VIDEO ODDITIES,
or VHS: video house safari

~ by JOHN CRIBBS ~

For those just tuning in: what I'm doing in this series is heading down to the local video store and finding interesting movies I've never heard of. For younger readers, a "video store" is an establishment that you can walk or drive to and rent Video Home System cassettes, also known as VHS tapes, from an actual person and take it home for your own entertainment purposes (you gotta bring it back to the store when you're done, though.)

I'm basing my selections on the outrageous video boxes, 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 is to know about every film before they're even released. Then I'm writing about my VHS safari.

It's not nostalgic - it's just awesome.

{the VIDEO ODDITIES index}

video oddity #8:

SATAN'S CHEERLEADERS
edmund purdom, 1984

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.

As amusingly raunchy and gauche as these sequences are, they all feel like they're happening in a different movie. Only five of the victims, and the peep show teen who ends up being held captive by the killer when he suspects that she might be able to identity him, have anything to do with the story apart from these individual murder sub-scenes. That leaves another 7 or 8 kills that occur outside the narrative, connected only by the ubiquitous red and white wardrobe; literally, Santas in this film populate the streets like prostitutes in Victorian-era Whitechapel. The killer himself changes appearance: sometimes he's wearing a transparent plastic mask like the one from Alice Sweet Alice (come to think of it, the video covers are very similar), others he's just a set of Argento-ish hands. This complex sequence would be by far the most lavish kill of the movie, if not for another crazy scene involving Caroline Munro. For those who don't know, Caroline Munro is a horror convention-hopping scream queen mainly associated with her appearances in Hammer movies and William Lustig's Maniac, although she's probably best known as the beautiful assistant to Carl Jurgens who gets blown up in a helicopter by the submarine Lotus Esprit's ground-to-air missile in The Spy Who Loved Me (for you Bond afficionados, that makes her the first woman ever killed directly by Bond onscreen.) In her cameo as herself, she's belting out a power ballad - "Warrior of Love...I'm coming to get you!" - as a desperate Santa runs from the killer backstage. The set-up itself isn't too notable but the conclusion is, as the dead Santa rises from a trap door in the stage tripped by the killer and Munro gets to belt out a scream to go with the song when she sees Santa with a machete sticking out of his face.

Munro has only lyrics and no lines, but she's about as fleshed out as the rest of the characters in the movie, which simply has no heroes. It gives you three options: at first you think the focus will be on the daughter of the first Santa slain at the party, since the narrative shifts over to her. But she never actively seeks out the killer or is hassled by him the way final girls usually are in these kinds of movies, and she ends up just another victim with tinsel sprinkled on her corpse well before the movie is over. So maybe we're supposed to be backing her boyfriend, except that he's the slimeball of the century. A day or two after her father is speared through the back of the head, he's hanging out with his sleazy photographer friend and a nude model. He tries to get the grieving daughter to shed her own clothes and join in, insisting she put on a sexy Santa cloak - the same kind of sexy Santa cloak her father was just killed while wearing! When she refuses he tries to make a play for the naked girl in the same room. He's not the kind of dude you can get behind, and has little to do with the plot from that point out other than to make the occasional inquiry as to how the Santa killer case is going. So finally we're left with Inspector Ian Harris, who would be the closest thing to an active protagonist except for the fact that he completely disappears from the entire third act of the movie up until the final scene (more on that in the APPENDIX section.) All three characters also have a tendency to throw out random homophobic slurs that make you wonder if we're supposed to actively hate them or if the screenwriter just really had some issues he needed to put down on the page.

So Don't Open Till Christmas needs better characters, but it could also use some amusing holiday-oriented gimmicks. Weapons like sharpened candy canes or stars from Christmas trees; a department store Santa killed on job in front of a group of horrified kiddies who are thereby convinced that no presents are coming this year. How about a cop dressed as Jesus showing up to stop all the gratuitous Santa death? I'd also like to point out that the movie takes place in London: would it have been too hard to add a little of that British holiday feeling to have a family gathering ruined when the traditional popping of the Christmas crackers reveals a horrible prize inside (an ear, a finger, the detached penis of the bathroom Santa?) And don't they call him Father Christmas over there? Despite the two nutty scenes of Santa slaying I mentioned earlier, the movie seems restrained from going into more bizarre territory by its obviously low budget. After one kill of a non-Santa, the killer tosses tinsel on the corpse almost as a second thought: "Oh yeah - this is a Christmas-themed slasher film, I guess I should incorporate some kind of Christmas-related item into this scene." The closest the movie comes to fully exploiting the wholesome holiday it portrays its the video's excellent tagline: "T'was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring...they were all dead!" A good alternate title for the film would be A Serial Santa Slayer in Soho.

Another good title would be The Killer Hates Christmas. Cuz this killer really hates Christmas. If his Santacide and notably un-jolly behavior doesn't give him away, he's glad to let you know himself. In closing, I feel I have to transcribe this conversation verbatim as it demonstrates not only the killer's hatred for the holidays but the kind of dialogue that defines the movie itself (and keep in mind, it takes place between a shackled girl and her psychotic kidnapper):

Girl: "Aren't you going to eat something?"
Killer: "No - I've already eaten."
Girl: "Christmas dinner I expect."
Killer: "Christmas? How do you mean?"
Girl: "It's, you know, Christmas Day - good will towards men and all that?"
Killer: "I hate Christmas. I hate all it stands for."

I've got a sneaking suspicion that's what the filmmakers were trying to say all along

APPENDiX,
or what i later learned

The movie's history is actually kind of fascinating.

Original director and star Edmund Purdom walked off the set after 2 years of troubled production and was replaced by the film's scribe Derek Ford, notorious for writing and directing such exploitation classics as The Wife Swappers and The Sexplorer. Ford was then fired after 2 days of shooting by producer Dick Randall, himself a noted schlockmeister behind movies like For Y'ur Height Only, Cottonpickin' Chickenpickers and the cult co-ed slasher flick Pieces (which Purdom had a supporting role in), who replaced HIM with the film's editor, Ray Selfe. The opening credits also list "additional scenes written and directed by Al McGoohan," which is the pseudonym for assistant director Alan Birkinshaw, helmer of such non-derivative masterworks as 1982's Invaders of the Lost Gold (also featuring Purdom.) All this explains why the movie's such a shambles and most of the murder scenes feel like they were shot after a bulk of the film was in the can. Continuity is a headache from beginning to end: at one point a cop says "There's been another murder" and it's literally impossible to tell which one he's referring to. Cast members constantly refer to a character named "Dr. Bridle" who never appears onscreen. Assumedly because of his departure from the director's chair, Purdom's character, Inspector Ian Harris, disappears from the film during most of the third reel while other characters spend entire sequences explaining where he is and what he's doing in lazy attempts to cover his absence. One character even states that Harris was "at his apartment all night" when Harris' last scene from the night before was at a restaurant. He has no scenes with the killer, even though it's revealed that they are brothers and a confrontation seems dramatically necessary. Harris reappears at the very end of the film after a nonsensical transition from the killer's flashback to a chase with the teenage striptease artist that ends in a cat scare and cuts to the inspector asleep: was it all a dream? Apparently not, since the package that was delivered earlier with the title of the movie printed across the top is still there, turns out to be an explosive device sent to him by his psychotic brother Giles, the "Chestnut Bandit" himself, and takes the audience out of the movie on a puzzlingly ambiguous slow motion explosion.

Purdom was a classically trained Shakespearean actor who worked on stage with the likes of Laurence Olivier and George Bernard Shaw before journeying to Hollywood and appearing with Marlon Brando in Joseph Mankiewicz's adaptation of Julius Caesar. 20th Century Fox tried to launch him in the title role of Michael Curtiz's The Egyptian after Brando dropped out, but the movie is largely forgotten today. He's probably best remembered for the musical The Student Prince, another lead part he lucked out in scoring after the famed tenor Mario Lanza had an argument with the director over the way one of the songs needed to be sung and left the production (Purdom lip-synched over Lanza's voice.) After a few more studio pictures in the early 50's he permanently relocated to Rome, turning up in a slew of sword and sandal B-pictures. Don't Open Till Christmas, released in 1984, was his only stint as director. The bad experience didn't deter his career however, and he popped up in several more movies prior to his death in 2009, including The Rift* aka Endless Descent, that horror submarine movie by Pieces director Juan Piquer Simón that I've been trying to locate a copy of for a few years now.

Alan Lake, who played the unmasked killer Giles, never saw the release of the movie. He committed suicide on October 10, 1984 while terminally ill with a brain tumor. The date had sentimental significance to the actor: it was the sixteenth anniversary of the day he met actress Diana Dors.** Dors, known as the "English Marilyn Monroe," made her name on sleazy noirs such as The Unholy Wife and J. Lee Thompson's Blonde Sinner although she also worked with directors like David Lean and Carol Reed. She was so popular overseas that The Kinks wrote a song about her*** ("Good Day") and The Beatles featured her likeness on their iconic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. Today she's probably better remembered for her late career supporting roles in movies like Berserk and Theater of Blood. She had been married twice, once to Richard Dawson with whom she had 2 kids (yes, that Richard Dawson) before getting hitched to Lake in 1968. Her last movie was Joseph Losey's final film Steaming. Dors was diagnosed with cancer and died on May 4, 1984 - five months later, Lake killed himself.

Although she's technically not part of Don't Open Till Christmas at all, I have to add this crazy additional bit about Dors. Just before her death, she provided her son with a sheet of paper upon which was written a code. She informed him that it revealed the location of £2 million she had stored away and that Lake was the only other person who could break the code. After Lake's suicide, Dors' son had to take the paper to a computer forensic specialist, who recognized the encryption as the Vigenère cipher (a simple form of polyalphabetic substitution.) The specialist was able to break the code, but it didn't lead to the money. Speculation was that there must be a missing second sheet required to reveal the location, and to this day the alleged fortune has not been recovered.

Gerry Sundquist, who played scummy boyfriend Cliff, also committed suicide by jumping in front of a train at Norbiton train station in 1993 after a long bout of depression. As a tribute to his memory, Sundquist's brother Geoffrey published a children's story inspired by childhood memories of time spent with Gerry and their family at Christmas time. Considering Gerry's appearance in this movie, it's good to hear that Christmas once put him in a good rather than a sleazy mood, especially since this is also a story about brothers who share a not-so-fun Christmas together.

When I saw actress Belinda Mayne (Kate), I thought 'She must have been in a Doctor Who,' and sure enough she played Delta in the Seventh Doctor adventure "Delta and the Bannermen." Which is not one of the best Doctor Who's I've ever seen.

Caroline Munro co-wrote "Warrior of Love," which was never officially released. She continues to be a staple at various conventions and hosts an annual Christmas party at a pub in London which fans are invited to join for a reasonable cover charge. I don't know if she sings "Warrior of Love" at these gatherings, but I'd like to think that she does.)

~ 2010 ~
* Tagline: "You can't hold your breath and scream at the same time!"
** She was born Diana Fluck but was asked to change it, citing that "I suppose they were afraid that if my real name was in lights and one of the lights blew..."
*** The Zombies wrote a song for Caroline Munro, so that's kind of funny connection. I wonder how many actresses connected with Microwave Massacre and Satan's Cheerleaders have had songs written about them by huge British Invasion groups?
 

COMING SOON...

BIGFOOT!