Friday, December 8, 2017

December to Dismember: THE ELF (2017)

First off, I want everyone reading this review to look to the left and take in that amazing artwork. Kudos to the graphic designer who made that. It is colorful and vibrant. Most of all, it caught my eye when I stopped at a Redbox outside a grocery store. You did your job, mystery designer, and you did it incredibly well. Feeling the sense of adventure I had in my video store youth (and also feeling a tinge of guilt that Tom was suffering through all these modern Xmas horrors), I clicked the “rent” button, swiped my credit card, and soon had the disc in my hand. Damn you, mystery designer, damn you!

THE ELF opens with a short prologue of an old toymaker seemingly making his latest toy. But there is a twist as it is revealed he is actually sewing up the lips of a dead child. He has a naughty list on his table and something enters his home. Whatever it is, it scares him to death and his list is snatched by something with a monster hand. If you are hoping this is explained later, sorry. Cut to the present day where Nick (Gabriel Miller) and Victoria (Natassia Halabi) are checking out a antique toy store he has inherited. And by checking out, I mean cheeeeeeeeeeeeecking out. Lots of long shots of them looking at stuff. Victoria finds a photo album filled with photos of people holding the same toy (we never get a close up of the pics as apparently that was too much work) and a inventory book that is empty. Nick wanders into the back and finds a trunk that has inscribed on it “Whoever accepts this gift will be the soul of its contents.” Shit, better open that right away. Inside he finds an evil looking elf doll holding a knife and a naughty list.

Also inside are instructions that the owner can remove one name from the naughty list and Nick gets a occult seal magically burned into his left arm. Probably enough red flags to get Nick to leave the little figure behind.

Driving home we learn that our lead couple has issues. Victoria asks Nick if he wants to marry her (just like real life) and this results in an argument (just like real life!) that she has never met anyone from his family. Along the way home Nick stops for a one car accident and the driver (a dead ringer for Burt Young) is acting all weird. The logic of this movie dictates Nick just leaves and Victoria says, “What was that? Let’s not talk about it.” Sounds about right. The couple arrive at their newly inherited home (17 minutes in and it still hasn’t been establish who bequeathed all this stuff) and Nick is freaked out when he sees the elf on the shelf. And by freaks out I mean he stares wide-eyed at it for a long time. You see, Nick has an issue with Christmas. Victoria settles this by stuffing the thing in the trash. Nick goes to a take a shower and promptly freaks out when he has a flashback. Seems when he was a kid something really bad went down at a Christmas party at his house. Got to give the filmmakers credit here, the flashback is well done and the best part of the movie thanks to some surreal imagery (like a white Xmas tree in the middle of a lake at night) and staging (everyone at the part stands still as a young Nick walks through them).

With our lead struggling mentally, it is probably not best that Victoria has secretly invited her entire extended family to surprise Nick, offering the elf six new victims. Even worse it is Christmas Eve and a big storm is coming so everyone is stuck. First to get offed are grandpa and grandma after good ol’ granddad gets a hankering for some good ol’ USA liquor and not of that “Greenland shit.” The elf catches them in their car and kills them. Nick and Jeremiah (Joseph Daniel Ellis), Victoria’s brother, head out into the storm to find them. We actually get an interesting twist here as Jeremiah beats up Nick and tells him to call off his relationship with the sister. You see, the family doesn’t approve of Nick (for reasons I’ll explain in a sec). Of course, before Jeremiah can finish his pummeling, he is killed by the elf. Yay, elf? Back at the house, Victoria’s dad John (Lassiter Holmes) tells her he did some research on Nick and it turns out he is a survivor of the “Christmas Eve Massacre” from a few decades back. Turns out a bunch of party guests and Nick’s dad were killed and only Nick and his mother, who is now in a mental institution, survived. Just as dad finishes his plea, Nick pops back in rambling about a killer elf doll. And here we go!

Damn, did I already curse the poster designer? Okay, guess it is time to pile onto writer-director Justin Price. The script he has provided THE ELF has such a wrong headed logic that it is baffling. Very early on I knew something was off when I realized he hadn’t even established such basic tenants as character relations. Even funnier are muddled moments like the idea that a family that knows about Nick’s psychotic past would all show up for a surprise party all smiles. Later, when they reveal the truth to Victoria, her mother says, “We just didn’t know how to tell you all this.” Apparently neither did Price. To compound the shoddy screenplay problems even more, there is actually an interesting scenario that could be exploited within Price’s work that is totally avoided. Nick’s mental state could have the stock victims wondering if he was really the killer. Or, even better, maybe it could be his now crazy mother? You know, keep the audience guessing. Nope, the only sense of mystery you will get from this script is how did it get made. I’d excuse it as a novice filmmaker misstep, but according to the IMDb this is Price’s twelfth directorial effort. Goddamn, dude.

The script’s unsteadiness extends to Price’s direction as well. Hey, at least he is consistent. As an example, we’ll showcase the scene where Victoria’s mother is attacked by the elf. No joke, she enters a room and the elf slices her achilles tendon. She collapses to the floor and starts crawling around and looking for what did this to her. What is the one thing she doesn’t do? SCREAM! You know, shout something like, “Help me! I’m being attacked!” seeing as she is in a house with other people. Nope, getting attacked requires complete complicity from the victim. This might be the most egregious victim reaction I’ve ever seen in a horror film. Hell, maybe her vocal chords are in her ankle? Even worse, she finds Victoria’s cell phone when her friend Sky calls. She whispers that they are being attacked by someone and Sky’s first reaction isn’t to say, “Let me call the police right now.” Nope, she answers with the much more important, “Okay...what does he look like?” Sweet Jesus! Then again, I shouldn’t expect much from a filmmaker who has a scene where Christmas carolers show up, the dad opens the door as they are singing, and they cut to an establishing shot of the house where they aren’t there (to compound this error, when the elf attacks the group, he does make sure to have a shot of them outside standing there). Of course, we’re easy folks here so some bad ass elf attacks would put Price’s piece on our “Nice” list. Nope. Just choppily shot action scenes with minimal blood. Is there anything positive to say about THE ELF? Well, it was shot in Texas but Price didn’t use that excuse to be lazy and not show a winter storm. Yes, he actually makes an effort to create a snowy landscape. Also, the design of the elf is kind of cool (not as cool as the poster though, dammit!). If only it had been featured in a better movie. In closing, we suggest leaving THE ELF on the shelf (or in the Redbox machine).

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