Friday, December 28, 2018

December to Dismember: SECRET SANTA (2018)

Yes, I know I already talked about a movie called SECRET SANTA (2015), but since videomakers are now scraping the bottom of the title barrel just as much as we are scraping the Christmas horror barrel, we have yet another one. This one however is quite different, for many reasons, but mainly because this is the latest movie from once hyped filmmaker Adam Marcus. Adam Marcus, as I'm sure you remember, was the guy who in 1992 was making horror fans go batshit over his new effects-laden entry in the FRIDAY THE 13TH series, JASON GOES TO HELL (1993). Budgeted at approximately $2.5 million, it pulled in $7.5 million on opening weekend. This may not sound like much in today's market of studio blockbusters that frequently pull in 100 times that number in a world-wide grosses, but no matter what your budget is, pulling in almost 3 times that amount on opening weekend qualifies it as a hit. It grossed over $15 million world wide, which isn't fantastic, but it was very successful on video and it should be pointed out, this was the early '90s. A time where even the alleged fanbase was turning their noses up at "horror" films, preferring movies marketed as "thrillers" or (ugh) "a thinking-man's horror film". I seriously wanted to slap the shit out of pretentious fanboys who claimed that everything they liked was a "thinking man's horror film".

People can, and will continue to, debate the merits of JASON GOES TO HELL, but one thing is for sure, writer-director Marcus should have gone on to other big (for the era) things. Yet in between now and then, he has directed a low-budget DTV romantic comedy, a low-budget theatrical Val Kilmer thriller and wrote the script to the abysmal quasi-sequel TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D (2013). SECRET SANTA is his return to horror directing, so you would think that it must be a damn sight better than miserable crap like RED CHRISTMAS (2016), right? Right?! Oh sweet baby jeezus, what have I done to deserve this lump of coal? Actually that's not fair. At least coal can serve a purpose if you set it on fire.

The shot-on-digital movie opens by introducing us to a variety of worthless jerks who are driving to one of the family's vacation homes (in Big Bear, CA) to celebrate Christmas. Neurotic Uncle Carter (Curtis Fortier) and stuttering son Kyle (Drew Lynch) are in one car, spastic stepson Jackson (Nathan Hedrick) and stripper girlfriend Jacqueline (Michelle Renee Allaire) are in another. We know this movie is going to be painful, not because the driving sequences are done in parked cars with CGI road signs and tree reflections in the windows, but because Jackson is getting a blowjob while shouting Christmas carols and screaming things like "Christmas makes me so hard!" If there was any sort of god, this character would die in a car accident before even making it to the house. Unfortunately god is the only one who is dead and we have to put up with this frothing-at-the-mouth approach to acting for another 85 freaking minutes.

There's also April (A. Leslie Kies - not to be confused with The Leslie Kies), the good, mentally stable daughter who we are supposed to relate to, and her boyfriend Ty (Michael Rady) who is a lawyer who is trying to get in good with April's rich tycoon dad Leonard (John Gilbert). Then there is the fat, unattractive sister Penny (Ryan Leigh Seaton), who resents all of these assholes and listens to death metal. I thought that this would be the character I could relate to, but no. She is also a completely selfish, obnoxious, infantile asshole and her "punk" attitude is betrayed by her festive Christmas sweater.

At the house everyone is greeted by the super-WASPy, foul-mouthed mother, Shari (Debra Sullivan) and Aunt Carol (Pat Destro), who are cut from pretty much the same affected, face-lifted cloth. Vile harpies who never have a kind word, unless it is hiding a venomous cut-down. Just like in real life! Shari, in addition to being sneering and hostile, takes credit for Christmas dinner in spite of the fact that she has (predominantly) black caterers and servers who she refers to as "the help". The catering chef (Freddy John James) gets into the Christmas spirit by being snippy and passive aggressive to the woman who is giving them a paycheck. This is pushing the boundaries of my suspension of disbelief. In reality he would have just rolled with it and then he and the rest of the crew would have bitched about her over drinks after the gig.

In an attempt to make some sort of a homicidal version of THE REF (1994), with its realistic hatred and venom that the family has for each other, the bulk of the first half of the movie is these horrible people just saying the most crass things Marcus can think up. Things boil to a head (™ Will Wilson) while they play a strange version of Secret Santa at the dinner table. Penny, who is allergic to turkey, gets tickets for a tour of Europe. As we find out, she was denied this very same thing as a teen when someone didn't tell her that the meatballs they were serving at school had turkey in them. This someone turns out to be April, who is teary and apologetic, but only serves to inflame the already caustic tensions, leading to a verbal assault on Dad, who decides that the best course of action is to stab Uncle Carter in the throat with a fork. This leads to an all-out brawl with Jackson turning up the crazy to 12. That's two higher.

For some reason the caterers get involved, instead of sensibly packing up and leaving, and they all manage to lock Dad and Jackson in a room with Uncle Carter's corpse.
Caterer: "Why is the lock on the outside of the door?"
Mom: "It was the children's room."
Caterer: "Yeaaaaaah?"
Mom: "Sometimes children shouldn't be heard or seen."
That joke would have actually been funnier if Marcus hadn't felt the need to spell things out. This joke could have been sold with just the first two lines and a facial expression. Did I just critique the comedy? Sorry, I forgot what kind of movie I was watching.

So obviously Marcus has some childhood issues he's still working on. While I can kind of relate to some of these "unsupportive" family woes, it doesn't mean I want to spend 85 minutes watching a hyperbolic version of it. Shouted lines like "every growing boy needs some black dick!", I'm sure will appeal to 13 year olds who like to scream verbal assaults during marathon "Call of Duty" sessions. That is, unless you are one of Marcus' friends, such as Alan Jones, Kim Newman and various horror blogs that you've probably never heard of. The SECRET SANTA website is filled with pull-quotes extolling incredible accolades of "brilliant", "smart", "savvy" and "genius". All I can say is, Marcus must be one hell of a cool guy to hang out with to get that kind of knob-gobbling from at least two people who are fairly well respected movie nerds. I strongly suspect that the others were the kind of peeps who write enthusiastic reviews in exchange for free discs.

Suddenly the family members start becoming even more loud and obnoxious (it honestly didn't seem possible), while each one says "is it hot in here?" before turning homicidal, and ultimately quite blistery. This leads to folks trying to escape, but not being able to find keys (they've been hidden) or phones (they got punch spilled on them) and Jackson and Leo have escaped the room to hunt them all down as they all go nuts and run around trying to kill each other. It would seem like it would be a relief to have some cliched slasher action finally, but it's not. Nathan Hedrick is so completely over the top in the "normal" scenes, that once his character Jackson becomes a killer, he has to crank it up so loud that it makes the killer in DREAM STALKER (1991) seem as subtle as Laurence Olivier. Not only does he do the whole gleefully licking-the-blood-off-the-weapon thing and shouts "don't run away, I just want to fuck you to death!", but he also grabs a severed head, shoves it in his crotch and yells "it's not gay if they're dead!" This joke brings a new meaning to the phrase "low hanging fruit".

Adding insult to injury, Marcus even lifts a classic moment from John Carpenter's THE THING (1982), in which Penny is tied to a chair and says "I know you've been through a lot tonight, but I'd rather not spend the rest of the winter tied to this fucking chair!" Fuck you Adam Marcus. I know you are going to claim that it's "a tip of the hat", but it's not. Seriously, fuck off. He also seems to think that anti-semantic rants are hilarious and we have quite a few here with diatribes about "jew money spewing" from someone's "cunt" and so forth. Of course, he completely wimps out on making any racist/phobic "jokes" about blacks and gays (or really anyone else except an obvious joke about the stripper being a post-op transgender). If there is anything Marcus should have learned from decades of SOUTH PARK it is that if you are going to do "offensive" comedy, you need to insult everyone. If you start picking and choosing which ethnicity or minorities to say hateful things about, that makes you not a comedian, but a bigot. I don't need to watch a movie for that. I can go on Twitter, turn on Fox News or listen to the Orange Clown who keeps vomiting all over my TV set.

Ultimately we find out that the punch was spiked by someone, even though that someone became blatantly obvious in the first half hour. Bizarrely, Marcus' script is so hastily written that he needs to a few insert a silent, black and white clips during the end credits to explain what the actual plot was about. The thing that is making people crazy is literally explained in a single shot of some text that someone wrote on a piece of paper. That is not "genius", that's sloppy. Also sloppy is the camerawork. Sure there are some well composed shots for a hand-held shot-on-digital kind of thing, but Marcus seems to have kept his camera on autofocus leading to blurry shots and shots that snap in and out of focus when the camera gets confused as to which plane of focus to focus on. Either that or the cameraman was drunk. Either way it's not something that should be coming from someone who worked in the studio system at one time.

I actually had some hope that this would be a little more slick and well conceived than most of the low-rent shot-on-video dreck that passes for Christmas horror movies. It had not only the guy who made JASON GOES TO HELL, but it is co-produced by the legendary ex-K in KNB, Bob Kurtzman, who was also responsible for what one would assume would be stellar effects work. What I should have payed attention to is the fact that as of this writing, the movie has only played festivals and been released on DVD in the UK. Considering what makes it onto American video shelves (both physical and virtual), it should tell you something. Even Kurtzman can't save this one as his make-up services are few (squirting CGI blood is the order of the day here) and not very impressive. The biggest gag is a head that is severed with a shovel (yes, lifted from 1985's RE-ANIMATOR) and the prop head is the kind of quality that you'd expect from a no-budget digital horror movie, but not from someone with such an impressive pedigree. Now excuse me while I cross some names off of my "nice" list. Clearly Krampus still needs to visit a few more people this year.

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