By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Independent filmmaker Joe Begos has been building an impressive body of graphically horrific cinematic work that includes ALMOST HUMAN, THE MIND’S EYE, VFW and BLISS. Now RLJE Films and Shudder are about to unwrap his biggest and most ambitious gift to fright fans, CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS, and we got some time with Begos to discuss it.
Opening in select theaters and debuting on Shudder this Friday, December 9, CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS is set in a small town terrorized by the RoboSanta+ (played by veteran character actor Abraham Benrubi and an animatronic creation by effects artists Josh and Sierra Russell), which has come to murderous life. Riley Dandy stars as Tori, who owns a vinyl/VHS store and becomes RoboSanta+’s chief target, with a big and bloody body count and lots of mayhem along the way (see our review here). SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT might seem an obvious influence, but Begos reveals it was a different killer Claus and another 1984 favorite that helped spark his latest feature…
Is Christmas horror something you’ve always been into?
Yeah, for sure. I think the first thing I saw was the TALES FROM THE CRYPT pilot, “And All Through the House,” when I was a very young lad. That was amazing to me, and it ignited my love for Christmas horror, and also TALES FROM THE CRYPT. To this day, it’s not even about nostalgia; I don’t think it’s been surpassed as far as killer Santas go. BLACK CHRISTMAS is arguably the better movie, but there’s no killer Santa in that.
So was that more of an inspiration for CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS than something like SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT?
I don’t think either one was really an inspiration as far as story goes. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT indirectly inspired CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS, though, because it was originally a pitch for a remake of SILENT NIGHT that was deemed too different from the original, so they opted not to make it. But in their defense, it was so different that it allowed me to turn my treatment into a full-length spec script that I ended up getting financed as an original movie. I pitched it in early 2020, before the pandemic, so [the remake] still hasn’t happened, and my movie’s about to come out [laughs].
Where did the idea come from to make your killer Santa a robot?
I loved the iconography of SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, and the title, but I don’t necessarily love the story. So I wanted to do something that was completely from left field. I was batting around ideas, and THE TERMINATOR is my favorite film of all time; it’s what inspired me to make movies. At some point, I don’t know if it was just the inkling or bread crumb of the robot element in one of the later SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT sequels–because I watched all of them–but I thought, “What if it was a fucking animatronic Santa?” That idea was simple enough, but had enough iconography and a theme to it that I just ran with that. I was like, “It’s gonna be a slasher, HIGH TENSION-style or HALLOWEEN-style, but at Christmas, with a robot.” [Laughs] And off I went.
The movie has a very ’80s feel, even though it’s set in the present day.
I like to make movies that feel timeless. I always go back to something like the original PET SEMATARY, where it feels like it could be taking place now, or it could have been the ’80s, it could have been the ’70s. The only thing in CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS that dates it is the Tinder references, but I also felt like that was–not an important element, but one where I just liked the conceit of it. But I tried to avoid things that would date the movie as much as I could.
How did you find a town that would let you shoot all that mayhem there?
I had shot two movies before in New England in the winter, and I said, “Never again am I going to make a movie in the winter,” and then of course I was making a Christmas movie set in small-town America [laughs]. So I didn’t really want to go to the freezing cold again. Originally, we wanted snow on the ground, but I felt we didn’t have the money to show it falling. So I wanted to go somewhere where, even if there wasn’t going to be snow, we could maybe bring some in that would stay awhile, because it would be cold enough, but that would also be close enough to LA where I could bounce back and forth between my makeup effects house, because they were going to be working on the robot. So me and my producing partner Josh [Ethier] scouted out like 30 towns. We drove all over central and northern California looking at these places, and none of them looked right, so we just passed through.
Then the one where we wound up shooting, Placerville, was perfect. So we looked up the Lake Tahoe Film Office, the film commission for a huge area including Tahoe and Sacramento and all that, and they just happened to be located in this tiny town. Right away, we set up a meeting, and Kathleen Dodge was the film commissioner there, and she was super into having us there despite all the carnage. I was like, “Are you sure? You’ve read the script, you’re going to be OK with us doing all this?” And to their credit, they didn’t care; they let us do whatever the fuck we wanted.
It was like a backlot; everything was on that main strip, every location was 800 feet away, so it was like our studio. The town just shut down for us. We were on this picturesque stretch of Main Street, and all our locations were there, and they were production-designing the record store over here, we were shooting in the police station over there, our crafty set up in the toy store…it was fucking crazy.
Did all the residents come out to watch the big scenes being shot? Or was anyone horrified by what was going on?
I don’t know if they were horrified. We had a giant audience, it looked like a fucking high-school football game, for the first big explosion. I think at first, people were like, “Oh, there’s a movie shooting!” and then they realized that there aren’t really a lot of interesting things to look at when you’re making a movie. So that kind of dissipated fast, but they came back out for the explosion, for sure.
Do you think there’s less of a stigma now attached to doing something like a killer-Santa movie than there was when SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT came out?
Yeah, I don’t think people care as much now as they did then. I think we were in a much more religious-based culture 40 years ago. Although I kind of do wish that I had church groups picketing my movie; that would make good press. It’s unfortunate that they’re not [laughs].
Riley Dandy is terrific as Tori. Was it immediately obvious when you auditioned her that she was your lead?
There was a group of actresses who I thought all had good aspects to them, because I watched auditions first and picked about six or seven of them. Then I worked with them on how I like to work: riffing, or trying different scenes, and through that process it became very clear that Riley was the one. She claimed she was super-down to do all the stunts, be in water, be covered with blood–which a lot of people do, and then they get on set and it’s like, “Well…” But to her credit, she went above and beyond, she was there under ice-cold water for hours, she was doing stunts, she was covered in blood the whole time. She’s the backbone of the movie, and brought Tori to life in a way that I’m not sure anyone else could have. It’s like I wrote it for her, even though I didn’t know her.
What led you to cast Abraham Benrubi as the RoboSanta+ as opposed to a stunt performer, considering there’s little dialogue or emotional acting involved?
It’s interesting, because I wrote the movie without having anyone in mind for Santa, and I was racking my brain trying to figure out what direction we should go, whether it should be a stuntman. Stuntpeople are typically very slender, and that wasn’t the look I wanted, and I didn’t want padding because it was supposed to be a robot. I met with the Russells about getting started on the animatronics, and they were like, “The earlier you cast Santa, the better for us,” because then they could start molding and stuff like that.
We didn’t have a casting director yet, and I was sitting at home, going back and forth about this. And I forget what I was watching, it might have been OPEN RANGE, the Kevin Costner Western, and Abe Benrubi’s in that. I know Abe; he’s a friend of mine and was in BLISS; he just came and hung out for, like, our tiny $100 a day because he liked my movies and wanted to be part of something like that, and he loved doing it. And I thought, what the fuck? Abe’s like 7 feet tall, he’s got this incredible stature, and he’s awesome and fun to be around.
Then part of me was like, he’s a great character actor; why the fuck is he going to want to be in a suit, be under this shit for eight weeks and not given any dialogue? But I called him and said, “Hey, man, I’ve got a role for you. It’s eight weeks of work, but I’m not sure you’ll want to do it, because it’s a physically tough role.” He was like, “Send it over,” so I sent it over, and he was immediately so excited about doing it. There weren’t actually a lot of stunts in the movie for Santa; of course, there were a few that he did and was excited to do, but it’s not a stunt role in the way some of those other killers are.
And because he had the beard and the hair on, a lot of the performance had to do with his eyes and how he moved and his body language. So having a character actor who knows those things added so much to the role, and also just Abe’s presence. You know, you can shoot a low angle no matter where you are, he’s just got that awesome face with the big eyebrows, so if you light him from overhead, there’s always shadows in his eye sockets, shit like that. So it was this weird thing where it should have come to me while I was writing it, and it made me feel stupid for not thinking of him then [laughs]. But thankfully, it came to me before I cast, you know, a 120-pound stunt guy!
The Russells’ work is terrific too; can you talk about your collaboration with them?
This is my fourth movie with them, and I hope that there will be many more in the future. They’re the best out there right now; you’ve got the big giant companies, obviously, but they’re up-and-comers, they’re my age, and we’re growing together and doing things that we’ve always wanted to do. And I push them to do things they might not get the chance to do elsewhere, like animatronics and shit like that. We hang out consistently even when we’re not working on stuff. A lot of my crew is like that; some of my best friends in my life are my crew, and people I work with. So it’s nice to have collaborators who I love as people, but also have the desire to push themselves.
We’ve been together for five or six years, and it’s interesting, because I got my biggest budget and my most complicated movie with this, and right before it, they got the HELLRAISER remake, which was by far their biggest movie yet. So they’ve been building toward this for a long time, and then back to back they got to do HELLRAISER and build a fucking giant animatronic, which are two things that most effects people will never even get to dream of doing in their lives. I’m happy that we grew up together, as opposed to them growing too big for me and getting all these big giant movies [laughs].