Sunday, December 16, 2007

Your Christmas film guide

This is not, let me hasten to stress, my pick of the films on television over Christmas. (Though I can do that if you want: Mr Deeds Goes To Town, Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, Samson & Delilah, a couple of Val Lewtons and I Married a Witch. There, that's that done. Same time next year?)
No, what I intend doing here is recommending a favourite seasonal movie of mine that you might wish to track down if you are looking for a break from Alistair Sim or George Bailey this year.
If like me you've always enjoyed the first episode of Tales From The Crypt (1972), that wonderfully atmsopheric, largely silent sequence with Joan Collins menaced in her isolated farmhouse by an escaped lunatic dressed as Santa, it is just possible you will enjoy perhaps the cheapest and grottiest British horror film ever made. Joan will, I'm sure, because it places the fur-lined boot firmly on the other foot and details the activities of a maniac with a homicidal grudge against Santa. The film is called Dont (sic) Open Till Christmas (1983). If you like unpleasant rubbish with a yuletide theme you can do no better. Or worse, probably, but that's beside the point.
It's a formulaic slasher thriller with the big difference that the victims are not pretty girls but fat old men getting a bit of Christmas beer money by selling chestnuts or working the department store grotto. We never quite know how many have been killed (by what turns out to be the character we had marked as principal red herring); enough have taken place for the newspapers and police to be already talking of "another Santa murder" by the time the film begins, and we get to see a mind-boggling 10 others before it ends, along with three of non-Santas and one attempted murder in which the victim is let off because it turns out to be a topless woman under the red costume instead of an old man (don't ask).
Despite this, the obvious safety measure of not going out alone at night dressed as Father Christmas is never suggested by the police, nor does it cross the minds of any of the victims. One is killed in the London Dungeon, another in full costume in a Soho peep show, another has something unmentionable done to him while taking a leak in a public lavatory.
The dialogue is frequently hilarious, especially the banter between detective Edmund Purdom and his Sergeant (Mark Jones). "Do you think, sir, we might have a psychopath on our hands?" asks Jones after what must have been at least the fifth slaying. "That's exactly what the Assistant Commissioner was bellowing at me a moment ago," says Purdom, "you know what I replied?" "It's early days yet for a pattern, I suppose," suggests Jones. On and on it goes in this vein:
Jones: Trouble is, sir, the moment anyone puts on a Santa Claus costume they become a sort of semi-holy figure, don't they, well, to the kids anyway.
Purdom (not really listening): The whole of the West End is crammed with Santa Clauses. What have you got on this latest?
Jones: Petty crook, known to West End Central, could have been pushing drugs. This one could have been a coincidence, actually.
The Evening Standard headline after one murder is 'Only Three More Killing Days To Christmas'. ("The chief's gonna love cracks like that", grumbles Purdom.)
It's one of my favourite of all Christmas movies, made on the run and on the cheap by a British outfit calling itself Spectacular International Films, actually a conglomeration of old reprobates like Derek Ford, Alan Birkinshaw and Dick Randall. ('British Rail Traveller's Fare' is thanked in the closing credits, along with Scotland Yard, presumably for not telling them to clear off while they were filming Purdom stood in front of the revolving sign.)
Purdom is both star and - incredibly - director, though one 'Al McGoohan' (actually exploitation hack Birkinshaw) is credited with writing and directing additional scenes. The smart money is on these being largely comprised of the huge numbers of additional Santa murders that nobody mentions or even seems aware of in the rest of the film, and which are in many cases surprisingly horrible despite the obviousness of the special effects.
There is, incredibly, a documentary out there about the making of this film, which I've never seen. (If anyone has a copy, please drop me a line!) It apparently shows some scenes being shot with different actors, one of them the bit where a Santa is murdered in a peep show. Presumably the actor in the costume is the one listed in the credits, since in the finished film it's unquestionably Keith Smith from the Spike Milligan shows under the whiskers.
The plot and resolution are ridiculous, insultingly so, really; the revelation of the killer's motive is absurd and his actions throughout inexplicable and often physically impossible. I confess it took a couple of viewings for me to see past the silliness and the gore and find the charm. But it is there. It's there in the guerilla film-maker's handbook shots of Purdom loitering outside Scotland Yard, in the extraneous padding as he wanders around Covent Garden listening to carol singers, in the enthusiastic amateurism of the supporting performances, in the incredibly evocative synthesiser score (including a nifty spooky version of Silent Night), in the opportunism of having one body discovered on stage at a London theatre so as to give Caroline Munro a musical number called 'Warrior of Love'.
Make no mistake: this is a terrible, terrible film, and should be avoided entirely unless your tastes run to the most tawdry excesses of cheapjack exploitation. But if they do, prepare yourself for a treat.
Merry Christmas!