Tuesday, 8 December 2015


To most people, Christmas is a time of sweeter than sweet goodwill. It's gaudy decorations, even gaudier jumpers, turkey, presents, mistletoe and the umpteenth viewing of It's A Wonderful Life or Elf.
However, to us horror fans, there's another tradition — the festive horror flick.
Silent Night, Deadly Night; Christmas Evil and Black Christmas — forget Miracle on 34th Street, these are the films we watch while munching mince pies.
This shows no sign of ending either, with the likes of Michael 'Trick 'r Treat' Dougherty's Krampus hitting cinemas this weekend (expect a review VERY soon).
What's more, our friends in Europe (home of all the greatest Christmas traditions) have recently got in on the act with the extremely fun Sint (from Holland) and Rare Exports (a Finnish production).
This week I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Per-Ingvar Tomren and Magne Steinvoll's O'Hellige Jul! (Christmas Cruelty). This Norwegian holiday horror had me intrigued early on when I saw that the DVD cover sported a warning due to extreme content.
'How bad can it be?' I asked myself as I tossed it in the DVD player.
The answer, dear readers, is VERY.


Dir: Per-Ingvar Tomren and Magne Steinvoll
Starring: Eline Aasheim, Tormod Lien, Per-Ingvar Tomren, Magne Steinvoll, Raymond Talberg, Tone Søyset Døving, Nina-Shanett Arntsen, Olav Kåre Torjuul, Thomas Utgård, Eiric Mubarak Lien, Frans Hulsker

SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I'll try not to spoil too much here, but read on at your own risk.

The film opens in the midst of a brutal attack. A terrified family, battered, bloody and bound are powerless to resist as a driven, determined and remorseless sadistic psychopath (Lien) has his way with them — even their infant child.
Yes, Christmas Cruelty is prepared to go there… and then some.
Afterwards we are introduced to our 'heroes' — a group of small-town kids who are just looking to have a good time. Per-Ingvar (Tomren), who is disabled and spends most of his time confined to a wheelchair; permanently angry and misogynistic Magne (Steinvoll) who spends most of his time insulting the others (especially the long-suffering Per-Ingvar) and Eline (Aasheim), their feisty but caring friend who seems destined to attract the unwanted attention of losers.
We see the three entertaining themselves by discussing the festive customs of the Scandinavian people, creating and donning plaster masks to terrify the townsfolk and creating their own insanely potent mulled wine before wrecking their shabbily decorated Christmas tree. 
However, unbeknownst to them they have become the latest target of the psychopath we saw earlier. A seemingly caring family man and respected Government official, his work at the NAV (an agency that handles benefits for the unemployed, the homeless and the disabled) has brought Eline and her friends to his attention. And now he's plotting a visit from Santa that will deck their halls with blood…

THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): The clue is definitely in the name, but if you're after merry and bright, Christmas Cruelty is NOT the film for you. This is a lean, mean, sick and sadistic Grindhouse flick for those who want their horror to horrify.
You want extreme? This is extreme. 
The plot, written by a bumper team of Janner Iren Holseter, Anita Nyhagen, star Aasheim and stars/directors Steinvoll and Tomren, is quite simple, telling a relatively linear story that follows the killer's potential victims and the seriously disturbed serial rapist and murderer as he plans his next attack. What this means is that we get plenty of characterisation after that explosive opening, before a seriously disturbing final act. However, strange as it may sound to say about a film that features sustained torture and a series of gruelling sexual assaults, there's actually quite a lot of black humour in the script.
The permanently furious and abrasive Magner's outbursts lead to some of the most creative obscenities and insults that I've seen in some time, while the interaction between him and co-stars Tomren and Aasheim manages to be both witty and natural. However, there are bleakly humorous moments with Lien's psycho Santa, including some jarringly banal conversations with coworkers and family and an interaction with a salesman at a hardware store that is so awful it really shouldn't be as funny as it is.
However, as funny as these moments are, make no bones about it — this is a vile, hard-hitting horror flick. It is unflinchingly sadistic and will leave you feeling more than a little dirty. When Christmas Cruelty gets bloody, it gets bloody. The film might have a micro-budget (as you can probably tell by the number of different hats that each member of cast and crew needed to don) but the gruesome special effects — many of which were overseen by Tomren — never disappoint, with buckets of blood and gore on display. I don't want to spoil the horrors in store for potential viewers, but suffice to say we get plenty stabbings, slashings and dismemberments before the end credits roll.
Which leads me to another area in which O'Hellige Jul! excels — for as those credits roll it's accompanied by just one of a number of great tracks on the film's awesome soundtrack. What's especially impressive is that actor/director Steinvoll actually performed and recorded most of the extremely rocking, bluesy tracks himself. He's a talented guy and his cool-as-hell music mixed with a selection of traditional Christmas tunes make this one of the finest soundtracks I've ever heard. Think a grittily festive Tarantino flick and you're nearly there.
However, just praising Steinvoll, Tomren and Aasheim for their sterling work behind the camera would be doing their excellent work in front of it a grave disservice. Each of the three is very good indeed, bringing their characters to life in a way that makes them likeable and believable. They aren't silly caricatures, they feel like real people, complete with real problems and very real flaws. I especially liked the work of the charming Aasheim, she's extremely sympathetic and a character that you can't help but root for. She's a talented young actress and I hope to see more of her.
Both Steinvoll and Tomren show some great comic timing, Steinvoll is given a pretty free rein to go as gonzo as he wants, while the surprisingly sweet Tomren does a wonderful job with his character, but undoubtedly the most impressive cast member is the terrifying Lien. Whether he plays the scene with an icy and detached nonchalance or a deranged and devilish glee, he is utterly mesmerising. I understand that Lien is actually best known for his work as the titular Jakob in 2007's Jakob – mannen som elsker Jack Nicholson and Jakob og campinglivets farer. These are family friendly films in Norway, so this is a massive departure. However, if Lien was uncomfortable working in a different niche, this is not evident in his commanding performance. Not many men could manage to interject elements of black humour into an otherwise utterly spine-chilling role this seamlessly, but Lien does it with aplomb. He is absolutely phenomenal.
The writing of his role is handled cleverly, the subtle message behind his profession is an excellent piece of social commentary — this is a social worker employed in a benefits department who can be generous benefactor or a cruel, destructive ruiner of lives. What's more, he is able to maintain his aura of mystery, for while we see what he does and are given hints as to his darker origin, his cruel and vile acts are never explained. 
You want a motive? Find your own.
With a plot that gives us plenty of extreme and shocking acts of depravity, some surprisingly well-crafted laughs and a talented cast, it would be easy to overlook the technical prowess on display in making the film. The fact is that Steinvoll and Tomren are excellent directors, ensuring that the framing of each shot heightens the mood of each scene, be it frivolous or frightful. The grainy looking film stock just adds to the ambience of the film, giving it a gritty Grindhouse feel that works in the film's favour. It's actually a pretty great looking film considering its low budget, something that the co-directors of photography Raymond Volle and Karoline Emilie Folland Sæter should feel extremely proud of. 
Finally, the cast and crew are clearly genre fans and pack the film with references and shoutouts to classic horror movies, so do keep your eyes peeled throughout.

THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): First off, I'll mention this because I know plenty of readers have issues with subtitles, the dialogue in O'Hellige Jul! is all delivered in Norwegian. If you don't speak the language, you're going to need to use the subtitles. If that's a deal breaker, fair enough, just realise that you're missing out on a hell of a lot of fantastic genre flicks if you aren't prepared to read as well as watch.
Not sure you can handle an extreme horror film? Well keep right on moving, Christmas Cruelty is not a film for the weak of stomach. It's spiteful, degrading, violent, unflinching and unrelenting. This diabolical Santa is not Richard Attenborough's Chris Chringle — think a Scandinavian counterpart to Wolf Creek's Mick Taylor in a bright red suit. It's intense and it will not be for everybody — consider yourself warned.
Bizarrely, another area in which I can see it drawing criticism is its rather erratic pacing.
After that barnstorming opening scene, the film then takes a VERY long break from horror. In fact, if it weren't for the horrors witnessed in the opening 10 minutes, you could well believe that you were watching a slacker comedy. This goes on for a good three-quarters of an hour, before then snapping back into horror with a truly shocking scene of terrible violence.
I quite enjoyed this long mid-movie lull, it gave us a reason to care about the characters before Lien's Serial Santa goes to work on them, plus (and this is quite a rarity) the humour is actually funny. What's more, this more genteel section lulls the audience into a false sense of security, which then actually heightens the horror of the later moments, the visceral violence amplified by the quieter moments that precede it — much like Takashi Miike's Audition. This is something I appreciated, but less patient viewers may find this section drags.
Also, while the film is a tremendous achievement considering it's modest budget, it is worth reiterating that Christmas Cruelty is decidedly rougher around the edges than the polished likes of Ouija, The Gallows or any other number of shiny, teen-friendly Hollywood offerings.
Like I said, I thought this added to the gritty atmosphere, so I don't feel any harm is done, but other opinions may differ.

THE VERDICT: With a level of festive sadism unseen until now, Christmas Cruelty is no John Lewis ad! Its sheer level of brutality and depravity will not be for everyone, but if you've got the stomach for it, and you want your horror gruelling, this twisted Christmas flick delivers plenty to float your boat. 
It's hard-hitting, superbly shot, brilliantly acted and boasts a marvellous soundtrack and some surprisingly funny laughs. O'Hellige Jul! is a nasty little Christmas gift to genre fans that I thoroughly recommend you unwrap as soon as you can.
For more info on how you can do that, check out the film's official Facebook page. Give it a like too, I'm sure the very grateful Tomren, Steinvoll, Aasheim and company would appreciate the recognition for their dark labour of love.

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