Editorials4 days ago
‘Santa Claws’ – A Sleazy, Cheesy Holiday Oddity from ‘Night of the Living Dead’ Co-Writer John Russo
While George A. Romero was able to parlay the success of Night of the Living Dead into a career in the film industry, co-writer John A. Russo never quite found his footing. Any filmmaker would be lucky to have a movie a fraction as impactful as Night of the Living Dead on their resume, but Russo’s cinematic imprint beyond that was minimal.
In addition to publishing numerous books and producing The Return of the Living Dead and the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, Russo wrote and directed a handful of independent horror movies over the years. Although they failed to reach a wide audience, he generated a few low-budget cult classics, including the 1996 Christmas slasher Santa Claws.
Playing directly to horror fans, Santa Claws strives to rebut the notion that scantily-clad scream queens are nothing more than “brainless bimbos.” Debbie Rochon stars as Raven Quinn, a horror actress with a master’s degree for whom the term “scream queen” was purportedly coined. Her notoriety comes with a price when an obsessive fan, Wayne (Grant Kramer), infiltrates her life.
‘Tis the season, so Wayne – who, in the film’s prologue, killed his mother and her lover on Christmas when he was young – buys a Santa suit, spray paints it black, throws on a ski mask, and grabs a claw-like gardening tool to embark on a killing spree in Raven’s honor. Neither her colleagues nor her family are safe.
Santa Claws was made for $40,000, but it feels even cheaper. Having Bill Hinzman – best known as Night of the Living Dead‘s iconic cemetery zombie – as cinematographer is an interesting footnote, but his banal camerawork only highlights the low production value. Russo’s direction is similarly mundane, especially considering all the time he spent alongside a master of the craft in Romero.
The one thing Russo did seem to pick up from his experience on Night of the Living Dead is a penchant for ahead-of-its-time social commentary. With Santa Claws, Russo draws from his own experience as the editor of the “Playboy come to the horror genre” magazine Scream Queens Illustrated (which he works into the plot) to come to the defence of B-movie actresses’ career choices and their public perception.
Russo also explores the invasive fanatics that often come with fame, which has only been exacerbated with the proliferation of social media. That Rochon would become a prolific scream queen in real life (Santa Claws came out the same year as one of her most notable credits, Tromeo and Juliet) makes it all the more poignant.
Rochon is more than adequate for the material, while Kramer’s unbridled attempt at intensity lands firmly in camp. The supporting cast is almost unanimously wooden, save for appearances by Night of the Living Dead co-stars Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman. They’re highlights of the film as the B-movie producer and Raven’s mother, respectively.
Santa Claws is entertaining in its trashy absurdity, but it’s also frustrating. There’s a subversive horror movie with shades of Maniac somewhere in Santa Claws, but it’s continually undermined by protracted strip tease sequences set to the film’s glam-metal theme song. The 83-minute runtime feels longer due to its investment in softcore titillation over storytelling.
Santa Claws has been newly scanned in 4K from the original 16mm camera negative for its Blu-ray debut via Terror Vision, the cult soundtrack label that entered the Blu-ray market last year. The restoration makes the film look better than it is. The packaging features reversible cover art with new artwork by Worserbeings as well as a slipcover designed by Earl Kessler Jr., limited to 2,000.
Russo, Rochon, and crew member (and Scream Queens Illustrated publisher) Bob Michelucci each sit down for new interviews. Russo gives a forthright talk for nearly an hour, discussing everything from the film’s shortcomings to Kirk Hammett of Metallica’s fandom. Rochon describes coming to terms with the film, pivoting from embarrassment to acceptance and enjoyment. Michelucci shares the memorabilia he saved from the film.
The disc also carries over extras from Camp Motion Pictures’ 2006 DVD, including the 10th anniversary cut of the film (in standard definition), which is slightly better paced at 75 minutes but not necessarily a better movie. Scream Queens Naked Christmas is an hour-long video using extended footage shot for Santa Claws in which models strip in front of various Christmas backdrops, occasionally interrupted by Kramer to string together a loose narrative.
Other special features include: interviews from 2006 with Rochon, who offers interesting insight on the state of scream queens and indie filmmaking, and Hinzman, who proudly reminisces about the fun he had on set in addition to sharing stories from his work with Romero; outtakes; the original opening; and the remastered trailer.
Santa Claws may not warrant an annual holiday viewing – despite an admirable effort at cultivating the Christmas spirit, it’s largely incidental to the plot – but it’s fun to throw on when you’ve had a little too much eggnog. In her interview, Rochon mentions that it makes a perfect double feature with Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2, and she’s absolutely correct; both are sleazy, cheesy, holiday oddities.
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