Posted on November 25, 2017

Red Christmas: A Disturbing New Holiday Horror Classic

Dawn Keetley

Directed by Craig Anderson, Red Christmas premiered in Australia in the summer of 2016 and became widely available in the US (on DVD and streaming) in October 2017. When I say that Red Christmas is disturbing—even unpleasant—I’m in no way saying you shouldn’t watch this film; indeed, it seems poised to become a holiday classic. It’s disturbing and unpleasant in the way horror films should be, and it joins a pantheon of similarly disturbing holiday films, not least Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (Charles E. Sellier, Jr., 1984). To the extent that horror films make manifest what we repress and deny, the holidays (which demand extra helpings of repression and denial if mass mayhem is to be avoided) are undeniably ripe for the most disturbing of horror films. Enter, Red Christmas.

Red Christmas stars Dee Wallace as 65-year-old Diane, who has invited her family to celebrate Christmas with her. Her son Gerry, who lives at home, has Down Syndrome and is brilliantly played by Gerard O’Dwyer. Youngest daughter Hope (Deelia Meriel) also lives at home—and they are joined by a pregnant Ginny (Janis McGavin) and husband Scott (Bjorn Stewart), Suzy (Sarah Bishop) and minister husband Peter (David Collins), and Diane’s brother Joe (Geoff Morrell). The tensions—I mean, festivities—have barely begun to get off the ground when a knock at the door introduces a strange masked and cloaked figure whom Diane invites inside in the spirit of Christmas.

Diane (Dee Wallace) opens the door to Cletus (Sam Campbell)

Here’s the trailer:

As the trailer makes clear, Red Christmas is on one level a good old-fashioned slasher film (although it focuses on adults, not teens). A delimited group of people are picked off one by one in some occasionally inventive ways. The film is what the trailer promises in that respect. While the trailer advertises a “black comedy,” however, I have to say that I didn’t find anything about this film in the least bit funny.

I’m offering a very slight spoiler for the clueless here in saying that the stranger at the door, whose (not very subtly symbolic) name is Cletus, turns out to be the embodiment of an abortion Diane thought she had twenty years ago. The film’s opening montage makes this crystal clear for anyone who’s paying attention. What the film is, then, as well as a slasher, is a film about abortion. In this respect, Anderson is paying double homage to Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, which is also a slasher film that deals with abortion. Indeed, Anderson has said in an interview that Red Christmas is a “spiritual sequel” to Black Christmas.

Diane (Dee Wallace) defending her family against the deadly incarnation of a past choice

Anderson also says in this interview that he was trying to give time to both sides of the abortion debate, but, honestly, I don’t see it. Yes, Diane is given the chance to say why she chose to have an abortion: she made her decision when she found out her unborn child had Down Syndrome (like her son, Gerry) and also because her husband was dying. It’s totally understandable that Diane would make this choice—and she’s not, generally, an unlikeable character. But the film makes Cletus way too sympathetic—despite his murder spree, which gets more discriminating as the film goes along. Cletus has the infantile rage of Michael Myers, but he’s articulate enough to voice his deep feeling of outrage at his mother for her abandonment. It’s thus hard not to sympathize with him, which works against his functioning as an effective slasher film stalker. Since we’re urged to sympathize with Cletus, moreover, most of the emotion of the film seems designed to fall on the pro-life side.

And aside from the sympathy Cletus himself accrues, there’s the fact that the emotional heart of the film is Gerry, who, not surprisingly, takes it very personally when he overhears that his mother aborted Cletus because he had Down Syndrome. Gerry seems a living breathing incarnation of the deep ethical problem with aborting Down Syndrome fetuses.[i] And after valiantly working to defend his family, he suffers a tragic fate that only seems to compound the way the film does, despite Anderson’s own claim, take an emotional and ethical side.

Diane with her son Gerry (Gerard O’Dwyer)

In the end, I have to be honest and say that I found this film so unpleasant and disturbing because it felt very much like it was challenging my own pro-choice politics. And I’m not sure I liked that, even though I am a huge proponent of the horror film’s taking up politics: it does and it should. I guess I shouldn’t object, then, when a film doesn’t seem to espouse the political view that I think it should. And I don’t object. It made watching the film, as I said, unpleasant.

I also think, more objectively, that Red Christmas was just a bit too blatant in its politics. Having an all-grown-up aborted fetus named Cletus walking around slaughtering the family of the woman who aborted him is a little too thinly-disguised for my tastes. Give film critics something to work with!

You can rent Red Christmas on various streaming platforms (like Amazon) now–but it looks like it’s coming to Netflix in December.



[i]  For an informed discussion of the question of the termination rate after a Down Syndrome prenatal diagnosis, see “New Study: Abortion after Prenatal Diagnosis of Down Syndrome Reduces Down Syndrome Community by Thirty Percent,” The Charlotte Lozier Institute, April 21, 2015. One salient point made in the article: “In a 2012 publication in Prenatal Diagnosis, their research calculated a weighted mean across the U.S. of a 67% termination rate following prenatal diagnosis.”

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