Another Santa is slain:

Don't Open Till Christmas

Jae Prowse heads back to 1980s Britain to look at the troubled production of much-derided festive slasher, Don’t Open Till Christmas…

It all ends grimly.

Alan Lake, notable actor and husband to the late Diana Dors, drops his son at a railway station and bids him farewell, stopping briefly to watch as the teenager boards a train. The huge electrical beast takes the strain of the carriages as it wheezes away from the platform and Lake searches his feeling as he watches his son go, but there’s just numbness. A vacant space where his heart once belonged.

He drives back to the family home in Sunningdale, a little way southeast of the famous Ascot racecourse, and hurries into the house, careful to avoid locking eyes with a neighbour. Inside, he stops for a moment and takes in the silence. A few years ago, there’d been little room for moments of quiet amid the parties, constant stream of visitors, and children left to their own devices careering up and down the stairs until late in the evening. Good times. Until it all stopped the moment she left him. Of course, it really ceased once Diana became ill, but the silence – the terrible silence – began on the 4th May that year, five months and six days now.

Lake wanders into the lounge, stopping briefly to regard a family photo above the fireplace. Diana, sitting, her hands on the pushchair in which their son, Jason, is seated. Lake is beside his wife, one arm around her. He’s wearing a sailor’s cap and has grown a full beard. She never particularly liked the beard, Lake remembers. He almost allows himself a smile, then, upon catching his reflection in the huge mirror, the emptiness returns and the silence seems louder than before. Lake returns the photo to the shelf and goes to find his gun.

don't open till christmas

It’s fair to say that when Don’t Open Till Christmas (Edmund Purdom) went on general release on 19th December 1984, it failed to ignite the barely aflame UK slasher scene. The Golden Age of the Slasher, a period of sometimes notable yet often poorly-reviewed films (mainly of US origin), was but an ember by the tail-end of the year. Aside from a few late entries, the most high profile of which, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, Wes Craven), released the previous month, the moment had passed. Don’t Open Till Christmas would not feature in future appraisals of classic slasher films.


The film was the brainchild of American producer Dick Randall who’d settled in the UK in 1981 after a globe-trotting career, surfacing in Rome and Hong Kong at various points. Riddled with debt following two failed Broadway shows, Randall discovered the best way to a fast buck was to eschew artistic endeavour in favour of quick and, importantly, cheap film production. Thus, Randall became synonymous with cheapie erotica, gialli, westerns, documentaries and horror, responsible for such illicit delights as The French Sex Murders (1972, Ferdinando Merighi)Terror! Il castello delle donne maledette (Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks) (1974) – a rare directorial turn, depending upon who you believe – The Clones of Bruce Lee (1980, Joseph Kong, Man Gi-Nam), and Pieces (1982, Juan Piquer Simón).


The latter, a Spanish/American co-production, featured regular collaborator Edmund Purdom, a former matinee idol and member of the Stratford-upon-Avon Royal Shakespeare Theatre who’d arrived in Italy in 1958 to play the lead role in the television film Sword of Freedom. Broke and with no calls from Hollywood, Purdom decided to stay and try his luck in the then-expanding Italian film industry, rebuilding his career with period pieces and giallo films, including The Fifth Cord (1971, Luigi Bazoni), The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974, Francesco Barilli) and What Have They Done To Your Daughters? (1974, Massimo, Dallamano). It wasn’t long before Purdom began a fruitful working relationship with Dick Randall.went on general release on 19th December 1984, it failed to ignite the barely aflame UK slasher scene. The Golden Age of the Slasher, a period of sometimes notable yet often poorly-reviewed films (mainly of US origin), was but an ember by the tail-end of the year. Aside from a few late entries, the most high profile of which, A Nightmare on Elm Street, released the previous month, the moment had passed. Don’t Open Till Christmas would not feature in future appraisals of classic slasher films.


don't open till christmas

By the time Randall decided upon a shot at a British slasher to cash-in on the current boom enjoyed Stateside, it was 1982. Pieces was already on release in Spain, where most of the film had been shot, and doing reasonable business, there were plans for a US release the following year. But Randall thought they could go one better with a Christmas-set horror film, exploiting both the festive season and the public’s penchant for blood and nudity. If a home run was the aim, Randall surmised, doubling down on sub genres was sure to clean up at the box office.


A script was hastily written by Derek Ford, a seasoned writer and director of sexploitation films, including the wildly successful The Wife Swappers (1970). Ford, a radio and television writer, had graduated from essaying Simon Templar’s adventures in The Saint (ITV, 1962-69) to entering the sexploitation subgenre via a Swedish film that required a little tinkering.


Ford handed in his draft of Don’t Open Till Christmas but stayed close to the forthcoming production, keen to take on directorial duties. Edmund Purdom, however, had other ideas. Insisting that he be allowed to direct if he was to sign on to star in the film, Randall acquiesced despite Purdom’s complete lack of experience. The actor duly signed on and the gears began to turn on Dick Randall’s big white (snow-related) hope.


don't open till christmas

Here’s where things get a little hazy. Depending upon who you believe, production began in 1982 or 1983. The general consensus is that the film took a full two years to pull together into a workable form. Watch The Making of a Horror Film, a weirdly tongue-in-cheek documentary on the production, though, and Randall clearly states: ‘The picture took almost a year to make…..and you know what the reason is? It’s very hard to kill Santa Claus.’


However long it took, there’s no doubt it was a very troubling and muddled time for all involved. Purdom quickly demonstrated his woeful lack of ability behind the camera, and it soon became clear offering someone with no pedigree a free hand to direct a film would lead to potential ruin. Despite the increasingly insurmountable challenge, Purdom retained some of the twinkle and candour of an old Hollywood star: ‘I’ve always been absolutely fascinated in horror and suspense, ever since one of my wives nearly did me in, in the bath.’


As the production struggled, Randall and co-producer Stephen Minasian’s increasing consternation at the quality of dailies was approaching breaking point. Minasian, formally one of a trio of financiers, agreed some years earlier to distribute a horror film from a young Sean Cunningham. The future creator of colossal slasher franchise, Friday the 13th (1980-), enlisted former English teacher Wes Craven to direct what would eventually become The Last House on the Left (1972). This time, the relationship was less fruitful; Minisian wanted Purdom fired and replaced. Instead, Purdom walked anyway, ostensibly unhappy at the interference and the direction the film was moving in, though probably acutely aware of how out of his depth he was and looking to save face.


don't open till christmas

With their director out of the picture; though not literally, Purdom had stayed on to complete his role as Chief Inspector Harris. No doubt this could have been an awkward situation for the incumbent director had it not been the film’s writer, Derek Ford, who was duly assigned the role. 48 hours later, however, Ford – allegedly due to his fondness for calling for alcohol over calling ‘Action!’ – was gone and Ray Selfe was promoted from his role as editor. Selfe, whose experience (much like Ford’s) was largely in sexploitation films including White Cargo (1973, Ray Selfe) starring a pre-Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981-2003) David Jason, suggested extensive reshoots in order to up the gore and nudity, drafting in writer Alan Birkinshaw to beef up the script, rewrite the ending and include a particularly gruesome scene in The London Dungeon. The owners were reportedly so upset with the scene that they refused to allow a film crew to record at the tourist attraction again.

Birkenshaw, another sexploitation alumni member did have previous experience of making a horror film with his own 1978 effort, Killer’s Moon, was eventually credited in the film’s title sequence as Al McGoohan, possibly at his own insistence. Given that the credit also states Birkenshaw (under his pseudonym) both wrote and directed additional scenes, it’s anyone’s guess as to who was actually in command of the film’s direction at any given point during production. Even more confusingly, Edmund Purdom eventually returned as director to complete filming.

Whether the film’s eventual release to coincide with Christmas 1984 was a success is not clear. There is very little information available about the success – or lack thereof – of Don’t Open Till Christmas at the box office. It’s highly unlikely that reviews were positive and even the inclusion of genre favourite Caroline Munro in a strange cameo playing a cabaret version of herself was unlikely to bring in the kind of numbers to boost the coffers.

don't open till christmas

It’s a strange hotchpotch of a film. Narratively foggy with a mixture of reasonable to dire performances, Don’t Open Till Christmas does, however, fulfil its slasher promise with 14 murders across the runtime, plenty of nudity and blood. The film also features several relatively recognisable British television faces, including Kevin Lloyd (The Bill (ITV, 1983-2010)), Belinda Mayne (Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-)), Alan Lake (Slade in Flame (1975, Richard Loncraine)), and Kelly Baker. Baker would go on to feature with Munro in a later slasher production from Randall and Minasian, Slaughter High (1986, George Dugdale, Peter Litten, Mark Ezra).


Don’t Open Till Christmas is a film of early 80s Britain. There are two particular moments of lurid homophobia presented in a very throwaway fashion as a kind of comedy aside. Both slurs and nudity (and frequent bloody murders) are clearly to appeal to a male twenty-something audience. By today’s standards, homophobia, in particular, is egregious and offensive but I’ll stop short of stating it’s problematic (a term now synonymous with pontificating and crying foul at historical ‘difficult’ content rather than understanding the period within which said content was produced). Times and attitudes have changed; offensive and bigoted language is a document of a different era. Could the slurs be removed? Yes, they have little bearing on the film plot-wise, though I won’t comment further here on whether they should be excised from future releases.


Overall, though, despite its numerous faults, Don’t Open Till Christmas has become something of a perennial watch – a grubby counterpoint to the glitz and sheen of Christmas. Mean-spirited, often confusing and edited with a butter knife, there is something joyous about watching a fictional crazed killer stalk the familiar streets of 1980s London rather than Crystal Lake or Haddonfield. In a final defence of the film, having the killer bump off (mostly) numerous white, middle-aged men as opposed to teenage females is quite a refreshing change.


While Don’t Open Till Christmas will likely never gain classic or likely even cult status – at best, it tends to headline ‘so bad it’s good’ listicles – the film is still hanging around like a vagrant Santa in December nearly 40 years on and is often the subject of some discussion at this time of the year. Yet, it’s difficult to investigate with definite accuracy since the film remains shrouded in production mystery. Tragedy, too, hangs over Don’t Open Till Christmas like an oppressive fog. Aside from the death of Alan Lake, actor Gerry Sundquist was also to take his own life within 10 years of the film’s release, marking it as a kind of grim relative of Slaughter High (Simon Scudamore, who played nerdy outcast Marty Rantzen, committed suicide shortly after production ended).


Perhaps what draws people back to the film is the sheer wonder that it ended up completed at all. Maybe it was the bloody-mindedness of the production team. Or perhaps, a little Christmas magic helped bring the film into being. Regardless of whether you feel the film should exist – exist it undoubtedly does. And it’s here to stay. At least for this Christmas.


And so, back to Dick Randall’s maxim: ‘It’s very hard to kill Santa Claus.’


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