Dr. Seuss’ children’s story “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” has likely withstood the test of time because of its simple yet effective message: The Christmas season has more to do with community than material items. There’s also its eponymous villain, whose grouchy “Bah! Humbug!” spirit in the face of borderline-oppressive seasonal cheer is as understandable as his eventual redemption. The fable has been adapted to the big and small screen numerous times, from the lovely 1966 animated TV film directed by Chuck Jones to Ron Howard’s misbegotten eyesore starring Jim Carrey as a live-action Grinch. The source material’s bare plot and ubiquitous imagery make it a malleable text ripe for a wide range of interpretations, the latest of which is “The Mean One,” an unauthorized slasher parody starring David Howard Thornton, aka the man behind Art the Clown in the “Terrifier” films.
Director Steven LaMorte cheekily repurposes Seussian iconography into a low-budget horror / Lifetime holiday movie mashup that strains for the B-movie camp of Syfy’s “Sharknado” series. Cindy You-Know-Who (Krystle Martin) from the mountain town of Newville — do you see where this is going? — witnesses a green-skinned monster (Thornton) dressed as Santa murder her mother as a child. Twenty years later, Cindy returns to Newville to sell the family home, only to discover that the monster still terrorizes the town. After the beast gruesomely kills Cindy’s father, Cindy tries to warn the town that they’re in danger, but her concerns are summarily dismissed by the sheriff (Erik Baker) and the Trump-like mayor (Amy Schumacher). To avenge her parents, she must kill the creature herself once and for all.
There’s plenty of fun to be had by utilizing fair use law to turn a classic Seussian tale into a gory, funny romp, but LaMorte and screenwriters Flip and Finn Kobler don’t exactly embrace the assignment. Everyone involved with “The Mean One” takes its absurd premise entirely too seriously, with the possible exception of Thornton himself, who at least tries to have fun playing a non-verbal, mass-murdering Grinch. Instead, the film bafflingly welcomes the grim severity of a trauma narrative (again, involving a Grinch who slaughters anyone with holiday spirit) as well as the painfully sincere melodrama that’s part and parcel with made-for-TV movies. Parodies are theoretically supposed to be funny, but it’s almost as if there was an explicit directive not to crack any jokes, let alone exhibit any pleasure, in a film that deliberately skirts copyright infringement to bring a sadistic Grinch to theaters.
Even the film’s mischievous use of the First Amendment leaves much to be desired. Sure, they can’t actually say the word “Grinch,” a fact that is alluded to anytime a character comes close to uttering the word. There are also minor references to too-tight shoes and hearts two sizes too small, as well as a rhyming voiceover narration that broadly recalls Boris Karloff’s from the original adaptation. Besides those obligatory nods, however, “The Mean One” exhibits so much generic vagueness that Cindy might as well be taking revenge on a hyper-determined bear enraged by Christmas lights and red suits. The Koblers expend too much energy trying to flesh out two-dimensional characterizations and a “believable” backstory for the monster’s continued existence, which involves a local government conspiracy that goes straight to the top but mainly concerns a not-so-buried IP address, when accepting the sheer ridiculousness of the concept would be the preferable option.
Without any comedy to speak of in an all-but-name-only parody film, what remains is a very cheaply made slasher picture. It’s probably unfair to criticize the production values in a movie like “The Mean One,” which proudly revels in its low budget like many B-movies of yore. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to ignore the garish color grading that looks like day-for-night photography gone horribly awry, the unseemly digital blood splatter that permeates every kill scene, or the ludicrous editing choices that seem to actively fight against visual continuity. The creaky dialogue goes hand in hand with the middling performances, neither of which would be much of a problem if they were in service of a film with a goofier sensibility. The fleeting moments of amusement are limited to a training montage set to a metal version of “Carol of the Bells,” a sequence just silly enough to be mildly entertaining, and the utterly puzzling choice for Office Burke (Chase Mullins), Cindy’s love interest and confidant, to repeatedly mention that he’s Jewish, which is either a bizarre non-sequitur or a reference to Hallmark/Lifetime tropes that went over my head.
While “The Mean One” wraps up in a predictable fashion, albeit with a somewhat reactionary message that calling out monstrous acts leads people (or Grinches?) to turn into murderous monsters, it also acknowledges social media’s involvement in the film’s existence. “The Mean One” originally was a trailer that ostensibly turned into a viral sensation, so much so that it motivated LaMorte to make a full-length feature. Sure enough, the film plays like a plodding, 90-minute version of a two-minute joke that doesn’t even have the decency to be funny. A sight gag of a killer Grinch is good for a snort or a half-hearted chuckle. If you build a feature film around him, you become a Grinch yourself.
Atlas Film Distribution will release “The Mean One” in Regal theaters on Friday, December 9.