UK Release Date: 3rd December 2018
Runtime: 85 minutes
Director: Adam Marcus
Writer: Adam Marcus, Debra Sullivan
Starring: A Leslie Kies, Michael Rady, Debra Sullivan, Pat Destro, Nathan Hedrick, Ryan Leigh Seaton, Drew Lynch, John Gilbert, Michelle Renee Allaire
Synopsis: A dysfunctional family reunites for a Christmas meal, only for secrets to tumble out over a bowl of spiked punch, leading to violence and carnage.
Christmas is a time for families to come together. Relatives separated by distance have the chance to meet and those who have become estranged can seek to repair the burnt bridges between them. A few weeks ago, at the London Film Festival, Ben Wheatley‘s new movie Happy New Year, Colin Burstead capitalised on that dynamic – albeit set a week after the turkey has been roasted – to create a powder keg of barely concealed resentment. Arriving on VOD this week with a rather trashier sentiment at its heart is Secret Santa, which shows what happens when that powder keg explodes into splattery violence.
It’s clear from the earliest frames that Secret Santa is going to be something twisted. The opening credits see the names of the cast and crew transform into words like “die”, “killer” and “sick bastard” in a darker twist on the playfully spooky credits that The Simpsons uses for its ‘Treehouse of Horror’ episodes. It’s a campy slice of foreshadowing for the midnight movie bloodshed to come.
The setup is classic festive stuff. Privileged matriarch Shari (Debra Sullivan, who also co-writes) has invited her scattered family to her opulent home for their traditional family gathering, in which they will play a game of ‘Secret Santa’ as always. Golden child April (A Leslie Kies) has brought her boyfriend Ty (Michael Rady) along, which seems to delight stuttering brother Kyle (Drew Lynch) as much as it appals misanthropic sister Penny (Ryan Leigh Seaton). A fragile peace is maintained, at least until Shari’s estranged husband Leonard (John Gilbert) turns up.
This isn’t a cordial party. From day one, the familial interactions are awkward. When Kies’s character hugs her sister, Seaton brilliantly deadpans “do you need a kidney?”, and everyone seems to only just about tolerant the uber-misogynist Jackson (Nathan Hedrick). Dinner brings family issues to the forefront and, after a series of secrets tumble out, a sudden explosion of violence gives way to a shared hysteria that has household objects flying and throats being ripped open. The subsequent 45 minutes sees a great deal of claret spilled, punctuated by blasts of pitch-black midnight movie humour. The ‘Frightfest Presents’ label is no coincidence.
Adam Marcus, who started his directorial career in 1993 with Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, brings exactly the sort of sensibility you’d expect from a guy whose filmography also includes a writing credit on the morbidly entertaining Texas Chainsaw 3D. When the blood starts flying and the characters begin to maraud around the secluded, snow-covered cottage where the action takes place, Marcus stages some inventive slasher sequences that benefit from how nicely drawn the characters are in the first act. It’s not a masterpiece of character by any stretch, but there’s more empathy here than for the standard slasher victim.
A film like this only works if the cast throws itself into the action wholeheartedly, and that’s certainly true of Secret Santa. Sullivan especially stands out as the grotesque, poisonous matriarch figure, while Hedrick clearly begins to have the time of his life when his character makes the shift from sleazebag to psychopath. This is a movie that ends with a depraved, blood-soaked family portrait and then lists the cast in order of survival. It’s not one to show your grandma. Go for It’s a Wonderful Life and then stick this one on when she’s slipped into a sherry-induced stupor.
Pop or Poop?
With over-the-top gore and a sense of humour perfectly tailored for the genre crowd, Secret Santa is a terrific slice of anti-Christmas silliness that, for all of its shonky special effects and uneven storytelling, delivers when it lets the gore fly and amps up its gallows comedy. Nathan Hedrick and Debra Sullivan are the stars of the cast, though it’s really the ludicrous take on repressed family resentment that is the star of the show here.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Secret Santa is available on DVD now and VOD from December 3 under the Frightfest Presents banner.