Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Back to the Eighties: DON’T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS (1983)


Directed by Edmund Purdom, Derek Ford and Ray Selfe

(In the first in an occasional series of write-ups of forgotten films from the 1980s I thought I’d demonstrate my ability to bore for England on the subject of ‘Don’t Open Till Christmas’)

Don’t Open Till Christmas is a Frankenstein’s monster of a film, stitched together from elements of the American slasher genre and homegrown sleaze, imbued with the personalities of three different directors and let loose on the video renting public in late 1985. The man who flicked the switch that brought this shambling creation to life was American film producer Dick Randall. The archetypal, chubby, cigar smoking B movie mogul, Randall spent much of the 1960s and 1970s based in Rome and Hong Kong, producing countless exploitation films in the process. The Randall back catalogue boasted every conceivable kind of exploitation film, from Mondo movies to softcore frolics, to Kung-Fu capers starring Bruce Lee look-alikes, rip-offs of ET and Superman, and even a James Bond spoof starring a three and a half foot Filipino midget.

At some point in the early 1980s Randall relocated to London where he would find himself making British horror films, appropriately enough choosing an office on the ground floor of Hammer House in Wardour Street as his new base of operations. This first offering to emerge from The Dick Randall House of Horror looks to have been an attempt to emulate the success of the 1982 horror film ‘Pieces’, a Randall produced gorefest that saw former matinee idol Edmund Purdom play a chainsaw maniac. Applying an ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ logic Don’t Open Till Christmas shares that film’s co-producer Steve Minasian and its love of ultra-violent set pieces. Edmund Purdom was also back on board, having been relinquished of chainsaw duties in favour of roles as the new film’s director and leading man. If the rest of the credits of Don’t Open Till Christmas are anything to go by Dick Randall wasted no time in finding individuals in London who were on his wavelength, with many of the cast and crew veterans of British Exploitation filmmaking. Randall probably thought it was safe bet allowing his good friend Purdom into the director’s chair, especially with all these hardened exploitation film vets around to support the actor and first time director. In reality Randall couldn’t have ended up with a bigger mess on his hands if he’d put Frank Spencer in the director’s chair.

Don’t Open Till Christmas sees Cliff Boyd (Gerry Sundquist) and girlfriend Kate Briovski (Belinda Mayne) drawn into a series of Yuletide murders after a masked man gate crashes their Xmas party. Incensed at Kate’s father being dressed as Santa Claus the masked man promptly spears Kate’s father through the head before disappearing into the night. Inspector Harris (Purdom) and Detective Powell (Mark Jones) are the baffled policemen on the trail of this psychopath who has made quite a habit of going round the West End bumping off anyone dressed as Santa Claus. “It was the costume that he was wearing” Harris explains to Kate “he was the victim of another Santa murder”.

By day Cliff and Kate are buskers in the London underground, an occupation that brings them into contact with Cliff’s old friend Gerry (Kevin Lloyd) a porn photographer. Gerry invites the couple over to his studio for tea, only its crumpet that Gerry really has on his mind. He and Cliff conspire to get Kate to pose for some topless girl on girl photographs with Gerry’s model Sharon (Pat Astley). After all what better way to overcome the recent death of a loved one than to embark on a porn career? Proper girl that Kate is, she is horrified at this suggestion and the men’s plan really goes haywire when Gerry insensitively gets out a Santa costume for the planned photos. After Kate storms out, Sharon ends up donning the Santa costume and goes on to make a drunken pass at Cliff outside the studio. This evening then takes a further farcical turn when the police show up, forcing Mother Christmas and Cliff to make a run for it fearing they’ve been mistaken for “a couple of gays”. Following a quick dash around the block Sharon escapes the police only to find herself face to face with the Santa-hating masked man. Although since the mystery man only holds a grudge against male Santas, he merely touches her up with a cut throat razor to establish she is a woman, before legging it. “His eyes, they seem to smile” Sharon tells the police who cart her away for indecent exposure anyway.

At this point a slovenly newspaper hack called Giles Morgan (Alan Lake) pops up to drop hints that Harris has quite a few skeletons in his closet and implies that Powell would do himself a favour by solving the crimes himself. With ‘only three more killing days till Christmas’ (as one of Giles’ tabloid headlines puts it) the cops and the killer certainly have their work cut out for them. Anticipating the Christmas rush Santa impersonators are everywhere! One lonely department store Santa even goes to a Soho peep show dressed in his work clothes. The ‘experience’ Santa (as the character is billed in the credits) isn’t about to experience anything of interest as the peep show girl (Kelly Baker) only makes bad jokes and ‘X’-mas themed dirty talk from behind a pane of glass. ‘Santa’ becomes more and more nervous and frustrated. Unimpressed by her terrible dancing (“what do you expect Flashdance?” she complains) this Santa is clearly after unloading his sack. “I’d like to have you sitting on my knee” he pervs, just as the killer bursts into the peep show booth and butchers him in front of the girl’s eyes.

With Harris cracking under pressure, Powell goes over his head to arrange a stakeout (seemingly at a circus’ toilet!) that entails two undercover policemen dressing up as ‘decoy’ Santas. All merrily goes well with the cop Santas handing out toys to children, that is until the killer shows up with a blade attached to his shoe and kicks one Santa in the groin. A backup Santa gets more of the same, giving some weight to Harris’ earlier observation that “Christmas is no time to be a policeman”. Back at Scotland Yard the girl from the peep show (named Cherry in the film and more bluntly ‘Experience Girl’ in the end credits) refuses 24 hour police protection and heads back to her old peep-show haunt. When Cherry’s first customer turns out to be he of ‘smiling eyes’, a chase around London streets ensues, ending with her being dragged down into a cellar. In the process Cherry gets a good look at the killer, why it is none other than newspaper hack Giles. “I hate Christmas, I hate everything it stands for” Giles complains in a sinister put on voice. Flashbacks elaborate to reveal that as a child Giles discovered his Santa dressed father having sex with a blonde family friend, then witnessed this naughty Santa throwing his mother down the stairs.

Unbeknown to Giles, Kate in the course of her own investigation into the murders has become aware of who the killer is and his motives. Information she strangely doesn’t bother to share with Harris (who she has a dinner date with) or Cliff (who enviously tries to break up the dinner date). No matter, since later that night Giles pays Kate a surprise visit and reveals that he is in fact Harris’ mad brother. “I thought I’d give him a real case to work on” Giles explains before strangling and stabbing the film’s heroine to death. Across town Harris also reaches the end of his mortal coil when he learns the hard way why the film is called Don’t Open Till Christmas. All of which leaves Cherry alone to face off against mad Giles who plans to make her “the supreme sacrifice to all the evil Christmas is”.

Despite Edmund Purdom’s claim to be ‘a born director’, he clearly was nothing of the sort. Although in fairness Purdom can’t be held solely responsible for Don’t Open Till Christmas, and the production itself seems to have been plagued by an almost supernatural run of bad luck. Originally planned as a quickie shoot around Christmas 1983, the film eventually took over a year to make. Delays that dragged the production into summertime and forced the cast to don wintery clothes and Santa costumes throughout Summer 1984 in order to maintain the Yuletide setting of the film. While the cast sweated it out, the film’s script was also re-written at one point and several roles recast, with Randall’s friend – Alan ‘Killer’s Moon’ Birkinshaw- drafted in to oversee the rewriting and recasting. Soon after the production ended one of the film’s stars, Alan Lake, gave a grim postscript to the onscreen madness by committing suicide. By the time Don’t Open till Christmas was finally completed it had not only seen off one of its actors, but had seen several men fill then vacate the director’s chair. According to the late Ray Selfe, Edmund Purdom made a complete hash of directing the film and a second director had to be found in former British sex filmmaker Derek Ford. When Ford himself then got fired from the project, it was left to Selfe to finish directing Don’t Open Till Christmas. As the film’s editor Selfe also had the unenviable task of making his efforts and the aborted work of his two predecessors resemble a film.

Purdom’s footage -by far the most amateurish of the bunch- recalls the kind of quota quickie that Butchers films and EJ Fancey had been financing more than two decades earlier. The cheaper end of the 1960s British film world is especially evoked in reoccurring exterior shots of New Scotland Yard, and scenes of Purdom and Mark Jones discussing the case in a room that has been dressed in a threadbare fashion to resemble a Scotland Yard office. Such old fashioned sleuthing is in sharp contrast to the very 1980s slasher scenes themselves that find various Santas wandering onto the screen only to meet their maker at the hands of Alan Lake’s psychopath (or at least Lake’s masked stand-in) a few moments later. As with the chainsaw murders in Pieces, these sequences go hugely over the top in the gore department. Faces instead of chestnuts are roasted on an open fire, eyeballs are punched out, machetes embedded in heads and brains blown out. Don’t Open Till Christmas’ bad taste highlight and the scene that no one forgets, finds a department store Santa (played by Greek pornographer Max Roman) using a urinal only to be caught short when the killer creeps out of a toilet cubical and castrates him.

Of the three directors, it is arguably Derek Ford whose personality can be felt the most in the film. Unlike fellow British sex filmmaker Stanley Long whose horror shorts from this period (Do You Believe in Fairies?, That’s the way to do it!, Dreamhouse) offer no clue as to their director’s saucy background, Ford clearly found it harder to shake off his past. As a result Don’t Open Till Christmas sure loves its sleaze, from the dirty talk in the Soho peep booth, to Pat Astley’s glamour photo shoot and the killer later molesting a semi-nude Pat with a cut throat razor. This pornographic undercurrent to the film certainly distances Don’t Open Till Christmas from the typical American slasher films of the period, almost as much as the Purdom directed footage does. A running theme in Derek Ford’s work manages to find an unlikely outlet here thanks to Cliff’s transformation from a nice guy in the early scenes to a swinging opportunist trying to capitalize on his girlfriend’s grief by coercing her to appear in a lesbian photo-shoot. Hardly the typical behaviour of a clean cut horror film hero, but pure Derek Ford, whose earlier sex films like The Wife Swappers and Commuter Husbands display a deep obsession with swinging suburbia and outwardly ‘respectable’ people leading hedonistic double lives. Obsessions that, by all accounts, Ford didn’t just restrict to his film work. The premise for the scene and Kate’s predictably appalled reaction to Cliff’s suggestion feels like someone’s memory of a swinger’s party gone awry than anything belonging to a horror film.

The casting of 1970s sex film thespians Mark Jones, Alan Lake and the always fun to watch Pat Astley only adds to Don’t Open Till Christmas’ overall blurring of British sexploitation and horror genres. Alan Lake is a shocker here, unshaven and with his hair reverting to its natural grey, it is all a far cry from the tanned, medallion man superstuds Lake had been playing only a few years earlier. By this stage Lake’s hell raising lifestyle was evidentially taking its toll, and he looks every bit the man who has attended one too many amyl nitrate fuelled parties. So dishevelled is the actor’s appearance that his character Giles resembles a street person rather than the Fleet Street journalist he is meant to be. While clearly not keeping it together off-screen, Lake manages to put in a decent enough final performance. The aura of danger and unpredictability that Lake carried round with him all his life is successfully channelled into his onscreen character, bringing an authentic sense of menace to the actor’s final scenes. There really is a look of madness in those smiling eyes of his. Lake’s co-star Mark Jones doesn’t fare as well, having drawn the short straw of a role that puts him in close contact with the film’s most ludicrous dialogue. Unlike Alan Lake, Jones did live to see Don’t Open Till Christmas and reportedly hated it. Solid acting pro that Jones was, there are moments in the film where even he can’t disguise the fact that he so obviously just wants the ground to open up and swallow him. Then there is Pat Astley, a Blackpool born glamour model, sex film starlet and TV extra generally relegated to playing leggy nurses and often dubbed on the rare occurrences she was ever given dialogue. Here however Pat finally gets to shine in her last, but lengthiest big screen role before she stepped back into the anonymity of TV extra work and retired from showbiz in the early 1990s, you even get to hear her flat Lancastrian accent in all its glory. Pat basically comes across as herself, a bubbly Northern lass who seems barely able to conceal her amusement at being asked to deliver an acting performance. Nevertheless Pat is extremely sweet in a way that makes you want to defend her corner and turn a blind eye to her limited acting ability. Don’t Open Till Christmas agreeably lets Blackpool Patricia’s big screen career end on a note of triumph as she memorably exits the film flashing her tits at Edmund Purdom whilst proudly proclaiming “I’m a professional”. Indeed she was.

As fundamentally fucked up as Don’t Open Till Christmas is, its hard not to admire the showman in Dick Randall and his attempts to throw anything into the film that could save the day and endear it to a horror film audience. The discovery that his friend George Dugdale was married to erstwhile Bond girl and horror film icon Caroline Munro, resulted in Randall talking her into appearing in the film. Munro’s subsequent cameo in which she plays herself and performs a song on stage called “The Warrior of Love” was shot in just one afternoon. It was a sequence clearly meant to be mutually beneficial to both parties, giving Munro a chance to resurrect her long dormant singing career as well as give Randall another name to put on the video box. It also gave the filmmakers an excuse to throw in further rubbish gore effects, since Munro’s performance is intercut with -what else- another Santa murder. To add to this coup, Randall managed to talk the owners of the London Dungeon into letting the filmmakers use the famous wax museum in Don’t Open Till Christmas as well. No prizes for guessing that in the film the wax museum ends up as the backdrop to yet another Santa slashing. Someone who saw the latter scene from an unusual angle -namely an upside down one- was ex-porn star Paula Meadows. A veteran of top shelf magazines and early Mike Freeman videos, Paula was roped into appearing in the London dungeon scene. Quite literally, as she plays a secretary who bumps into the killer during his pursuit of a Santa Claus victim, only to end up dead and hung upside down naked herself. Needless to say it is not one of Paula’s more cherished memories from her career. “The shooting of that scene was horribly uncomfortable once I was hanging upside-down from my feet, I began to feel dizzy and nauseous and start to panic. Derek Ford came to the rescue and held up my head in between takes” recalls Paula “I never saw the film because I had no desire to see myself as a naked corpse with blood dripping from my throat!” For a long time afterwards the London Dungeon were said to be extremely hesitant to let anyone shoot in there again, claiming this S&M flavoured scene was ‘a bit too much’. Not that Paula would have been up for a repeat performance “I couldn't wait to be cut down” she remembers “I wouldn't want to enter the portals of the London Dungeon again”. It should be said that Paula isn’t the only person involved in the film who doesn’t hold the finished product in high regard. Another former crew member flatly denied ever having even worked on the film, complaining to me over the phone in his heavy scots accent “I didna doooo Don’t Open Till Christmas” clearly forgetting the fact that his name features prominently in the end credits or that he was filmed working on the production for a ‘behind the scenes’ documentary about Don’t Open Till Christmas that Randall had commissioned.

This highly calamitous introduction to British horror films clearly didn’t put Dick Randall off continuing to fly the flag for the genre. By the decade’s end he had produced three further horror films and two genre themed documentaries. If anything Randall could be accused of being a little too dedicated to making horror films and a workaholic lifestyle in general. As one former employee noted, the work done during this period “probably helped drive him to an early grave”. Yet Randall remains perhaps the closest the 1980s had to a Tony Tenser figure. Like Tenser, Randall was a truly larger than life character whose producing career kept older filmmakers in work, not to mention giving new talent like George Dugdale and Paul Hart-Wilden a foothold into the filmbiz, and of course Randall got to line his own pockets with the proceeds as well. “Artistic sensitivity was not his concern!” remembers Paula Meadows “he was a good natured man with an infectious smile, who just wanted to get on and make a movie in the simplest, cheapest way and rake in the most money possible!”

If truth be told Don’t Open Till Christmas is definitely the runt of the Randall litter, his second British horror production Slaughter High (1985) pulls off the concept of a home-grown stalk and slash movie far more efficiently. So Don’t Open Till Christmas has to settle for being a disreputable, unloved abnormality. A film released at the height of the Video Nasty hysteria in which so much stage blood is flung about that the filmmakers offer special thanks to the company that made the red stuff in the end credits. One that is unashamedly geared to the exploitation market as anything else with Dick Randall’s name attached to it, making it look like something made in another universe to such strands of 1980s British cinema as the period piece film world of Merchant-Ivory or the dramas of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. None of whom ever thought to include a scene of Santa being castrated in a public toilet in their films. All these years later Don’t Open Till Christmas stills retains a certain car crash fascination. Its unpretentious approach to sleaze, wild outbursts of gore and baggage retained from the tackier elements of British cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, means it especially calls out to those with such cinematic interests.