Tuesday, December 8, 2020

December to Dismember: UGLY SWEATER PARTY (2018)

[by William S. Wilson]

Remember as a kid when you asked for a Big Wheel for Christmas? Each day was excruciatingly long as you pined for the tricycle of the 1970s Gods. When the day finally arrived, you were excited to find that Big Wheel box under the Christmas tree, but continued to feel that agonizing wait as your dad had to put this plastic pedal transportation together. With each intense minute that passed, the dreams in your head of hopping on the seat and taking off down the street at 50 miles-per-hour grew bigger and bigger. Finally, after hours of anticipation, you are able to jump on, put your feet on the pedals, summon all of your 5-year-old energy...and slowly drag out of your driveway at a snail’s pace. The point of this story? UGLY SWEATER PARTY is the movie equivalent of that disappointing Big Wheel experience.

The film opens with Detective Brolin (Brad Potts) interrogating serial killer Declan Rains (Sean Whalen) at a black site. The cheapo nature of the production is showcased right away as it is clearly a bedroom with some sheets and fake cobwebs thrown on the walls. You couldn’t find a dingy basement? As Brolin tells his partner, Rains is a real sicko who “chopped up four families on Christmas Eve” and the cackling killer reveals Satan gives him all of his power. If you think the Lord works in mysterious ways, wait until you find out that Satan possessed Rains via a ugly Christmas sweater with a glowing pentagram in the chest. The cops eventually wrap his noggin in Christmas paper before blowing his head up. The blood splatter spells “Merry Fuckin’ Christmas” on the wall.

Cut to our lead characters Cliff (Charles Chudabala) and Jody (Hunter Johnson) as they prepare to head out to a holiday party. To let you know the kind of film this is, Jody’s intro has him shaving his pubic hair and catching one of his balls in the clippers. Yeah, it’s that kind of film. The duo are heading out to a campground at the invitation of fraternal twins Susan (Tiffani Fest) and Samantha (Emily “Don’t Givea” Dahm), a pair of wild party animals they encountered during spring break. What Jody didn’t tell Cliff is that this was an ugly sweater party and, for some odd reason, showing up without one really angers Cliff. Turns out they are in luck though as they encounter a disheveled and disoriented Brolin stumbling on the road on the way up there and buy the demonic ugly sweater off him. Problem solved but new problem gained as Cliff is quickly possessed by the spirit of Declan Rains. Naturally, this causes him to have bloody visions and sweat.

Our boys soon arrive at their destination of Camp Mandix (say it outloud). As if the scrotum slicing mentioned earlier was indication enough, we then get beaten to death with Mandix jokes. The film gushes with throbbing Mandix jokes. The owners are Mr. Mandix (Marv Blauvelt) and Mrs. Mandix (Felissa Rose), who are the parents of Susan and Samantha. And it is here that horny Cliff and Jody get hit with the biggest case of Christmas blue balls as they find out this is a Christian camp and their love interests have been born again (“Oh, sweet! You got your vags tightened?” says Jody; uh, yeah). The boys get introduced to various reborn sinner types around the camp and there are some funny lines here (“Alan used to be addicted to European porn.”). Unfortunately, the ugly Christmas sweater is slowly starting to take over Cliff and makes him kill random people so he can drink their blood. The more blood, the more the sweater’s power grows. Not only that, but the sweater has an inexplicable power to make people forget the horrors they have witnessed. So it is up to Jody to save his demon friend and the day as he teams up with psychic goth girl Hanna (Lara Jean Mummert) to bring an end to this yarn. Ah, boo yourself.

As I mentioned in the intro, UGLY SWEATER PARTY is a disappointment and now I’ll try to articulate why without offending the director. Damn, this is gonna be tough. No doubt about it, the film contains an absolutely killer premise. Since the rise of ugly sweater parties in the early 2000s, it has been fertile ground for a horror movie. And then you get a synopsis like this: “An ugly sweater party turns into a bloodbath when an evil Christmas sweater possesses one of the partygoers.” An evil Christmas sweater that possesses someone? Good GAWD! My mind is ablaze with crazy ideas like the sweater weaving itself into the flesh and sinew of its host. Unfortunately, there is a wide divide between idea and execution. Look, I’m not going to hide anything from you in our relationship so let’s be blunt: The sweater in this film isn’t even a sweater. It is a yellow hooded sweatshirt. How do you screw up the thing you build your entire premise around? I guess UGLY SWEATSHIRT PARTY just didn’t have that ring to it?

Muddled execution seems to be the MO for writer-director Aaron Mento as visually this film is a total mess. It is garishly color corrected and edited like a seizure. I swear Mento (the freshmaker), who also edited the film, downloaded a video filter package and wondered which one he should use before screaming in his best Gary Oldman, “Every onnnnnnne!” No joke, in the opening scene we get a black-and-white filter, grainy film filter, grindhouse “damaged film” filter, and negative film image filter, sometimes in back to back shots. There is no rhyme or reason behind these. They are just splattered all over the image. Hell, in some scenes the same shot will be color corrected differently. Here is a perfect example.

How this scene starts:

How it looks a minute later:

I honestly can’t tell if this is intentional or not, especially since Mento’s company is called Ocular Migraine Productions. “So yeah, mission accomplished!” says Tom.

This special kind of chaos lends itself to the scripting as well. The whole thing is chaotic and unfocused and I suspect Mento was going for an over-the-top Troma feel. For example, a big thing in the finale is how the leads get ahold of a laser gun to free the possessed Cliff by blasting him in the balls (again, it’s that kinda film). So how does this weapon get there? In the most un-organic way possible as Mento includes a disgruntled groundskeeper who builds it to get his revenge and drive miles to the camp. Oh, did I forget to mention this allows for a building montage where he constructs the device while the ghosts of a death metal band (the deliciously named Omicida) play in the background. You couldn’t work this character and plot device into the camp area and instead went for a “screech my film to a halt” approach? And how on God’s green Earth do you have a scene where Felissa Rose of SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983) fame is flashed a penis and she doesn’t crack a joke? Like they should have had that shot and then cut to a close up of her saying, "Man, I haven't seen one like that since I was at sleepaway camp as a kid." How do you miss a dick joke that is so...ahem...firmly in your grasp?

As I said, the reason all of this hurts is because there is the germ of a fantastic film in here. In addition, several of the cast members are good. Charles Chudabala has some great comedic timing as lead Cliff, Lara Jean Mummert is good as the sardonic goth chick, and Marv Blauvelt is amusing as the more-than-bi-curious Mr. Mandix. There are even some genuinely funny lines in there, like when Cliff shows up covered in blood after killing Mrs. Mandix and her husband screams, “Oh, dear God! Is that my wife’s blood?” But all of the good stuff is essentially lost in a sea of sloppy filmmaking and juvenile overflowing dick jokes. Haha, he said overflowing dick jokes.

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