Secret Santa (2018)
Directed by: Adam Marcus
Written by: Adam Marcus, Debra Sullivan
Starring: A Leslie Kies, Debra Sullivan, Drew Lynch, John Gilbert, Michael Rady, Nathan Hedrick, Pat Destro, Ryan Leigh Seaton
Directed by Adam Marcus
Season’s beatings. The Xmas period has long since been a staple of our genre, with the contrast between Christmas and carnage being an immediately interesting one. Paradoxically there’s something delicious about the time of year we’re supposed to be at our best providing a backdrop for bad behaviour. Among numerous other examples, we’ve had Better Watch Out, Wind Chill and Gremlins. This year FrightFest Presents gifts us with the latest gory outing from Adam Marcus. And though some would sooner believe in Santa than the man behind Texas Chainsaw 3D and Jason Goes to Hell making a decent horror, tis the time for forgiveness right?
To get the audience in the spirit, a prelude shows the family literally being at each other’s throats – in this case, with the sharp end of a snow globe. It’s a fitting introduction to both the film and the Popes plus their various spouses: a dysfunctional bunch that’ll make your arguments about the last roast potato seem trivial. Among the more outlandish members, there’s cruel matriarch Shari (Sullivan, who co-wrote the script with her husband Marcus), her horny step-son/ step-mother fucker Jackson (Hedrick) and deadbeat dad Leonard (Gilbert). Then there’s embittered and overweight daughter Penny (Seaton), stammering, repressed Kyle (Lynch) and golden girl April (Kies). Things get off to a bad start, with tensions rising long before they exchange parcels in the titular game. But then it seems someone put truth serum in the punch and nobody can help but share: a twist on the trope of nobody at the table speaking their mind. Before they even get to the main course, everyone’s gone crackers. Old secrets are shared, nuts are cracked, and guests get carved up. Bah humbug etc.
Secret Santa is never a subtle film – think more Red Christmas than Black Christmas. From the credit sequence, that ironically juxtaposes a jaunty festive jingle with horror words and imagery, there is a tone both utterly gleeful and dark as coal. Adam Marcus, and we can assume his co-writer/ wife Debra Sullivan, obviously have a twisted sense of humour and at its best, Secret Santa watches like a violent cartoon. There’s a scrappy, slapstick quality to many of the acts which means you never take them too seriously or feel bad for the people on the receiving end. Sometimes CG trimmings can look cheap, though here it enhances the effect by making it even more OTT. The dialogue is also unapologetically offensive (“it’s not gay if they’re dead” taunts one of the group) meaning it’s not one for the whole family. Most importantly, it’s dead funny, and as HCF’s resident leftie I still laughed out loud. This is a house full of awful people, and their every ism makes seeing them come to a range of sticky ends all the more satisfying. And though they’re sometimes quite amateur, the mostly unfamiliar cast evidently had an absolute blast putting everything they had into their parts.
However, something that’s missing amidst the mayhem is a heart to the film. To an extent, April acts as the voice of the audience – our straight woman. Kies is likeable enough, though her part sometimes feels bland in comparison to the others despite her being a recovering alcoholic. This year’s Ready or Not, which similarly lampooned the worst excesses of the wealthy, did a wonderful job of giving us a straight woman who commanded our attention. Whereas here the part is the only obviously underwritten one. Comedian Drew Lynch restores some of the balance with a charming screen presence. He’s the butt of many of the harshest jokes, and it’s hard not to feel for him when his mum is making fun of his stutter. He’s also integral to the only earnest moment in an otherwise gratuitously cynical movie: an unexpectedly moving bit of light in the darkness. Still, although it’s enjoyably irreverent, the lack of purpose meant, for me, Secret Santa didn’t quite justify the 90-minute running time. And with only a shallow mystery to keep you invested, I felt full before the final course.
As happens every so often, this is the kind of film I’m uncomfortable giving a star rating since I know at least half the audience will hate it (something I expect would delight Marcus). It’s ugly, uncompromising and completely unashamed to be itself – for better for worse. Yep, it’s outrageous and mean-spirited, as well as bloody good fun. I think it’ll play best with a merry crowd after a few eggnogs. Probably not the best thing you’ll get this year, but a very welcome stocking filler nonetheless.
Secret Santa is now available on VOD. It is currently free to stream for Amazon Prime customers.