With the Halloween season a few weeks behind us now (and lots of horror fans not too happy about that fact) There are still some amazing treats of the scary kind in store for us this festive season and one of them is pure horrific yuletide joy (with buckets of blood thrown in for good measure) Welcome to Deathcember, a near two and a half hour cinematic advent calendar made up of 24 short films that take us on a trip to the super dark side of the festive joys. Gathering a collection of some of the best international film directors Deathcember is destined to be a Christmas tradition in the likes of Krampus, Gremlins, and Home Alone. Its December, time to bring out Deathcember!
Showing at Decembers wonderful Grimmfest Virtual Christmas Horror Nights, Deathcember was one of many highlights of the online festival and I was fortunate enough to not only watch Deathcember earlier this month but also spend some time chatting with one of the talents behind the film itself and the director of the first short in this cinematic adventure. Mr Dominic Saxl, who very kindly answered a few questions so we can get to know him a little more.
Where did the idea for Deathcember come from?
I have to say it’s an idea that didn’t come to my mind all at once, instead it developed out of several sources. First off, I’ve always loved Christmas horror ever since I first saw SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT – and the original BLACK CHRISTMAS a little later on. Every year once December comes, I sit down to watch a bunch of Christmas horror films, classics and new releases; and whilst there have been a couple of cool new films these past few years – such as BETTER WATCH OUT, SECRET SANTA or the really fun KRAMPUS –, it’s not as if we’re being flooded with great films from the genre. So, there was definitely room and potential for a new addition. The other thing I love is anthologies. I’m the type of person who tries to finish every film he starts watching, even if it’s bad or boring. It often is. Anthologies have a huge advantage in this regard: Even if you don’t like a specific episode, it won’t be too bad, since it will soon be over and the next one comes along, with fresh potential to be cool. And in terms of variety and short, sharp fun, ABCs OF DEATH was a new pinnacle of course when I first saw it at a festival. So at some point, I started thinking: Wouldn’t it be a nice idea to combine the two things that you love the most in horror? Has it been done before? No. Well, what would be a fitting framework for such an anthology of Christmas horror? Once you start thinking about it, it’s inevitable you arrive at the Advent calendar. At least if you’re from Germany – Advent calendars are a pillar of everyone’s childhood here. And it’s a perfect fit for an anthology movie of course. Just like with the ABCs, the concept defines that there need to be 26 films, and in our case, 24. It felt so obvious. All the more surprising that no one had thought of it before.
With gathering such a fantastic and lengthy list of talented filmmakers to complete the short films. What was the ‘pitch’ were there any rules and regulations that you set out, such as running time, or tone?
There were a few technical rules or, “formalities”, that we had to lay down. With such a high number of films that we wanted to include, it was clear we had to limit each film’s running time (and we still ended up with 145 minutes in total…). Thus, all our directors had to agree to the condition that their film would be only 2–5 minutes long. Sure, in the end there were a handful that were slightly longer, closer to the 6-minute mark, but most kept to the 5-minute limit. Apart from that, the film had to be photographed in HD and a few further technical specifications had to be observed. In regards to the story there was only one simple, but essential rule: the film either had to identifiably take place during Advent/the Christmas season or at least feature typical elements of the festive season (Christmas tree, Santa, carols etc.). Of course, the film had to be an original, made explicitly for DEATHCEMBER; and it had to be a genre film, in the broadest meaning of the word. But apart from that, we wanted our directors to create the films that they wanted to create. Tell the stories they wanted to tell, use the tone of voice that they’d see fit. All we did was make sure that there wouldn’t be two films with the same story/idea, and in some cases provide a few ideas on how to make the respective film even better.
How did the process of placing them in order come about and of course how long did that process take?
That’s hard to say. In the beginning, we asked our directors to write films that don’t have to be set on a specific date, because we wanted to be able to sort them in the best way dramaturgically. We took a long hard look at the ABCs again and said to ourselves, we want to have more options in finding the best possible running order. We wanted to avoid to, for example, have two films follow each other that have a similar setting, look or pacing. This would have probably been impossible if we had given the directors fixed dates to begin with, without knowing what kind of story they’d come up with. And of course we also asked them to steer clear of stories that are set on Christmas Eve – we were afraid that otherwise we’d end up with 24 such films, and that’s not what an Advent calendar is. Turns out there were a few films that were centred around specific dates though. Local holidays, for example, like Milan Todorovic’s “December the 19th”, since that date’s the most important “Saint’s day” in Serbia. Or Jason A. Rostovsky’s “Before Sundown”, which is a Hanukkah story, and Hanukkah started on the 22nd of December in 2019 (which is when we premiered the film). Lee Sang-woo wanted to make a film that incorporates a Jason Vorhees mask, so of course he got door number 13. But that’s it, I think. We agreed very early on that Trent Haaga’s film had to be number 24. Not least because of that last line of dialogue, it’s the perfect Christmas send-off. My own film was the only one about an Advent calendar, so it felt natural to place it behind door number 1, to take viewers into the whole “Advent calendar” idea. Apart from these few segments, we were totally open about the individual placements. And we had tons of discussions. Again, we wanted to avoid having films next to each other that would feel a bit too similar. We wanted to have variations in pacing. Atmospheric slow-burners next to very gory, fast or hilarious films. We also tried to not have too many films next to each other that have dialogue in a language that is not English, because this would have made it a very hard sell to most audiences worldwide. All in all, we wanted it to feel like a real Advent calendar: providing you with a new surprise each day; you shouldn’t be able to tell what comes next in advance. I guess finding the sorting order took about 6 to 7 months in the end; we could only finalise it once we had received rough cuts of all the films, and that took a little longer than originally planned.
Without of course naming any names or plots, where there any films that weren’t included in Deathcember?
There are no finished films that weren’t included, at least none that we know of. But yes, there were quite a few more directors who pitched us their ideas or even wrote complete scripts. It’s no secret that Chelsea Stardust was originally attached to DEATHCEMBER, she had not only put us in touch with a lot of our American directors but had also delivered a brilliant script herself. Sadly she had to pull out because she was tasked with finishing two feature films at the same time (the fantastic SATANIC PANIC among them). Others we had intended to include changed their mind or had to give up due to financial or time constraints before our production phase began. And there were more who wanted to be included, but there was no place left. All in all, I’d say we had a surplus of about 10-12 finished scripts in excess.
Please say yes to this next one. Will we get a Deathcember 2? in 2021?
We sure hope so! Okay, in all honesty, I think Ivo, Frank and I will all need a few weeks or even months of recovery first, because this whole experience was amazing and really fulfilling, but it has also cost us a lot of energy. Nevertheless, it was a wild and fun ride, even though it was a rocky road at first. And I think it’s safe to say we’d love to continue this adventure. There are a lot more great Christmas horror stories to be told out there, and a great many interesting directors that we’d love to work with. Actually, we have already talked to some, and we have already fleshed out the concept for a sequel that would make DEATHCEMBER 2 a much stronger film. Thing is, though, we first need to make back at least a little bit of the money that ourselves and our private investors have out into this venture before we can start thinking about spending more … and of course, we need this pandemic to come to an end, so that filmmaking under true indie conditions will become possible again! Thus, a sequel? 2021, most definitely not. But maybe in 2022 …
What seem to have been the standout favourites from fans that have seen the film?
That’s hard to say. With all the reviews we’ve read and opinions we’ve heard, it seems there’s a pattern: each and every single viewer has a different opinion about which segments are really great and really bad! I kid you not, talk to two people after a screening of our film, and they will tell you the exact opposite in regards to their likes and dislikes. It’s incredible! I think which films stand out for you is also a question of how you’re going to watch the film. All in one 145-minute go, in a cinema? Then you’ll probably favour the louder, faster segments that put more of a focus onto fun and/or gore. Because 145 minutes is a long time and it can be hard to keep your concentration up. If you use DEATHCEMBER like an Advent calendar and watch one film per day, on the other hand, you might find a lot of excitement in yourself for more atmospheric or “deep” segments. In general, aside from splatter of course, horror crowds tend to love dark, wicked humour. That’s why films such as John Cook Lynch’s “Cracker” or Michael Varrati’s “All Sales Fatal” tend to be among most people’s favourites. Also Jürgen Kling’s “Crappy Christmas”, but at the same time that’s the film that’s the most hated by parts of the audience. I don’t want to go into detail here, but it’s about a very serious topic and deals with it in a way that a lot of people can’t seem to swallow. They often seem to mistake it for mindless fun, which would be truly in bad taste. But no, making a light-hearted joke about its subject is not the director’s intention. Nevertheless … it’s provocative, and divisive. Another film most people love is Isaac Ezban’s “Villancicos”, and that’s no wonder. It’s a magnificently choreographed (nearly) one-shot, the story is wild beyond belief, and it spans 73,5 years in a mere 5 minutes, with a cast and crew that encompasses more than 100 people … you’ll have to see it to believe it. Apart from that, as I said, likes and dislikes vary wildly. I’d say, we’ve got something to love and hate, no matter what your particular taste in horror!
I love how your own short film is included and launches us into a great series of short films to follow, where did the idea for your own short film come from?
When I worked on the concept to DEATHCEMBER, I knew very early on that I wanted to have a film of my own in there. I earn my living by writing a different kind of short films: my day job is in advertising and I constantly write commercials – which have to tell a story and deliver a message in 30-60 seconds usually. But it has been a long time since I wrote and directed my last real short film, so I felt it was time to do it again. Growing up in a somewhat traditional German family, of course the Advent calendar was a part of every December from as early on as I can remember. And the “sin” of opening more than just the door of the respective day is a very common one among German children … you know you shouldn’t do it, but can you resist the temptation? I worked on a few different ideas for my DEATHCEMBER segment, but since the whole film is about an Advent calendar, it felt only natural to go with this one that would become “A Door Too Far”. I’m a huge fan of the classic TWILIGHT ZONE, and that’s all about people doing wrong and getting punished for that in a fantastical way. Combine this with my general disgust for ego-maniacs and bullies who think they can treat everyone and everything as they please … and you end up with this chocolate-covered fairy tale about being an ass and paying the price for it. I know it’s not a gory or scary story, it’s more of an easy, yet cynical entrée into the world of our film. It’s only the first of 24 doors to hell after all …
Many thanks to team Grimmfest for helping me arrange this fun chat with Dominic.