Don’t Open Till Christmas (1984)

Despite being shot in a decade when dodos and British horror films were becoming synonymous Don’t Open Till Christmas must have initially seemed like an idea that couldn’t fail. The late movie mogul Dick Randall was a character right out of Eskimo Nell. Chubby, with a thin Gilbert Roland moustache and of shortish stature he was the consummate low budget producer cum film broker. In the Eighties Randall owned a flat in the West End where he oversaw his production/distribution outlet Spectacular-Trading and also had dealings in the music biz. Don’t Open Till Christmas seems to have been envisioned as a British version of Randall’s chainsaw horror hit ‘Pieces’. Applying an ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ logic Don’t shares that films co-producer, its ultra-violent set pieces, and one of its stars in good old Edmund Purdom, but by all accounts the result was lucky to see the light of day. Brooding Purdom and bald former sex actor Mark Jones play baffled detectives on the trail of a psychopath (bad boy actor Alan Lake) who has made quite a habit of going round the West End bumping off anyone dressed as Santa Claus. The main plot evokes around a couple (Belinda Mayne and Gerry Sundquist) drawn into the yuletide slayings when a Santa-impersonating relative gets a spear through the head. Plot-diversions include a peep-show floosie witnessing a pervy client being butchered by Lake and later being the object of a kidnapping attempt and an anti-peep show rant. While Blackpool’s own Pat Astley-plays topless model Sharon who also has an unpleasant encounter with the Santa-hating madman. None too pleased as to how she’s dressed (as Santa) the masked man touches her up with a cut throat razor before disappearing into the night. ‘His eyes, they seem to smile’ she tells the police who arrest her for indecent exposure anyway.

Don’t Open till Christmas is an uneven patchwork of a film, although not without good reason. The production was a deeply troubled one that took nearly two years and three men behind the camera to make. Edmund Purdom quickly exited the directors chair, and replacement director Derek Ford (also the film’s writer) didn’t last long either. It was in fact editor Ray Selfe, who finished directing the film and had the unenviable task of making his efforts and the aborted work of his two predecessors resemble a movie. Despite the best attempts of one time sex cinema owner Selfe, the released version of Don’t bears all the scars of a film re-shot, re-cut and reinvented numerous times. Many scenes and one seemingly crucial character (Dr Bridle played by Nicholas Donnelly) are eluded to but appear to have been lost to the cutting room floor. The narrative is severely mangled with various protagonists randomly popping in and out of the action. By the end most of the cast are either forgotten about or mean-spiritedly bumped off as this rag-bag tumbles towards an abrupt excuse for a finale.

Derek Ford was a dab hand at writing horror films (viz;1967’s Corruption) but was principally known for directing sexploitation movies like The Wife Swappers(1969) and The Sexplorer(1975). Ford could never quite shake off the sex film director tag, on or off screen, so its no surprise that Don’t Open Till Christmas retains the atmosphere of a Ford sex film, both in the seedy Piccadilly Circus area locations and the seaside postcard caricature characters like the ‘ducking and weaving’ dirty photographer and the gormless glamour model. The casting of Mark Jones, Alan Lake and the always fun to watch Pat ‘Blackpool Patricia’ Astley only adds to the blurring of British sex and horror film. ‘Additional scenes by Al McGoohan’ seemly tagged on as an afterthought, amount to little more than a typical Dick Randall crash course in opportunistic filmmaking. Novelty value is provided by a scene set in the famed wax museum ‘The London Dungeon’, while Dusty Bin era Caroline Munro appears as herself and sings a disco song (George Dugdale aka-‘Mr Munro’ also worked on the film). Increasing the gore quota are ‘slasher-movie’ sequences in which actors dressed as Santas suspenselessly meet their maker at the hands of Lake’s psychopath. Faces instead of chestnuts are roasted on an open fire, machetes embedded in heads and brains blown out. Don’t Open Till Christmas’ vomitous highlight finds an obese Santa Claus relieving himself in a urinal only to be caught short when Lake creeps out of a toilet and castrates him. Such scenes caused the film multiple problems upon its British release in the closing months of 1985. After all the tail end of the ‘Video Nasty’ furore was not perhaps the greatest of time to present the sight of Santa being castrated in a urinal as entertainment.

Hands on heart, Don’t Open Till Christmas is unlikely to feature on anyone’s list of favourite British horror films in the near future. The film aims to be as colourful a B-movie as anything else with Dick Randall’s name on it does, but the overall feel is one of desperation, from the repetitious score to the tacky gore effects and the casting of neglected, forgotten or never made it actors. But despite (or perhaps because) of these reasons the film still intrigues in an end of the pier pantomime way simultaneously being sad, distinctly British and all very low end of the showbiz ladder. Derek Ford worked with Randall one more time on Attack of the Killer Computer(1990), a gore film with a mostly porno cast shot in Randall’s West End flat- it was never released. Don’t Open Till Christmas may not have been the end of Dick Randall’s career, but it was the last interesting chapter in his story. The final Randall productions that saw release (Slaughter High(1986) and Living Doll(1989)) are well made yet utterly routine 80’s horrors. But that these business as usual productions appear to have passed without the headaches of Don’t Open Till Christmas is perhaps all Randall could have wished for.