VIDEO ODDITIES, or VHS: Video House Salvo

john cribbs

DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS

For those just tuning in: what I'm doing in this series is tracking down interesting movies I've never heard of based on the ancient art of the "video box." For younger readers a "video" was an analog system used to record sound and images onto a continuous stream of waves; a format which pre-dated dvd, Blu-Ray and HD streaming. You would take a trip to an establishment called a "video store" to rent these items from an actual person and return home with them - the video, not the person - to enjoy at your leisure (you had to bring it back, though.) I'm basing my selection on the outrageous boxes these "videos" came packaged in, the kind that helped us decide whether a movie looked like it was worth our time back in the days before the internet started telling us everything there was to know about every film before they're even released. Then I'm writing about them - simple as that. With the inevitable extinction of the video store it's become harder to find some of these more obscure titles, but the show must go on.

 

There are three words every counter jockey working in an establishment specializing in popular media has heard in conjunction more than any other: "THE ONE WHERE." "Do you have the one where the spirit of the Indian possesses the bodies of the living and starts scalping everybody?" "What's the one where Cagney kills Bogart?" "I'm lookin for a movie, the title is right on the tip of my tongue...the one where a bunch of criminal experts get together and plan a daring heist that ultimately goes sour?" It's easy to label these questioners annoying idiots until you end up on the other side of the counter and are forced to utter those three hopeless words yourself: "Do you have the one where Green Lantern's girlfriend gets folded up and stuffed into a refrigerator by Mongul?" Then you're forced to stand there and listen to a lecture on how that wasn't Mongul, it was Major Force and blah blah blah. It's then that you, a cynical video store clerk with a smug sense of superiority over every living person, feel compassion for the boob who innocently requests "the one where aliens try to take over the earth." You hand him a copy of Invaders from Mars (the remake, just in case he's one of those types to complain about a movie with "no color in it") and send him off into the cold night hoping he wanted to see Louise Fletcher eating a frog rather than Louise Fletcher chasing dog-kidnapping laser beam-eyed extra terrestrials around Illinois.

My point is, with as many movies as there are in existence, it's not unforgivable for somebody to approach the register and inquire as to "the one where a guy dressed as Santa kills a bunch of people." Such a petition would have to be narrowed down by a self-proclaimed movie expert. "Well, if it's the one where Santa hangs a guy with Christmas lights, you're talking Silent Night, Deadly Night. If it's the one where the self-appointed Santa-path home invades and murders 'naughty' parents, then it's Christmas Evil, also known as Better Watch Out but don't confuse it with Silent Night, Deadly Night 3, the one directed by Monte Hellman, which used that as its subtitle. If you mean the one where the kid has to protect himself Home Alone-style from a lunatic in a Santa suit, that's the French film 3615 Code Pere Noel, or Game Over. And if it's the one with a psycho in a Santa mask, it's David Hess' To All a Goodnight." If the customer hasn't already walked out of the store, he will discover that the rare Killer Santa movie he and his friends laughed at during a sleepover in middle school he's feeling nostalgic for is only one of a number of strange holiday-themed subgenre slashers (or realize he's thinking of the Robert Zemeckis-directed Tales from the Crypt episode "And All Through the House.")

However, if the question is "Do you have the one where a maniac horribly kills anyone dressed as Santa Claus?" then the answer should be a swift and decisive "Yes." Because that's what sets Don't Open Till Christmas apart from its fellow unremarkable holiday horror movies: in this one, Santa isn't the serial killer, he's the victim. Or rather, they are the victims. Because the monster in this movie is stalking London and brutally murdering unsuspecting folks dressed up as Kris Kringle. This includes department store Santas, Salvation Army collection Santas, homeless Santas, drug dealer Santas, bosses decked out in festive red and white robes at office parties, undercover cops serving as decoy Santas to try and (unsuccessfully) stop the killer and, in a twist at the end that makes the movie unforgettable, the original Santa Claus himself. Ok so that last murder doesn't actually happen, but a development like that could have gone a long way towards redeeming a mess of a movie that, like so many of the oddities featured in this series, includes a couple weird and memorable moments that set it slightly apart from run-of-the-mill 80's slice and dice flicks.

What the movie does have in common with its fellow holiday slashers is the inciting childhood trauma involving Santa Claus that pushes the killer over the edge and sets him on a path to holiday homicide. Silent Night, Deadly Night begins with a criminal dressed as the jolly fat man murdering the eventual madman's parents when he's just an impressionable lad (instead of becoming a Batman, he becomes a Bad Santa.) In Christmas Evil, it's the sight of dad disguised with white beard and jingle bells stationed between the legs of the boy's mother that leads to future Santa crossdressing and merry murder. Same kind of set up here: little boy catches man dressed as Santa in the act of getting ho-ho-horny with mom. The bearded impostor freaks out, knocks mom down the stairs, and leaves the little boy standing at the top clutching his Christmas present: a suddenly menacing pocket knife. This kind of mean-spirited depiction of depravity associated with the 25th of December and besmirching of Santa's good name has of course become a familiar mainstay in cinema , whether it's Divine pushing a Christmas tree on top of her mom in Female Trouble or John McClane sending a terrorist corpse down the elevator wearing a Santa hat, not to mention the unholy number of "dysfunctional family come together for disastrous holiday" romps and that "Married with Children" Christmas episode guest starring Sam Kinison (for my money you can't beat Kate's Christmas memory from Gremlins.) Here it takes it a step further and, before "South Park" and Adult Swim could take their irreverent pot shots at the jolly fat man, shows Santa being killed in the most gruesome ways imaginable from beginning to end. That's pretty much the only card it has to play, and the movie plays it as many times as possible. A nuclear warhead set off in Central Park during the Santa Rampage probably would not result in as many blood-stained red and white coats.

It can all be blamed on John Carpenter's Halloween. I've often wondered what it is about horror flicks centered around a specific holiday or observance that they keep getting made. From a marketing standpoint I guess the idea of associating your movie with a nationally-recognized release date, whether it's April Fools Day or Independence Day, always seems like a good gimmick. But as for slashers, it was a seemingly simple formula: Halloween was a smash hit named after a specific date, Friday the 13th followed suit and was itself a smash hit, so take your generic scenes of sick torture and mutilation, include a shot with a calendar and boom - you've got your very own bonefide holiday-themed horror movie. Although Bob Clark's Black Christmas pre-dated Michael Meyers by four years, its December setting did not take advantage of the "wholesome Santa as murderous boogeyman" angle that so many did after the success of Carpenter's movie, so much so that there may actually be more Christmas-themed horror movies than Halloween-themed horror movies in existence.

The opening of Don't Open Till Christmas is quick to acknowledge its debt to Carpenter's classic. The prelude is shot from the perspective of the same heavy-breathing cameraman that helped himself to a knife in the Myers kitchen, ascended the stairs and brutally stabbed a nude Judith Myers in her bedroom. This one however is peeping on a couple in a Volvo-like car: when the man inside yells at the camera to take a hike, his partner says "Forget about him!" and they continue (hey, that's England for you.) They are subsequently dispatched by the camerman's blade and the movie cuts to a title sequence modeled after the beginning of Halloween with a creepy, burning Santa figurine taking the place of the Jack O' Lantern against a black background, complete with synth score, albeit vaguely reminiscent of "Jingle Bells." I was fully expecting the next scene to be a pensive psychiatrist being driven to an asylum 15 years later on a dark and stormy December 24th, but instead it shifts to...a Halloween party? Oh come on, if they're going to remake Carpenter's movie as a Christmas slasher they could have at least remembered to switch the holiday.

I guess it is a Christmas party. For some reason it's a costume Christmas party, which I didn't know existed. In the world of the movie I suppose it exists so the killer can lurk around behind a grotesque mask just before claiming his first victim (that we know of.) This is another Halloween connection: instead of going for a killer Santa, the filmmakers put their guy in a mask. He's all over the place like Michael Myers, and even has victims come right to him such as a naked model wearing only a Santa cloak in the middle of the night who turns a corner and runs smack into the guy. He must think it's a gift wrapped treat just for him! Rather than prey on the those who would logically be enjoying the holiday most (children), he seeks to destory those responsible for the distribution of gifts, sort of like how the babysitters in Halloween are conceivably meant to be giving out candy. Like those horny babysitters, these Santas are too busy drinking and being perverts to perform their holiday-appointed job. Whether or not that's an additional motivation for the killer is uncertain, but his hatred of grown ups posing as the big guy is unambiguous, as demonstrated by the Santa at the party who is ventilated through the back of the head by what looks to be some kind of holiday harpoon, the business end of which sticks grotesquely from his mouth beside a party favor that slowly deflates back into the Santa's breathless mouth as his (grown) daughter looks on and screams.

The radio dubs this masked lunatic "The Chestnut Bandit" (what, does he rob people of their crunchy Christmas treats? Why not call him "The Kringle Killer" or "Santa Slayer?" Between this movie and Amsterdamned, the last video oddity, I'm having a real problem with unimaginative serial killer pet names) and informs us that this is "yet another Santa Claus killing." So it turns out this wasn't the, uh, bandit's first strike, and it certainly won't be his last; the body count by the end of the movie is well into the double digits, including at least five non-Santas. I didn't double check (it's difficult to do so with ancient rewind technology) but I think if you include the confrontation with the killer which the half-naked model survives, there are exactly 12 scenes of violence, one for each of the 12 days of Christmas. And there's no shortage of memorable Kringle kills. A homeless Santa is strangled and falls face first into one of those oil barrels with fire in it, thus singeing his fake beard as well as most of his head. One gets popped point blank by a large caliber magnum. A department store Santa enjoying a peep show featuring a snickering bit of jailbait ("I'd like to have YOU sitting on my knee!") has his throat slit, arterial spray decorating the glass a sickly Christmas red. A couple Kringles are gutted at some kind of Santa circus, a scene in which the killer reveals a Rosa Klebb-style knife boot but (kind of like Klebb) doesn't do anything with it. And what must be its most notorious scene, a truly fat slob of a Santa is emasculated by a razor in the middle of using a public urinal (which is probably bad for his urinary tract.) In addition to the knife boot, the killer employs jumper cables, a meat cleaver and, in a posthumous coup de grace, an exploding Christmas present.

One of the more inspired and extended stalking and stabbing scene feels right out of a giallo. It starts with Santa tying a few off at Charrington, then trying to navigate back home drunkenly when he's suddenly accosted by a gang of punkers. They chase him into a junkyard, where he finds himself face to face with a rottweiler which he then has to outrun. This leads him into a barque wax museum, where once again the killer (who either ingeniously set up the trap with the punks and the dog in some kind of unbelievably intricate, Saw-like domino design to lure his victim to the museum or, once again, just magically happened to be at the exact place at the exact time to find this sloshed St Nick at his most vulnerable and disoriented) is waiting. He's sitting up in some sort of control booth, where he turns on an audio recording that's mouthed by a dummy which is clearly and freakishly a real person in makeup. The tormented drunk stumbles around lifesize figurines of religious icons until he runs into a (real) stripped and mutilated woman hanging upside down (which, now that I think of it, is kind of like that hanging hooker from Amsterdamned.) He freaks out and retreats headlong into the psychedelic maze of the wax museum before running gut-first into the killer's waiting blade.

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