Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Santa Claws (1996)

One would expect a Christmas slasher film written and directed by John Russo, starring Debbie Rochon, several cast members from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and three aspiring scream queens willing to get naked on camera would be a major cult classic.  But Santa Claws feels as old and tired as the Christmas Muzak pumped into the malls this time of year.  It’s unfair to call this film a lump of coal, but it’s like the bundle of socks you receive for Christmas, rather than the present you really wanted.

The film focuses on the troubles of scream queen Raven Quinn (Rochon).  It’s Christmas and she has to figure out how to tell her daughters that their father Eric (John Mowod) plans to file for divorce.  The kid’s grandmother (Marilyn Eastman) and daughter aren’t thrilled about her daughter-in-law’s profession, which involved getting naked for the camera, despite the fact that Eric got Raven into that line of work  and is the one photographing the models.

It’s fortunate for her that next door neighbor Wayne (Grant Cramer) is willing to babysit the girls, allowing Raven to film her segment of Scream Queen Christmas.  But Wayne is quite psychotic, having killed his mother and her boyfriend when he was very young, and now has an unhealthy fixation on the Scream Queen next door.  And he’s willing to do anything to help her career and win over her affections.

Not that one would blame the young Wayne once you see the reason
for his shooting spree.

Yep, that’s the plot.  But that shouldn’t surprise most slasher fans, as the genre contains films with less of a storyline, and still manage to be a lot of fun.  But Santa Claws goes wrong too many times to be counted as even dumb fun.

It’s not the fault of the actors.  Rochon is good and Cramer is very intense (though, to be honest, his performance suffers thanks to some questionable editing and too much exposition).  And, in a brief appearance, Karl Hardman (Harry Cooper in NOTLD) is awesome, as he performs his own stunts during his battle against Wayne and does a great job.

And the film’s shortcomings are not the fault of the technical glitches, cheap set designs and other thing that are inherent to low budget filmmaking.  Yes, the snow disappears within the space of a day, Eric’s photo shot is in a hotel room with a few skulls to give it a “spooky” atmosphere and the sound has issues in a few spots.  But such problems are to be expected with low-budget filmmaking, and the right touches behind the camera can make the difference between a fun little romp and a waste of time.  Toss in a few moments of T and A, then fill the screen with blood, repeat until the final credits roll, and you’ve got a cult favorite. 

It all seems pretty simple, but Santa Claws gets the formula backwards.  Russo spends more time on the naked photo shots of the actresses than the onscreen mayhem.  Even worse, the script limits Wayne in his weapon of choice.  Coupled with a limited effects budget, and the end result is a film with too much nudity and not enough blood and gore. 

Yea, this is about as good as the gore effects get.

All this is understandable, as Russo created Wayne as more a Norman Bates than Jason Vorheesse.  But the script fails to generate any suspense, as the script shows Wayne is psychotic early on.  And how he infiltrated Raven’s life without triggering her stalker alarm is a mystery, especially after she describes for her daughters some of the crazy fans she’s met at conventions. 

Had Russo written Wayne’s character more like Bates, leaving a bit of mystery concerning both the identity of the killer and Wayne’s past, the story would have been more engaging.  Instead, as the audience knows who the killer is, all one can do is wade through endless scenes of gratuitous nudity and wait for him to strike again.

And before the hate e-mail comes in, let me make one thing clear.  I have no problem with nudity in horror films, which is evident in my review of Piranha 3D.  But where that film hit the right balance of titillation and gory thrills, Russo tips the scale too far, padding the film’s running time with endless shots of various actresses undressing.  Sure, the scenes are often intercut with moments that move the film forward, but Russo keeps coming back to a scene of an aspiring scream queen posing naked on the screen to a point where the audience has to suspect he is selling flesh, not the film.

Perhaps the padding was needed to get the film up to a feature running time.  But the script has moments that are potential satirical gold and would have made for a more interesting feature.  The life of a Scream Queen is pretty much laid out early on, as Raven is chastised by her mother-in-law for being the one in front of the camera.  It’s a brilliant moment, but Russo’s script doesn’t build upon it or other moments.  Instead of taking the opportunity to bite at the hand that feeds him, Russo offers up more flesh to the more prurient interest of some horror fans.

Yea, half way through this film, you'll be screaming, "Please, not ANOTHER 
 cheap T and A shot."  

Such padding isn’t much of a surprise, as, in the same year, Russo released Scream Queens Naked Christmas, a 60-minute video promo for Santa Claws that likely features most of the nudity in the film.  Oh, Roger Corman would be so proud.  And, given his involvement with the magazine Scream Queens Illustrated, it’s easy to see how Russo is trying to appeal to genre fans. 

Another problem with the film is the deaths have no real impact.  Sure, in a slasher film, characterization isn’t a major concern, but most scripts offer the audience stereotypical characters that we either love or hate, providing an emotional reaction to their deaths.  But Russo’s script delivers such bland characters, the audience can be forgiven for not caring about their deaths.  It’s fine to have a few such characters to act as fodder for the mincing maniac, but not every one except our final girl.

I’d like to think Russo was trying to deliver a sly jab at the scream queen personae.  After all, the film includes moments outside the photo shoots where the women act like they are still posing for the camera.  One could suggest this is a bit of satire, but the film contains no context to support this claim.  And, considering Russo’s involvements beyond this movie, one has to suspect Santa Claws was little more than an advertisement for Scream Queens Illustrated, one fans would pay to receive.

Now Roger Corman is just envious.

And I've ran out of online still to show you, because of, well, 

Regardless of the filmmaker’s intent, and the performances from the actors, Santa Claws is rather forgetful Slasher Claus fare.  It’s okay, if that’s all you have to fulfill your holiday slasher craving, or you don’t have access to online porn at the moment.  But it’s easy to find better films to satisfy your Christmas craving for fear.