Written and Directed by: Michael Hawes
Starring: Mel Novak, Pam Phillips, and Ken Corey
Reviewed by: Wes R.
“I wouldn’t be caught in that town after nightfall. Some people believe history has a way of repeating itself.”
When it comes to Christmas-themed horror movies, the 80s were brimming with holiday cheer: To All a Good Night, Christmas Evil, Elves, Gremlins, and of course the Silent Night, Deadly Night series. However, it was this last entry that brought about a fairly sudden halt in holiday horror fare that lasted until only fairly recently. Had the controversy of Silent Night, Deadly Night become so great that even the adage “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” no longer held true? Made on a shoestring budget, another horror film that dared to tackle the holiday subgenre was shot and for all intents and purposes shelved indefinitely until the DVD era. That film is of course the 1989 yawner, Family Reunion. Was it shelved due to the backlash against Christmas-themed horror? Or was it just not good enough for a wide or even direct to video release?
Your average 80s family packs up into a Stationwagon and prepares for a Christmas vacation trip. On the way, they decide to take a detour to long-forgotten ghost town called Sutterville. Sutterville, not unlike a lot of abandoned ghost towns, has an infamous past. Of course, unlike similar ghost towns, Sutterville’s past is tied to a mysterious black magic and Satanic ritual that took place so many years ago on Christmas Eve. When the grandfather starts to act sick and squirrely, they cancel their detour… although fate has other plans. An arrested vagrant in a police cruiser causes the family’s car to break down in Sutterville, seemingly by mind power alone. Soon, the family starts experiencing strange things and seeing strange, cult-like figures who may or may not be dead. Are these the long thought dead cult members who conducted a ritual on Christmas Eve years ago? Are more sinister forces at work in the little town of Sutterville?
I was pretty excited to watch this one, based on how rare it was. Of course, sometimes certain films are buried for good reason. Family Reunion is one such film. This movie just isn’t very interesting. From the direction, to the writing, to the acting, to the music, everything about it is strictly amateur hour. The script is full of basic screenwriting dialogue no-no’s. For instance, nearly every character refers to other characters by name when they speak to them (i.e. “Where are we going to sleep, mom?” “Well Erin, I don’t know.”) As bad as the script is on a technical level, I will say that there are at least a few (and I stress few) eccentric moments of originality. For instance, there’s a female cop character with the name “Bronson”. I would also have to say that it is fairly unique that given the time of release, the film wasn’t your average wisecracking Freddy Krueger clone or typical Jason Voorhees inspired stalk and slash exercise. The film plays more like a ripoff of Carrie than anything, with perhaps a little of The Omen also thrown in for good measure. The actors do what they can with the pitiful script. The only actor in the cast that you’ve ever seen before (I won’t say heard of because even I had to look up his name) was one of the hardass cops giving Rambo a hard time in the original action movie classic, First Blood.
We know right off the bat that we’re watching a Christmas flick because of the bad 80s synth version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, whose cues are also peppered occasionally throughout the film as well. Though, that’s about it for the Christmas atmosphere. We don’t get snow, Christmas lights, etc. The most we get are a stocking in the police office and a present or two in the back of a car. Oh, and of course, the somewhat tacked on Christmas day finale at the end. Really though, Christmas plays such a small role in the proceedings that the film could've easily taken place at any other time of year. Why they chose Christmas when they weren't really going to utilize it fully, I guess we'll never know. The nature of the villain is also a huge question mark. He's by all accounts a Satanist, however, he dresses somewhat like someone of the Amish faith would. I'm not sure if this was some type of social/political statement on the part of the filmmakers or if they just wanted to give the villain a unique look. The crazy Amish guy routine was used (to much better effect) years before in Wes Craven's Deadly Blessing.
Gorehounds will also be extremely disappointed with this one. Despite the “Unrated” tag on the back of the box, the film is sanitary when it comes to blood, gore, and nudity. Nearly every death in the film takes place off-screen, and even when murdered bodies do pop up, they are fairly bloodless. The only real gore comes at the main end when the villain is dispatched of in a somewhat gruesome fashion. By that point, most viewers will have already mentally checked out of the film. Otherwise, it's fairly dry in the gore department. The only reason I can think of for the film being "Unrated" is that it was literally never submitted to the MPAA. Not for content reasons, but because maybe they never expected the film to actually see a release. Just a theory, mind you, but I mean with the exception of the final scene, this could easily have gotten a PG-13. The only other directing credit on IMDB for writer/director Michael Hawes is what I can only assume is a short film two years prior, "Terror in Sutterville". Why he chose this particular town for both projects, I can't say for certain. Perhaps Sutterville is his Castle Rock.
Not that it deserves much better, but the film was given a pretty pitiful full frame release on DVD. To be fair, it was one of the earlier releases by Image Entertainment (and is now long since out of print). Even non-anamorphic widescreen letterboxing could’ve helped the grainy, sometimes pixilated transfer. For instance, during one scene, you can see the boom mic hovering and bouncing down into the frame. Of course, this is such a forgotten, rare horror flick, I’m surprised it ever saw DVD release at all. In fact, I’m not entirely sure it ever received a VHS release. If you're a horror fan that likes his cinematic meat rare, they don't come any rarer than this and for that reason alone is it worth a single watch, I suppose. Being able to say "Yeah, I saw (insert rare movie title) does have its appeal to hardcore horror buffs, but otherwise, I say without worrying about being put on Santa's bad list that you should by all means Trash it!
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