Saturday, December 28, 2013

Santa Claws (1996)

... aka: 'Tis the Season

Directed by:
John A. Russo

John Russo will forever be best known as the co-writer of the masterpiece NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and for that reason alone he will be immortalized in our beloved genre regardless of whatever else he does. However, unlike NOTLD's director / writer George A. Romero, who went on to prove his talents numerous times over with various other excellent films, Night is thus far the lone major highlight in Mr. Russo's career... and one he'd go on to milk for all it's worth. In the early 80s, Russo wrote a zombie novel called "Return of the Living Dead" and an accompanying script, which he then put together as a possible 3D film project by producer Tom Fox. The two wanted Tobe Hooper to direct, but Dan O'Bannon ended up getting the job instead. O'Bannon then drastically re-wrote Russo's screenplay to the point where it had next to nothing to do with what Russo had written. Despite that, Russo retained a story credit for the ensuing film; the 80s favorite THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985). Afterward, he continued to exploit the "Living Dead" with numerous novels, comic books, documentaries and films. He wrote "The Complete Night of the Living Dead Filmbook" in 1989, produced Tom Savini's mediocre Night remake in 1990, put together a 25th Anniversary Night documentary (later titled ZOMBIE JAMBOREE) in 1993, and committed a nearly unforgivable sin by re-cutting and inserting cheap new scenes into the original film and releasing it as Night of the Living Dead: 30th Anniversary Edition in 1999. Not content with all that, he went on to blab about Night is numerous documentaries and TV specials, executive produced the atrocious Children of the Living Dead (2001) and has announced he's going to make Night sequels numerous times over the years. One he kept going on about was "Escape of the Living Dead," which was going to be based on Russo's 2005 comic of the same name. The film has yet to happen.

Aside from Night and all the offshoots, Russo was also heavily involved in the whole 80s / 90s Scream Queen phenomenon, which basically revolved around attractive actresses of varying degrees of talent who usually took their clothes off in low-budget films. Starting in 1993, Russo was the editor of the magazine "Scream Queens Illustrated" which featured interviews with, and accompanying nude layouts of, female B movie stars like Linnea Quigley (the magazine's very first cover girl). To supplement that, Russo's company Latent Image Inc. also hawked Scream Queen books, trading cards, autographed posters, cheesecake videos like Scream Queens Swimsuit Sensations and and Scream Queens Knockout Workout (1992) and other such merchandise. Santa Claws falls firmly into this category of T&A fluff, though unlike earlier SQ videos, which are often just women parading around in the nude or in swimsuits or lingerie, it's a genuine attempt to make an actual horror film with a plot. Debbie Rochon, then an up-and-coming Scream Queen on the rise who has since become an indy horror queen with hundreds of credits to her name, was drafted for the lead role. Not only nice to look at, Rochon is also one of the better actresses in her category, so it's no surprise that Russo kept her around for several of his later projects like his Night re-do and the yet-to-be released Saloonatics (2002). She was also the announced star of Russo's yet-to-be-filmed "Escape of the Living Dead."

Claws centers around actress Raven Quinn (Rochon), who has a master's degree in zoology but instead opts to make a living as a nude model and B-movie Scream Queen (in a role clearly patterned after real-life Scream Queen Brinke Stevens, who has a master's degree in marine biology). Right after Raven secures the lead role in "Scream Queen Christmas" her life begins to fall apart, starting with her wayward Joey Buttafuoco-lookalike husband Eric (John Mowod), a glamour photographer who's just run off to Akron with slutty model Debbie (Susan Ellen White) and is considering filing for a divorce. To make matters even worse, Raven has attracted the attention of an obsessed, long-haired weirdo stalker named Wayne (Grant Kramer). As a child, Wayne gunned down his obese uncle and silicone-chested mother after catching them in bed together. Now as an adult, he has photos of Raven plastered all over his walls, a candle-lit shrine dedicated especially to her and even mail orders a bust of Raven, which he talks to and kisses, and fantasizes about coming to life. Wayne, who conveniently lives right next door to Raven, then begins babysitting her young daughters Angela (Dawn Michelucci) and Savannah (Savannah Calhoun) to integrate himself into her life. Not content with just that, he also begins donning disguises and taking a garden claw to the cast and crew of "Scream Queen Christmas."




Merry Christmas!

Clearly designed primarily as a vehicle for slasher T&A, this very cheap-looking direct-to-video trash fails miserably as a horror film with its laughably choreographed and ineptly staged attack scenes, one of the lamest murder weapons on record and a completely silly and non-threatening psycho (played in a laughably over-the-top manner by Kramer). There's no gore and barely even any blood, which will further piss off the target audience, as will the fact this was promoted as a killer Santa movie and Wayne doesn't even put on the costume until the film is nearing the 1 hour mark. This does a little better at the T&A, with five actresses getting naked, but gruelingly long sequences of women stripping out of glittery costumes on extremely cheap looking sets will have even the most desperately horny Lothario quickly seeking his fast-forward button. Rochon is several cuts above the others in the looks department and, like all good things, her topless-under-the-Christmas-tree-boogie is saved for the very end. For what it's worth, the supporting cast is littered with NOTLD alumni. Marilyn Eastman plays Raven's bitchy mother-in-law, Karl Hardman plays a sleazy producer, Bill Hinzman is a cameraman and Russo himself appears as a detective. Christine Cavalier and Terri Lewandowski, who were then trying to market themselves as mother-and-daughter Scream Queens, as well as Lisa Delien (also in the terrible Demon Lust [1997]) provide nudity. Russo filmed the tie-in tape Scream Queen Naked Christmas (1996) at the same time and on the same sets. It also featured Rochon, Kramer, Cavalier, White and Delien.

Much of Santa Claws actually seems like a defense for the whole Scream Queen movement. Raven has to defend herself against a feminist reporter who tries to degrade her career choice, her hypocritical in-laws, who are just fine with her husband shooting nude layouts but not OK with her appearing in them, and Wayne himself, who disapproves of her line of work and wonders what men do while watching her videos. Posters for nearly every film Russo ever worked on are seen on the walls and there are many direct plugs for "Scream Queens Illustrated." At one point, Hardman's character says the magazine is "...a tasteful presentation of horror movies, horror movie makers and horror movie starlets. The girls have beautiful bodies and normal, healthy guys enjoy looking at them." This whole angle is curiously destroyed not only by psycho Wayne but also Raven herself as she discusses one of her lame fans in detail, suggesting that men who like stuff like Santa Claws are pathetic, maladjusted perverts!


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