Wednesday, December 25, 2019

December to Dismember: A CHRISTMAS TO DISMEMBER (2016) / DEAD BY CHRISTMAS (2018)

Ho, ho, ho! “Wait, what did you call me,” says our faithful reader(s). Merry Christmas! This year we’ve decided to give everyone a gift. Unfortunately, it is like that gift you never really wanted like a shoe horn, a pair of black-and-white checkered pants (hey, some folks like them!), or an Eli Roth movie on disc. Yes, we’re going to be doing some deep cuts when it comes to the Christmas horror genre. Deep cuts in both senses of the term in that they are really obscure selections that even the most fervent fan has never heard of; and deep cuts because when we watch them they hurt us down to our core. So, in the spirit of giving, we are going to do a tag team of reviews of Christmas horror shorts. William is up first with a review of…

Jeez, if there is ever a title that would be perfect for our “December to Dismember” category, this might be it. Well, like every Christmas, disappointment is always creeping down our chimney. The film opens in the perfect location for a Christmas set horror film - the woods of Canada without a single snowflake in sight. Wait, I take that back, there are Cameron (Alex DiSanto, who also directed this) and his friend Rita. The duo are just sitting around delivering unhuman-like dialogue that lets me know this is going to be a rough 40 minutes. Seriously, who talks like this?

Cameron: We’re not leaving until we explore the rest of the forest.
Rita: But it’s mucky!
Cameron: Yeah, but it’s beautiful and isolated.
Rita: Well, we should have a party here!

The duo decide they should search the river for a classmate’s stash of hidden hash. Bad news for Rita as the only thing she finds is a killer in a Santa Claus outfit who kills her with an axe. Cameron eventually walks around a tree and finds her bloody body. He just stands there, shaking his head in shame as if he caught her stealing hot dogs. Freakin’ Cameron, man!

We then cut to a high school where a group of kids are in detention.With Cameron is a trio of girls: Veronica (Jennifer McNamara), the bitchy one because she is always bitching and is the quasi-leader; Samantha (Emma Fulton), the other bitchy one but with pink hair; and Bailey (Riley Anderson), the sarcastic one because she is wearing a shirt that says “Sarcastic Comment Loading (please wait).” These kids are rebels as they pull a THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985) and leave the classroom to wander their Christian school. This is a marvelous scene where we are shown two minutes and forty-five seconds of hallway wandering. Yes, I clocked it because I wanted to know how much of the film’s 40-minute running time was spent on hall wandering. I blame Cameron. Freakin’ Cameron, man!

Cameron and Veronica then walk home and talk about going to a party. As a lowly junior, Cameron questions why he would go to party with older kids and Veronica says, “Because it will boost your rep.” F’N Cameron! However, Veronica’s rep is about to take a hit because the Santa Claus killer catches her alone. He throws a rock that hits her in the back of the head so hard it pops her eye out. Sheeeeeet, someone needs to recruit Santa to the track team for the shot put event. That boy got an arm! As usually happens with a death in high school, everyone is really bummed out. Haha, just kidding. Per MEAN GIRL code, Samantha insists she is now the group leader. Later, Samantha, Bailey, and newly-introduced friend Matthew (Erin Hilberdink) head on over to Cameron’s for his raging Christmas party. And by raging I mean a riveting present exchange scene. I did marvel that someone gave Cameron a VHS copy of the HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR episode “Guardian of the Abyss” on the Elvira Thriller Video label. Yes, I’m a VHS nerd. Just like my boy Cameron. Freakin’ Cameron, man!

The party takes a dramatic turn when Samantha asks Cameron, “Do you still have that book with the Ouija board?” Soon enough they are contacting the dead Veronica and ask her who killed her. “S...A...N...T...A” she spells out with the planchette. Obviously speaking with the dead freaks the group out and they split. Haha, just kidding, Samantha heads to the basement to get more soda and is quickly disemboweled by the Santa killer. She doesn’t scream. The remaining kids eventually find her body after Bailey delivers one of my favorite lines of the year: “Did anyone hear that loud thump downstairs?” Guuuurl, why you gotta shade her weight? In perhaps the greatest scare for teenagers, the kids find out all of their cell phones are missing. They opt to stay put in the house after Cameron says, “It all makes sense. He took all of our phones thinking we’d go outside to the neighbors for help. So he is probably out there waiting for us. What we should really do is barricade ourselves in here til morning.” Freakin’ Cameron, man! Also, I don’t want to criticize (I’ll do that in the next paragraph), but Cameron keeps saying “he” when talking about the killer. Seeing as there is only one male in the group, me thinks DiSanto might have slipped up and revealed who the killer is. Yes (SPOILER IF YOU ARE EVER INSANE ENOUGH TO WATCH THIS) freakin’ Cameron is the killer and he is doing it because he finds his friends “evil, manipulative people” that are “filthy and disgusting!” And I thought my high school years were awkward. (END SPOILER)

Goddang, I actually feel kind of bad if I rip this one apart because this is basically kids in high school making a movie and I really wanted to “be best” this holiday season. Plus, I’d hate to dissuade anyone from their dreams. Rest assured this is amateur hour...well, amateur forty minutes really. It is full of wonky filmmaking, goofy store-bought masks, silly blood gags, and stilted acting. Trust me, I know because I made a similar slasher when I was in high school back during the Civil War. DiSanto is apparently a Canadian auteur who has delivered earlier short films such as NIGHTMARE IN PSYCHO TOWN (2014) and MEAT PIE MASSACRE (2015). You can tell he has an affinity for 1980s horror films (just check out his bedroom wall in the pic to the right) and he seems to be emulating his faves here. Unfortunately, he forgot to copy the good parts like suspense, terror or creative kills. I don’t want to be overly negative because it is clear he has an enthusiasm for the work, so I’ll focus on some of the positives. There is a dream sequence toward the end where Bailey sees herself in the forest that is juxtaposed with a surreal thing where Cameron is being cut by a person in a mask that reminds me of one worn in THE REDEEMER (1978). Here DiSanto delivers a bit of surrealism as Bailey encounters a masked killer hanging ornaments on a tree. It isn’t a knockout scene, but it definitely made an impression. There is also some good music throughout the film. Based off that, I’d encourage DiSanto and his entourage to keep it up. Yes, my Christmas gift this year is unhealthy motivation. I hope he continues to explore his passion well into his college years. And speaking of which, that is the perfect segue for me to tag Tom in for his review of...

Remember a week or so ago how I said something that implied that I hit a low-point? No man has ever been so wrong in his life (well, except Harvey Weinstein, but I meant about terrible Christmas movies, not about life in general). Sure I complain bitterly about Uncork'd seducing me with great covers and misleading titles, Artsploitation writing checks that their movies can't cash, but I have no excuse here. Sporting a couple of still frames and a title generated in Microsoft Word, this entry not only cannot hit anything close to a feature running time, but can't even be bothered to get someone to illustrate a half-way enticing piece of promotional art. How hard is it to have your buddy Jeff doodle something during math class? This lack of effort should have set off a legion of red flags. I mean, it did, but I had to forge a head ("forge" meaning to hit something with a hammer).

A group of college-age losers who all grew up in the same orphanage decide to get together for Christmas after one of their number supposedly commits suicide by stabbing himself in the eyes with candy canes, or as one character refers to them "that sharp thingy" (I'm not making that up). We are shown that he was in fact killed by someone in a Santa suit, which is supposed to lead to some upcoming suspense. The house that they plan to meet up at is the home of Sister Mary (Dawn Streeck), the nun who worked at the orphanage with a Father LeDoux (Vince Rodriguez). Apparently, the group harbors a deep, dark secret about their time at the orphanage, which everybody talks about, without actually telling the audience what they are talking about.

When they aren't talking about stuff that they don't want to talk about, we get their internal monologues in voice-over sounding as if they are being read off of a cue card for the first time. The lead girl Carla (Holly Bonney), is constantly musing pubescent poetic introspective thoughts, such as "The rain comes. The rain goes. This is life" and "Christmas is the season of giving. But can you truly give when you're holding back?" If I had to listen to that all of the time I'd stab myself with "that sharp thingy" too.

When the group aren't sullenly arguing about who got worse abuse at the lecherous hands of Father LeDoux (without actually saying that they were abused), they wander around a Christmas craft fair looking at various bits of junk while grating Christmas music plays in the back ground. Or they walk across a street, or talk in front of an utterly insane OCD Christmas nightmare house that looks like a very special holiday episode of HOARDERS. This is intended to be heart-warming. It is not.

Even though nobody will actually say what happened at the orphanage, we get plenty of flashbacks of kids drinking tea, Sister Mary looking scared and Father LeDoux leering, so it becomes really obvious what was going on, long before the characters actually bother to spell it out. After seemingly weeks, but in fact only about a half an hour, of nothing happening (except the lead male taking a shower, if that's your thing), our killer Santa shows up and does something to the back of the supposedly grunge gurl Tessa (Hilary Porter). We don't see what it is, but it sounds like burning and there is close-up of an outline of a gingerbread man in blood on her back. I was assuming he was supposed to have carved it in her skin with something, until there is a shot of a baking tray with cookie cutter shapes of skin on it. They literally couldn't be bothered to even try to make a crappy effect of having fake skin peeling off of a red "wound". Hell, they couldn't even be bothered to paint the inside of the cookie cutter shape red!

This leads to more flashbacks, more talking about feelings, and a couple of other cheap, mostly off-screen kills. By this time we know exactly who the Santa killer is and pretty much why the kids are being killed as the "clues" are thuddingly obvious from the start. Even worse the ending explanation goes on foreeeeeeever (about 10 minutes, one fifth of the movie's running time.) [Spoilers Commence] As it turns out, Sister Mary, an enabler of Father LeDoux's sexual abuse of the children, is dressing up in LeDoux's Santa outfit and killing the kids in an act of revenge for them complaining about the abuse, which lead to the priest's suicide. In reality, of course, this is a bit unbelievable as priests don't shoot themselves in the head, because that's a sin. Sexually assaulting children is apparently just a moment of weakness, and is easily fixed by having the bishop cover it up. In a final twist, Sister Mary keeps one of the girls (Maggie Buck) alive and permanently paralyzed with poison tea, blaming the murders on her as she sits comatose on the sofa. The detective on the case sees nothing suspicious about this, or Mary's unprovoked protestations of innocence.

Shot on digital video with a budget that strains to the breaking point just to buy a Santa costume, director Armand Petri has made a few other short and feature length no-budget movies, a few of which have some nice, fake reviews on the IMDb. This is his latest to date and if this is how much he has progressed over the past few years, then there is zero hope. For him as a filmmaker and for me watching anything else in his oeuvre. The directing is clumsy, the production valueless and the writing is puerile. I'm not sure where the actors come from, but the performances feel like Petri simply invited some of his friends over for the weekend. Adding insult to injury, the short running time is padded out with so much dead wood that even at under an hour, the movie drags to the point of madness, particularly since it is obvious who dunnit by the 10 minute mark. I'm pretty sure the title is irony defined, as I'm not sure we made it out of this festive month alive.

- Thomas Sueyres

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