Abortion—the Christmas gift that keeps on giving!
By Paul Mavis
That might as well be the central message that underpins Aussie writer/director Craig Anderson’s frequently inept, mostly dishonest 2016 Ozploitation slasher flick, Red Christmas, which was released on Blu-ray this week from Artsploitation Films (a nice-looking disc, with plenty of extras to help you forget what you just watched). Red Christmas features national treasure (hee hee!) Dee Wallace as a fierce matriarch utterly failing to protect her dislikable brood by battling Cletus the Fetus, an unwanted (to say the least) figure from her troubled past. Lefty “film critics”—that would be about 99% of the reviewers out there—have been remarkably kind to this clunky, faux-“even-steven” messagey horror film…but not me, pallie.
It’s Christmastime Down Under in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, and that means nauseatingly spunky, American-accented, church-hatin’ Diane (Dee Wallace) is having the whole gang over to celebrate a holiday that marks the birth of Jesus Christ. With her are son Jerry (Gerard Odwyer), her Shakespeare-spouting Down syndrome son; Hope (Deelia Meriel), her pissy, disaffected adopted art student daughter; Suzy (Sarah Bishop), her prim, religious, “judgmental” daughter; Peter (David Collins), Suzy’s dorky, repressed preacherman husband; Ginny (Janis McGavin), Diane’s liquor-swiggin’, dope-smokin’ “wild child,” who’s heavily pregnant; Scott (Bjorn Stewart), Ginny’s crass, horny husband; and gruff, wisecrackin’ fellow dope smoker/pissed-up “Uncle” Joe (Geoff Morrell), who may or may not be Diane’s husband/uncle/brother/boyfriend, and who’s about as amusing as a case of sepsis. Crikey what a fun family!
Unto this (w)holy awful family comes bowed, berobed, and be-bandaged Cletus the Fetus (Sam Campbell), who looks like a cross between the “Elephant Man,” “Death” from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, and this guy who’s always on my bus to downtown. Having already yanked the wank off a drunk in the woods, Cletus arrives at Diane’s spacious rural spread looking for a little Christmas cheer…in the form of an apology from Diane for having aborted him 20 years before. You see, during Diane’s abortion, pro-lifers blew up the clinic and saved Cletus the Fetus, with his new father whipping him into shape as an avenging angel setting out to get Diane’s love…or else. When he’s cruelly tossed out by the outraged Diane, a siege is laid to the house, with only two survivors at the end….
I didn’t know anything about Red Christmas, so after watching it (I like to go in cold), I checked out its story online. Shot in a super-fast 11 days on a micro-budget, Red Christmas is the feature debut for Aussie TV director Craig Anderson (the director asserts no one was even paid…but that can’t include headliner/co-producer Wallace, can it? Did she actually blow her own dough on this?). Somehow Red Christmas made it to some higher-tiered festivals, where it garnered quite a few reviews from online indie outlets and even mainstream publications like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Most of the notices have been surprisingly positive, despite Red Christmas’s awkward scripting, shaky direction, and sub-standard chills. But that’s not all that hard to understand: it’s Red Christmas’ all-in pro-abortion message they like. Whenever you read more than three liberal critics giving a grudging nod to a movie, commending it for supposedly “taking both sides” of a contentious political or sociological issue, you can bet your ass that movie only really takes one side: the side they support…and Red Christmas is no different.
What do you want me to rip apart first—the moviemaking itself, or the messaging? Let’s get the politics out of the way. In an online interview, the director suggested he originally wanted to have Red Christmas come from a right-wing position—not because he shares that political outlook, he was quick to assert—but rather simply to stand out from the horror crowd, since so many movies orient from the left (he must not have got the memo to never admit that). He “freaked out,” though, and changed his mind, partly from his own beliefs and not wanting to be associated with the right-wing, and partly because of research he did on the topic, which he said compelled him to give an even-handed approach to the abortion angle.
Bullshit. Don’t hand me that jive that Red Christmas represents some safe middle ground position on abortion, because the movie and the director’s own words refute that comfortable, supposedly non-offensive conceit. I personally prefer my horror to keep the sociology on the down-low, but if you’re going to make it front and center like in Red Christmas, then own it, dude. In several online interviews, the director acknowledges, regretfully, that he couldn’t get away from the fact that Cletus is, first and last, sympathetic. His very existence—abused survivor victim of a botched abortion who is rejected yet again by his mother—embodies the pro-life viewpoint (with that kind of anxiety for Anderson…so much for shooting for the middle ground). In order to counter that, Anderson built up Wallace’s character, trying to make her decision more relatable to pro-choicers (she aborted Cletus because her husband was dying and she needed to “protect” her family…and not because Cletus, like Jerry, had Down syndrome—more about that later).
But of course there’s no true balanced viewpoint here, because the director squarely takes Wallace’s side in the argument, even though Cletus is the real victim twice over. In interviews, director Anderson sums up his movie this way: not only was Wallace’s “choice” taken away from her when activists blew up the abortion clinic, it was further denied when that activist saved the baby. 20 years later, her choice to “take care of her family” is threatened yet again when Cletus exposes her cowardly lie to her family (she told them she had a miscarriage—why lie if you believe in what you did?), and starts knocking them off—after, significantly, he’s abused by Wallace (the minute she realizes who Cletus is, she freaks, and the shoving out the door starts, topped off with her zinging a heavy mason jar of peanuts that clinks off Cletus’ head). The nerve of that almost-murdered child coming back and ruining her European vacation and her phony self-righteous image!
One potentially fascinating angle in Red Christmas—the fact that both Cletus and Jerry have Down syndrome—is of course fudged because if scripter/director Anderson had the guts to put his politics on the screen sans phony smoke screens…it would be a mighty uncomfortable contradiction. There’s a great scene where Jerry hears Wallace tell Cletus she didn’t want him because of his condition, wherein the devastated, angry Jerry gets a shotgun and almost blows away his mother. That would have been edgy as hell (and a hell of a lot more truthful), but the director goes to great pains (in online interviews, as well), to explain that Wallace’s decision to abort Cletus had nothing to do with Down syndrome really, but rather because of all the trouble she’d have, raising another child with her husband dying of cancer. Okay…so why, then, did she adopt daughter Hope after that abortion? Ultimately, it’s a phony plot development that Anderson wants eight ways from Sunday in an attempt not to be pinned down. However, the answer to the movie’s moral dilemma (and by extension his own politics) is right up front: actor Gerard Odwyer. Good thing nobody made that choice to “make things easier”—the choice Anderson and Wallace use for their movie’s heroine and one they both approve of in interview after interview—with Odwyer.
Enough with the shaky politics—let’s get to how crappy Red Christmas is just from a moviemaking standpoint. If I can’t forgive ameliorated, wishy-washing proselytizing for baby murdering in a movie, I can forgive—up to a point—poor writing in a first-time horror outing. And while I cringed at the introduction of our precious, supposedly adorably whacky movie family here—the kind you wouldn’t want to spend one minute with in real life—you have to have somebody to mow down in a horror flick (on second thought, they’re so frequently obnoxious, maybe Anderson was succesful in reverse: you can’t wait for them to kick off). The one character who did come off funny, in a genuinely quirky way, was ironically Cletus, during his interrogation by Wallace and the family. He sounded like a contrary child as channeled through Boris Karloff and Joseph Merrick, and Anderson gets some laughs as Cletus plays dumb when questioned by the increasingly hostile family (when Wallace chunks that jar of peanuts at him and it clinks off his head, I almost forgave Anderson everything; alas, the cartoon humor ended there). It’s too bad Anderson didn’t make Cletus the focus of the movie, rather than Wallace. But then…that wouldn’t have jibbed with his politics.
Once we have the intended victims introed, the rest of Red Christmas is a standard “house under siege” framework made interminable with poor pacing and slapdash camerawork. The victims do the same dumb things they always do in hacky horror efforts (conveniently separate, forget obvious things, run into walls and doors), before Anderson goes into ground level GoPro mode with his camera, shooting way up people’s nostrils as we ponder how all the Christmas tree lights stay on with the power out. Set pieces like the cell phone bit (Anderson can’t figure out how to visually map out spaces for his characters) or Wallace’s laughably stupid assault with a ship anchor don’t create horror or suspense, but they do generate hearty yoks, that’s for sure. A couple of the kills are competent, but only just (the blender kill—is it battery operated?—works best because you can see the brains being frapped through the intact eyeball).
As for the performances, the only one worth mentioning (other than the funny vocal for Cletus by Sam Campbell) is Wallace’s, and her “sunny/shrill matriarch” shtick went stale ages ago. Forgive me for appearing to need “a private healing session” with Ms. Wallace for the purpose of “discerning [my] limiting beliefs and fears” (jesus you have to check out her website…), but my limited belief in her limited range didn’t expand with Red Christmas…nor did it for Anderson’s chances at ever mastering the horror genre.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.