Friday, December 9, 2011

Cuento de Navidad/Xmas Tale

NetFlix 2.9/5
IMDB 6.3/10
My Rating:  6.5/10  
Sincerity Factor: NA
Treacle Factor: 0/10

 A group of children discover a woman in a Santa suit trapped in a sinkhole in the woods.  When they learn she is a wanted criminal who stole a small fortune, they torture and starve her for several days to force her to hand the cash over to them.  Unfortunately for them, one day they return and the hole is empty...

Part of the Kentucky Fried Popcorn Christmas Review Series.
Xmas Tale is part of a Spanish film series called Films to keep you Awake, and it's an excellent addition to an already excellent series (As someone else pointed out, this series is what Masters of Horror should have been).  Each movie is short (Xmas Tale clocks in at 71 minutes) and very tight - No wasted plotlines or padded running time here.  Xmas Tale is also a great addition to the small stable of holiday horror films that are genuinely worth seeing.

These Spanish films bring a decidedly non-Hollywood sensibility to their subjects and that's part of why this works.  These days, no US film would treat children so severely, or showcase their less desirable traits so clearly...  Over here, children are precious little coddled angels and can never be killed or injured in movies anymore.  Xmas Tale, by contrast, gives us one of the most honest representations of childhood on film - These kids are monsters, pure and simple.  But they're charming monsters...  Cheerful, clever, funny, adventurous, daring, and likable, just like real children, even when they're exhibiting the sort of Lord of the Flies mentality that defines so much of the school playground years.

The movie is set in the mid 80's in a seaside town in Spain.  The kids are very much 80's kids, right down to the one with a Karate Kid fixation, and it feels very naturally of its era.  I mention this because we just watched Super 8 the other night, and while it was a lot of fun and gave me vivid flashbacks to my 70's childhood, I thought that in many ways it overdid its "cultural time bubble" presentation.  There was simply so much 70's stuff crammed into every scene that the whole movie felt like it was literally shouting, "Look at all this authentic period detail!  Just look!"  I had Aurora monster model kits too, but my bedroom was not wallpapered with posters of Halloween, Bruce Lee, Steve Austin, and Jonathan Livingston SeagullXmas Tale gets it right - There's enough period detail to provide setting, but not enough to distract you from the story.  And what a story it is...

The story kicks off when our young scamps are playing in the woods and find a sinkhole with a woman at the bottom.  She's dressed up as Santa and when our cast run for help, they learn she's a very dangerous criminal who recently stole a huge sum of cash and vanished.  Realizing they've found the pot of gold at the end of the North Pole, they quickly concoct a plan to keep her in the pit and starve and torture her until she coughs up the location of the money.  They're nasty little tykes, too, pouring drinks on her, dropping rocks, and chewing Twizzlers while she wastes away with hunger.  As an audience, we're confused...  Any other movie with children would clearly present the kids as the heroes, but here they are the villains, at least most of them.  Dissension gradually builds in the ranks as reality takes hold over their shortsighted plan.  What, exactly, are they going to do with her if she does give up the cash?  If they get her out, she's a dangerous murderer who can recognize them all.  If they get police involved, they have quite a story to tell.  And if they just bury her in the hole, they're all complicit murderers.

This is the first half of the film and it's a perfect setup for events that follow.  It's a bit teeth-grinding, though - I would not call it "torture porn", as so many recent genre pics have been, but it's painful to watch in a few places and the physical and mental deterioration of the woman in the pit is believable and grueling.  I doubt I am spoiling anything by saying that, inevitably, there comes a day when the kids return to the pit and find it empty.  And that's when the movie switches gears and goes from psychological tension to old-school slasher, as Mrs. Claus goes after these cruel little snots with a vengeance.  The kids respond with first fear, then panic, and then the sort of Three Investigators cleverness that makes YA fiction such a joy when you're growing up.  Plans are concocted, traps are rigged, and the movie turns into a real life Scooby Doo story as our young scamps pit their devious kid brains against the bedraggled madwoman with a chopper.  It's Home Alone with blood, mayhem, and headshots.

It's loads of fun.  The story is tight and it never outstays its welcome, and the end of the film will leave you cackling with mad monster mirth.  It's a Christmas horror film that's better than most of its peers, and the sort of thing that every KFP reader ought to see at least once.  I limited my rating to a 6.5 for a few faults - For one, there really are no heroes here, no one you want to jump in and relate to.  Among the children, the girl is the kindest, but your loyalties are still conflicted right to the end...  Even while you're marveling at the way these Goonies pull together to fight back against their horrifying pursuer, you're not exactly on their side because they deserve everything they get and then some.  Mostly, though, I limited my rating because I found it to be a one-shot movie.  I've seen it twice now and while I enjoyed it, it isn't the sort of thing that's particularly enjoyable to re-watch.  The first time I saw Black Christmas, I was, "Meh".  The second time, it got better, and the third, and so on.  Xmas Tale, by contrast, drains its gas tank in one viewing and when you watch it again later, you know all the twists and it's less fun.  It's a bit The Sixth Sense in that respect - Really cool the first time round, but not the sort of film you'll want to watch over and over.  But it's still something every horror fan should watch at least once during the holiday season.

You better watch out...