Sunday, December 31, 2017

December to Dismember: GOOD TIDINGS (2016)

On this final day of 2017, we close out our look at uncovered Christmas horror with another solid flick. After some of the most brutal independent horror assaulted our retinas, the Movie Gods decided to give us a reprieve. Nothing sums up this battle of good and bad better than this quote from painter Bob Ross: “Absolutely have to have dark in order to have light. Gotta have opposites - dark and light, light and’s like in life, gotta have a little sadness once in a while so you know when the good times come.” Amazingly, Tom and I got these gifts at roughly the same time. While he was watching the entertaining ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE (2015), I was taking in GOOD TIDINGS (2016). 

The UK was a particularly disappointing destination for us this month. After all, this is where one of the all-time classic Christmas horrors (the Santa segment from the original TALES FROM THE CRYPT [1972]) came from. Surely the Englishmen would do their country proud again. Well, with THE 12 DEATHS OF CHRISTMAS (2017) and CHRISTMAS SLAY (2015) as examples, they were not only doing their homeland a disservice, they were regressing the sub-genre they practically created. Thankfully Stuart W. Bedford swooped in at the last minute to bring us GOOD TIDINGS and remind us there is still some hope in the Limeys.

The film wastes little time setting things into motion as it opens with a drunk half-dressed as Santa stumbling toward his car. He is surrounded by three men with bandaged faces in hospital gowns and quickly loses his head...literally. The nutter trio pop the trunk of his car and find some Santa costumes with some of the most nightmare inducing masks. The plot proper begins with homeless Jon (Jonny Hirst) running into equally homeless Sam Baker (Alan Mulhall) while digging through a dumpster on Christmas day. While Sam fully admits he doesn’t trust easily, he takes Jon to a local homeless shelter/squat in an old courthouse run by Mona (Julia Walsh) and Paul (Garry McMahon). Of course the down-on-their-luck folks are all good hearted types, from the gruff-but-good-hearted Sam to recovering heroin addict Roxy (Claire Crossland). Naturally, Sam has a backstory and the former military man tells Roxy about how his life fell apart after his young daughter was kidnapped.

Danger soon rears its head(s) as the three killer Kris Kringles - who have been tooling around in the car they stole - arrive at the homeless shelter. Armed with an axe, machete and sharp candy cane (as any child can attest, the world’s most dangerous weapon), the trio lock up the main exit and sets a series of booby traps all over the building. Their timing couldn’t have been worse as Sam just brought up a phonograph from the basement and was going to play some happy Christmas music for an impromptu celebration. Cue massacre montage! (I’d probably prefer being killed than being forced to listen to Christmas music.) While the background hobos get sliced ‘n diced, our main characters split off into groups. Mona, Paul and Sam seek shelter in some cells, but see their problems compounded when Paul’s heart begins to go on him. Meanwhile, Roxy and Jon couple up and try to hide from the killers. The psycho Santas soon start capturing folks and, as movie logic dictates, the war-weary Sam must soon unleash his primitive self to fight back. As he says, “Sometimes a single man in the right position can be as effective as an army.”

Making his feature film debut, director/co-writer Bedford impresses with a film that is played completely straight. In lesser hands, this would have tried to be “retro” with film scratches added in post (my biggest gripe with genre cinema today). Obviously inspired by the cinematic works of John Carpenter, this could easily be called ASSAULT ON HOMELESS SHELTER 13 as it mirrors that “people trapped by anonymous killers” scenario pretty well. What I love here is that Bedford leaves the identity of the killers a complete mystery. Outside of their hospital outfits in the opening scene, there is virtually no backstory. Are they just escaped lunatics? Or is their a deeper connection to Sam? One scene might suggest that when one mentions Sam by name to Jon (in the only line of dialogue spoken by the killers). It is obviously an intentional (and brave) decision by Bedford and co-scripters Giovanni Gentile and Stu Jopia (who play two of the Santas). It is in the little details like this where Bedford shines. Another good example is when Roxy is helping Sam with his wounds and notices the scars all over his arms. A lesser film would have him launch into a monologue about his time in the service, but this just allows one tiny feature to do the “talking” for the audience.

Bedford also obviously studied Carpenter’s use of the widescreen format as there is some impressive staging. Not that he is implicitly copying Carpenter’s style as Bedford has his own shining moments. I particularly liked a scene where Mona and Paul try to get his medicine. They are confronted by one of the killer Santas and he just stands there and points his machete to tell them to go back to where they were hiding. He then follows them and the sounds of an attack are heard on the soundtrack as the camera holds on the empty room.

There is also a great scene where one of the Santas forces Mona and Roxy to pass a present back and forth. As they unwrap the layers (inside is Mona’s husband’s pill bottle), the tension gets greater and greater as the killer grows increasingly agitated.

Bedford’s handling is reinforced by a great score by Liam W. Ashcroft (who also played the third Santa). Ashcroft takes some Christmas standards and puts a nice sinister twist on them. For a low budget effort, the acting is great by nearly the entire cast. The cast for the homeless look appropriately downtrodden and Mulhall is a great casting choice for the lead. He certainly projects the weariness of the character and I was a bit shocked he only had a few shorts (including a couple by Bedford) to his credit. The three Santas also are given distinct “personalities” so you can tell them apart. If I had any complaint about the film, I thought the attack scenes could have used some more umph, for lack of a better term. Either it is the staging or the sound effects, but they don’t really pack the punch that they should. The big assault on the homeless folks around the 20 minute mark is a good example. For whatever reason, the tension isn’t really maxed out here and the attack just begins. That, however, is a minor quibble as GOOD TIDINGS (2016) is a welcome deviation from what has been a month of brutal viewings. Thankfully, like Bob Ross said, we can now appreciate the goodness thanks to bad times. The really really bad, soul crushing times. Happy new year!

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