Monday 18 December 2023

Scary Christmas Round up of New (ish) Holiday themed Horror Movies 2023: Reviews of There's Something in the Barn (Norway/Finland 2023), It's a Wonderful Knife (UK/USA/Canada 2023), Amityville Christmas Vacation (USA 2022), He Knows (USA 2022), XXX-Mas (USA 2023), Santa Isn't Real (USA 2023) and The Sacrifice Game (USA 2023), The 12 Slays of Christmas (USA 2022) and Christmas Bloody Christmas (USA 2022)

For some reason I didn't do this last year; it's a thread I've been running under one title or another since 2018, so it's a bit of a DEoL seasonal tradition. Here's a bumper post of 9 Christmas themed fright flicks which either came out last year, are out now or will be out (hopefully) soon:

There's Something in the Barn (Norway/Finland 2023: Dir Magnus Martens) In this sprightly but desperately unfunny horror comedy, a family of four uproot from California to snowy Norway to take up residence in a house left by a relative.

The kids feel the displacement greatly. As a stroppy teenager Nora (Zoe Winter-Hansen) misses her friends and hates everything about the move, whereas younger brother Lucas (Townes Brunner) maintains more of a childlike sense of wonder, particularly when he glimpses an elf (Kiran Shah) that lives in the dilapidated barn (that’s the ‘something’ in case you were wondering) which mum and dad want to fix up as a rental; the barn not the elf.

People in the town, a not particularly friendly bunch, and a local police officer (an amusing turn from Henriette Steenstrup) originally deny knowledge of elves in the vicinity, but Lucas finds out that to get along with the little chap, one needs to minimise noise, light etc. Too late as Christmas approaches and the family are intent on illuminating the barn, firing up the Christmas tunes and plying the locals with grog. Such flagrant disregard of the basic tenets of elf civility are met with fury, not just from the original behatted geezer but his mates too, and very soon it’s a family vs elf fight to the death.

Plus points; it looks great. It’s beautifully lit and the colour palette is gorgeous, really playing up the Christmas greens and reds. When the falling snow gathers among the forest firs, it’s quite something.

The downside; it’s the most obviously scripted film I’ve seen this year. Not one of the gags lands and I counted at least four occasions when I knew what was going to be said next well before it was uttered. Everything is overplayed to breaking point – this does not make things funny. And the second half of the film derives its ‘humour’ from watching people of restricted height run around dressed as elves and falling over; for a very long time. I could have understood the movie better if it was played for bad taste, but it actually comes across like a PG flick with a bit of gore and a few f-bombs. Really not very good at all.

(a version of this review originally appeared on the Bloody Flicks site)

It's a Wonderful Knife (UK/USA/Canada 2023: Dir Tyler MacIntyre) This initially clever take on Capra's seasonal Christmas classic doesn't only play on the title; it takes the central plot idea for It's a Wonderful Life but sadly doesn't really know what to do with it once the movie gets going.

In an extended but entirely necessary prologue, town goody goody Winnie (Jane Widdop) successfully kills a masked murderer who has been terrorising her home town of Angel Falls and despatching her friends; the killer is unmasked as the Trumpean property developer Henry Waters (Justin Long at his annoying best).

A year after these events, Winnie is friendless, ostracised by the town and hated by Waters' thick brother Buck (Sean Depner). The unusual arrival of the aurora borealis prompts her to make a wish that she hadn't carried out the act; her wish is granted but, like James Stewart's George Bailey before her (but rather quicker than his penny drop moment), Winnie realises that leaving the killer alive was the worst thing she could have done for the town.

Despite the lively pace of the thing, and more than a few good lines, It's a Wonderful Knife ultimately gets bogged down in its own concept; there's lots going on but it becomes less and less interesting as it progresses. It's a shame; I really wanted to like it but, despite the gags and gore, it was just rather lacking.

Amityville Christmas Vacation (USA 2022: Dir Steve Rudzinski) Prolific writer/director/producer Rudzinski has created a weird, Pee Wee Herman type character called Wally, a 'loveable' policeman, who has to date appeared in five of the guy's home grown movies, including this one. If the title feels somewhat familiar, you should also know that Wally's surname is Griswold and this one also features a character called Jessica D'Angelo; we are definitely not in the land of subtle.

In ACV Wally gets star prize in a competition he knew nothing about, to win a Christmas stay at a house in Amityville. No no that one (it's revealed in a funny sight gag) but the one next door, which is also haunted by a human slaying ghost called Jessica (Allen Isley). Said spirit puts her murderous impulses to one side and falls in love with our Wally, forcing the landlady of the house (Marci Leigh), who has been feeding the spirit unsuspecting victims for years - and getting to like it - to take matters into her own hands.

I confess that this is the first of the 'Wally' movies I have seen (and if it wasn't for seeking out seasonal fright flicks to review, I'd have been none the wiser), but at 47 minutes it was pretty entertaining. Rudzinski's stock cast have all appeared in his other movies, as have his pet cat and rats. In case you're thinking that this feelgood featurette is the genuine saccharine article, fear not; the director's tongue is never far from his cheek and he even takes a few side swipes at the police along the way. ACV is pretty fun and I'll admit, I laughed out loud more than once. Very cheap though, mind.

He Knows (USA 2022: Dir Steven Morris) The reason I post these annual reviews of seasonal fright flicks is love; I adore movies which combine horror and the holiday season (preferably with authentic snow), and my critical faculties nosedive as a result. Mostly. He Knows is Morris's feature debut as a director, which will be plain to see for anyone venturing a look at this limp slasher.

Twenty years after a family massacre by a (normal height) guy wearing an elf mask, who names himself 'Sammy the Elf', 10 year old Christina, who managed to escape the killer's blade, is now a mum herself (Kayla Kelly). She shares custody of her daughter Stephanie (Morgan Pyle) with ex husband Steve (Zach Meiser), an all round good guy who now has a new partner of his own. Christmas time approaches and everyone settles down to get on the best they can, including Christina's mum (the ubiquitous Lynn Lowry). But trouble's in store; Sammy the Elf has returned, keen to pick up where he left off all those years ago.

For a very low budget film there are almost too many characters here, and Morris keeps piling them on (the annoying Shawn C. Phillips even gets a look in, in a character role for once) as cannon - or knife and sometimes firearm - fodder for the slashy elf (who to be fair has a creepy mask and cuts quite the menacing figure). He Knows goes on and on with no dramatic tension whatsoever and only a glancing nod to the festive season. There's some effective practical gore, but everyone in this is so awful you just don't care about anyone. A very minor addition to the seasonal slasher genre.

XXX-Mas (USA 2023: Dir James Dean) Dean's latest movie is a sort of porno/horror mashup. But disabuse yourself that this could in any way be compared to Ti West's X (2022); this is far more cheap and cheerful, but certainly not without its appeal.

Santa Claus aka Saint Nick (Drew Marvick) is kicking back before the big day, chomping on milk and cookies and watching a rerun of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians on TV. But attentive Mrs Claus (Lindsay Washburn) has a secret which, when hubby finds out, is about to send him loco.

Elsewhere porno bigwig Johnny Duckett (Chris Ruppert) is assembling cast members for his latest shoot, an ambitious full feature Christmas porno horror. His stars Kristy Kreme (Morrigan Thompson), Black Mamba (Jonathan May), Jack Rabbit (Shaun Scott) and Angel Luv (Kaity Navi McAllister) are either cynical about Duckett's ambitions or see it as just another job, but they're all incensed to learn that the producer is none other than accused sexual abuser Atilla the Hung (Kyle Shute) with his new lady Lana Luscious (the ubiquitous Felissa Rose).

But things are about to become rather heated on set; a rampaging Santa has picked off a series of party guests who are employees of Duckett, and is making his way to the studio to find out who has been naughty or nice (clue - it's a porn shoot).

Dean's cast comprise a mix of 'straight' actors and porn stars, and it's to everyone's credit that it's difficult to tell who's who here. "I'm SAG 'til the end of the year" gripes Angel, until Duckett promises to fix the paperwork, and the script is full of little asides like this that overcome the rather pedestrian pace.

But you'll come to this for the practical gore effects, which are, for the estimated $85,000 budget, pretty amazing, courtesy of Wesley Curtis and Deryk Wehrley. Highlights include a head squeezed until it pops, a zombie elf who bites off a male member, knifings and deaths by candy cane and boiling water. Yeah there's some sauce too - all round this is a really well put together low budget seasonal slasher.

(a version of this review originally appeared on the Bloody Flicks site)

Santa Isn't Real (USA 2023: Dir Zac Locke) The beautiful Columbia river area of Oregon is the setting for this intimate seasonal slasher. Not that you get to see much of it, but SIR does at least benefit from having some real snow.

Waking from a 12 month coma, the result of an attack by a mysterious Santa Claus figure, Nikki (Kaya Coleman) is welcomed back into the arms of her mates Jess (Scarlett Sperduto), boyfriend Nathan (Trey Anderson) and MJ (Cissy Ly). The problem is, when you're a young, horny person, a year is a long time, and so during her 'lights out' period Jess and Nathan have become an item. Worse, nobody believes Nikki's story about a killer Saint Nick, and thinks she may have attempted to take her own life.

To aid her recuperation the gang decide to take Nikki to a snowy mountain retreat for Christmas. Big mistake; pretty much as soon as they arrive she surprises Nathan and Jess in flagrante delicto. Then the power goes out, and someone in a red and white suit starts picking people off.

Because there's really only four people in this one the bumping off takes a while; meanwhile we get discussions about faith (MJ is a religion doubting lesbian, Nathan is Jewish and Jess is a devout Christian). At one point the vicar in the local church delivers a barnstorming speech about the devilish links between Santa and Satan, which is pretty entertaining, and the soundtrack features some catchy songs from husband and wife duo 'The Imaginaries'. Like Locke's previous movie Afloat, this is clearly an attempt to market a horror film for the TikTok generation; which makes his choice of subject matter - and title - rather dangerous. Surely many TikTokers still believe in the guy in the red suit?

The Sacrifice Game (USA 2023: Dir Jenn Wexler) From a movie featuring real snow to one, despite being located in Canada - an abbey in Oka, Quebec - which has to resort to the fake white stuff. 

At the exclusive Blackvale School for Girls deep in the woods the Christmas holidays are approaching. Most of the pupils are heading home to welcoming parents, all except Samantha (Madison Baines), whose folks are too busy come and pick her up; and the mysterious Clara (Georgia Acken) who stays behind every year. Keeping them company is their teacher Rose (Chloë Levine) and her boyfriend, handyman Jimmy (Gus Kenworthy).

Meanwhile across the state a series of Manson like home invasions/murders has been taking place, with the perpetrators taking pieces of skin from their victims and daubing strange symbols using their blood.

With Jimmy away ferrying the last batch of departing girls to the station, the intruders, comprising Maisie (Olivia Scott Welch), Jude (Mena Massoud), Grant (Derek Johns) and Doug (Laurent Pitre) visit the school and inveigle their way in. What ensues sees the intruders realise their up to now hidden ambitions but face one or two surprises along the way, thwarting their ultimate goal.

I get a bit sick of describing films as 'starting out well' but this one really does, Alexandre Bussière's freewheeling camera in the opening scene documenting the brutal details of one of the four's home invasions, before a 1970s 'made for TV' title card appears on screen. Sadly as soon as the gang arrive at the school (a very impressive location) pacing wise it's like watching a slowly deflating balloon, the story eventually becoming a bloodier episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Because the nature of the plot is that key elements can't be immediately revealed, this tends to make everything a little hesitant; and when the plot unveil hits us it's pretty anti climactic. The Sacrifice Game looks good but it's way too drawn out; the Christmas element, quickly discarded, is merely a narrative tool to empty the school. Disappointing.

The 12 Slays of Christmas (USA 2022: Dir William Butler) Look out - Full Moon Pictures alert! This 41 minute short is a bit of a con. Three party girls, who while driving to an evening of "booze, boys and thrills" get stranded in the snow, come across an old house.

Inside the table is laid for a feast and the foot of the Christmas tree is groaning with presents. At first the house seems empty, but the occupant is soon revealed; he's a Crypt Keeper type guy called Ignatius Herrington (Tom Fitzpatrick), who encourages the girls to eat and drink, and take turns opening the presents, while they wait  for a tow truck.

In true Full Moon style each present turns out to be a creature from one of the company's productions; a page in an accompanying book gives more details about the little creatures while we are shown excerpts from the movies in which the beasts are included; yep, basically clips from Full Moon Pictures productions.

They include 'Jack-in-the-box', Six Shooter, Tunneler, Leech Woman, Evil Bong, Baby Oopsie and, just to add some live action into the mix, the vampire Radu from the 'Subspecies' movies. A little Christmas card from the company to its fans, this doesn't really have anything going for it, except that the girls, in demon form, turn on Herrington as the 12th 'slay'.

Christmas Bloody Christmas (USA 2022: Dir Joe Begos) Those unfamiliar with the films of Mr Begos may wish to know that the director is more about the look and 'vibe' of his films than narrative or character development. CBC is no exception.

On Christmas eve Tori (Riley Dandey) shuts up her record and tape shop and gets ready to meet up with her Tinder date, of whom she knows nothing. Her employee Robbie (Sam Delich), who clearly has a crush on her, disabuses Tori about the quality of her date, resulting in the pair having a pissup across town.

From a bunch of rough and ready fake ads at the beginning of the movie we learn that a range of seasonal life sized automatons, called 'Robo Santa Plus' have been rolled out into shops. We also learn that they have been swiftly recalled because of a production error. One such robot Santa comes to life after lights out and goes on the rampage.

And that's it! I told you that narrative isn't a big thing with Begos. What the guy does, within a limited budget, is create a superbly edited, fantastic looking movie, with more than a nod to 'The Terminator' franchise (ok maybe mainly the first one). He strips out anything you don't need and concentrates on establishing the characters of Tori and Robbie (through some very funny dialogue). For anyone who's seen his last two offerings, Bliss and VFM, you'll know Begos is the master of saturated colour; he excels in CBC. Everything is washed in Christmassy reds and greens (including Robo Santa's laser beam eyeballs) and the action is brilliantly offset by the synth wash score of Begos regular Steve Moore. Look this ain't subtle, it's not frightening, but it's a great addition to the seasonal film canon.

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