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Monday, January 30, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Violent twists on Ol' Saint Nick

Screen Grabs: Violent twists on Ol’ Saint Nick

Violent Night, Christmas Bloody Christmas, The Leech—even Jesus Christ Superstar—put some bang in the season

’Tis the season for holiday movies, and in addition to the usual blizzard of interchangeable new Yuletide romcoms and family films available for home viewing, that means a return of some old favorites to actual theaters—if only for a one-off showing or two.

Times have changed: In perusing some local venues’ seasonal selections, we found nary an It’s A Wonderful Life, but a whole lot of Elf. This being San Francisco, where residents are more likely to be raising a dog than a child (I hear the latter are expensive), Christmassy curation is as often geared toward nostalgic or snarky grownup tastes as towards kids. Thus the gamut offered during this month by the Balboa (A Madea Christmas, The Night Before, Bad Santa), Vogue (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), and Alamo Drafthouse (Polar Express, Rare Exports).

That’s just the tip of the iceberg Bay Area-wise, with extra-special events including the Orinda Theater’s revival this Wed/7 of the 1973 rock opera spectacular Jesus Christ Superstar, featuring the Son of God (i.e. titular role-cast singer-actor Ted Neely) in person, more info here. This Fri/9 at the Castro Theatre, animator Henry Selick of the recent Wendell & Wild presents his stop-motion classic The Nightmare Before Christmas (plus Edward Scissorhands, more info here). 

If all that is still too cute for your taste, however, there are a few new movies serving a distinctly curdled cup of holiday cheer. Already in theaters as of last weekend is Violent Night, which offers a different kind of “bad” Santa from Billy Bob Thornton’s, let alone the killer Clauses in a line of bad-taste slasher flicks going back at least as far as 1980’s Christmas Evil. Tommy Wirkola’s film actually strikes a balance between both schools, as well as more traditionally sentimental Santa depictions: Here the not-so-jolly, let alone saintly erstwhile St. Nick (David Harbour) is a disillusioned hard case who thinks kids of today are “like little junkies” for their annual gift haul. Nonetheless, he still honors his Xmas Eve obligations, however much he cusses out those reindeer or over-indulges in inebriating beverages.

It is his bad luck to be delivering prezzies to the country manse of a mega-rich harridan (Beverly D’Angelo) when she, her quarreling children, their spouses and offspring have another unhappy holiday interrupted by heavily armed intruders. Led by a man who’s dubbed himself Scrooge (John Leguizamo) for this occasion, they nonchalantly kill off the entire security and household staff. Then turning attention to the discordant family itself, they promise (and occasionally deliver) further grievous bodily harm if the matriarch doesn’t hand over hundreds of millions in cash she’s got stashed on the premises.

Santa would beat a hasty retreat from this sour scene if his ride hadn’t already bolted at the first outbreak of gunfire. Ergo, he’s stuck. He’s reluctantly roused to action upon having realizing there is at least one pure soul (Leah Brady as Trudy, the daughter of Alex Hassell and Alexis Louder’s characters) amongst the variably greedy and grumpy types here. This Santa, who appears to have been a barbarian warrior long ago, is not immortal, or un-woundable, or even particularly in-shape—but he can definitely kick ass.

Written by Pat Casey and Josh Miller (of the Sonic the Hedgehog movies), Violent Night tips its hat unabashedly to Home Alone and Die Hard, as well as other tongue-in-cheek exercises in crispy Christmas carnage. It’s gorier than either, but the horror-ish aspects are tempered by the film being packaged like traditional Yuletide treacle (a bright and colorful “deluxe Xmas lifestyle porn” look, a big cavorting orchestral score), not to mention the very unironic schmaltz at its core.

It is nowhere near as subversive a movie as some of the Norwegian director’s priors, particularly his 2009 breakout Dead Snow, surely the best black-comedy Nazi zombie flick ever made. Still, it will no doubt offend the same people who think Starbucks holiday cups are insufficiently sanctimonious. And in decently juggling various oil-and-water elements, it’s a solid-enough mainstream stab at Christmas comedy-horror—albeit not nearly as clever as 2016’s undervalued Better Watch Out, another twisty home invasion tale. Also, you can sense the drum-tight little 80-minute gem Violent Night could have been… lurking under the rather cumbersome bulk of a 112-minute film whose pacing never quite snaps into overdrive. It’s currently playing theaters everywhere.

Getting much more limited release are two lower-budget endeavors, each with their own degree of Christmas cruelty. The “no good deed goes unpunished” maxim gets a maximal workout in writer-director Eric Pennycoff’s The Leech, which Arrow Films is releasing to major streaming platforms this Tue/6. Father David (Graham Skipper) is a Catholic priest with a dwindling flock who finds scruffy, foul-mouthed indigent Terry (Jeremy Gardner) sleeping on a church pew during the holiday week. Soon he’s taken the stranger into his home, hoping to put him “back on his feet.”

But Terry is the type who’d rather rest those fragrant feet on a human doormat—like, say, his haplessly well-intentioned host. Soon David’s no-longer-tranquil domesticity is further invaded by Terry’s “girlfriend,” the equally noxious Lexi (Taylor Zaudtke). From playing drinking games to blasting heavy metal music, these two seem to have been sent by Satan himself to test the priest’s faith—as well as his sanity.

Pennycoff indeed tries to blur lines here, so eventually we are not quite sure if Father David’s trials are supernatural, delusional, or just plain old “trashy people” in nature. The screenplay is ultimately both a bit crude and pretentious, aiming for a resonance it can’t quite attain. But The Leech is well-directed, and the able performers really throw themselves into their roles, as unappealing as they often are.

Having no pretensions towards meaning whatsoever is Christmas Bloody Christmas, a straight-up “killer Santa” opus in which the culprit is “RoboSanta+,” a life-sized replica advertised as having “military grade construction” to “keep you and your children safe.” Unfortunately, it—or rather a particular model played by Abraham Benrubi—runs amuck, laying waste to anyone in its path, most of them actors just introduced so they can be knocked off.

Writer-director Joe Begos’ previous films include Bliss, a vivid hallucinogenic horror in which an abrasively “edgy” LA art scenester goes on a drug-fueled homicidal bender. Its characters were all posturing hipster irritants, but that was part of the point. Unfortunately, this time we’re stuck with the same terminally downtown “I’m with the band” types, principally Tori (Riley Dandy) and Robbie (Sam Delich)… yet we are apparently meant to find them delightful. Those two spend a full 25 minutes yelling the most tiresome kind of “What [pop culture thing] do you think is better than [other pop culture thing]?” trivia banter at each other before that highly unconvincing lethal robot finally animates.

The rest is like a low-budget Terminator knockoff, only brightened by the candy-colored visuals. One doesn’t expect much depth of credibility from a movie of this sort. But still, Begos could have at least gestured at trying to explain why this machine goes homicidal, or why it only goes after Tori and her friends. (Admittedly, after their 90th smirking f-bomb and/or Metallica reference, you can see the appeal of burying an axe in their skulls.) It’s not a badly-made film, but so inertly conceived, so lacking in thrills or laughs, that you might rather watch some real Christmas crapsterpiece like the immortal (and near-unwatchable) 1972 Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny instead.

Departing from the seasonal theme here, mention should be made of Robinson Devor’s 1999 The Woman Chaser, which the Alamo Drafthouse is showing this Wed/7 (more info here). Based on a novel by pulp-noir favorite Charles Willeford, it’s a readymade cult film that should be better-known than it is, but some problematic rights issues have made it hard to find in home formats, and then only in a compromised form.

Patrick Warburton plays a slightly sociopathic man-about-town of the Eisenhower era—a car salesman in a B&W LA of chrome fins and bullet bras—whose perverse path heads towards an existential zone-out. It was a fascinating stretch for director and star—Warburton will be on-hand for a live Q&A.

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