Don't Open Till Christmas (1984) *1/2

When I was reading about Don’t Open Till Christmas I saw it frequently categorized as a Slasher. This is incorrect; it is certainly a Giallo. The sub-genre of Giallo influenced the more familiar Slasher formula to such an extent that after a certain point differentiating between Slashers and Gialli becomes an academic exercise. However, I like academic exercises so lets give it a whirl. As with all genres Gialli and Slashers are not definite categories but more a wide ranges of artworks drawing from a common pool of attributes. The most obvious characteristics of the Gialli are:

  1. European origin/setting (most commonly Italy).
  2. Pretense of being a mystery story, even though the murder sequences are given far more emphasis than any attempt at solving them.
  3. An urban setting.
  4. A focus on police/private detectives/amateur sleuths somehow roped into solving the case.
  5. An unseen killer, whose identity is concealed either by PoV shots, masques or shots that linger on his hands (usually wearing black leather gloves).
  6. An absence of any supernatural elements.

The attributes of Slashers on the other hands are:

  1. North American origin/settings.
  2. Teenage protagonists.
  3. A geographically isolated setting, such as the woods, desert or other wilderness.
  4. Presence of supernatural elements. The main antagonist frequently being a literal monster.
  5. A killer/monster who is initially hidden from the audience but revealed gradually over the course of the film.
  6. A Final Girl, who outlives all her more expendable peers and usually defeats the killer/monster.

Of course these categories are not set in stone, many Slashers, particularly early ones, offer a pretense of mystery (Black Christmas (1974), which I will be reviewing as part of this series). Likewise, some Gialli include supernatural elements and take place in rural areas, like Phenomena (1985). However, as I will demonstrate by my synopsis Don’t Open Till Christmas is not one of these gray area cases. It is as purely a Giallo as I have ever seen, and I can see no reason to categorize it as a Slasher aside from ignorance.

The film opens in a grimy back alley, where a couple is having a late night rendezvous. It’s only once they make their way to a nearby car and being to make out the camera lurches to life, and the heavy pervert breathing starts. It’s an eerie trick that gives the viewer the disquieting realization that they’ve been seeing a stalker/killer POV shot the whole time. The camera stalks towards the car, pausing to peek in the windows. This naturally annoys the man, who steps out despite the pleas of his companion and confronts the Peeping Tom. The reward for his bravery is a knife in his gut; the same fate befalls the girl almost immediately. It’s just another murder for the Santa Claus Killer, who has been slaughtering Santa Claus impersonators across London. What’s that you say? Neither the man nor the woman were dressed as Santa Claus? Well then what does this have to do with anything? This is definitely the work of the Santa Claus Killer.

A second murder follows after the credits, this one related to both the Santa Claus killer and the film’s plot. A successful older man is throwing a holiday party, and he’s having his adult daughter, Kate, dress him up as Santa Claus. The killer strikes just as this Santa impersonator blows on a noisemaker, a metal spear juts right through his head as the noisemaker unrolls. It’s the most creative and gruesome murder in the film bar none, and one of only a few images in Don’t Open Till Christmas that will stick with you after the credits roll. The killer is one of the part guests; a man who has come dressed in a gruesome shrunken head mask that makes him look like he’s two months late for a Halloween party. As the movie has only just started, the murderer manages to escape the party unseen, and the case gets kicked over to Chief Inspector Harris at Scotland Yard.

Harris is making a real hash of the Santa Claus cases, so far the bodies keep dropping and he’s no closer to finding the killer than when he started. His superiors are balling him out daily and it looks like he’ll be out of a job if he doesn’t manage to catch the murderer soon. So far their best hope is that the Santa Claus killer just goes away after the holiday passes. It’s not much of a hope: even aside from the heaps of dead Santa Clauses that could pile up between now and then there’s still the possibility that the killer will go back to his old tricks next year. True to form both Harris and his chief underling, Sargent Powell, initially suspect that this murdered Santa Claus is unrelated to their investigation. Rather than looking for the serial killer that’s been terrorizing the city, they harass Kate and her boyfriend Cliff even though everyone at the party saw that they didn’t throw the spear. The theory is that they killed the old man for the inheritance money. For reasons obvious to everyone but these two bumbling incompetents, this investigation doesn’t pan out, but that doesn’t stop to police from singling out Cliff as suspect number one. I’m starting to see why this case has gone unsolved for so long.

The police receive a pair of odd clues; the first comes in the form of a late night telephone call to Sargent Powell. A man claiming to be a reporter named Giles says that he has information that could lead to the capture of the Santa Claus Killer, and make Powell’s career. Powell greets the news with skepticism, the more high profile the case the more cranks come out of the woodwork. His disbelief deepens when he calls Giles’ newspaper, and finds that they’ve never heard of him. All the same Powell opts to meet with the “reporter” who hints obliquely that Powell would be wise to have Chief Inspector Harris followed. Powell doesn’t trust Giles, so he has him followed instead, but Giles easily looses the tail. At the same time Harris receives an oblique clue of his own, a present is delivered to his home, bearing only the eponymous tag: “Don’t Open till Christmas.” Harris, demonstrating the same keen detective acumen that he’s shown so far takes the advice of the mysterious present and sets it under his Christmas tree undisturbed.

Meanwhile, Kate and Cliff meet up with Cliff’s friend Gerry, an amateur pornographer. Cliff, being an all around sleazy guy, suggests that Kate pose with Gerry’s model Sharon for a photo-shoot. This goes over with her about as well as you would imagine (this is a horror flick, not a soft-core porno), and she storms out in a huff. Cliff is about to go after her, but Gerry dissuades him. All he’s likely to get from Kate tonight is an argument. Sharon on the other hand is up for a good time. What exactly goes on between the three of them is left to the audience’s imagination, and when we rejoin Sharon and Cliff they are out on the street engaging in some good old fashioned exhibitionism. Sharon is wearing nothing aside from a loose Santa-like robe that allows her to flash her naked body more or less at will. A couple cops show up, and the degenerate pair scatters. Cliff runs off into the night but Sharon runs headlong into our killer, who has ditched his rotting head mask in favor of a cheap plastic doll’s head. A deeply disquieting scene follows where the killer runs his straight razor up and down Sharon’s exposed flesh. Surprisingly, he doesn’t kill her, and instead leaves her terrified but unhurt. The darkness of the night and the killer’s mask keep Sharon from giving any pertinent information to the police aside from his large size and distinctive ‘smiling eyes.’

Meanwhile the killer continues to terrorize London’s sizable Santa Claus population. A Santa Claus selling roasted chestnuts in some blighted slum is killed and then set on fire in his portable stove. Another Santa is chased through a creepy gothic museum full of animatronic dolls before he meets his end. The killer stalks a third Santa through a nightclub, and dispatches him. To add a dramatic flair, the killer raises the dead body onto the stage via a mechanical trapdoor. In response to these repeated killings the police dispatch their own men disguised as Santa Claus. The killer gets the drop on two of these imposters and dispatches both with straight razor and knife. Finally, a Santa Claus is murdered when he visits a gogo dancer. Despite all the murders of men dressed as Santa Claus, nobody seems at all worried to go out dressed as Old Saint Nick. I can understand having to wear it as part of your work, but come on, at least take it off before you go to the strip club.

This last killing leads to a minor break in the case as it provides the police with another witness, the gogo dancer. Unfortunately for them she’s about as useful as Sharon, all she can do is reiterate Sharon’s point about the killer’s strange eyes. Even though she’s essentially useless the police are worried that the killer won’t think so and give her an armed escort and an injunction not to return to work right away. Displaying the stupidity typical of potential victims in bad horror movies everywhere, the dancer ditches her police escort and goes back to work as soon as they’ve cleaned the bloodstains out of her booth. The killer, not knowing that the girl is absolutely clueless about his identity tracks her down and carries her off to his lair. The murderer restrains her and keeps her locked up in an abandoned apartment building. Oddly enough the killer doesn’t immediately dispatch her, leaving her locked up, while he presumably looks for a Santa Claus outfit in her size.

Meanwhile, Kate is doing some investigation of her own. She turns up some interesting information about Inspector Harris, namely that he changed his name a few years back and also that he regularly visits the Parklands insane asylum. As it turns out Harris is visiting his brother there who has recently escaped/been released (the movie doesn’t make it clear which) and is posing as a reporter. That’s right Giles is Harris’ brother, and as Kate soon discovers he’s the killer too. At least we have some reason for Harris’ incompetence, Powell and the rest of Scotland Yard aren’t so lucky. She gets word out to Powell before being subdued, but Giles is too crafty and kills Powell via an electric booby-trap in the process of his escape. In the end it is the unnamed gogo dancer who manages to kill Giles, not any of the named characters.

A flashback reveals the motivations for Giles’ murders, which stem from a rather clichéd childhood trauma (those of you hoping for bizarre, un-explainable flashbacks al-la Tenebre (1982) will be disappointed). One Christmas when Giles was a boy he saw his father, dressed as Santa Claus, screwing some young floozy. When his mother found out Dad killed her, all this taking place in plain sight of the boy. Fortunately the movie spares us a Psycho explanation scene, where a hitherto unknown psychologist dispels every aspect of the criminal’s mystery with heavy-handed Freudian jargon. However, the film is not quite over yet, we return to Harris who is opening his Christmas present. It turns out to be a bomb, and Harris becomes the last victim of the Santa Claus Killer.

Returning momentarily to my original point, we can see that on all accounts Don’t Open Till Christmas is better classified as a Giallo rather than a Slasher. There is no final girl, unless you count the nameless gogo dancer, which is absurd, as she isn’t even introduced until the film is more than half over. The pretense of the film being a murder mystery is maintained throughout, with red herrings being thrown out constantly that Cliff, Harris or Powell is really the killer. This combined with the urban setting and European origin (though Britain for political, geographical and linguistic reasons is the most American of the European nations) are more than enough for me definitively say that this is no Slasher that we’re dealing with.

Now, you may be wondering why I dovetailed into an elaborate discussion of relatively minor differences in genre tropes. The reason is that Don’t Open Till Christmas is a boring and predictable movie and as a consequence I’m having more than my usual amount of trouble coming up with something interesting to say about it. The gimmick of the film is of course that the killer in murdering Santa Claus impersonators, but aside from that and the titular present it doesn’t do much with its yuletide theme. The film plays at being a mystery, but from the moment he enters its obvious that the unhinged Giles is the killer. The thudding attempts at misleading the audience into believing the killer is really Powell or Cliff or Harris are too heavy handed to sway anyone with a functional brain. The twist that Harris is his brother adds nothing and indeed creates problems with the plot. If Harris visits his brother at the asylum every month how was he unaware that Giles had escaped? If Giles had not escaped how in the world is he killing all these Santa Clauses?

The film does do an excellent job of capturing a seedy urban underbelly, filled with dark allies and cheap sex. The killer’s two disguises are uncommonly good, the first looks like a half rotten face and the second is a simple, yet creepy mask that evokes memories of Four Grays Flies on Velvet. The first murder that is actually related to the plot is handled very well and is sufficiently grotesque to linger in one’s memory. However, these captivating images are adrift in a boring police procedural and cannot carry the film on their own.

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