Thursday 26 December 2019

Supermarket Sweep #11 Christmas Special! Reviews of Krampus: The Reckoning (USA 2015), Krampus Unleashed (USA 2016), Christmas Slay (UK 2015), Mrs Claus (USA 2018), Dead by Christmas (USA 2018) and Christmas Apparition (USA 2016)

Krampus: The Reckoning (USA 2015: Dir Robert Conway) Here's a low budget movie that really bit off more than it could chew concept wise.

Zoe (Amelia Haberman) is a young girl whose foster parents, a particularly nasty couple called Katie and Teddy, end up burned to a crisp when Krampus comes a calling. The creature here is a spectacularly cheap looking bit of CGI that bears very little resemblance to the folkloric Krampus creature, and, presumably because of the technical limitations, doesn't ctualy come into contact with his victims.

Dr Rachel Stewart (Monica Engesser), a clinical psychologist attached to the police, is called in to interview the decidedly tight lipped Zoe, whose only friend in the world seems to be a Krampus doll from whom she doesn't like to be parted. Aided by down on his luck police detective Miles O'Connor (James Ray), whose job in a small town city in Arizona is made difficult by the fact that charred corpses keep turning up, Rachel interviews the taciturn Zoe and finally discovers her link to the Krampus creature, but also Rachel's connection to the little girl and the Christmas demon.

Krampus: The Reckoning was the first of two movies directed by Conway to feature the Christmas Devil. And 2015 was a busy year for the creature, who featured in Krampus, A Christmas Horror Story and Deep in the Wood. K:TR is the weakest of these seasonal offerings, but it has a damned good try. Part police procedural, part psychodrama, it's let down by some flat performances and pedestrian direction. Oh and a terrible Krampus that looks like an inanimate superhero with horns. On the plus side Amelia Haberman is spitefully good as Zoe, the girl with a dark secret, and unlike other Krampus movies we'll be visiting in on this page, the story is way more than a guy in a monster suit killing people. It's pretty lame as a Christmas movie though; a few fairy lights and a sparsely decorated Christmas tree do not exactly fill the viewer with the yuletide spirit.

Krampus Unleashed (USA 2016: Dir Robert Conway) So Conway must have carried out some post K:TR focus groups and realised the errors of his previous Krampus movie, because this one, made just a year later, not only has a real (ie not CGI) demon but a tighter running time and a bigger commitment to making it a proper Christmas movie: it's still not good though.

KU has the obligatory prologue, set in 1898, involving a German outlaw, a group of prospectors and the discovering of a dark lump of rock called a 'summoning stone' which when exposed to flame brings forth the legendary Krampus.

After that, and the opening theme, a truly horrible out of tune version of the classic 'Let it Snow,' we're in 21st Century Arizona, where we meet a family en route to spend Christmas with the folks. Mum and dad, kids Fiona and Tommy arrive at the grandparents' ranch in the middle of nowhere, and are joined by brother and sister in law and their horrible son Troy. Prompted by the sight of granddad's prize nugget of gold, the men and boys of the family decided to go down to the creek to do a little prospecting of their own, running into local girl Bonnie on the way. But when Tommy finds a big black rock in the water, that looks suspiciously like the summoning stone we saw in the prologue, it's not long before Krampus is back on the prowl, the stone coming into contact with Troy's discarded cigarette.

In no way a sequel to Conway's 2015 movie, KU isn't that impressive but what it does have is some great local flavour in a town full of good ol' boys. We're in prime Trump territory here - everyone carries guns and hunting is the main passion in the area (the grandparents even have a decoration on their Christmas tree that reads 'Born to Hunt'). The Krampus figure doesn't look too bad, and benefits from being a real guy in a creature suit, and there's some impressive gore too: a disembowelment that we get so see a lot (Conway was clearly pleased with this effect); limbs lopped off and entrails pulled out, that kind of thing. Most of the acting is so so, but Taylor Buckley as Troy is worth singling out: he's such a loathsome teenager, one has the urge to smack him - good work, Taylor!

Christmas Slay (UK 2015: Dir Steve Davis) Davis is a micro budget director working within the Kent Independent Film network. Christmas Slay - slightly awkward title - was his first film (he's since made another seasonal outing, 2017's Christmas Presence, which doesn't seem to have seen the light of day yet), and isn't half bad for a debut feature, although as I've mentioned before with this type of movie, a certain amount of expectation adjusting is required.

It's Christmas Eve and a bad santa has broken into the home of a family. Not only does he scoff all the chocs in the advent calendar and have a go at the Christmas cake, he also kills both mum and dad, leaving the murder weapon in the hands of their daughter. But the police (call sign Sierra Lima Alpha Yankee - geddit?) are quick to arrive and before you know it he's whisked off to a maximum security hospital in Scotland, from which he effects an escape with some of the other inmates.

Three girls, Becky, Sarah and Emma, have journeyed to Scotland (although the exteriors were filmed in Bulgaria) to spend a get away from it all weekend in a ski lodge; a mini break of hot tubs, wine and most importantly no men. Emma has just split up with her bloke Ryan after he was caught out with Emma's best friend Chloe, only for the girls to find that Chloe has made the journey north to explain to her friend that nothing had happened between her and Ryan. Chloe makes herself useful by going into the nearby forest to get wood for the stove. But guess what? Our killer from the prologue, Simon, now on the run, has donned a Father Christmas outfit and is on the rampage, the ski lodge being conveniently near the hospital. As the girlfriends' guys turn up, the body count rises - who will be left?

Well it's pretty obvious that the 'final girl' in this one will be sensible Emma, although this sense does not extend to wearing much more than her skimpies while running about in the snow. The filming location looks genuinely cold and it's to the actors' credit that it doesn't always show on their faces (lots of quick takes I suspect). Christmas Slay is a definite throwback to 1980s slashers, although any promised hot tub sauciness fails to materialise - the movie isn't quite sleazy enough, although as Simon Frank Jakeman gives good axe. And well done to Davis for skirting the rights issues involved in procuring proper Christmas songs, and instead giving us some specially composed seasonal tunes by Matt Collins. Not bad at all if very rough round the edges.

Mrs Claus (USA 2018: Dir Troy Escamilla) More low low budget indie fare, this time a movie in thrall to the slasher boom of the 1980s.

In a prologue, wicked Amber, self appointed head of the Alpha Sigma Sigma sorority, mercilessly bullies sweet Angela with increasingly mean hazing rituals until the girl can't take it any more, murders Amber in her bed and then hangs herself.

Ten years later Angela's sister Danielle enrols at the same sorority house where her sister took her own life, a move which is not viewed well by the other pledgers, Kayla, Grant, Madison, Hannah, Monica and frat house cynic, podcasting Tyler, nor Amber's mother, who arrives at the house unexpectedly and starts shouting the odds; like mother, like daughter it seems. Danielle starts receiving threatening Christmas themed emails but things get really difficult when Grant's fuck buddy Sophie gets garotted in her car by someone dressed up as Santa Claus wearing a fright mask. From then on the bodies pile up as the suspects get reduced (in a nice touch after each pledger murder there's a shot of their Christmas stocking hanging on the mantelpiece) until the final girl - Danielle of course - goes head to head with the killer, who turns out to be...

I rather liked this film. Yes there's a lot of chatter - most of the movie involves the sorority house occupants sitting round talking - and the pacing is rather pedestrian, but the practical gore effects - including a beheading and that perennial favourite 'two on a spike' - are competent, and Escamilla spends quite a bit of time establishing the characters, who work well as an ensemble.

Dead by Christmas (USA 2018: Dir Armand Petri) For those of you who moan that movies should be able to deliver the goods within 90 minutes, rather than the two hours plus length of some features, along comes Armand Petri and shows how to sew the whole thing up in just under an hour (although relatively this is a rather bloated offering considering that his other 2018 film, Cajun Mystery, weighed in at just three quarters of an hour).

This one takes the questionable topic of church abuse - Spotlight this is not - when a group of former orphans return to the institution in which they were housed - and abused - as kids by the sinister Father Le Doux, who they in turn forced to kill himself.

Sister Mary Nicholas, who cared for the kids back in the day and who has remained at the St Jerome care home since its closure some years back, invites the now grown up former orphans for one last reunion. But one of their number, Sam, has died, reportedly taking his own life by gouging his eyes out. Not the usual means of ending it all then. Except that we know he didn't. He was visited at home by a freaky looking Santa Claus figure who did the gouging. And that same figure is about to make its appearance at the orphanage, with murder on his mind.

Dead by Christmas is nothing if not ambitious. It packs psychobabble, gore scenes, and self help homilies into its slender running time, and I liked its mix of social commentary and slasher antics. It also uses flashbacks well to piece together the story of what really happened at the orphanage, and wisely steers clear of any of the abuse details, concentrating instead on its impact on the assembled young people. It certainly doesn't outstay its welcome, and remains inventive and involving throughout, despite its micro budget and a range of acting styles.

Christmas Apparition (USA 2016: Dir Colleen Griffen) Griffen's second feature is actually also her first: originally released in 2013 as The Cold and the Quiet, it has since been repackaged under the slightly more genre title Christmas Apparition. Neither title really does justice to a film that for most of its running time is a rather creepy little thriller.

It's the end of term at college and student Emma (Katie O. Jones) hopes that, as usual, she can continue to stay on in her dormitory over the Christmas holidays. No such luck, as the college is replacing the heating system. It's telegraphed fairly early on that Emma is a girl with some issues, evidenced by an OCDness and a jar of pills at the side of the bed.

A chance meeting with a woman called Trish (Ellen Lancaster) in a cafe provides a possible solution to her accommodation issues: Trish has been let down at the last minute in her attempts to secure her usual babysitter so that she can get away from her kids for the holiday weekend. Emma, somewhat surprised, accepts the offer to look after Trish's kids (and Ralph the dog). After all it's her only option, based on a quick rejection by Emma's sister of her request to stay there, and a tense conversation with her mother which hints strongly that a return to the maternal home is not on the table.

A strange setup is made odder by the fact that when Emma arrives at Trish's house, the kids' mother has already left, leaving a bundle of cash and some emergency numbers on the table. Emma is left to meet the kids on her own: they are 17 year old Chrissy, a talented musician come wild child who needs no assistance in taking care of herself, and her silent, withdrawn brother William, who expresses himself via drawings and listening to classical music. A welcome present of a dead rat in her room should perhaps send Emma running for the hills, but she's determined to befriend the odd pair, and so begins a strange time of attempting to be surrogate mother for the weekend. But all the while her mental health threatens to make an already stranger situation more difficult to deal with, and William's drawings suggest the story of the real reason why their dad is no longer on the scene. While Christmas Apparition gets terribly muddled towards the end, for the most part this is a strange, alienating movie that really gets under the skin, aided by some terrific sound design by Joe Rabig and a great central performance by Katie O Jones.

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