Elves (1989) – Crazy Christmas chaos

I’m so glad it’s the season again, an excuse to crack out some of the trashiest horror movies gifted to us lucky souls. It’s always hard to choose just which of the joyful and triumphant slew of holiday horrors to go for, but Elves is certainly a special one, even by those standards. First time filmmaker Jeff Mandel has stuffed all sorts of goodies into this bountiful stocking, like pervert delinquents, disturbingly dodgy animatronics, and Nazi grandpas. And that’s only just peeling the wrapping. Suffice to say you are in for a frightfully festive treat, full of wacky scares and insane twists. Maybe ‘twist’ is too strong a word, as it implies a well focused narrative, but they really are insane. That said, whether you can follow the scattered and poorly explained plot or not barely matters, after all there’s a goddamn, animatronic, elf, puppet thing with a goofy face on a killing spree.

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Yes, the title refers to a tiny, yet terrifying beast summoned in an accidental blood ritual by three, angsty, horny teenagers. There is a lot of vaguely humorous and hugely bitchy banter, as background info and potentially important plot points are spewed out at rapid pace. Something about Grandpa having an occult taste in literature means these girls simply must go hang out in the woods and read spells. There’s only a vague explanation as to why, and it comes much later when you’ve long forgotten you were wondering. Unsurprisingly, overly complicated, yet insufficient justifications for the crazy Christmas capers are a recurring theme throughout the narrative. If you can follow the plot you deserve a special gift from Santa, just hopefully not the murderous kind. What we do know for sure is that the lead girl, Kirsten, has a depressing home life and a deranged family. Grandpa has a mysterious Nazi past and a thing for domestic abuse, her mother is a colossal bitch and a cat murderer, and her little brother swears like a truckie and likes to perve on her in the shower. The poor girl doesn’t seem to deserve all this trouble, though her obnoxious, thirsty friends probably do.

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Anyway, in classic horror fashion, the mall Kirsten works at is chosen as the site of a risqué holiday rendezvous for the teenage trio and a few dudes. That’s where the elf creature comes back with a vengeance. Boy is he ugly, but he knows how to do some damage with his tiny knife, as he continues his seasonal slashing spree. Fortunately, there’s a kind looking, and recently homeless ex-detective, Mike, who protects Kirsten from this festive freak. As far as horrors are concerned I guess it’s a good thing American department stores are full of guns. His back story did seem interesting, though it’s also not well explained. From here on out things get even weirder, as the Nazi subplot thickens and family secrets beyond belief are abruptly exposed. The mother even confiscates Kirsten’s life savings for causing trouble. All the while this hideously bad animatronic puppet is staring goofily through windows and stabbing through necks. Mandel co-wrote this Christmas cracker along with another first-timer, and a guy with a few television credits. That’s entirely too many people for a script of this quality, and a movie of this budget, although it does explain why things are so daftly complicated. They also love using multiple entendres, for better or for worse.

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The creature design on Elves really is poor. I mean, you can’t expect too much from a low budget production like this, but wow. In a stroke of bizarre luck, however, the rubbish quality of the radio controlled puppet makes it appear genuinely disturbing. To the point where I wonder if the looks of fright and disgust from the actors were just natural reactions. You may honestly have nightmares after this. There’s a rather hilarious elf-cam too – some kind of Handycam with a wacky lens effect, unnecessarily showing us his POV to heighten the suspense. It definitely gave me motion sickness at one point. Behind the camera is Kenny Carmack, yet another first-timer – his other credits look delightfully trashy, too. He must have been fresh out of film school, as the amount of dolly shots, and unnecessary camera movement make for a particularly fun time. He also seems to have a thing for using wide-angles on close-ups.  Vladimir Horunzhy’s ominous soundtrack works similarly to complete the daytime television vibe, the oboe is certainly strong with this one. As with the writing, too many cooks are in the editing kitchen stirring the Christmas pudding. It’s pretty basic besides one, bizarre, psychedelic scene that hurt my head. Mostly it’s come out looking very dark and dingy, and the combat is infrequent and a little disjointed. That said, having to sit in a booth watching that creature for hours probably did some damage.

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As for the actors, I don’t know why you would sign up to work with a script like this, but good on them. I mean, most of them handle themselves fine in spite of the creepy props they have to work alongside, and the nonsensical narrative they perform to. Then again, seasonal slashers don’t really call for too much beyond crying, screaming, or making out. The highlight is Dan Haggerty who sounds like Stallone without a slur, as the gentle giant Mike. He clearly struggles with the script, but his flowing mane and kind face make you really trust the character. He has a long list of b movie credits dating back to playing musclemen in the ’60s, though sadly never really broke through. Debutant Julie Austin, as Kirsten, is also pretty likeable, despite her character being the product of some ridiculously messed up family drama. She had a couple more fantastic looking, low budget run ins before calling it quits a few years later. Deanna Lund, of 60s series Land of the Giants fame, deserves a mention as the mother from hell, delivering scathing lines like “are you hurt? Good.”

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While there might not be any killer Kris Kringles in sight, Elves is certainly up there in terms of the best holiday horrors. This festive frightfest looks and feels totally cheap, but it turns out to be one hell of a gift. The seriously disturbing titular thing is really something to behold, and is the perfect addition to lift an already unhinged production to full-blown insanity. All the silly and terrible elements, from the deranged script to the daytime television vibe, come together in an unforgettable package. Oh, if you think the narrative description I’ve given sounds ridiculous, then wait til the real knockout reveals are thrown at you. I won’t spoil the fun. Co-writer and director Mandel might have been inexperienced, but clearly knows something about making a good, trashy movie. He followed this one up with Cyber C.H.I.C the next year. Talk about consistency. While words can barely describe just how outrageously nonsensical with seasonal slasher is, just trust me that it is a cracking, Christmas gift that keeps on giving.

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