Don’t Open Till Christmas (1984)
Directed by: Edmund Purdom
Starring: Edmund Purdom, Alan Lake, Belinda Mayne, Mark Jones, Gerry Sundquist, Kelly Baker, Kevin Lloyd, Pat Astley, Caroline Munro, Wendy Danvers
1/2 (out of 4)
Note: This review is for the previously released version of the film. There is a new version from Mondo Macabro, supposedly uncut and in widescreen.
Hate Santa Claus? Then you might get a kick out of the British slasher Don’t Open Till Christmas, which earns points, I suppose, for the numerous gory ways that fellas in Santa suits are killed, as well as a willingness to subvert genre expectations a little bit. In other areas, it’s your typical exploitation film. Sadly, that’s about all it has going for it; overall, the picture is full of incompetent direction, clumsy editing, flat acting, and a practically non-existent storyline. It seems to sabotage itself at every turn – for every death, there is a noticeable lack of buildup or tension; for every flash of female breast, there are downright puzzling character interactions; for every upending of convention (not much) there are silly, random plot developments. No surprise that this movie had a troubled history – 2 years to make and 4 directors – it’s a classic case of too many cooks but I still expected something a little less inept.
In London during the holiday season, some masked madman is killing off men dressed in Santa outfits. At a costume party, Kate (Belinda Mayne) watches her dad murdered in front of her (but she and the rest of the party guests seem to lack a proper emotional response – must be that British “stiff upper lip”). The police, led by inspector Harris (the late Edmund Purdom) and Sergeant Powell (Mark Jones) seem slightly more annoyed about the killings than if they had ran out of tea, but that doesn’t mean they don’t put their considerable mental abilities to the task of solving the case (Powell asks the prudent question “Do you think we might have a psychopath on our hands?”) Thinking that Kate’s street musician boyfriend Cliff (Gerry Sundquist) may be involved, Harris takes to hounding him a bit, while Cliff tries to cheer Kate up by taking her to a modeling session so she can do a few nude photos (because that’s just what a girl who saw her dad killed by a psycho should do to get her mind off things – pose naked). Powell is soon contacted by a wide-eyed bloke named Giles (Alan Lake) who says he’s a reporter and may know something about the murders. The rest of the running time is filled with random Santa killings that are over before they begin, with barely enough time to meet any of the victims before they are turned into meatbags, Friday the 13th style.
Don’t Open Till Christmas is filled with unintentional hilarity. Take the scene where Cliff and nude model/Santa-costume wearing Sharon (Pat Astley) are caught outside by some police officers. The first thing he says is “Oh no, they’ll think we’re a couple of gays! Beat it!” Then the cops proceed to lightly jog their way towards the couple; presumably this passes for a “chase” in the sleazy back alleys of London. Sharon is soon cornered by the killer – no, not really; she is actually free to run away at any time but chooses not to do so. Of course the reason the whole scene exists is so that we can get titillated as the killer brings his razor close to her breasts (the shot of the killer in a mask and brandishing a weapon is very similar to one out of New Year’s Evil, of all things!) There’s another sequence where a drunken Santa is chased by punks into the London Dungeon, where he is stalked and killed in a manner that is the exact opposite of suspenseful, a scene clumsily put together with no style or logic to it. There are the repeated establishing shots of the rotating sign announcing the New Scotland Yard. Then there’s dialogue like: “His eyes… they sort of smiled behind the mask. If I saw those eyes again, I’d recognize him! … If he were smiling.” Finally, we have a confusing ending establishing the (flimsy) motive for the killer which sorta rips off 1980’s Christmas Evil, 1981’s Nightmare, and any number of other, better slashers.
The whole project is shot on the cheap. The soundtrack is your simplistic 80s synth that is played even over normal conversations. The holiday theme is never fully exploited and plot points are never fully explored and/or dropped entirely (one gets the sense that the cutting room floor was very messy). There’s a wrapped package sent to Inspector Harris that says “Don’t Open Till Christmas”, but when it’s finally opened at the end there is no surprising revelation, only a cheap gimmick – just like the killer’s ability to come back to life after falling multiple floors – it’s no wonder that this movie was partly produced by Dick Randall, the guy behind Pieces (which also features Edmund Purdom, by the way). But while Pieces is awful in a way that transcends its badness, Don’t Open Till Christmas can’t quite reach that stage. It’s not enough of that kind of awful.
All is not lost. The movie sidesteps slasher conventions by featuring mostly male victims (females are threatened/killed also, but statistically they have a better chance of surviving here). There’s even a shock death of a main character that I had expected to make it to the end. The nude scenes involving Pat Astley help pass the time (Astley is from Blackpool and was a star of hardcore blue movies before trying to go legit), as does the mean spirited nature of the killings (a castration in a bathroom stall is the nastiest, and disturbing despite not showing the actual act, because at what point is a guy most vulnerable if he’s not taking a leak?) Kelly Baker is also pleasing to look at (her only other appearance was in Slaughter High), and there’s even a cameo from Caroline Munro, doing a cheesy disco number. If you truly hate Christmas, a viewing of this film, along with the remake of Black Christmas might be in order.
That there were problems during the production is an understatement. Edmund Purdom was the director until he had a blowup with the producers; screenwriter Derek Ford was brought in to take his place, but he was fired after only 2 days. Then editor Ray Selfe (who produced some 70s British sex comedies and even owned a few adult movie theaters in the West End) was brought in to salvage it, along with Al McGoohan (aka Alan Birkinshaw). Actor Alan Lake’s wife was Diana Dors (“The English Marilyn Monroe”), who died of cancer in 1984. Lake was known in the industry for drinking, drugs, and violent behavior; his wife’s death drove him to shoot himself in October 1984, before Don’t Open Till Christmas was released. (Gerry Sundquist would later take his own life as well, almost a decade later). As Gavcrimson put it very eloquently:
The film still intrigues in an end of the pier pantomime way simultaneously being sad, distinctly British and all very low end of the showbiz ladder.
Mondo Macabro has released Don’t Open Till Christmas on DVD in 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen format, apparently completely uncut (transfer from original negative). The DVD also has a 52 minute documentary on the making of the film, a documentary about Dick Randall, production notes, and previews. If I can get my hands on it, I’ll review it here.
- Bill Gordon
Bonus: Click photos below for uncensored photos of Pat Astley. By the way, after this film, Astley left the business and returned to Blackpool.