Christmas will be a little different this year for this well-off family, who as usual are assembling to toast the season with the traditional dinner get-together. There will always be tensions, but this time nobody expects just how far these will go as the secrets they have been keeping from each other bubble up to the surface. Never mind the secrets: the behaviour that's out in the open is no less shameful, with matriarch Shari (Debra Sullivan) pointedly oblivious to the wants and needs of her clan as long as she can gather them and make her barbed comments against them, it's like a sport with her. But maybe she shouldn't have been so enamoured of playing the antagonist...
Among the millions of Christmas songs recorded over the years, there's one that seems more pertinent than ever as each Yuletide approaches. Half Man Half Biscuit, a humourist indie rock band with a long and high-quality catalogue, you might have expected to produce an anti-Christmas song to get in with all the cool kids, but when they put their seasonal tune on the Trouble Over Bridgewater album, it bore the title It's Cliched to be Cynical at Christmas. There they highlighted the posers' attitude to not liking the festivities with typical rapier wit, specifically the trend towards making everyone around them well aware of how they were simply too cool to enjoy themselves.
In the realm of the movies, things were different, and a slew of festive efforts would arrive every December (or November, to get in early and cash in) and as the years went by this cliched cynicism was the popular mindset to adopt, especially in the horror genre. From what had come from a genuinely subversive feeling in seventies works like Tales from the Crypt or Black Christmas, the daring had soured into the fallback position for chillers, and especially those which purported to be comedies. If you wanted to watch a film that pissed all over the most wonderful time of the year, and be like all the cool kids, then you could stick one of those slasher Santa flicks on and enjoy.
Despite the title, there was no Santa Claus character in Secret Santa, though there was a man with a white beard who brought all sorts of problems with him rather than gifts. Among the cast, mostly filled out with TV names rather than big screen familiarity, we were supposed to be working out who was instigating the spate of bad tempers and raised voices that could not solely be put down to spending time with the family and the pressures that brought with it for everyone involved. As they almost all grew literally hot under the collar, it was apparent there was more to the anger and we began to suspect the punch had been spiked, largely because the punch is always spiked in entertainment like this, but from the point where the sniping turned to violence, alcohol could not necessarily take the blame.
Even though alcohol is quite capable enough of turning people to extreme behaviour, though the actual problem was rather more farfetched and reliant on a clunky plot twist. Some found the relentless downer refreshing on a time of the season where goodwill to all men was supposed to be the norm, but it was not anything more than Bad Santa - the year zero of calculatedly offensive Christmas movies in the mainstream - dressed up with gore effects, some CGI, some practical. If you were more keen to wish for a film that earned the Christmas status, you would not find it here, as by this point the style had polarised into either a sickly sweet confection that put you off your mince pies, or a bitter, sneering posturing that made sure to convince us the makers would never be as kitsch to condescend to actually enjoy getting a nice present, the pleasure of company and the chance to catch up, or the sense that maybe being nice to each other at least once a year didn't hide some self-righteous agenda. That middle ground was difficult to come by when Secret Santa promoted such tiring vitriol. Music by Timothy Ellers.
[Signature's DVD has a long, in-depth featurette on the production, with loads of contributions from the makers.]