Starring Edmund Purdom, Alan Lake, Belinda Mayne
Directed by Edmund Purdom
While watching Don’t Open Till Christmas, the British “masked murderer kills guys dressed up like Santa Claus” movie, I couldn’t help but think of the Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode “Christmas.” In the cold open, Detectives Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) and Charles Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) break up a street fight between costumed Santas promoting different charities. Boyle hesitates to get involved and incur Santa’s wrath (“I’ve gone 42 years without a lump of coal, I’m not about to start now.”) but when one Santa pulls a knife on Peralta, Boyle ends the fight with a well-placed kick in Santa’s chestnuts. The camera pans over to reveal the whole fight happened in front of several shocked, traumatized children.
What’s the point of all this? Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a great show. Don’t Open Till Christmas is a terrible movie.
Santa Claus is a beloved holiday icon, representing jolliness, gift-giving, and the magic of childhood. So it’s somewhat shocking to see that image sullied, whether it’s Santa Claus behaving badly (like trying to stab a cop), or something horrible happening to Santa (like being set on fire by a serial killer). Brooklyn Nine-Nine takes that Santa-related unease and mines it for comedy, while Don’t Open Till Christmas uses it for horror.
While Silent Night, Deadly Night (coincidentally also from 1984) was about a man dressed as Santa Claus killing people, Don’t Open Till Christmas is about a man killing men dressed as Santa Claus. (Hey, maybe that should have been poor Billy’s modus operandi all along.) The plot of this film is as flimsy as tinsel, but here it is: a young boy is traumatized one Christmas by seeing his father, in full Santa regalia, screwing his mistress. When the boy’s mother walks in, his father pushes her down the stairs and kills her. Years later, the traumatized tot is now a serial killer, wearing a creepy plastic mask and gruesomely killing any poor bastard dressed as Santa Claus he can find. And a few other people too.
Who’s the killer? Is it Giles, the suspicious reporter with goofy hair? Cliff, the sleazy Dexy’s Midnight Runners castoff whose girlfriend’s father was one of the victims? Hell, how about Inspector Harris, the guy investigating the murders? One of those characters is the killer. One is the killer’s secret brother, revealed in a shocking twist that doesn’t matter in the least, because those brothers will never have a final confrontation or even a single scene together. Don’t Open Till Christmas is a fucking shambles.
The film was first directed by Edmund Purdom, the actor who plays Inspector Harris. Apparently he only agreed to do the film if he could direct, but it soon became apparent he had no idea what he was doing, and was replaced by writer Derek Ford, who was then replaced by Alan Birkenshaw, who has a “Additional Scenes Written and Directed By” credit under the name Al McGoohan. As a result, Don’t Open Till Christmas feels likes a filmed game of Telephone. Characters pass in and out of the story at random. Red herrings abound. The film has no central character or viewpoint. At first it seems like Kate, the level-headed blonde girl who witnesses her father’s murder at a costume party, is the main character, but she’s unceremoniously killed two-thirds through the movie. (Most likely, during the long and troubled production history, they just ran out of scenes the actress had filmed.) Maybe the hero is Harris, but then he disappears from the film for huge chunks of time–I’m sure being booted from the director’s seat had nothing to do with that, no sir. Even with multiple directors, the film feels oddly unfinished.
The Santa Claus murders, which are supposed to be the film’s whole reason for existing, feel the strangest and most out of place. The killer is sometimes shown in a creepy mask, ala Michael Myers, but in other scenes he’s only a pair of menacing, black-gloved hands, ala the giallo killers in the films of Dario Argento. The murders are sleazy, gory, and suck all holiday cheer out of the season. One Santa is set on fire; another Santa is hunted down in a macabre wax museum. The most gruesome kill is a Santa castrated in the men’s room, blood splashing all over the urinal. A sexy underwear model in only a thong and Santa cape is spared because, I don’t know, maybe the Santa costume only counts if you’ve got the full beard going?
If the image of jolly old Saint Nick is supposed to be sacred, as Inspector Harris says, then the film is dedicated to desecrating that image even before the Santas are sent on their final sleigh ride. The men in Santa costumes are uniformly portrayed as drunk, leering leches and scumbags. One even laments that he looks like a “gay old queen” in the costume, because it’s that kind of movie. “Santa impersonators are human cockroaches in fake beards and red felt” seems to be the movie’s central thesis, so it’s almost like the killer is doing London a favor. But then the final act of the film completely abandons the “masked Santa killer” premise for a lengthy sequence of our now-unmasked killer chasing a peep show employee who witnessed a Santa slaying. I suspect this is one of the “additional scenes” produced late in production to pad the film to its measly 86 minutes, as it feels barely connected to anything that preceded it. By ditching the central hook, Don’t Open Till Christmas becomes, in its third act, a completely inept and generic slasher film.
Don’t Open Till Christmas? They should have stopped after Don’t Open.