Red Christmas (2016)

“Abortion is part of a huge issue, on both sides.”

These are the first words heard in Red Christmas, followed by other, angrier voices on the topic, amid images of enraged pro-lifers demonstrating outside a clinic – and indeed this theme, as explosive as the bomb that tears through the building moments later, will haunt the rest of this feature debut from award-winning Australian television director Craig Anderson. In the ensuing panic, a doctor discovers, extending its mutant hand from the biohazard bucket, a miraculous, monstrous foetus – and It’s Alive.

Cut to twenty years later, and widowed matriarch Diane (Dee Wallace!!!) is throwing one last traditional Christmas dinner in her Australian country house for her adult family. There are tensions evident in the family –  tensions which, although no doubt themselves a part of the Yuletide tradition, also adumbrate the faultlines of the abortion debate. Atheist, pot-smoking daughter Virginia (Janis McGavin) is heavily pregnant, while her devoutly Christian sister Suzy (Sarah Bishop), struggling in vain for six years to conceive, has refused IVF or other medical interventions for herself (“God is all the treatment that we need”). As the liberalism of one sister and prim observance of the other clash, it emerges that the third and youngest daughter, Hope (Deelia Meriel), has been adopted by Diane – which is to say she is a child unwanted by her biological mother. Meanwhile Diane’s only son, the Shakespeare-obsessed Jerry (Gerard Odwyer), has Down Syndrome, a condition which, when detected in embryo, is a common justification for terminating a pregnancy – as Diane knows all too well. And Diane’s decision, in accordance with her late husband’s wishes, to sell the home and go on a solo world tour is regarded, at least by Virginia, as a selfish abandonment of the family – especially of Jerry, who will have to move into assisted living.

At the door of this fraught domestic environment, a stranger comes a-knocking. Hooded and bandaged, clearly disabled, speaking in the soft, pitiful tones of The Elephant Man, and bearing a name that obviously rhymes with foetus, Cletus (Sam Campbell) declares Diane his long-lost mother, and claims to come in love. His reemergence is also the return of the repressed, as Diane is confronted with shame and guilt from a past that she has all this time kept secret from her family. Her response to Cletus’ presence is essentially the same as it was two decades earlier: “You get him out!”

(R)ejected once more and out for revenge, Cletus sets about destroying everyone that Diane holds dear, while still seeking the maternal love he has never had. What follows is a calendar slasher, with Anderson playing every beat of the sub-genre to perfection. The kills are pure Eighties, performed with a range of farmhouse tools – and without CGI. The house’s elaborate Christmas lights bathe all the indoor action in vividly giallo-esque pinks, reds, greens and oranges. Best of all, though, Anderson gets us to sympathise with everyone’s position here, including, indeed especially, with Cletus’. For while there is much good humour in the script, you will not be laughing by the end at its deadly serious engagement with a moral dilemma that has plagued the culture wars of the last half-century. You will not even be sure whether Cletus is more (unnatural born) killer or victim of circumstance, as he comes to embody all the polarising contradictions in the abortion debate. Unlike the murderers in so many bygone slashers whose disabilities just formed part of their monstrous make-up, Red Christmas is unprecedentedly respectful of Cletus’ – and Jerry’s – personhood, allowing them to bring their own ‘special’ spin to the miraculous births and gift-bearing guests that typify the story of Christmas, here bathed in uterine blood.

© Anton Bitel