It’s that magical time of year again, friends; yes, Christmas slasher season. Now I know what you’re thinking, Christmas slashers are great and all, but they are a little too wholesome. Well, you’re in luck, because in 1984, infamous exploitation producer Dick Randall gifted the world with the sleaziest, most disreputable yuletide classic ever: Don’t Open Till Christmas.
For those unfamiliar with this nasty little chestnut, here’s the basic rundown: someone is bringing seriously unhappy tidings to the Santas of London this Christmas. From seedy second-hand Santas to posh St. Nicks, an unhinged Grinch is taking them all down in very unpleasant ways. Scotland Yard is on the case, and Inspector Harris (Edmund Purdom) is pulling his hair out looking for clues. Could the killer be Cliff (Gerry Sundquist), the no account boyfriend of Kate (Belinda Mayne), whose rich daddy got a spear to the skull when dressing up for the Christmas party? Perhaps intense reporter, Giles (Alan Lake), is sowing the seeds of distrust in The Yard? Or is the killer a cop, like Detective Sargent Powell (Mark Jones), who matches the witness’ physical descriptions a little too well? As the investigation creeps along, the jolly fat corpses start to pile up. Someone is definitely going to be on Santa’s naughty list this year, if anyone is left to write one.
Don’t Open Till Christmas is an odd duck. For one thing, it’s set in London with a British cast and crew, which is unusual for the sub-genre. This Britishness lends an air of class and respectability to production which it absolutely does not deserve. The movie is pure early ’80s sleaze all the way, complete with nude photo shoots, peepshows, and back alley sex, yet somehow filth seems a little more palatable when it’s Piccadilly Circus vs. Time Square. Additionally, for a movie clearly capitalizing on the holiday themed slasher craze, this one has the distinct vibe of an Italian giallo. The identity of the glove wearing killer is concealed until the final act, the murders are frequently shot through the killer’s POV, and there are ample red herrings to go around. The early American Xmas slasher Black Christmas used similar elements, but after Silent Night, Deadly Night showing the killer became more important than teasing his or her identity. Don’t Open Till Christmas bucks that trend and proudly revels in its giallo sleaze.
Most importantly, this is the only Christmas slasher I know of where instead of the killer dressing up like Santa, it’s his victims who are wearing the fake beards. Now, you have to admit that’s a cute twist, but it leads to the film’s most obvious question: if it is widely known that a killer is exclusively targeting people wearing Santa costumes, why the holly jolly fuck would anyone go out dressed like that? It’s not like a Santa outfit is required attire for most people, and even those who are being paid specifically to be Santa don’t have to walk to work in character.
The solution to the danger seems even more straightforward than in Jaws, where your safety is guaranteed by simply staying out of the ocean. It’s as if the shark only ate men wearing red and white striped Speedos, and while people do enjoy a nice frolic in the water, does anyone ever like dressing up as Santa? None of the dozens roaming around London appear to. They are all either complaining about it, drunk, or both. Seems like this would be the perfect excuse to put your foot down and say, “Boss, this year I am not going to play Santa on account of possibly getting horribly murdered. Plus, I hate children.”
Yet, there is a non-stop parade of red-suited victims. It’s funny that this came out the same year as Silent Night, Deadly Night. That movie was heavy on the setup, leaving the short (but memorable) killing spree until the last act. Don’t Open Till Christmas hits the ground running and does not let up until the very end. The killer runs through Santas like they were coming off a conveyor belt. These guys cannot catch a break. One poor Santa has his bike stolen by punks, is chased by an attack dog, and then runs afoul of our maniacal Kringle killer. London is a rough town for a jolly old elf. The Santa murdering is not only numerous, but rather brutal as well. One fellow catches a spear in the back of the head, sending the blade poking out through his mouth (just as he blew one of those paper party horns, which is a cute touch). A chestnut vendor has his face shoved into the hot grill and is left there to go up like a torch. One is beaten to death with a spiked glove and his friend gets his eye gouged out with a broken bottle. Even the simple stabbings are particularly juicy, blood spurting as if the victims’ bellies were truly full of jelly.
For a killer with such a specific focus, his victim selection criteria are incredibly confusing. For instance, when he comes across a model wearing a Santa robe (and nothing else) for a sexy photo shoot, he lets her go unharmed. I guess he is a traditionalist, only a man can be a real fake Santa. However, he has no problem killing a woman in the company of a Santa. In one sequence, a drunken Santa is chased into the London Museum of Torture, where he bumps into the lady curator. After a tense game of cat and Christmas mouse in between the ghoulish exhibits (the movie got some extra production value by shooting in the real museum), the Santa bumps into the corpse of the lady curator just before being offed himself. Going by the killer’s rules, if the Santa and the lady had just switched outfits, they would have both survived.
Part of the reason this movie is so thoroughly insane is because it was just as much of a mess behind the camera. Edmund Purdom, who played Inspector Harris, agreed to be in the movie only if he could direct. Since he was the biggest name attached to the picture (he played the dean in Pieces), the producers agreed. Turns out that directing was not all Purdom thought it would be, and he quit. So, softcore director Derek Ford was brought in to replace him and fired two days later. Editor Ray Selfe wound up finishing it, but only after Alan Birkinshaw re-wrote the script and much of the footage was re-shot. I think it is safe to call Don’t Open Till Christmas a “troubled” production.
That chaos is obvious throughout the movie, as the story careens all over the place. Main characters are introduced, forgotten about for long stretches, and then pointlessly bumped off. Kate can’t decide if she suspects Inspector Harris of being the man who killed her father or if she has a crush on him. Why does Caroline Monro, the lead from Maniac and Starcrash, randomly show up in a singing role? Whole plot points go nowhere. Scotland Yard sets up a sting using undercover cops dressed like Santas (the Christmas equivalent to cops in drag pretending to be prostitutes), but I can’t tell if that ever happened because no one brings it up again. Were all the Santas killed from that point on supposed to be cops? Your guess is as good as mine, even if you haven’t seen the movie.
The ending is almost indescribable. Was it all a dream? Was only the last scene a dream? Is the killer dead or alive? Not a clue. It cuts to someone waking in fright, and then goes directly into a flashback. This flashback does not involve the person having the flashback. I’m not complaining, because the flashback reveals my all-time favorite motivation for the killer’s unquenchable homicidal urges.