It’s the most wonderful time of the year – unless you moonlight as Santa in the violently sleazy 1984 thriller “Don’t Open Till Christmas”.
Reissued as a Blu-ray release in October by Vinegar Syndrome, Don’t Open Till Christmas remains a frighteningly entertaining entry into holiday horror and now arrives just in time with its additional wish list of sinister special features.
The movie tells the story of a serial killer who sets his seasonal sights on Santa Claus-costumed citizens of London, killing them in increasingly vicious fashions.
The killer may have met his match when Inspector Harris (Edmund Purdom) tackles the case, but even Harris can’t anticipate how the mysterious and intrusive journalist Giles (Alan Lake) will affect the investigation.
As a motion picture, Don’t Open Till Christmas may not resonate with viewers due to its dramatic performances or screenplay, and that’s not necessarily a criticism of the film itself.
In fact, it’s a starting point because the acting isn’t altogether deficient by any means.
The performers hit their marks and dramatically propel the plot forward throughout based upon the dialogue that they’ve been provided, even if the dialogue is sometimes a little too melodramatic, perhaps compensating in those scenes in which Santa Claus isn’t slashed to death.
The film’s strength, in fact, lies in its unwillingness to explore the origins of the film’s killer.
Black Christmas (1974) possessed its own backstory in kickstarting the slaughter of a house of sorority girls, and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) did the same, inspiring a ban of the film that set a precedent for pop culture censorship for portraying anyone in a Santa Claus costume so monstrously.
Posited, then, as it is within these and other holiday-themed thrillers of its kind, Don’t Open Till Christmas raised the bar without fully understanding that it was doing so.
There is a nostalgic and critical love of other holiday-themed horrors from this period because they attempt in some way to either humanize their killers or differentiate the killer’s victims.
Don’t Open Till Christmas, on the other hand, has no intention of doing likewise, and that is precisely what makes the gory film so appallingly unique and memorable.
Technically, the new Vinegar Syndrome reissue includes a wealth of special features that make the physical release worth a cinephile’s time.
Two separate interviews – one conducted with co-screenwriter (and co-director) Alan Birkinshaw and another with actress Catherine Munro – are included here, and both provide a personal perspective on the history of horror in the years leading up to and including Don’t Open Till Christmas.
In “Slashing Miss Munro,” Catherine Munro contextualizes her career dating back to her days with Hammer films and through her role in 1980’s Maniac. Her interview may focus more on other watermarks of her career by sometimes ignoring Don’t Open Till Christmas, but hers is a lovely recollection of life in the film industry that viewers would otherwise not be afforded without this physical media release.
Meanwhile, the interview, entitled “Don’t Direct Till Christmas,” highlights more than any of the other documentary features the difficulties that encircled the making of this film.
A movie that simply “didn’t work” upon the conclusion of filming would require some creative pivots, and this feature explains how the production viewers see on this physical release came to be. Furthermore, an additional new interview, entitled “Purdom Babylonia,” with the daughter of the film’s director, also fills in some interesting gaps in our understanding of this — especially in genre film.
The special features try to illuminate what made the making of this particular production so singular, but what makes the film so striking is what was caught on screen, not behind it.
In a subgenre of filmmaking that’s become inflated enough that we can make astute comparisons between a large number of similar films, this production is particularly mean-spirited in its execution – no pun intended.
The Santa Claus-clad victims aren’t entirely discriminated against throughout the movie.
It’s not as if this particular serial killer has a grievance against shopping mall Santas who simply don’t take their livelihoods seriously, which would make for a criminal cautionary tale if it warned Santa’s helpers to take their weekend jobs seriously as ministers of mirth.
No, this killer makes proverbial meat pies of all of them; in fact, he takes umbrage against the best of them (costume party performers, roasted chestnut vendors, those amiable enough to pose for photos with children, etc.) and the worst of them (peep show enthusiasts, back alley drunks, out and out creeps, and more).
This wholesale slaughter only adds to the pervasive nastiness of the film, never allowing the film to make a comment on the intended sanctity of the holiday season that might be perverted because of the violent nature of this film.
That comment, in fact, isn’t the point of this picture. Here, it’s all about perversion.
The film doesn’t moralize – it mutilates.
While other holiday horror movies like Gremlins (1984), Trick ‘R Treat (2007), and Krampus (2015) sugarcoat their terror with some heartwarming sentiment and moral instruction, Don’t Open Till Christmas seems only interested in stopping hearts – not in filling them with any sense of joy.
As a considerably rare example of nihilistic holiday filmmaking that doesn’t even attempt to play the carnage for laughs, this film is still commendable, a noteworthy and brave respite from those holiday genres not willing to go “there.”
Perhaps a generation removed from the macabre origin story of Christmas Evil (1980), the pendulum swings here much more in favor of the disturbing, which – for some – is the perfect cup of hot chocolate or the sweetest, spiked glass of eggnog.
Don’t Open Till Christmas certainly goes there, trespassing the fireplace and invading the seemingly impenetrable warmth of the home.
So for those looking for holiday-themed suspense that also inspires childhood memories of the holiday season, it might be best to put a movie of that ilk on your Christmas list next year. Don’t Open Till Christmas has no room in its sleigh for festive recollection.
Perhaps Santa Claus will make room for some next time —if he hasn’t already been gruesomely dispatched before he descends your chimney on Christmas Eve.