By David Dent
The first half hour of Adam Marcus’s Secret Santa is comedy gold. No actual blood is spilt but the knives are definitely out when the Pope family meet up at the matriarchal home to survive the festive season.
Mum Shari, played with vicious precision by Debra Sullivan, plays host to her dysfunctional offspring: reformed alcoholic April and her slimy lawyer other half; stuttering and decidedly not out gay son Kyle, whose boyfriend is one of the caterers; Jackson and his stripper girlfriend; and Penny, frumpy, holiday jumpered and seething with rage and remorse. Add in money grabbing sister Carol and an unexpected visit from Shari’s ex-husband Leonard, and let the verbal fireworks commence.
It’s when the linguistic fisticuffs give way to an actual fight, resulting in one man down, that we realise all isn’t as it should be. Turns out that the guests who’ve sampled the punch have a tendency to overheat and then go loco, turning the film into National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation glitched up with The Crazies, and with some running gags aping scenes from The Thing. The gore is strictly of the silly kind (a combination of CGI and practical effects, never a particularly convincing mix on a low budget), but it fits in with the generally over the topness of the piece.
Secret Santa is way over the top but funny as hell – and probably worth watching twice as there are a lot of sotto voce lines that I missed the first time round. It’s also irresponsibly irreverent – no taboo is left undisturbed, and if it’s all a bit ramshackle and sordid, well all the better; example (spoken by a guy who is using a severed male head to perform fellatio on him): “It’s not gay if he’s dead.” Classy.
There’s something of the 1996 movie Bound and 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut in the look and feel of this stylish, stripped down but very cynical Australian thriller. Sarah is a woman searching for…something. She has an alter ego – that only she and the audience can see – who pushes Sarah to do dangerous things, like meeting a random man in a bar for casual sex. Except the random man she meets – Lewis – has his own agenda, procuring young girls to take back to his rich friend Kenny’s apartment, only for he and his friend to swap places at the point of intimacy.
Things go wrong when Sarah notices the switch and kills Kenny with a golf club in retaliation. Lewis and Sarah contemplate the murder scene, and a dark and drily funny drama plays out as the pair attempt to resolve a very difficult situation.
The first thing you realise is that for the most part there is nobody to like in Pimped. Everyone seems to be on the make in one way or another. The second thing you notice is how the movie draws you in, despite a rather thin premise and languorous pace. Part of its appeal is the unsettling photography – slow tracking shots around sterile apartments, the camera picking out angles slightly to the right or left of the action. Credit should also be given to Pete Jones’ ominous, grinding soundtrack, which ratchets up the tension even when little is happening.
Pimped is a film that I didn’t think I’d like at the beginning; there’s an opening party scene where a group of people dance to Peaches’ ‘Fuck the Pain Away’ which feels plain amateurish – but maybe that’s the point?). But as the movie opens out – as much as it’s allowed to given the constrictions of plat and character – it grips like a vice. Excellent stuff.
Busi, living in poverty in South Africa and separated from her sister, applies for a job as a cleaner at a city hospital. While undertaking her duties she learns of the existence of a tokoloshe, a mischief making spirit. She strikes up a friendship with a young abused girl who reminds her of her missing sibling, to whom the tokoloshe has formed an attachment. Busi takes the girl out of hospital and brings her home, but the spirit has followed them, and won’t give up its host lightly.
First time director Jerome Pikwane’s greatest achievement in The Tokoloshe is in creating a feeling of complete disassociation, both in terms of Busi and her engagement with a harsh world, and the realms of mysticism and belief surrounding the characters. Whether that was by luck or judgement is difficult to fathom, because The Tokoloshe is one confusing movie, especially in its final sequences.
This may be explained by the film apparently being 13 years in the making, during which time the script mutated from a straightforward horror story into something more overtly political, reflecting the social and economic state of South Africa. Certainly Busi’s plight – trying to make ends meet and as the plaything of a sleazy hospital manager – is one to inspire anger rather than fear; indeed the scene where Busi returns to her employment out of necessity, head bowed in shame following a near rape while on duty, is one of the most harrowing scenes in the film, and raises an eyebrow that the movie was heavily funded by the South African government
But The Tokoloshe has problems with pacing and tone which makes it a very uneven watch. There’s clearly a nod to Babak Anvari’s 2016 movie Under the Shadow in the depiction of threat to woman and child by mystical entity, but while that film succeeded in part because of its fine performances, in this movie, apart from Petronella Tshuma’s solid and endearing Busi, most of the other performances are shaky at best. It’s an honourable film but not, sadly, a particularly good one.
Well what’s going on here then? I confess I was a bit wary about returning to make up artist turned director Paul Hyett’s work after the powerful but extremely distressing The Seasoning House back in 2012, a movie that delivered the final nail in the coffin for this reviewer in terms of enduring ‘torture porn’ flicks. But, a few scenes of gore aside, Heretiks is rather a different animal, and part of a re-emerging trend I didn’t think we’d see again – nunspoitation!
Essentially a group of actors playing dress up in wimples, Heretiks, set in the 17th century, is a tale of witchcraft. It’s also a kind of a love letter to certain ‘draughty castle’ British horror films of the 1960s and 1970s. The story? Persephone (Hannah Arterton, Gemma’s younger sister) is tried for being a witch, but spared her fate by being swept up by the Reverend Mother (Clare Higgins, relishing her role and surely a Sheila Keith for our times?) into a nunnery complete with other similarly charged women, and with such a rigid and borderline sadistic regime that it may have been preferable for our (demonstrably psychic) heroine to have chosen the other route.
Predictably the Reverend Mother is hiding a big secret, but there’s a lot of fairly inconsequential stuff before we get to the last reel pyrotechnics, although they’re pretty impressive on a small budget. The cast look genuinely uncomfortable (scratchy hired costumes and filming in December were probably jointly to blame) but they don’t really get much to do. Michael Ironside turns up for an afternoon’s work (and probably some Christmas shopping) as the sentencing judge, but without a ripe script and the presence of Ms Higgins (and to some extent the resourceful character of Persephone) this would have been rather dull.