Film Review: Red Christmas

A dysfunctional family Christmas goes to hell in this formulaic but visually stunning Australian horror picture about the ties that bind and rend.
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Diane and Joe (Dee Wallace and Geoff Morrell) have gathered their family for a cozy celebration in their gracious outback home, appropriately decked with twinkling lights, tinsel and an imposing tree surrounded by gifts. Naturally, there's some family friction: Mouthy Ginny (Janis McGavin), married to the genial Scott (Bjorn Stewart), is always happy to mix it up with straitlaced sister Suzy (Sarah Bishop) and her minister husband, Peter (David Collins). And sulky youngest sibling Hope (Deelia Meriel) is just biding her time until she can go away to art school.

But that's nothing more than family business as usual: The real spanner in the works is Cletus (Sam Campbell), a lisping stranger dressed in tattered black robes, dirty bandages wrapped around his face and fingers, who turns up at the door. Diane insists they welcome the pathetic creature—it's Christmas, for heaven's sake—who's quickly ejected after he insists on reading a disturbing letter addressed to "Mother." It's no spoiler to revel that the interloper isn't gone for long, or that his appearance has everything to do with the film's opening scene, which involves the 20-years-earlier bombing of an abortion clinic.

It's easy to argue Red Christmas' politics—argue, not resolve, which appears to be writer/director/co-producer Craig Anderson's intention. In particular, Cletus' resemblance to the sad, ill-used Elephant Man of Bernard Pomerance's 1977 play and David Lynch's 1980 film is surely no coincidence, and casting Gerard O'Dwyer—who has Down Syndrome and is well-known in Australia both as an actor and as a spokesman for people with intellectual disabilities—as Diane and Joe's eldest child is both canny and genuinely effective. It's easier to condemn a genre film for exploiting disability when one of its stars isn't an award-winning actor whose challenges clearly haven't stood in the way of a successful career in a notoriously difficult field. And Wallace's performance is genuinely memorable—in a genre where middle-aged women rarely get more than a few minutes' screen time before being summarily dispatched, she not only stays the course but shows why it pays to invest in experience...though it's worth noting that Wallace, the mom in E.T. and Cujo and one of the film's producers, stepped up and invested herself.

Add that Red Christmas is one of the most beautifully lit and photographed horror films since Dario Argento's Suspiria—the stylized pink and blue lighting (nicely justified by the holiday decor) is a dead giveaway to Argento's influence—and it's clear that veteran filmmaker Anderson's stalk-and-slash picture is—pardon the pun—a cut above average.

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