Packaged and gift wrapped for Christmas 2016 is Mike McMurran’s debut feature, the low-budget-or-die seasonal slasher film Secret Santa. It’s one of those guerrilla filmmaking efforts footed on unsteady indie ground, sound in ideas but inexperienced in delivering a neatly bow-tied treat for holiday horror fans this December. The stocking are hung by the chimney with care, and even though they’re filled with gorified practical effects, amateur aesthetics draw a story reminiscent of scribblings on a bar-top napkin. Kills go for the jugular, but so much filler tastes like a year-old fruitcake. Kids get drunk, killer invades, people die – it’s a horror setup that McMurran tries to spruce up with Xmas lights and eggnog.
To kick things off, McMurran pays tribute to the slasher films that so inspired this yuletide massacre. A drunk college co-ed carries her passed-out roommate home, finds a wrapped present from her “Secret Santa,” pulls out a drill, then has her eye screwed out minutes later (after an obligatory naked shower shot, because boobs). Such a start promises non-stop carnage, and immediately introduces a homemade brand of practical effects work that doesn’t shy away from ripped-apart organs. I mean, we get a squishy, slimy eye stuck on a drillbit within minutes! Good sign, right?
After this introductory screw-job, action goes dark. We’re introduced to a host of college duds who go about their course curriculum and plan a wild Christmas “party” (with, like, 6 people), and it’s another 45-ish minutes until the killer actually makes his/her presence felt again. Until then, it’s just Nicole (Annette Wozniak) and her webcam stripshow side-job, Dwayne’s (Geoff Almond) inability to sleep and Carissa’s (Keegan Chambers) aggressive alcohol abuse – none of which are very entertaining. You’d think Dwayne’s hazy sleep hallucinations would play into later scenes when avoiding Secret Santa‘s killer, but nope. It’s just a lengthy plot point that leads nowhere, wasting time until a very unenthusiastic party later on.
Don’t adjust your television screen (does that even apply anymore?) – McMurran goes retro by laying a snowy, grainy filter over the film’s display. Each scene looks like a midnight VHS you might throw on with your buddies, but then characters start using their iPhone and the effect is completely lost. Granted, clear visuals might have made things worse given low-budget appeal, but if you’re sticking with outdated techniques, your production has to replicate the era to a degree. Instead, the dirty film reel aesthetic feels like nothing but a gimmick, adding no depth to a modern-day slasher with a pre-digital veneer.
By the time Secret Santa lets its psychopath start offing party guests, the damage is already done. One by one people begin to split off into singles or groups, and even though the house looks to be no bigger than a cheap college residence, people dying only a room over still can’t be heard. It’s all very brutal – stomachs carved opened, heads bashed, dicks attacked with gardening sheers – but absolutely silly in setup even considering the throwback 80s homage at play. There’s a difference between senseless fun and derivative nonsense (see the killer’s infuriating motivation explanation scene), and all the lacklustre scene-chewing done while waiting for an inevitable goregasm climax falls into the latter category.
The unfortunate reality is that a lot of Secret Santa falls into that “nonesense” category, from hambone performances to some suspect sound editing. Whenever the black-clad killer strikes, weapon noises immediately drown out vocal reactions almost as if two audio tracks can’t be played at the same time. A man quite literally gets his penis trimmed, yet writhing and yelling never occur as you’d expect. There’s playback tinniness behind most noises, and very jarring edits that cut into awkward character placement or situations that wouldn’t present themselves naturally. It’s all a bit rough around the edges, even for veteran genre watchers.
Christmas horror films are a subgenre delight for this reviewer, but Secret Santa is way down on my naughty list. Some wild kills make bloody decorations out of random body parts, but a drawn-out midsection makes for a majority of the film’s longer-than-it-feels runtime. Give credit to Mike McMurran’s team, because they’re out there making things happen instead of standing on the sidelines – so let’s hope this is more of a learning experience than debut. He just needs to find that spark of life that elevates a typical indie above equal redundancies, which certainly isn’t ignited here. Extreme circumcisions and all.
Secret Santa means well as a Christmas slasher film, but can't fight an amateur feeling despite some fun practical effects.