The '89 Comeback Special
Do you remember the days when this frivolous cinema review column almost unfailingly featured reviews of actual new cinema releases? I know, I know: it's a fading memory, isn't it? Well, things seem unlikely to change for the next few weeks, so we must once more return to the realms of the deservedly obscure and weird for this post-Christmas offering. (I say 'must' – I suppose I could have knocked up a review of a seasonal favourite, but I get the impression Ye Editor likes these excursions to the outer limits of culture.)
So, how about this for a Christmas movie? It is almost instantly apparent that Jeffrey Mandel's 1989 movie Elves is not one which is troubled with more money than it knows what to do with. The cheapo titles, synth soundtrack, and generally cruddy production values all instantly send a message that this is a movie which can only aspire to the bargain basement. A great cinematic experience this is not.
It would take an astonishingly witty, inventive and engaging narrative to distract the viewer from the effects of the micro-budget. This is what you get: three young women head into the woods, apparently intent on performing some kind of pagan ritual as a protest against the commercialisation of Christmas (I really wouldn't bother trying to follow the logic of this). None of them actually seem like the kind of person who would actually be interested in paganism, as they are simply horror-movie-stock-girls, interested in shopping and boys. But there you go. Anyway, main character Kirsten (Julie Austin) cuts her hand by accident while doing the ritual, shortly after which they all go home. But something unearthly (not to mention rubbery and somewhat cheap looking) is stirring where her blood fell to the ground. Yes – it's an elf!
(I must qualify this by saying that most of the characters describe it as looking like a troll, rather than an elf, and I have to say ‘elf' is not the word that springs most readily to mind whenever the monster comes on. It's probably also worth pointing out that for a movie called Elves, there's only actually one elf in it. On the other hand, the elf – which appears to be some kind of puppet – is not as bad as you might expect, by which I mean it is just very bad rather than actually appalling.)
Anyway, the elf has homicidal tendencies and follows Kirsten home, where it attacks her, scratching her before running off. Her callous mother (Deanna Lund from Land of the Giants) has none of this, and blames Kirsten's cat (this sets up another winning moment when Lund attempts to flush the live cat down the toilet). Her wheelchair-bound, thickly-accented grandfather (Borah Silver) perhaps knows more about what's happening than he's letting on, though…
Well, it's back to the old routine for Kirsten and her friends, which mainly involves working and hanging out at the local mall (which is very tiny and dimly lit). Needless to say the homicidal elf turns up here as well, and when the mall Santa Claus tries it on with Kirsten, the elf takes exception to this behaviour. The lubricious Santa is ambushed backstage and fatally stabbed in the crotch. (Am I giving you enough of a sense of what a really classy film this is?)
Well, they need a replacement Santa now, obviously, and the job goes to a character who's an alcoholic former cop who's down on his luck, played by Dan Haggerty. Haggerty is best remembered for playing kind-hearted mountain-man Grizzly Adams for many years, so at least he has the right kind of beard for the role. The new Santa is soon in post, taking the opportunity to sleep on the premises (which saves on rent).
So Santa is in the building when the three girls decide to get together with their boyfriends at the mall one night. Unfortunately, the boyfriends never turn up, for they are ambushed and dealt with by a squad of neo-Nazi agents who have come in search of the elf and the young women responsible for summoning it up.
There follows a protracted and surprisingly leisurely sequence in which there is a gun battle in the (small, dimly lit) mall between Santa and the neo-Nazis, while the rubber puppet elf menaces the young women. This does seem to go on forever and the most frightening moment in my viewing of the film came during it, when I looked at my watch and realised the film still had another forty-five minutes or so to run.
Well, anyway, Santa and Kirsty manage to escape the neo-Nazis and the elf, and the plot, such as it is, becomes clearer. This is all part of a long-in-the-works Nazi plan, which Kirsty's grandfather is a part of, to create a true master race of beings who are part-human, part-rubber elf. Kirsty, apparently, is the last pure-blooded Aryan maiden the Nazis are aware of (this has involved a spot of inbreeding in her family tree, something the film casually drops in because… well, by this point, why not?). If the elf can get it together with Kirsty on Christmas Eve (again, such a classy and well-thought-through plot), nothing can stop the spawning of a world-conquering race of Nazi monsters…
So, just to recap: you've got pagan rituals, rubber elves, a gun-toting Santa, and a secret Nazi plan to conquer the world using hybrid monsters. And yet for some reason, people still go on about It's a Wonderful Life as the archetypal Christmas film. That said, the Christmas-themed horror movie has a bit of a pedigree – the tradition includes Black Christmas, after all. 'Pedigree' is not a word you'd probably choose to describe Elves. It is more of an ugly mongrel.
It's a bit like a slasher film and a bit like a monster movie and a bit like an exploitation film; if they'd actually had a decent budget this would either have ended up as something ridiculously camp and knowing or simply very nasty and unpleasant indeed. As it is, while the film often seems to be trying to play the knowingly-ironic card, it's simply not accomplished enough on any level to make this work: it's just too primitive and crude to play those kinds of games with the audience. Pretty much the only element of it which does not seem to be challenging the viewer to switch off with its sheer badness is Dan Haggerty's performance, which is… well, the guy has presence, and seems to be taking it all much more seriously than it deserves.
In the end Elves has a sort-of coherent story (though the climax is confusing), even though the tone of the thing is wildly variable and never particularly convincing. When it comes to this kind of film, I feel that I'm not so much giving a review as issuing a warning: this is another case of a film which sounds like it might be mad, campy fun. It's not. It's just grim and crude and mean-spirited – nasty, brutish, and not nearly short enough. Happy holidays, readers.