You know you’re in trouble when the matriarch of a horror movie is determined to make this “the best Christmas ever.” Australia’s latest genre export is in keeping with the country’s cinematic tradition of brutality, if not necessarily the quality— Craig Anderson’s “Red Christmas” isn’t exactly a lump of coal in your stocking, but neither is it worth waking up early for on the big day.
Suffice to say this isn’t actually the best Christmas ever. Already off to a rocky start due to the fact that mom is planning to sell the family home, the day takes a dark turn when a robed man with bandages covering his face and limbs knocks on the door intending to deliver a letter to his own mother. The children are all adults now, but they’re as unnerved by this pitiable stranger’s quivering voice and quasi-religious posturing as they would have been by Krampus himself.
When we’re introduced to the villain moments earlier, his first victim speaks for us in reacting to him: “What the fuck do you want, and what the fuck are you supposed to be?” He recites the Lord’s Prayer before taking his first life, lest you worry that his homicidal tendencies aren’t rooted in a deeper pathology, and everything in “Red Christmas” — family, religion, the holidays — serves as the means to a violent end.
As the embattled matriarch, horror staple Dee Wallace (“The Hills Have Eyes, “E.T.”) does her utmost to anchor the increasingly untethered narrative. One of her children has Down’s Syndrome, as does the young man who’s just knocked on her door (Cletus, we eventually learn his name is); if you think there’s no connection there, you haven’t seen many horror movies before.
When they aren’t arguing about whether or not meringue belongs in the fridge, they’re being cut in half by axes or having their heads introduced to the business end of a blender. But the extreme violence of “Red Christmas” is far duller than its villain’s blade, even if Anderson is initially more careful in showing the utter trauma of such violence than most of his genre contemporaries.
“Red Christmas” rarely deals in gore for gore’s sake in its early going. By the end, however, it becomes such an exercise in sensibility-testing brutality that any message about the fragility of the family unit is as murky as the cinematography.
The film is marked by a shoestring-budget aesthetic that favors the reds and greens of Christmas lights to such an extent that, as the third act rolls around, nearly every scene is filtered through a color palette too dark to see much of substance through. That comes as something of a relief at times, given how over-the-top the punishment becomes as “Red Christmas” races to put its final bloody gifts under the tree, but you still might not be in a rush to open them.
“Red Christmas” opens in limited release on August 25.