There’s some truly great horror borne from the fear of motherhood: Rosemary’s Baby, The Bad Seed, The Babadook, Prevenge and XX just to name a few. These films explore the terror of birthing a creature you don’t know, the horrifying weight of raising them into a decent human, and the abject paranoia that doing any of this will rip your own life and identity away. Maternity horror can make for great psychological terror and haunting visuals. Or it can be misogynistic drivel like the holiday-set horror flick Red Christmas, which rejects nuance, depth, or empathy for a sloppy slasher with cringe-inducing politics.
Written and directed by Craig Anderson, Red Christmas stars horror icon Dee Wallace (The Hills Have Eyes, Critters, Cujo to name a few) as Diane, a widowed yet chipper matriarch who’s gathered her grown children together for Christmas in their family home. The featured family is made up of a collection of slapdash stereotypes who’ll grow no richer through the runtime. Anderson mistakes tedious details for character development, so we have a snarky teen with a penchant for photography and a deathly peanut allergy, a Shakespeare-spouting son with Down Syndrome, a barren businesswoman with her pervy pastor husband, and a pot-smoking, booze-sneaking pregnant white trash sister and her husband, who seems to exist primarily to up the body count, as he has no discernible character traits. Yet, as a killer tears through the siblings like wet tissue paper, virtually none of these distinctions will impact their chance of survival. So even these scant details are useless.
Holidays can be stressful times for any family with resentments bubbling to the surface and rivalries growing fiery. But Red Christmas teases a more twisted turn with an opening set in an abortion clinic. While a droning sermon about the evils of abortion is intoned, a creepy man spots a tiny bloody hand reaching up into frame. It’s alive. And he plucks it up, so that decades later Chekov’s Son can rain down terror on the family that rejected him.
Yes. This woman’s aborted fetus has returned for revenge.
20 years later, a stranger shows up on Diane’s doorstep with rank bandages all over his exposed skin and face, wearing black robes like the Ghosts of Christmas Future. Inexplicably, she invites him into her family’s gift giving exchange, only to discover he is her long lost son, Cletus. Feeling rejected, Cletus stalks the family, killing off one sibling at a time, blaming their mother along the way.
Naturally being aborted before he was viable didn’t kill Cletus. Instead, it made him disfigured and gave him super human strength perfect for serial killing. And as Diane’s other children are all irritating to outright assholes, it’s hard to rally much interest in their fates, even as they are systematically slaughtered with a random anchor, busted blenders, and a remarkably well-thrown umbrella.
Beyond that, poor cinematography makes a mess of the house’s geography, meaning the action is near impossible to follow as we leap from one low-angled shot to another. The VERY high contrast look means a lot of the violence is lost in darkness. And much else of it is left utterly offscreen, with gruesome deaths mostly implied by a spray of blood, or cut to after the swing of the axe or the snap of the bear trap. Despite Red Christmas’s apparent bloodlust for this flawed family, the film doesn’t seem to have the stomach (or maybe just the budget) for it, leaving us with a final cut that looks like a butchered TV edit, with the most cutting bits discarded.
Much of this tedious movie is just Dee Wallace running around in a pristine floral dress with a flared skirt, screaming. I guess in the pitch room, this seemed compelling, scratching at a good metaphor: the seemingly perfect mother forced to face her darkest choice as a parent. But Anderson fails to move beyond the simple (and simply offensive) premise: Abortion is evil. Women get abortions. Women are wicked and should be punished. Cletus’s late father is excused from any blame with some heavy-handed lines of dialogue, and so the mother is left to pay the heavy price for trying to end an unwanted pregnancy, her reasons/beliefs/needs be damned. Sure, she’ll share them. But every character who hears them is quick to scorn her, denouncing her as a bad mom and a murderer.
The politics of this film are repulsive. The gore is occasionally inventive, but falls short of shocking by pulling its punches. Its story is astoundingly stupid, yet played with a straight face and B-movie caliber performances that are mostly screaming and hissed recriminations. It’s not fun. It’s not frightening. It’s just fucked. Red Christmas presents nothing worthwhile, leaving an icky stain on an often insightful subgenre.
The trailer’s calling it a dark comedy. Huh. News to me.