Holiday horror on a budget: Critical reviews of “Santa Jaws” (2018) and “ThanksKilling” (2008)

What’s a holiday feast without a second helping? As promised, this blog has two more holiday flavored horror flicks, each one made on a modest budget. If yesterday’s films were the attempts at serious entree, then consider the following a comedic dessert. The films I ended up watching were each mixes of comedy and horror, albeit with the yuletide decorations still in tact. Arguably we’re still considering films that look to home for the holidays–it’s just that home is now occupied by supernatural fish and vengeful birds.

First up is “Santa Jaws,” which starts out strong with credits in front of glass ornaments falling through sea water. It’s a simple image, but, like the title, it says everything it needs to.

Cody (Reid Miller), comic book artist and juvenile delinquent, wishes he wasn’t home for the holidays when he gets in trouble for making a rude cartoon at school. However, he lucks out when one of his stocking stuffers turns out to be a magic pen that projects whatever he draws into the waking world. So the first thing he draws is a killer shark with a Santa hat. Of course it is. The beast comes to life in a local lake and starts targeting his family members, because what would Christmas be without family?

Jake Kiernan’s script reads like a solid, clever-if-not-intelligent pulp thriller. It has a premise that’s through the roof, some goofy and well-paced murders, cheesy dialogue, and an overall sense of fun. As a whole, the plot isn’t much more than it’s 20-foot title, but it moves fast enough that everything takes a while to wear thin. Surprisingly, the uncle who is an arrogant corporate type is not a heartless, artless asshole, so kudos to the script for bucking that expectation. There’s still a moral about family togetherness and shades of a romantic subplot, so don’t think you’re getting away from any of that.

The script and performances are workmanlike (I like Scott Allen Perry and Haviland Stillwell in supporting roles); the camerawork and editing are likewise clean, and there’s at least a sense of purpose to them (the film was directed and co-edited by Misty Talley, and photographed by Matt Bell; both worked on 2016’s “Ozark Sharks”). In the end, “Santa Jaws” is probably not going to crack your holiday top 10, but it is an entertaining, Syfy Channel-level monster movie.

All right, the last three holiday horrors have grown increasingly passable, but this blog wants something more, something truly distinct. What can satiate this yuletide thirst? Maybe Thanksgiving.

I’m sorry Tonstant Weader. I screwed up. The last budget holiday horror this blog watched was turkey day instead of jingle bells, but the end result was definitely unique. “ThanksKilling” was another supernatural creature feature/comedy-horror mashup. It’s stupid and surreal, but it fills some vacuum within me. I’m not entirely sure what that vacuum is, or if I even knew I had it before I watched the movie.

As best as I can summarize it, the plot of “ThanksKilling” is this: A squad of airhead college students–a jock, a slut, a hillbilly, a nerd and an obvious final girl–are heading to someone or other’s house for “Thanksgiving break.” Unbeknownst to them, a killer turkey hand puppet, the reawakened product of an old Indian curse, is stalking them. Will they be plucked off one by one? Or will they manage to beat the stuffing out of their foe?

At first glance, “ThanksKilling” does not look like a keeper. Its video and audio are clearly subpar, the special effects are budget at best, the script doesn’t care about believability, and it sounds like the actors are making up the dialogue half the time.

That’s what I would say if it were the exclusively case. As it stands, the first scene is both presented in a hyperreal style and sports a pilgrim woman who is fully clothed except for her generous bust. So right away, whether you’re looking for stylization or titillation, this movie seems to have you covered.

What follows is, again, pure pulp, but it has a clever script and smart photography. There is some sort of vision at play here, starting with the stylization of the opening scene and leading to the snappy dialogue and bucolic editing of the turkey-basted murders.

Those murders are relatively tame compared to genuine slashers, but at the same time, the film recognizes its meager budget and doesn’t try to overplay its hand—unless there’s some comedic purpose. For example, the killer turkey murders a victim off-screen, but he wears said victim’s face as a grotesquely stitched mask for a few scenes. Do we care? No. It’s a turkey puppet wearing a skin mask. It’s funny.

All right, so a movie about a centuries old mutant turkey puppet gone stir crazy isn’t necessarily going to advance the genre. But it can still entertain, and do it all in a little more than an hour. In fact, that might be the greatest strength of this film. Like a good dinner guest, it knows not to overstay its welcome. Horror fans with a sense of humor should be satisfied. “ThanksKilling” is like a perfect holiday meal–not necessarily nutritious, but fun, filling and not a bite too much.

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