Saturday, December 22, 2012

December to Dismember: ELVES (1989)

Good subversive Christmas movies are hard to come by. They are usually independent, often so independent that they might never see the light of day but for the sucking vortex of DTV fodder for video store shelves back in the '80s. On the one hand, you have SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984), which was actually gleefully subversive, yet slickly executed for its million dollar budget, on the other hand you have ELVES (1989). It wants to be subversive and slick, but not even with a million dollar budget (this was clearly made for roughly the trade-in value of a '77 Ford Pinto) would writer-director Jeffrey Mandel manage to do anything other than trip-over his own shoe laces. I could say that this movie is the equivalent of a stocking full of coal, but at least coal is useful if you set it on fire. [2022 edit: I don't know why I was so down on this movie, it's actually a lot of fun and is intentionally funny in a way that isn't obnoxious and over the top]

Opening with a trio of high-school girls trying to light candles and read one of Grampa's old books in the middle of the woods at night, one girl, Kirsten (Julie Austin), accidentally cuts herself on the glass candle-holder dripping blood on to the ground. This causes the girls to flip out and run back to their respective homes. Kirsten's life pretty much sucks ass. While trying to return the book to wheelchair-bound Gramp's (Borah Silver) room, she gets caught and Gramps doesn't use his wheelchair as an excuse not to get a good beating in, slapping around Kirsten like a red-headed stepchild. Mom (Deanna Lund) decides the best way to punish Kirsten, is to clean out her personal bank account and give the money to her little brother Willy (Christopher Graham), who likes to spy on her in the shower... Which leads to this exchange:
Kirsten: "You pervert!"
Willy: "I'm not a pervert, I like seeing naked girls!"
Kirsten: "I'm your fuckin' sister!"
Willy: "Yeah, and you've got fucking big tits and I'm gonna tell everybody that I saw them!"
After a few more inflammatory comments, Willy finally says "Well fuck you! Mom says that she's giving me all your money, so fuck you!" This leads to an inevitable tickling, giggling and deep sighs, just like confrontations between siblings always do... right? Uhhhh, yeah.

The next day at work, at the local department store (which sounds like it's named "Golem's", so I'm just going to go with that), Kirsten and her friends decide to "goof" on Santa by sitting on his lap. When the coke-snorting letch decides that he is going to promise an extra special present to Kirsten, he whispers "oral" in her ear. Not the most interesting of cheap come-ons, but hey, you never know, he could be talking about Mr. Roberts. After getting a hand across his face, he is then promptly sent to his breakroom by the manager where he is stabbed in the crotch - to death - by the woodland creature while trying to keep his beard out of the dope. Ummm, why doesn't the creature use it's claws and razor-sharp teeth? And if you are going to steal a knife from housewares, why get that dinky vegetable knife? Strangely, the next day the store manager tells the cops "nothing like this has happened in Golem's in 50 years!" Wait, so are you saying that fifty years ago the department store Santa also got stabbed in the nuts while doing coke? What are the odds? Actually, it is small-town Colorado, so yeah, totally believable after all.

This Santa is bringing in his snow from Mexico...

Anyway, this mysterious murder leads to down-and-out, chain-smoking, ex-cop Mike McGavin (Dan Haggerty) to be given the job as Santa, as well as the same dressing room, complete with the chalk outline and bloodstains from the previous Santa. This piques his latent detective skills, as does the cryptic rune drawn at the crime scene. Hmmmm... has someone been watching too much Fulci? A Romero reference comes during a bit of dialogue in which we are told "when there is no more room in hell, the elves will walk the Earth." Well, apparently hell, is only over-crowded by one as there is only a single elf in this movie. That's right, the title is plural and even the tag line, "they're not working for Santa... anymore", states multiples, even the characters refer to "them" instead of "it"! Anyway, through keen insight McGavin sees through the mundane particulars of the case and decides he needs to gumshoe it. He discusses his plans with the detective on the case in an exchange that sounds like rejected dialogue from a BILL AND TED movie:

McGavin: "...I need a little time!"
Detective: "Alright, you have 24 hours pal! That enough time?"
McGavin: "I really don't know if that's enough time!"
Detective: "It better be enough time!"

Typecasting. It's a bitch. Or it is indicative of the (limited) range of an actor, if we're going to be cynical. If I say "Grizzly Adams" what are you going to say? Dan Haggarty of course! Haggarty lays on his soft-spoken, puppy-dog eyed, hard-luck ex-alcoholic (are you ever really an "ex"?) shtick with a trowel and largely spends his on-screen time smoking like a freakin' chimney. This guy brings a full carton of Camels into the department store coffee shop just to have a cup of joe. Hell, he even puffs his smokes while looking up evil rune lore in the local library. Incidentally, according to a nerd on the IMDb, evil runic lore is not found in section 666 as the librarian states, but since American libraries use the Dewey Decimal System, it would actually be found in section 130. Not nearly as interesting sounding, is it?

As we find out, Gramps is an ex-Nazi (are you ever really an "ex"?) who was involved in an experiment to create the master race by breeding progeny that will be able to have sex with an elf, creating the Aryan master race which is also The Anti-Christ! Ok, I have to admit, that's a pretty damn cool idea, if completely freakin' bonkers. Too bad Mandel is completely incapable of expressing it on film in any cohesive fashion. If there's one thing I can't fault the movie for (but other people might) it's the plethora of random strangeness. At one point Gramp's crazy Nazi buddies are looking for Kirsten and find her in the department store trying on lingerie with her friends in the middle of the night. Instead of slipping in silently and subduing her, they decide the best thing to do is start a massive firefight right next to the gun section (this is Colorado remember), for which McGavin actually sets aside his cigarette. This close-quarters shootout seems to be inspired by a Nick Millard film as it is simply cutting back and forth for seemingly endless time with nobody able to hit anybody else in spite of being ten feet away from each other! The best bizarre business is with Kirsten's mom, who is flat out psychotic. At one point she decides, for no adequately explained reason, to drown Kirsten's cat in the toilet before burying it in the yard. And why is Mom single? I can't imagine. In another scene she freaks out in the bathroom, smears lipstick all over her face and starts to write something in the mirror. We never see what it is that she writes - the next thing you know, her blatantly obvious body double is being electrocuted in the bathtub while what appears to be Leonardo Cimino nods his approval at the end of the tub.

Interestingly this film appears to have had some budget issues in the later phase of production. All of the footage that would be shot by a second unit is pretty well botched. Don't get me wrong, there is a shitload of fumbling going on during the regular scenes, but the second unit stuff is a total, unmitigated disaster. This is interesting as there is no second unit director credited, only a first and second assistant director, positions that don't handle any sort of actually shooting, and would seem to command more salary than this production can possibly afford. The prosthetic elf, that is only in insert shots, looks half finished is barely animated, limited to minor neck and eye movements, frequently looking like it has suffered a major stroke. The other parts of the elf are simply a rubber hand and rubber feet that are clearly being manipulated off camera and bend in silly ways (I guess that's why the elf needs a knife, his claws simply crumple when he grabs someone). Even worse, the lighting for these shots is usually a single, undiffused bulb that makes the prop look even more like something that you'd find in the back pages of Fango. I'd guess that maybe either the budget was mismanaged or that the funding suddenly ran out and perhaps this is why the movie says that there are "elves" when it is clearly an elf. Or perhaps they simply didn't know what they were doing. The big climactic finale where the kids kill the elf is actually nothing more than a whole mess of video feedback distortion with whooshing sound effects while Kirsten and Willy roll around on the ground for what seems like forever.

Can you see the hidden pattern
on this Official WWII Document?
It's too bad this movie never had a sequel, there's so much you could do right with the concept, instead of doing everything so very wrong. That said, there is some fun to be had here, depending on how amused you are by lines like "Life's a bitch. First you're Santa, then you die. Or in my case, they piss on ya." Words to live by, I reckon.

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