KEEP THE RETURN RECEIPT FOR ELVES
Raise your hand if you saw Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare earlier this year? While the film didn’t exactly break open the box office, it did quite well considering its minimal budget around 3 mil, so I’m assuming a good chunk of you have either seen it or at least know of it. Why am I mentioning a Blumhouse movie that has nothing to do with a Christmas horror indie called Elves? That’s because, even though I found Truth or Dare to be a terrible movie, Elves is somehow an even worse version of that film. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen both, albeit some elfish differences.
Directed by Jamaal Burden, Elves is a sequel to the 2017 film, The Elf. Admittedly, I have never seen the previous entry, but based off the trailer, it appears to be a relatively simple film in which an elf doll terrorizes a family on Christmas. Elves is hardly that simple, but would’ve benefited greatly from following its predecessor’s footsteps. This time, what follows is an overly complicated concept in which a group of friends are lured into some kind of vague “game” in which their names are put on a naughty list, making them the target of evil elf spirits. Led by Leah (Stephanie Marie Baggett) and Clover (Deanna Grace Congo), the friends race against the clock to defeat the murderous spirits before they can claim their souls.
It’s astounding to me how obviously Burden’s film plays copycat with Truth or Dare. It’s all there. Group of kids forced into a “game” controlled by evil spirits that require them to complete a task or face certain death? Check. Spirits claiming victims by the order of their turns, or in this case, the order of their names on the naughty list? Check. Possessed persons shown through faces stretched into horrifically bad CGI smiles? Check and mate. Normally, I would not accuse any film of ripping off another, but seeing as how Truth or Dare came out early this year, the comparison is inevitable and a little too close to deem a coincidence. The filmmakers are on top of it though by including various plot-lines that muddle up the story and make it near unrecognizable as a straight rip off.
See, Elves at first sounds like a fine, albeit unoriginal, concept. But what I mentioned is only a part of the “rules” which play into the game, because frankly, I don’t understand it. At all. Burden constantly seems to be changing up the “rules” for what gets our characters crossed off the naughty list. While Truth or Dare incorporates an easy process of either completing the dare, or facing certain death, Elves flip flops on exactly what our characters can and can’t do to help themselves. Sometimes they must perform a cruel task to survive, like running someone down with their car. Other times, they’re forced to kill themselves just because. And to add that little extra brain-exploding spice to the egg nog, we follow not one, but TWO storylines with murderous psychos as well, with one deemed as the “Holiday Reaper”. Elves doesn’t even make an eighty-minute run time, yet there’s enough between these three different storylines to make an entire film for each, and, as expected, none of the three are fully fleshed out into anything even remotely satisfying. It’s as if the film is one of those Christmas day joke boxes. At first you think there might be a new bike in there or something to that extent, and then you open it and there’s another box, and another, until eventually you discover that all of these layers were just covering up an IOU receipt for a present you never get (and yes, this actually happened to me). The Reaper has a great Krampus mask though, so at least there’s that.
We’re also treated to a nonsensical backstory behind the demonic elves, involving the bible, three wise men, and the seven deadly sins. The back story is, surprise surprise, so vague and absurd that it has our characters screaming for answers on what it all means. Spoiler, they never get those answers, and we’re left just as confused as they are.
Confusion and a lack of empathy are the name of the game in Elves. When I wasn’t trying to wrap my head around what Santa did to these little wooden bastards to make them so murderous, I was wondering if the entire cast had been drugged and dragged onto set where they were force-fed lines at gunpoint. Every emotion, every line of dialogue, comes across as if the cast is hypnotized. There is absolutely zero engagement from them. I kept waiting for one of them to mouth “help me” at the camera, not realizing that by the time I saw this, they’d probably be dead. To their credit though, it can’t be easy when actors/actresses are working with paper-thin storylines. I couldn’t tell you a thing about these characters, as the filmmakers don’t even go for the basic “stereotypical” personality traits, like the asshole or the preppy girl, etc. The filmmakers deserve a spot on the naughty list for how underdeveloped these people are.
If I had to guess, I would assume Burden wasn’t sure how to flesh out the initial elf concept, which is what leads to the multiple storylines and poor pacing. At thirty minutes in, our heroines are already uncovering the mythology behind the elves and learning what they have to do to stop it. 30. MINUTES. IN. For comparison’s sake, a much similar scene in Truth or Dare doesn’t take place until we’re entering the third act. Generally, horror films prefer to unveil the secrets behind the evil later on, allowing the audience time to get to know the characters and indulge in the concept before shattering its mystique. But in the case of Elves, it’s pretty clear the script doesn’t know where to go, and is just cramming anything and everything it can into the story, like dad doing some last-minute Christmas shopping at the CVS. Enjoy those brand-new batteries, kid!
With loads of plot issues, horribly done CGI gore, and characters as boring as that pet rock from Grandma, Elves is best left up at the north pole where it can’t hurt anyone. The best gift is when it is finally over.