Is it me or is it a bit nippy out?
Us Brits and our cousins across the water share many things, and other things we do completely differently. Take christmas. Or rather christmas viewing.
Recently I’ve been checking out Christmas 24 on my revived Sky box. This is, unsurprisingly perhaps, a channel that shows non-stop Christmas films from mid-November to early-January. If you love christmas movies, this sounds like bliss, until you actually watch them. You won’t find It’s a Wonderful Life here. Nor will you find Gremlins, Holiday Inn or Miracle on 34th Street. You WILL find the wonderful Alistair Sim version on Scrooge, but it’s been horribly colourized.
Generally, Christmas 24 consists of a endless stream of made-for-TV movies, mostly filmed in Canada in the middle of summer, desperately attempting to look like your typical American town in December. They are, to a man, dreadful. Sadly, they are also very dull.
But it did strike me, that, to the best of my knowledge, American TV tends to shut down normal programming during the festive season, so they need product like this to fill the airwaves.
In the UK, it’s the other way round. We LOVE watching TV at christmas, so the schedule is filled to bursting with expensive ‘specials’ or all our favourite shows. As a consequence we’re very poorly served by yuletide films. I’ve racked my brains, and can’t name one British christmas-themed cinema release of recent times.
Luckily, we’ll always have Don’t Open Till Christmas, a belated attempt to catch some of that first flush of slasher dollar in the early 80s.
Mad psycho killer with a childhood trauma? Check. Well known date to set it around? Check. Gore? Check. Boobies? Check.
Sit back and wait for the cash to start rolling in.
Except it didn’t happen like that. The film ended up being directed by (at least) 3 different people, and ended up barely getting released at all, after 2 years of filming.
So, how does a slasher about a guy killing Santa, repeatedly, stack up against its more famous and notorious Killer Santa cousin, Silent Night, Deadly Night?
For a film about a killer murdering santas, Don’t Open Till Christmas certainly does what it says on the tin. Within the first 20 mins we’ve seen four jolly fat men bite the dust in a variety of styles (one stabbing, one spear through the back of the head, one thrust headfirst into a chesnut cooking brazier, before hilariously combusting, and one saying goodbye to a dear friend when having a pee).
Despite the investigating officers best attempts, nothing links the murders except the obvious. This doesn’t stop Inspector Harris (Edmund Purdom) from trying to finger Cliff, boyfriend of Kate, whose father is the second victim. He’s also the only dead santa who has any real bearing on the plot. All the others are introduced just minutes before being offed.
This probably tells you all you need to know about the film: it’s not really interested in building suspense, tension or developing a decent whodunnit plot (though at one point every single cast member is given one of those dramatic close-ups that makes you think “ooh, they look a bit dodgy there”).
All Don’t Open Till Christmas cares about is delivering gore and sleaze.
Case in point: the day after Kate’s father is murdered, Cliff bumps into an old friend who runs a photography studio and asks if he and Kate want to join him. The two gents then try to ensnare Kate into a a sexy shoot with a nude model already at the studio. She understandably storms out, leaving Cliff to canoodle with the nude model outside (now wearing a santa outfit, thigh high boots and nothing else). After being spooked by a pair of bored looking extras dressed as policemen (“They’ll think we’re a couple of gays… run for it”) nudie model finds herself terrorised by the killer who, of course, opens the santa outfit for no other reason than to give us a quick flash of flesh, then he buggers off.
This sequence takes up about ten minutes of screen time. It doesn’t advance the plot at all. Nudie model is next shown at home ‘recovering’ where she exposes her boobs AGAIN when the detectives say she’s lucky not be on a charge of indecent exposure (“what’s indecent about THESE?”).
Given the ‘talent’ involved this should maybe not be a surprise, being as the cast includes several 70s sex comedy stars (the biggest of which, Alan Lake (Mr Diana Dors), gives the only decent performance in the film). Writer Derek Ford had spent the past two decades in the same arena, and one of the directors, Alan Birkinshaw (working under the pseudonym Al McGoohan) had also worked in that curiously British genre, before directing Killer’s Moon, possibly the sleaziest film this little island has ever produced.
It’s almost like a ‘Wardour Street Mafia’ production.
This is evident in the style as well. It’s hardly a top notch production. Interiors are static, whilst exteriors are shockingly wobbly. Pick up shots of a christmassy Oxford Street look like they could be stock footage, but then we cut to a shot of Purdom stalking the night, and it’s shot exactly the same way. Could the budget not stretch to a tripod, or a cheap dolly?
As the only barely recognisable name in the cast (with an exception I’ll come to in a second), Edmund Purdom cuts a very sorry figure here. Hardly known now, Purdom was a contemporary of Roger Moore’s when both were contract players in 50’s Hollywood. He fell from grace (reportedly through booze) and ended up living in Italy making trash like Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks and Dr Orloff sequels. His appearance here was a result on his being in the producers previous film, the slightly more fun Pieces, starring another Hollywood outcast, Christopher George.
Purdom’s directorial credit means very little here. He was originally the director, but at some point he was replaced by writer Derek Ford. he in turn was axed in favour of the film’s editor, Ray Selfe. Somewhere along the way Birkinshaw was brought in to write and direct additional sequences, one of which is a very tedious interlude of a santa escaping a gang of punks by breaking into the London Dungeon where he spends an age being scared of the exhibits before being messily dispatched (along with a staff member who curiously loses her clothes).
This conveyor belt of directors and writers really impacts on the film. Scenes and sequences appear at random and the editing is all over the place. After the first murder, Harris exclaims there’s just “three more killing days to Christmas”, but the film plays out over at least another week. About halfway through, we’re introduced to a new character (of which we are given little information) who ends up being vital to the ever evolving story, but because we know nothing about her, it’s very hard to give a monkey’s.
Towards the end there’s a ridiculous scene featuring yet another santa victim who finds himself escaping the killer through a theatre, which is in the middle of a performance by Caroline Munro. This sequence is only there because the makers knew Munro, and knew her name on the poster would guarantee SOME punters would come (as it were). It’s awful, and actually makes you feel sorry for Munro.
The final five minutes is an absolute mess which seems to show the killer coming back to life, an explaination of why he is the way is, the possibility that the whole film has been a dream, and a final punchline which then negates that, but relies on the conceit of a detective, investigating a serial killer, receiving an anonymous parcel which says “Don’t open till christmas” and he actually follows the instruction!
Ultimately, it’s a mess. A sleazy, gory, mess to be sure, but still a mess.
BUT… but… it’s a snapshot of a time when Brit cinema was in the absolute toilet. Any film released in the 80s should be cherished whatever its merits. The bounders and chancers of Soho were dying out (in some cases literally), and you could make a case for Don’t Open Till Christmas being the last hurrah of the industry that brought us such gems as Diversions, The Office Party and Killer’s Moon.
And, barring Joan Collins’ run in with a psycho santa in Vault of Horror, I’m pretty sure it’s the only Crimbo Horror we’ve got.