Monday, December 24, 2018

"The Whole West End Is Crammed with Santa Clauses” - Don't Open Till Christmas (1984)

In the spirit of the holidays of your universe and mine, let's examine a film that seriously explores one of the many winter solstice holidays: Edmund Purdom's (and apparently other directors') 1984 slasher film Don't Open Till Christmas.

Many of your universe's esteemed critics take the same attitude toward this film as the film's slasher takes toward the holidays: They selfishly want to ruin them. For example, reviewer Rainey-Dawn believes that the film is "drab, flat trash." Reviewer dagonseve writes dismissively, "I found it difficult to reasonably describe the film's premise on account of how humorous and well stupid, it is." Reviewer gridoon2018 writes, "The production quality / plot "logic" / acting are on a high school play level, and the identity of the masked killer is batantly obvious." (I must point out this reviewer's misuse of the word "blatant," as the identity was not obvious to me.)

Like many classic slasher films, Don’t Open Till Christmas opens with the point of view shot of a killer stalking young people making out in the back seat of a car. Cleverly, however, the car is not parked in a deserted wilderness but in the middle of London.

“Get away,” the man in the car says when he sees the killer, “Go on, clear off!”

The killer does in fact clear off, but only for a moment. When the man (who, along with the woman, is fully clothed) confronts the killer, a tiny knife makes a tiny red mark on the man’s white shirt, killing the man. The killer then stabs the woman against the wall of the alley, as both lovers  have chosen to leave the dangerous car for the presumed safety of the alley.

The film’s title sequence begins, a variant of that of Halloween (1978), but featuring a burning wax Santa Claus figure in front of an impressionistic painting of a nighttime scene instead of a jack-o-lantern.

Sixty-year-old director/star Edmund Purdom cuts to a hip disco Christmas costume party, showing that his finger is on the pulse of 1984 youth culture. The highlight of the party (“It’s turning into an orgy out there”) is the appearance of a man dressed as Santa Claus who is described twice, innacurately, as looking like a gay old queen.

Rather inventively, Santa Claus is immediately murdered through the use of a giant spear attached to a New Year’s noisemaker.

Frustratingly, nobody sees the killer. The case falls to a Scotland Yard detective played by director Purdom. In his office, Mr. Purdom and his partner explain to each other that the murdered Santa was wealthy, and his daughter and her boyfriend, whom Mr. Purdom calls The Boy and The Girl despite their both being in their mid thirties, were at the party. Mr. Purdom’s first act is to interview The Girl and The Boy. They get very little information from the couple, but Mr. Purdom lets them know that The Girl’s father was the latest victim of someone killing people dressed as Santa Claus.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in London, clearly the home of the skinniest Santa Clauses in the world, another Father Christmas is murdered, his face pushed into a brazier of burning coals and chestnuts.

The next day, the film earns its title, as Mr. Purdom receives a gift at his home. The gift is labeled “Don’t Open Till Christmas.”

At Scotland Yard, Mr. Purdom’s partner conceives of a striking idea about the rash of serial killings of Santas. “Do you think, sir, we might have a psychopath on our hands?”

“Funny thing, Powell,” Mr. Purdom says, “That’s exactly what the Assistant Commissioner was bellowing at me a moment ago.” He says he replied that it was too early to establish a pattern. He adds, “The whole of the West End is crammed with Santa Clauses.”

The seemingly nonexistent pattern continues when yet another Santa is shot in the head.

Next, we follow a reporter who introduces himself as Giles Giles who harasses both Detective Powell and The Girl. Afterwards, as The Boy plays his flute on the street for money (not a euphemism), he runs into an old friend, Jerry. The friend embarrasses himself in front of The Girl by saying, “Have I met you before? Are you famous on TV, eh?”

When The Girl rebuffs him, The Boy tells Jerry, “She was on TV. Her father was killed at the Christmas party.”

Jerry says piously, “Oh Christ, not the Christmas party. Oh Jesus, what did I say? Jesus Christ.”

“Don’t worry about it,” says The Boy. “She’s just raw with grief.”

Like the best of the British thrillers, the film introduces its potential killers in quick succession: The Boy, who might be interested in The Girl’s inherited fortune; Giles Giles; Detective Powell; and Jerry, who is a photographer of ill repute. In fact, Jerry attempts to convince The Girl to appear in a nude photo shoot that for some reason involves a Santa costume. Needless to say, The Girl storms off.

In perhaps the film’s signature scene, The Boy escorts Jerry’s model out of Jerry’s apartment building. The model pulls open her Santa cloak to show The Boy her body, but The Boy says, “You’re going to get us arrested. They’ll think we’re a couple of gays.”

Perhaps less than gallantly, The Boy runs off into the street, leaving the model alone. She ducks into an alley, where she is menaced—though not killed—by a razor-wielding man wearing a creepy transparent mask.

The next day, Mr. Purdom and Powell visit the model in her home. “You were arrested for indecent exposure,” Mr. Purdom informs the woman.

“Indecent?” she says, opening her robe. “I’m a professional.”

There follows an extended comedic sequence where a department store Santa visits a peep show and talks to a young woman behind a pane of glass. Somewhat less comedically, the Santa is unexpectedly knifed in the throat as the woman watches, screaming.

The screenplay tightens as suspicions are built up about all of the characters. Detective Powell is visited in his office (which is reminiscent of sets from the TV show Land of the Giants, with a massive desk lamp and a wall-sized paper map of London that must be extraordinarily difficult to fold) by Giles Giles, who suggests that Mr. Purdom might be the killer. (We later learn that Mr. Purdom also frequents a lunatic asylum.)

Meanwhile, Santas continue to be killed every night, as London’s population of Santas seemingly prefer the risk of being brutally murdered to changing out of their festive costumes. One unfortunate Santa is chased on his bicycle by a gang of ne’er-do-well punks who cry, “Get him!”

The unfortunate Santa is then chased by a vicious dog, after which he hides in a dungeon full of hellish visions, where, in an extended (i.e., incredibly long) sequence, he is finally stalked and killed by the murderer who wields a massive putty knife.

Later, in one of the film’s most famous sequences (and in fact a sequence worthy of Graduation Day-era Herb Freed), another Santa is stalked through a performance by Caroline Munro and her band as she sings her hit song “Warrior of Love” (a song that features the lyric “I’m a warrior of love / yeah, yeah, yeah / and I’m coming to get you”). Her performance is interrupted by the appearance of the
Santa’s body, his face bisected by an oddly shaped blade.

Not long afterward, in one of the film’s most entertainingly tasteless sequences, another Santa is murdered at a urinal, his genitals assaulted by the killer wielding a straight razor.

The drama of the film comes to a head when The Girl flirtatiously visits the much older Mr. Purdom and the two go to dinner. They are seen by The Boy, who becomes jealous. Afterward, she is visited in her home by the insane Giles Giles, who is revealed to be Mr. Purdom’s brother. “You killed my father!” The Girl says.

“Yes. It was unfortunate. You see, he reminded me of Christmastime.” Having clearly explained his motivation, Giles Giles kills The Girl with both tinsel and an icepick.

In the extended (i.e., incredibly long) climactic sequence, Detective Powell chases Giles Giles through a junkyard. The policeman is unfortunately electrocuted by a clever trap requiring him to touch two parts of a specific wrecked car.

In the end, through means I will not spoil, Giles Giles dies in true giallo fashion by falling down a high stairwell.

In the coda, Mr. Purdom opens the gift delivered to him earlier which was not to be opened until Christmas. It being Christmas Day, Mr. Purdom opens the gift to find a music box with a dancing Santa Claus inside from his brother, Giles Giles.

Then it explodes. [Spoiler.]

The End

Although this classic slasher film appears seamless and endlessly entertaining in its final version, its production history was difficult. Actor/director Edmund Purdom quit his directing job to be replaced by two additional directors, though Mr. Purdom is reported to have returned to finish the film. Additionally, the actor playing Giles Giles, the troubled Alan Lake, killed himself at age 43 two months before the film's release.

I will take this opportunity to point out a difference between my universe and yours: to wit, in my universe, Father Christmas is a more common appellation than Santa Claus for the British, though your universe is obviously quite different, as the name Santa Claus is used exclusively in this film. Furthermore, in my universe, Santa Claus is generally not portrayed as a skinny drunk man. Also in my universe, men dressing as Santa who know that a serial killer is targeting men dressed as Santa in their neighborhood are unlikely to continue dressing as Santa in their off hours.

Finally, I must commend this film for the sheer number of murders--mostly of skinny men dressed as Santa Claus, but also of others as well. According to The Hysteria Lives, the film contains 14 murders. Writer/director Edmund Purdom clearly learned a great deal during his career as an actor in European horror films, and particularly in his role as the murderous dean [spoiler] in the pinnacle of cinematic perfection, Pieces (1982). Mr. Purdom (and others) made a worthy followup to that horror masterpiece in one of the best of the holiday-themed slasher films, Don't Open Till Christmas.