A mother must protect her family on Christmas Day from a demented stranger who is hell-bent on tearing them apart.
Red Christmas is an interesting piece, as it is definitely a slasher film and a horror siege film starring one of the all-time greats – with all of the expected trappings of such a film, but it’s also surprisingly political as it steps into the divisive debate of abortion and women’s rights.
The legendary Dee Wallace is Diane – a widowed mother of four grown children. She and her brother Joe (Geoff Morrell) are having one last Christmas celebration in Diane’s very rural family home. She’s selling the place – per her dead husband’s wishes, and going off to try and live her life for her own, long-delayed enjoyment. Joining her children – the religious Suzy (Sarah Bishop), the very pregnant and resentful Ginny (Janis McGavin), the young artist Hope (Delia Meeriel) and her only boy (or is it?) Jerry; who happens to have Downs Syndrome (Gerard Odwyer) – are Suzy’s preacher husband Peter (David Collins) and Ginny’s husband Scott (Bjorn Stewart). As the usual family quarrels abound around the Christmas Day celebration, their doorbell rings. Turns out Diane had an abortion 20 years ago (after all of her children were born) – and the day it happened, a religious zealot bombed the abortion clinic and rescued and raised Diane’s fetus; naming it Cletus. With Cletus’ “father” recently deceased, he locates his birth mother in the hope of joining her family. Once he’s violently removed from the house following talk of the bombed-out clinic, he begins to take his revenge on Diane… and everyone else.
Right off the bat, one of my big complaints about Red Christmas, is its wishy-washiness as far as tone. On the one hand, you’ve got the tried and true tropes of the best stalker/horror films – trapped victims making questionable decisions in the face of danger, over-the-top (and well done) gore effects and creative kills – but on the other side of the coin, you’ve got a deeply genuine and heartfelt performance from Wallace, and the very controversial issue of abortion and abortion rights. It doesn’t quite gel, but the film is certainly entertaining.
As for Dee Wallace – she exhibits here (as she does whenever she appears on-screen) her innate and thoughtful acting skills. She’s got her brilliant acting down to a science, and although the rest of the cast is serviceable to good – they’re thrown to the floor and mopped up by the prowess that is Dee Wallace. She’s back in her Scream Queen shoes in Red Christmas – screaming, fighting, throwing out “You son-of-a-bitch” one liners as if she were taking on a ravenous and rabid St. Bernard. There’s definitely some Donna Trenton going on with Diane – and Wallace is as physical as ever in this role. Going back to the film’s inconsistent tone, Wallace goes above and beyond the so-so power of the script (which wasn’t perfect) and delivers a few moments which will get your chin to quiver – as you continue – after all of these years – to marvel at the humanity and pitch-perfect interpretation of motherhood which she again brings to the screen. I can’t mention her best moments for fear of spoilers – but an incident takes place which is a powerful one for the film, but an absolutely award-worthy moment for Wallace herself. She’s wielding a shotgun (just like Cujo’s heroine in that film’s climax) and there are some mistaken identities. Wallace co-produced the film, and you can see why. With a myriad of high-octane acting moments in front of her – it was a no-brainer for her to get this produced and to take on the starring role. Quite simply, Wallace can do no wrong, and Red Christmas proves that she still is – and always will be – a horror force to be reckoned with.
Again, the supporting cast isn’t perfect – with some of the heightened moments feeling undersold, but scenes with the likes of Gerard Odwyer as Diane’s son with Downs Syndrome – are an absolute delight. Odwyer has Downs Syndrome for real, and gives Wallace a run for her money, as far as being a scene-stealer. His amazing reactions to a conversation he’s not supposed to be privy to, offer him the chance to shine. You can see his inner thoughts as he takes in what’s being said, and he caps off his dialogue-less moment with some real tears.
The make-up effects for Cletus are reminiscent of the creature in Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse. That’s not a true spoiler, as the film offers a terrific build-up to what you know will be a big reveal. You know it’s coming and it doesn’t disappoint.
As mentioned above, the gore effects are a lot of fun – namely an incident involving some savage blender blades. And we can’t let slide a mention of the bear trap. These splatter and blood-soaked deaths are fun and effective, but again – with the somberness of some of the film’s more serious discussions and issues – this goofiness feels out of place.
The film doesn’t quite make it as far as suspense. I think the problem is that there was too much repetition. Let’s have the characters looking out a window. Then we’ll have them all run from the upstairs to the downstairs. Then outside. Then back upstairs again – and eventually downstairs and outside once more. And there are a couple of “boo” moments, but nothing which will knock your socks off.
As for the introduction and use of abortion as a central plot point… the film takes a very pro-life stance. I found it interesting that Diane’s reasoning (revealed as the film goes on) for having the abortion performed felt legit – certainly in the character’s mind. But the fact that Cletus returns for revenge (which could never happen in real life) gives the film that ultimate position of pro-life. Would removed and destroyed fetuses seek vengeance if such a thing were possible? Is there a specific, pending karma waiting out there for women who have had abortions? The final stinging moment which seals the film’s ideology – Diane screams out at Cletus; just before she tackles him… “You son of a bitch!” Exactly.
Again, the film is not subtle in its discussion of this hot topic. But I feel it could have gone further; by nixing any potentially comic relief (as far as gore). I’m not sure if this mix and match of a stalk-n-slash horror film with abortion politics has ever been done before – or if it should have been. The jury is still out on that decision.
Politics aside, the verdict is simple. The film is not perfect (some technical choices didn’t sit well with me – some camerawork stuck out as less than), but with Dee Wallace performing her heart out and bringing tears to your eyes with her portrayal of a flawed, but strong-willed mother – Red Christmas is certainly worthy of a look.
And I wouldn’t be surprised if – post-viewing – that a perhaps heated political debate may take place between you and any fellow viewers. That’s not necessarily something you generally get from horror films – but it’s a definite and unique plus for Red Christmas.
Finally, I want to add that I was toying with a 3 ½ star rating – which is certainly respectable. But as I ponder this – I keep coming back to the stunning work from Wallace. Not sure if I’ve ever upped a rating based on one actor’s performance, but there’s a first time for everything.
A solid 4 it is.
Red Christmas recently played at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival in Canada. There’s no news regarding a pending wider release, but you’ll want to stay tuned.