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Retro review: Visions of Sugar Plums

Reading time: 3 minutes

Christmas season may be over, but it’s still haunting my dreams.   

Not typically the season you associate with frights and scares, (Nightmare Before Christmas aside, of course) I found myself utterly unprepared for the batshit insanity I was faced with at the Alamo Drafthouse just a mere week before Santa came to town.

For the uninitiated, the Alamo Drafthouse is a powerhouse theatre chain that holds screenings and unique events that other chains, frankly, would never touch.

In this particular case, it was part of its ‘Video Vortex’ series – an event focused on VHS throwbacks from the depths of hell. The evening consisted of a VHS mixtape of bloody retro holiday horror (segments that lasted anywhere from three to 10 minutes) and peaked with a 33-minute short from the 80s called Visions of Sugar Plums.

Visions of Sugar Plums starts off as a classic family Christmas tale. Little Billy and Sally are dropped off at Grandma’s house so mom and dad can spend a bangin’ holiday in Hawaii. The kids appear to be in great hands, in the loving care of their overly affectionate Granny – a woman they love but also can’t stand. As they all say a hastened goodbye, mom and dad promise to return on Christmas Eve. Little do they know, they may not survive the week.

Just hours into Billy and Sally’s visit, Granny takes the last of her medication, leaving her with a vanity table covered in empty prescription bottles. We quickly begin to see the repercussions of this as she begins her slow descent into maniacal psychosis. The children immediately notice something is amiss the next morning when they’re ladled heaps of hot mush that overflows their bowls. Even more disturbing, Grandma begins slopping mush onto the table while addressing her dead husband as if he were seated for breakfast. Reality continues to break down with each scene.

The tone of each sequence has a sort of Tom & Jerry comedic element, except the cartoon violence is aimed at two real-life, innocent children. Through luck and willpower, the children play their part well as they navigate several near-death experiences. It’s hard to contain myself from writing about those events in extraordinary detail, but as fun as that would be, I wouldn’t want to spoil it.

What makes the whole outlandish episode hit so hard is the compassion and connection you actually feel for the children. The characters are written superbly well and the child actors should have gone on to be A-list stars if these performances were any indication of their potential. We experience true gut-wrenching horror as fear builds every time the children cross Grandma’s path.  

Conversely, our hopes climb as each title card announces the start of the next day. One day closer to mom and dad’s return. One step closer to salvation and safety for our little heroes.  This push and pull of dread and hope amount to a truly tense battle of wit and will. The story careens so off the rails that you start to legitimately fear where the narrative might go. Will our heroes survive? Or will they succumb to granny’s violent urges? Will mom and dad make it back in time? Or will they return to find two dead children on Christmas Eve?

It feels entirely possible that you’ll be served an ending that’ll leave you devastated and broken-hearted. Like a great horror film of any generation, you’re forced to face real danger and confront the mortality of these young characters who you’ve grown to love and adore. Despite how you feel, no matter how much you like them, there may be no escaping this gruesome fate.

As promised, I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that it packs quite the punch. Though the story concludes with a walloping twist I didn’t see coming, it felt perfect and satisfactory in a way that many heavy hitters in the genre fall short.

Christmas season may be over, but if you haven’t yet grown tired of candy canes or Christmas trees, then I highly suggest spending an evening with Visions of Sugar Plums. You won’t be disappointed.

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