You’ve heard of Christmas cheer. What about Christmas sleaze? It practically oozes off the screen in 1984 slasher Don’t Open Till Christmas, directed by Edmund Purdom — who also stars as a detective trying to figure out who’s been slaughtering people dressed as Santa Claus. Ho-ho, oh-no!
There’s nothing warm and cosy about this holiday tale, which enthusiastically commits to its theme of extreme seediness from the opening scene; the first Santa to die onscreen — though we soon learn he’s not the first victim — is stabbed while making out with a woman in the backseat of his car. (She’s also stabbed to death, of course — while the murderer mostly targets you-know-who, Don’t Open Till Christmas wouldn’t dream of passing up an opportunity for violence.) The central image in the opening credits is a cheap Santa toy that’s been set on fire; it burns away to reveal a knife poking out of its centre. The sequence is a nod to Halloween (and Halloween II, which opens with a flaming jack o’ lantern), but it also primes you for what’s to come: an immolation of the entire concept of all things merry and festive, with mid-1980s tackiness and some very dark humour to boot.
The Santas killed in Don’t Open Till Christmas are generally seen out of context. At least one is employed taking photos with kids in a department store, and one gets offed performing at a costume party. But these red-suited targets are far from wholesome; we mostly see them stumbling around dark alleys, but other backdrops include grubby bathrooms, a torture museum, a creepy carnival, and one particularly memorable peep-show booth.
The soundtrack throughout features familiar Christmas songs like “Jingle Bells,” but the renditions sound slightly off-key — just one element of the production design here that spreads copious unease. Another is the abundance of handheld shaky-cam, often coupled with heavy breathing so we know it’s the killer’s POV. Overall, Don’t Open Till Christmas aims for a blend of repulsive and titillating that isn’t so uncommon in low-budget crime movies from this era, but the Santa Claus angle adds that extra little jingle-bell sparkle.
The characters in Don’t Open Till Christmas are woefully underdeveloped, but there’s just enough weird flair scattered around to make them interesting. After prim Kate (Belinda Mayne) witnesses the death of her Santa-suited father, she’s drawn into the case by New Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Harris (played by director Purdom) and Detective Sergeant Powell (Mark Jones) — and eventually turns sleuth herself. The movie tosses out some potential suspects, including Kate’s mulleted boyfriend Cliff (Gerry Sundcliffe), who’s pretty obviously sponging off her wealth, has some apparent homophobia issues, is best friends with a porn-y photographer who tries to pressure a disgusted Kate into posing, and who earns his living by tootling his flute in the subway. Cliff may not be the murderer, but you can’t help but think he’s probably guilty of something.
Despite Scotland Yard’s determination — we hear a lot about the cops’ impatient boss, though we never actually see him — there’s seemingly no stopping Don’t Open Till Christmas’ killer, whose ability to evade capture is almost as impressive as all the different methods he uses to annihilate his prey. (At one point, the cops literally say to each other, “Do you think we might have a psychopath on our hands?” Guys… yes! Yes, you do.) Their grand plan involves having cops go undercover dressed as Santa, a tactic that may have worked for Popeye Doyle in The French Connection but is handled with much less nuance here — especially since this movie has more than established that anytime we see a Santa on-screen, the killer will suddenly materialise.
Rather than following an actual plot, Don’t Open Till Christmas is way more interested in cramming as many grotesque death scenes into its 86-minute running time as possible. Along with some fairly standard stabbings and stranglings, there’s a Santa who meets his end thanks to a knife concealed in the toe of a boot (used to kick him the crotch) and a studded glove (used to mangle his face); a Santa shoved headfirst into a grill of roasting chestnuts; and a Santa who makes his grand entrance onstage… as a corpse… at a concert featuring sequin-clad singer-actress Caroline Munro (a cameo, but she’s still the biggest name in the cast). We see eyeballs poked out, knives plunged into skulls and emerging from mouths, a spectacular electrocution, and — in maybe the film’s most notorious scene — a most unfortunate Santa separated from his Little St. Nick while he’s mid-stream at the urinal.
With imagery like this, things like the killer’s identity (pretty darn obvious as soon as the character’s introduced) and Grinch-y motive (shoehorned into the movie’s last few minutes) become secondary concerns. Proudly nasty and absolutely unafraid to beat its Santa gimmick into the ground, Don’t Open Till Christmas will not warm your heart — unless you are a cult movie fan and/or a bloodthirsty gorehound, in which case it will delight your coal-black soul. I watch it every year!