By JORDAN VON NETZER
Every holiday season there are a few Christmas horror films mixed in with the dozens of cookie-cutter features released on Lifetime, Hallmark and Great American Family. Of course, some of the most well-known Yuletide horror movies are Krampus, Black Christmas, Gremlins, Better Watch Out, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale and Silent Night, Deadly Night. While Universal Pictures’ Violent Night, starring David Harbour, might be the most widely released bloody tale this Yuletide season, Shudder and RLJE Films’ CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS is also worth paying attention to. The official synopsis for CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS reads:
“It’s Christmas Eve and fiery record store owner Tori Tooms (Riley Dandy) just wants to get drunk and party, until the robotic Santa Claus at a nearby toy store goes haywire and makes her night more than a little complicated. Santa Claus begins a rampant killing spree through the neon-drenched snowscape against a backdrop of drugs, sex, metal and violence, ultimately forcing Tori into a blood-splattered battle for survival against the ruthless heavy metal Saint Nick himself.”
While the outrageous premise of CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS is bound to lure audiences in, it’s the look and style of the film that sets it apart from other titles found in this niche subgenre. One of the creatives responsible for that look is cinematographer Brian Sowell, who reveals they shot with a Vantage Hawk V Lite 16 Anamorphic lens and used a lot of practical Christmas lights to get director Joe Begos’ desired look. RUE MORGUE wanted to learn more about how CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS was shot, so we conducted this exclusive Q&A with Sowell.
How did you first get involved with CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS?
I’ve been friends with Joe [Begos] and Josh [Ethier] for years now, and Joe called me up and told me about this crazy Christmas movie he was going to make and asked if I was interested in shooting it. He said it was going to be a neon-soaked killer robot Santa movie that was going to shoot on film, hopefully with anamorphic lenses. He also said that it had a good shooting schedule, and every shoot day would be an overnight on location in beautiful central California, so of course, I said yes.
What sort of research did you do before beginning work on the film?
I spent a lot of time in the beginning with Joe just watching movies, specifically other modern films that shot S16 and some that also shot anamorphic. We would talk about what we liked about specific shots or scenes, their brightness levels and contrast, grain structure, and what Joe wanted to see in the image for his film. I wanted to make sure that Joe and I were on the same page and that I was as prepared as I could be once we were standing on set shooting.
Initially, a lot of the research I did revolved around finding the right lens set for the movie. Joe wanted to shoot with anamorphic lenses, but the options for Super 16 were pretty limited. We looked at several different options, with it really boiling down to look, ease of use and cost, but ultimately, getting the right look outweighed cost, so we went with the Hawk V Lite 16 anamorphic lenses. They are beautiful lenses and incredibly sharp. The set came with a 14mm and an 18mm for the wide end, which is typically the missing piece for S16 and anamorphic lenses and the whole set opened to a T1.5, which is incredibly fast for most lenses and unheard of for anamorphic lenses. They also had an amazing flare that really popped with all the spinning police and ambulance lights we were using. The other options we looked at were all much slower and involved some sort of adaptors, which was not ideal.
What rules do you follow when mapping out a jump scare? Or in the build-up to a jump scare?
I don’t know that I have a set of rules that guides my approach to jump scares, but I would say that the tone of the scene is typically going to inform the pacing, camera movements and how the scare is revealed. While in most cases the image is the foundation of the jump scare, the sound design and score are typically the punctuation that drives the whole thing home. I’d also like to take this moment to say that the jump scare in The Exorcist III is one of my all-time favorites.
Were you familiar with director Joe Begos’ work before you collaborated with him on CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS? Did you go back and watch any of his previous films when you got the job?
I’ve known Joe for a while now – since his first film. I originally met Joe through his longtime friend and producing partner, Josh Ethier, so I was familiar with all his earlier films. I did go back and watch Bliss and VFW before we started CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS. I had seen them before, but I wanted to get back into Begos’ world and think about how I fit into it and how I might contribute to his new movie.
How is CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS different than other films you have worked on?
One of the biggest differences is the level of control over the film Joe has. It’s a pretty small, tight-knit group, so you don’t have many instances of outside parties coming in to tell you how you’re going to do something or making changes to the movie without your knowledge or consent. What we planned for was typically what we did.
What was the most difficult scene to film in CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS?
Probably the end in the record store was the most difficult. Mostly because of the temperature and dealing with sprinklers and water and having to keep the cameras covered. Sometimes, it was warm, sometimes it was cold, but the lenses were always fogging up or the eyepiece or something. Brian Dutton, our A camera first, was great about keeping the cameras protected, but there was just a lot going on. Our first location up in Pollock Pines was also challenging because of temperature, and both houses were situated up on a hill that made general work more difficult. Looking back though, while it was hard on some days, I had a blast making this movie.
The lighting in CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS is very unique in the fact that it is lit with neon hues. Was this your idea? How did this come about?
The neon was Joe’s idea. He had used it before and had also found this flexible neon rope lighting that he really liked. A lot of that was built into sets. From there, I would add in my own lighting to help shape or extend the coverage we were getting from the practical neons.
What was the biggest obstacle you faced with CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS?
I can’t really think of one particular obstacle. We were basically nocturnal for two months; We shot overnights every night of principal photography, which I believe was about 38 days, and we tried to maintain that schedule, even on our weekends, so it wasn’t so jarring on Monday. I’ve always considered myself a night owl, but going to bed every day when the sun is just coming up can be hard after a while.
Is there something about your work on CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS that you would like audiences to know that they might not be aware of?
One thing that’s probably not widely known is that I’m in a band called Deth Crux, and we wrote the song “Bloody Christmas” that’s in the opening of the movie. It wasn’t necessarily part of the original plan, but I really wanted to try and include a song in the movie. Once we got back from shooting, me and one of my bandmates, Jason Watkins, got together and started working on ideas. Jason did a lot of the heavy lifting, and then we got everyone else involved, and it just came together. I was really stoked that Joe liked the song and wanted to use it in the movie, and I didn’t realize at the time it would also be in the opening. My music endeavors and cinematography career don’t typically intersect, so that was pretty cool.
You can learn more about Brian Sowell at his official website. CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS is streaming now, only on Shudder.