology like cell phones and laptops, it's just absurd.

We do get a slasher film in the more traditional sense, clumsily shoehorned into the ass-end of the movie, however. People start opening secret Santa presents finding odd household tools and are killed with them. In one scene we get a little comedy when Clarissa attempts to seduce Dwayne out of sheer boredom and after discovering that doing massive amounts of stimulants *ahem* restricts male bloodflow, decides to take a bath (because that's what girls do). The killer who, amazingly is unseen or heard by anyone in the house at any time, had previously given her a hairdryer. Cackling maniacally, he throws it in the tub. Or he would have, if the cord hadn't been so short that it drops harmlessly on the floor. Having to resort to doing things the old fashioned way, he then clubs her to death with it. The old too-short-powercord gag is not a new joke, by far (it was even used in the porn slasher parody CAMP CUDDLY PINES POWERTOOL MASSACRE, back in 2005), and it's a fitting metaphor for this part of the movie as the joke falls short and the punchline is rather blunt.

The effects are occasionally executed with simple prosthetics, but typically we just get gallons of red Kayro syrup being splashed all over the place. While McMurran tries to keep the audience guessing as to who the killer is, it is all rather half-hearted, and the reveal isn't very interesting and is obnoxiously over-acted. It seems like yet again, this Christmas, we have another movie that really doesn't want to be a horror movie. In an unusual turn of events, I rather liked their oddball group of college students who, for once, actually seem like people I knew in college, instead of the idealized, hyperbolic, 25 year old college students we see in bigger budgeted slasher movies. Also, because it is a Canadian movie, there is actually snow in the exterior shots. As a Californian, I frequently don't even notice when a Christmas movie lacks snowy vistas, but I always appreciate it when they do. It's a free special effect and adds immeasurably to the ambiance. Imagine GHOST KEEPER (1981) without the powder; you'd just have some people lost in a house on some grass.

Hopefully McMurran can find his groove, I think he has potential to make a solid movie. Even, maybe especially, if it is just a comedy and not trying to be a horror film.

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