Recently, certain horror films have benefited from added momentum after plenty of pre-release word of mouth. Case in point Terrifier 2, starring David Howard Thornton as a killer clown, which saw significant increase in attention following early reports of ambulances being called to tend to fainting viewers. Thornton’s follow-up performance is in another film which has had plenty of free publicity ahead of the official release, the premise of a beloved children’s classic re-told as a gruesome slasher proved too intriguingly bizarre to go ignored.
Early interest has made Steven LaMorte’s The Mean One one of the most shared horror films of 2022, but the film’s set-up is more than a gimmick to get it trending. It is slickly made, willfully silly and, while it may not be the highest quality product you will see this year, it is certainly one that is unforgettable and packs a lot into its hour-and-a-half run time.
This version begins with a young girl called Cindy who, after encountering a home intruder in a Santa suit on Christmas night, then witnesses her mother killed by the unwelcome visitor. She insists her mother’s killer was in fact green, but no one will believe her, leading to a lot of feelings of doubt and disturbance.
Following a long recovery and still suffering from the trauma, Cindy (Krystle Martin) returns to her childhood home in ‘Newville’ twenty years on, with her father encouraging her to start celebrating Christmas again. But once he starts hanging decorations and singing carols, the same green creature appears in their family home and savages him while Cindy watches on helplessly.
So far, so sickening. While it is similar in premise to fare such as Silent Night, Deadly Night, the seminal seventies slasher punctuated by its central character driven to kill from reliving a childhood trauma of seeing his parents murdered by a man dressed as father Christmas. Yet The Mean One tonally is more in line with Krampus, with an eye for dark humour extracted from the set-up; the film’s greatest strength is sitting in between parody and a credible genre film that can stand on its own merits.
Everyone is committed to the premise, which is what makes the film work even in patches when the joke runs a bit too thin. All the actors are perfectly in line with the tone, including Chase Mullins as kindly officer Burke, the only one in Newville who makes the effort to help Cindy overcome this demon of hers, even against the wishes of his superior, Sheriff Hooper (Erik Baker).
He, along with the mayor of Newville Margie McBean (Amy Schumacher), work to dispel rumours of a so-called “Christmas killer” plaguing the town and shut down Cindy’s every insistence to investigate further. Their efforts seemingly the only reason locals have not taken to the holiday. (Aside from Burke, who is Jewish and therefore not affected.) The only other believer in Newville is the aptly-named ‘Doc Zeus’ (John Bigham), who believes his wife was also a victim of the thing that killed Cindy’s parents, whom he dubs “The Mean One”.
However, the Mean One himself (Thornton) is very real, and exactly as Cindy first described him: a green, grunting animal of a man with a deep aversion to Christmas who wanders down from his mountain domain to savage anyone daring to celebrate. When Cindy finally sees what she has been told time and again was a false traumatic memory is in fact real, and no one else prepared to do anything about it, she finally takes it upon herself to avenge her parents and put an end to the carnage herself. “You’re a dead one,” as she puts it, “Let’s roast this beast.”
The script by Flip and Finn Kobler is reliant on familiar tropes, in particular jumpscares, and could easily fall apart if over-analyzed. Yet it is self-aware to the extent of letting everyone know there is no point thinking too hard about it. Their characters are just well-defined enough to make us want to see their arcs through and the dialogue is loaded with clever Seussian references and well-crafted jokes. In particular the self-referential humour when they have to subvert licensing issues, such as when Doc is interrupted just at the moment of revealing the Mean One’s name by a waitress shouting “FINCH! ORDER FOR MIKE FINCH!”
The Mean One is not asking for much scrutinization, it’s main aim is to be as batshit insane and entertaining as possible, and that it is. The impact is somewhat lessened by underwhelming CGI splatter scenes, but anchoring the film are Martin, so personable and likeable in the lead role, and Thornton’s undeniable screen presence, which here surely cements him as a cult horror hero. Succeeding largely through its own high level of self-awareness, The Mean One is a ridiculously enjoyable antidote to traditional holiday fare that may be too familiar at times, but is able to generate real scares and laughs all the way through to its genuinely affecting ending.