Elves (1989)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-12-24 09:38

Written by: Jeffrey Mandel, Mike Griffin, & Bruce A. Taylor
Directed by: Jeffrey Mandel
Starring: Dan Haggerty, Julie Austin, Deanna Lund

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

"Is everything alright?"
"No, Willy, Gramps is a Nazi."

Like any subgenre you can imagine, holiday horror can be separated into tiers—you have your untouchable essentials, your wildly entertaining popcorn terrors, some unsung gems, and, of course, passable but forgettable junk. But then there’s that rare plane that’s increasingly become my favorite during the past few years: back when we started OTH, we designated these insane dispatches of cinematic incredulity “mozzarella madness,” a moniker that still falls short of aptly describing the likes of Elves. Here’s a movie that ascends to such mind-melting heights that only a blunt proclamation can do it justice: “you’ve just gotta see this shit.” Trust me: anything and everything you’ve heard about Elves—whose dubious reputation surely precedes it by now—is true and then some. I almost feel compelled to implore you to stop reading this review now and go watch it immediately because nothing else really suffices.

You don’t watch Elves so much as you bear witness its unhinged, glue-huffing madness. Even its synopsis is so breathlessly deranged that it’s hard to keep up. Sure, it starts innocuously enough, with a trio of teenage girls (the self-proclaimed “Anti-Christmas Sisters”) performing a pagan ritual in the woods (who among us hasn’t, right?). When one of the girls, Kristen (Julie Austin), accidentally cuts her hand, it summons a demonic Christmas elf from the ground, a plot development is as ridiculous as it is sufficient. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m fairly confident this premise could carry an entire movie: demonic, vengeful demon is awakened, demonic, vengeful demon rips up shit, rinse and repeat, kind of like a Christmas variation on Pumpkinhead.

However, I am clearly not a man of vision, at least compared to writer/director Jeffrey Mandel, the insane mind who thought Elves could use a little something more and apparently felt compelled to fling out plot developments like a flailing child slinging paint. It’s perhaps the only way to explain how a movie about an evil Christmas elf (there’s only one, by the way, meaning the title is false advertising) manages to intersect with a neo-Nazi plot to fulfill Hitler’s vision of creating a master race. Somehow, I always knew the true final theater for World War II would be suburban homes and department stores, with a schlubby, alcoholic ex-cop-turned-Santa (Dan Haggerty) and teenage girls serving as humanity’s final hope to thwart the Nazis once and for all (well, current political developments notwithstanding).

Most of the joy of Elves is derived from watching Mandel connect all of these dots. Rather than attempt to explain it to you here, I’ll just ask you to trust me again: you’ve just gotta see this shit, and, save for a brief stretch in the early-going, there’s rarely a dull moment here as Mandel stitches it all together with absurd plot points, outrageous dialogue, and, um, a department store shootout. Other developments sound like a laundry list of abhorrent stuff that probably shouldn’t be in any movie individually, let alone crammed together into one cinematic fruitcake like Elves. When a mother drowning a daughter’s cat in the toilet doesn’t even register as one of the top three most problematic elements, you know you’re in for a treat. To continue the obvious and hacky Yuletide metaphors, if Elves were a Christmas tree, it’d be decorated with strings of beer bottle lids and at least a few of the ornaments would boast pictures of Swastikas and breasts.

Elves might be decidedly fucked up—I haven’t even mentioned the virgin sacrifice and incest angles— but rest assured that it is delightfully so. It’s not that Mandel’s film is so incompetent that it can’t be taken seriously, nor is it an above-it-all self-aware gag that invites ridicule. Rather, it’s one of those alchemic blends that lands right in the sweet spot of earnest, entertaining romps. Maybe that means it appeals directly to the part of the brain that’s most active when you’re 9 years old (read: there’s an assortment of nut-ripping, bathtub electrocution, breasts, and cool, rubbery monster action), but there’s a disarming charm to it that renders Elves completely harmless. Despite its dark twists and turns, it has to be the most juvenile pass imaginable for such material. You don’t even sense that it’s out to offend; instead, it’s thoroughly committed to being a jaw-dropping hoot, a lightning-in-a-bottle Christmas miracle that could never be recaptured if you tried. And god forbid anyone even tries to do so—one can easily imagine how grating and genuinely awful it would be if anyone tried something like this today because it’d practically demand you to engage with it on a snarky, ironic level.

Mandel’s film, however, is genuine as hell thanks in part to the casting of Haggerty. Best known for his portrayal of Grizzly Adams, his presence here is almost alarming, and, try as he might to stoop to the grungy, scuzzy depths of Elves, there’s something inherently reassuring about him. I mean, there’s a reason that most of the characters still call him “Santa” even though he is not the actual Mr. Claus. Of all the absurdities here, this one is perhaps the most unbelievable: somehow, most of these characters are endearing as hell—including one of the fucking Nazis. You do not expect Nazis from a movie titled Elves, much less one that’s more or less positioned as the hero towards the end. Truly, it’s a gift that keeps on giving, all the way throughout a credits sequence that boasts one of the nuttier “it’s not really over!” final reveals.

This is the part where I’d jokingly bemoan about an obvious lack of a sequel, but, when it comes to Elves, it’s more pertinent to lament its relative unavailability. Ironically, a movie that’s so insane that it demands to be seen is quite difficult to see on a quality format. Forget Blu-ray—this one’s still confined to VHS, which adds a certain level of mystique to its legend. It also almost feels apt because such a fiendishly and deviously charming movie is so rare these days feels like it should be stuck an archaic format. Not that I’m advocating for that at all, of course, since I’d be the first person to buy a collector’s edition Blu-ray of Elves. Here’s hoping that it arrives in time to be a stocking stuffer in the near future; obviously, this year is a wash, so maybe we should just all channel our inner Charlie-in-the-Box and start dreaming about next year. Visions of Dan Haggerty blowing away Nazis and a demonic elf beats dreaming of sugar plums, that's for sure.

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