Monday, December 25, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Silent Night, Deadly Night' (1984)

To close out this feature on Christmas horror movies, here's the closest thing there is to a signature Christmas-horror franchise, with six installments that, in true horror fashion, are sometimes related to each other in name only. Silent Night, Deadly Night is not nearly as popular or well-known as many other franchises that originated during the slasher boom of the 1980s, but it's an enduring horror brand name that seems likely to get another reboot sooner than later (especially with the current high demand for holiday horror). Also like many horror franchises, it springs from a movie that wasn't very good to begin with, valued more for its name recognition and general concept than narrative or filmmaking quality.

The opening prologue (of two) is pretty creepy, though, with young Billy (Jonathon Best) visiting his institutionalized grandpa (Will Hare), who appears catatonic when others are around but gives the kid an unhinged warning about the dangers of Christmas Eve and the vengeance of Santa Claus. Then on the way home, Billy and his family are attacked by a criminal in a Santa suit, who kills Billy's parents (after attempting to rape his mom) and leaves Billy and his infant brother traumatized orphans. Disappointingly, the grandpa never returns to the story, and Best, the most effective of three actors as Billy, is replaced as the character gets older. A second prologue finds a slightly older Billy being bullied by the strict nun who runs the Catholic orphanage where he and his brother have ended up, further traumatizing him by forcing him to celebrate Christmas and interact with a man playing Santa Claus.

Finally after 15 minutes or so, we get to the main portion of the story, in which Billy (now played by Robert Brian Wilson) is a strapping 18-year-old still dealing with PTSD but getting no sympathy from anyone. He gets a holiday-season job at a toy store, which is obviously a terrible idea, and eventually ends up having to fill in for the store's Santa. That finally breaks him and sets him on a murderous rampage dressed in a Santa suit. The setup is so choppy (including an absurdly upbeat toy-store montage set to an atrocious easy-listening Christmas ballad) that the movie has basically lost all momentum by the time the chopping starts, and even though Billy's history of Santa-related trauma is painstakingly established, his reasons for killing his various victims are muddled. He starts by "punishing" a co-worker for attempting to force himself on another toy-store employee, but then just slaughters everyone at the toy store indiscriminately, and picks his later victims seemingly at random.

The tone is aggressively nasty, which is kind of refreshing, and the movie was so controversial at the time of its release that it was picketed by concerned parents groups and pulled from theaters. Of course, it all seems pretty quaint now, especially given the proliferation of Christmas horror movies, but this is a film that has no problem gunning down multiple Santas and setting its violence-filled climax at an orphanage full of children. I think I'd appreciate the nastiness if the story and character development were more coherent, and the movie suffers in comparison to the similar, lesser-known Christmas Evil from a few years earlier, which is a much more intense, well-acted and thoughtful movie about a traumatized guy who dresses up as Santa and kills people. Thanks to its trumped-up controversy and catchy title, Silent Night, Deadly Night turned into a franchise, but it's better at branding that at storytelling.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Red Christmas' (2017)

On a much smaller scale than Better Watch Out, Red Christmas is a 2017 holiday-themed horror movie that got some festival buzz and positive response around its VOD release. But while Better Watch Out tackled deeper issues than expected in a surprisingly effective way, Red Christmas attempts to make a political statement in a way that is at best clumsy and at worst tasteless and offensive—and mostly not the kind of tasteless and offensive that makes for a good horror movie. It's a stealth political statement that makes a pretense of being even-handed, the disingenuous "fair and balanced" version of a horror movie.

It's also, however, a slasher movie, albeit not a very well-crafted one. If the scares were stronger and the characters were more interesting and the kills were more creative, the distasteful political message might be more forgivable. But other than the welcome presence of horror icon Dee Wallace in the lead role, there isn't much to recommend Red Christmas as a horror movie, either. Wallace plays Diane, a seemingly well-adjusted matriarch who brings together her extended family (brother, four adult children, two of their spouses) for a Christmas celebration. But as the prologue—which features a bombing at an abortion clinic and a still-viable aborted fetus being whisked away by a mysterious figure—indicates, the family's tranquil holiday gathering is about to be shattered.

Yes, this movie could be retitled Revenge of the Aborted Fetus, because Diane's failed abortion is now a grown-up freak named Cletus, who dresses in a black cloak like the Grim Reaper and covers his deformed face with bandages like the Invisible Man. He shows up on the family's doorstep looking for love and acceptance, but when he's turned away (maybe because he's a scary-looking interloper who starts talking about this woman's abortion from 20 years ago?), he turns violent, killing the family members one by one in gruesome (but not particularly well-staged) ways, while laying the guilt on Diane for her decision to terminate her pregnancy. Also, Diane's son Jerry (Gerard Odwyer) has Down syndrome, and it's revealed that Cletus has it, too, which was the reason that Diane decided to have the abortion.

So writer-director Craig Anderson uses the mentally disabled as a tool for the movie's political agenda, in the same way he uses blood and guts. He does at least try to generate suspense, but the movie is shot with so much shaky camera movement that it's often difficult to follow the action, especially after Cletus cuts the power to the house. Anderson foreshadows weak spots for certain characters only to toss them aside in favor of basic hacking and slashing as each one gets killed, and a lot of the violence happens offscreen, with just a loud crunch and a splash of blood. Like the 2006 Black Christmas, Red Christmas bathes many of its scenes in Dario Argento-style reds and greens as if from Christmas lights, but here the effect is mostly just to make the scenes harder to see.

Even though Cletus is a remorseless killer, the ending gives him a kind of moral high ground (thanks to the heavy-handed device of one of Diane's daughters going into labor during the attack), implying that this murderer may somehow be morally superior to the heathens he hacked up. And after reducing a complex political issue to severed limbs and bashed-in heads, Anderson has the gall to throw in "further viewing" and "further reading" in the end credits, ostensibly representing both sides, as if he's some kind of political science professor. It's nearly as off-putting as all the nasty violence that comes before it.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Better Watch Out' (2017)

There was enough critical acclaim for Chris Peckover's breakout feature Better Watch Out that I had it on my list of 2017 films to catch up with for awards-voting and list-making purposes, not just to include in this feature about Christmas horror movies. While it won't make my top 10 list, it's still one of the better horror movies of the year, and certainly more unsettling and thought-provoking than one might expect from a Christmas-themed horror movie that essentially went straight to VOD. I came in with high expectations and was a bit disappointed, but anyone just looking for some basic low-budget horror would probably be pleasantly surprised.

There aren't a lot of scares in this movie (and there's almost no gore), but there is a lot of tension in the story that starts out as one kind of thriller before shifting gears a few times into completely different territory. At first it seems like it's going to be a more lighthearted, Christmas-themed version of a home invasion horror movie like The Strangers. Teen Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) is babysitting 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller) on some night close to Christmas (it's not clear when exactly), and while she's distracted by her impending move out of town and her bickering with her boyfriend, Luke and his dorky best friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) appear to be hatching a plan to fake a robbery so that they can scare Ashley into Luke's arms (or something like that).

When the standard "something's in the house" action starts (doors mysteriously slamming and/or left open, shadowy figures outside, phone lines cut, etc.), it looks like the movie is hinting that the pair's plan has gone awry, and some actual killer has shown up to terrorize the poor kids. But after about 20 minutes of familiar (if effective) running and hiding around the house, Peckover switches gears: Ashley discovers the ruse, calls out Luke and Garrett for tricking her and threatens to get them in trouble, and then Luke turns complete psychopath, kidnapping Ashley for real and committing increasingly violent, unhinged acts while Garrett alternately protests and cheers him on.

There are other twists along the way, but the movie's main surprising development is that the seemingly sweet but misguided Luke is a full-on cold-blooded killer, and Miller is excellent at playing his sadistic acts in the same soft-spoken, nice-kid manner as the earlier more innocuous scenes. As many have pointed out, this movie is sort of like Funny Games meets Home Alone, with its faux-polite, fresh-faced young villain combined with the Christmas setting and the improvised violence around household items (at one point Garrett even explicitly references Home Alone). Luke is so evil and so self-assured that the movie threatens to undermine audience investment by basically allowing him to get away with everything, but Ashley is a worthy adversary who never gives up and isn't just an outlet for Luke's violent and sexual impulses.

Is Peckover criticizing male entitlement and toxic masculinity, or is he sort of celebrating it? It's hard to say for sure, but I think he does a good job of putting the cherubic Luke in typical teen-comedy situations (like having to clean up the house before his parents get home) that would have the audience rooting for him, only to throw in reminders that this is actually a sick, violent predator that we have been tricked into cheering on. It's a tough line to walk, and the movie doesn't always succeed. While the performances are strong, some of the violence gets repetitive, and it takes a little too long for Ashley and Garrett to push back against Luke's dominance and intimidation. Other than an amusingly nasty bit with carolers, the Christmas setting is almost irrelevant, and the final stinger turns Luke into too much of a joke when the movie spent so much time building up how dangerous he is. Still, there's far more thought and skill demonstrated here than is typical for this genre and budget, and Peckover will certainly be a filmmaker to watch as he takes on inevitably bigger projects.

Friday, December 22, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Mercy Christmas' (2017)

There seems to be a recent surge in Christmas-themed horror movies, perhaps because adding some holiday trappings to the typical straight-to-VOD horror production helps it stand out a bit. I saw Ryan Nelson's Mercy Christmas at the Sin City Horror Fest back in October, about a month before its VOD debut, and was pleasantly surprised at its playful sense of humor, solid acting and nasty violence, and the way all those elements worked together. It may not reach a big enough audience to become the next holiday horror favorite, but it's a worthy continuation of the tradition, and a fun movie for horror fans in general.

Director and co-writer Nelson's biggest assets are his actors, especially stars Steven Hubbell and Casey O'Keefe, as an awkward office drone and his gorgeous workplace crush, respectively, both of whom transcend their stereotypical introductions as the movie progresses. Put-upon Michael Briskett (Hubbell) loves Christmas but has no one to spend it with, and his douchebag boss saddles him with tons of extra work over the holidays. The only bright spot is that hot secretary Cindy Robillard (O'Keefe) seems to take pity on him, attending his Christmas party when no one else from the office (or anywhere else) shows up, and even inviting him to spend Christmas with her family, so he won't be alone.

Hubbell and O'Keefe have genuine chemistry as good-natured co-workers, which is why it's especially effective when it turns out that Cindy doesn't actually want to befriend the office misfit; instead she's taking him home to her secretly cannibalistic family to be part of Christmas dinner, and Michael's asshole boss is really her brother. O'Keefe does a great job of keeping Cindy consistent, with the same chipper attitude and eager helpfulness when she's bonding with Michael over Christmas traditions as when she's getting ready cook him up for dinner. And Hubbell brings an impressive amount of inner strength to the goofy Michael, who starts out as an ineffectual Christmas-loving doofus before eventually rallying his fellow captives to escape from the evil Robillard family.

Some of the scenes of squabbling (among the captives and among the Robillards, almost all of whom get character-developing subplots) get repetitive, and the final all-out battle goes on a little too long, eventually highlighting the movie's limited resources. But for the most part Nelson makes strong use of those limited resources, throwing together a sort of sunny suburban Christmas comedy version of the finale of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and finding fun ways to keep the holiday theme at the forefront. It's a promising feature debut and a solid addition to the Christmas horror canon.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Saint' (2010)

In the Netherlands, the main December holiday celebration isn't Christmas, but Saint Nicholas' Eve and Saint Nicholas' Day on December 5 and 6, the name day of the historical Saint Nicholas, who is represented in Dutch culture as Sinterklaas (a figure similar to the North American Santa Claus). Like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas brings presents for good children, coming down the chimney to deliver them. He's aided by the somewhat problematic helper known as Black Peter, typically represented by white people in blackface, which has created a bit of controversy in recent years (the character started out representing a Moorish servant, but these days he's more commonly described as being blackened with soot from climbing down chimneys). Dutch filmmaker Dick Maas' horror movie Sint (marketed in English as either Saint or Saint Nick) takes all of this knowledge for granted, which makes sense for his native audience but provides a bit of a steep learning curve for foreign viewers (I got my basic info from Wikipedia, of course).

Plus, the concept of the movie is that everything people take for granted about Sinterklaas is wrong; the historical Saint Nicholas is a sham, and the real Nicholas was a rogue bishop who burned villages and murdered children. A prologue shows Nicholas and his band of marauders terrorizing a village in the 15th century, defeated when the villagers fight back and burn Nicholas' ship with him and his followers in it. But his spirit returns every time December 5 coincides with a full moon, and a second prologue set in 1968 shows the undead Sinterklaas, with his traditional golden staff and white horse, slaughtering a family and leaving the young son as the only survivor. By the time we finally get to present-day Amsterdam, there's a lot of build-up for what turns out to mostly be a mundane horror story about horny teens fending off evil.

The real main character is Frank (Egbert-Jan Weeber), a teenage doofus who's just been dumped by one hot girl after cheating on her with her best friend. He discovers the secret of Sinterklaas after his ex-girlfriend becomes one of the demon's first victims, and he's then arrested after he's found at the scene of another Sinterklaas massacre dressed up in a Sinterklaas costume on his way to a party. Frank isn't much of a protagonist, and he mainly just stumbles into the main action by virtue of being in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time. He eventually teams up with police detective Goert Hoekstra (Bert Luppes), who survived the 1968 Sinterklaas attack as a young boy and has been obsessed with stopping Sinterklaas ever since. Goert's a typical horror-movie obsessive, complete with the crazy wall of newspaper clippings, but his big plan is pretty unremarkable, mainly involving lots of explosives.

Sinterklaas himself isn't particularly scary, although he does have a cool look with his red outfit, his giant staff (which he of course uses to stab people) and his massive horse (plus his Black Peter minions, who are definitely black from being horrifically burned). He doesn't speak, and his motives (other than wanting to kill lots of people) are not very well-defined. At one point someone remarks that Sinterklaas will only kill the naughty, but that's quickly corrected, and he doesn't seem to have any particular standard about whom he kills. There's a half-hearted subplot about a government conspiracy to cover up the existence of the evil Sinterklaas, but that's poorly developed and doesn't really fit into the main story. Some of the kills are entertainingly gruesome, and there are a few amusing bits of black humor. But the characters are dull and the plot never goes anywhere exciting after the two prologues. Goert's big plan doesn't amount to anything, and the movie ends with a lack of resolution that's meant to be unsettling but just makes the whole preceding story feel like a waste of time.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'The Children' (2008)

The opening scenes of The Children reminded me a bit of the early scenes of Home Alone, of all things, as the unruly children of an extended family run amok while the adults attempt to rein in the chaos for a planned Christmas celebration. Given that I once wrote about Home Alone as a stealth horror movie, maybe that's not so surprising, and The Children cleverly builds on the sense of unease in that family chaos as it takes its turn into full-on horror. As someone who can't stand children, I always appreciate when they are used as villains in horror movies, possibly because I view them all as tiny terrors anyway. Writer-director Tom Shankland effectively plays with the tension between self-preservation and the instinct to protect children, as the kids slowly turn homicidal and start attacking their parents.

It takes a good half hour for that to get going, and for much of the movie it's possible to read the situation as an exaggerated version of familial conflict, the children reflecting the obvious strain among the adults. Eventually the supernatural nature of the attacks becomes clear (even if the specific origin never is), but there's still more going on here thematically than just "kids go crazy and kill adults." Sisters Elaine (Eva Birthistle) and Chloe (Rachel Shelley), along with their husbands and children, gather at Chloe's isolated rural home for Christmas, and while everyone is all smiles when Elaine and her family first show up, the cracks in the facade begin almost immediately. Mainly, Elaine's teenage daughter Casey (Hannah Tointon) resents being dragged along on the family trip instead of getting to hang with her friends, and doesn't much like her stepdad Jonah (Stephen Campbell Moore).

Sullen, brooding teen Casey, with her stereotypical dark, skull-adorned clothes and dyed hair, turns out to be the stealth heroine of the movie, her inherent distrust of both adults and young children making her the first to realize that something very wrong is happening. It also makes the adults reluctant to believe her, and a lot of the tension comes from viewers knowing that the children are on the verge of lashing out (they keep vomiting up some strange goop, and get vacant, dead looks in their eyes), while the adults go on obliviously squabbling about their parenting philosophies and dubious business ventures.

Once all hell breaks loose, though, Shankland never goes too far over the top, making each of his moments of gruesome violence count, and building tension by splitting up his characters around the sprawling estate. The movie has a strong sense of place, playing with the unsettling sights of the increasingly malevolent kids suddenly not being where they're supposed to be. The adults are whiny and self-centered enough to sort of deserve what happens to them, but not so annoying that you want them to get killed right away. Little bits of back story (Elaine and Chloe's issues with their own mother, Elaine's past abortion, Chloe's husband's leering interest in Casey) are revealed organically, without derailing the suspense or taking attention away from the children as the main antagonists. The ending hints at a larger epidemic of killer kids, but the movie closes on a more personal note that keeps the threat within the main family. Because at Christmastime, that's really the source of the most trauma.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Jack Frost' (1997)

Thanks to sharing a title and a basic concept (dead man is reincarnated as a snowman) with a Michael Keaton-starring family movie that came out just a year later, Michael Cooney's Jack Frost has enjoyed a higher level of awareness than the average C-level direct-to-video horror movie (it even gained enough of a cult following to spawn a sequel three years later). It benefits from a bit of cheeky self-awareness and a memorably absurd premise, but it's still mostly a slog, with a drawn-out plot that never gets beyond its initial hook, and a bunch of disposable characters whose only value is as fodder for the killer. Writer-director Cooney tries really, really hard to turn that killer into the next Freddy Krueger or Chucky (with tons of quippy one-liners), but nothing in the movie quite lands the way it should.

After a clever opening featuring Cooney himself in voiceover giving the backstory of serial killer Jack Frost (during credits that are printed on Christmas ornaments), the movie shifts into more typical B-movie territory, with Jack (an entertainingly evil Scott MacDonald) on his way to his execution, only for his transport vehicle to collide with a truck carrying highly volatile chemicals, all in the middle of a snowstorm. In classic supervillain-origin fashion, Jack is covered in an experimental substance that fuses his molecules with the snow, thus turning him into a living snowman with the ability to manipulate his frozen body and even change states from water to snow and back.

That sounds impressive, but of course the movie is so low-budget that it can't really depict any of it, and Jack himself remains mostly inert, his motion depicted by cutting away from him and then cutting back to show him in a different place. His mouth sometimes moves when he speaks, and his arms (which look like giant oven mitts) occasionally sway, but that's the extent of his range of motion. Nothing used in the movie to simulate snow looks anything like real snow. Even more ridiculously, Jack's water form is just normal puddles of water, and Cooney completely fails to invest these small wet spots with terror (even if people are shooting guns at them). So even though Jack is killing residents of the small Colorado town (named, of course, Snomonton, home of an annual snowman-building competition), he never seems dangerous or scary.

Cooney understands how silly all of this is, and he gives Jack a stream of dumb jokes that mostly fall flat, although MacDonald delivers them with as much sarcastic gusto as Robert Englund or Brad Dourif playing more iconic horror-movie villains. Jack's kills are sometimes inventive -- a young Shannon Elizabeth plays a teenager who's essentially raped to death by Jack's carrot-stick nose, in the movie's best/worst moment -- but mostly they're just nonsensical, as are the various plans by the townspeople to destroy the seemingly unkillable Jack (eventually they manage to take him out with antifreeze). Although the Christmas setting is a constant background presence, Cooney doesn't really comment on the holiday, and most of the movie could be set during any cold-weather period. It aims to be a campy holiday treat, but it doesn't quite have the ingenuity to follow through.

Monday, December 18, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Krampus' (2015)

Krampus opens with a sequence that promises a much more biting satire than what follows, but that doesn't make it any less amusing: As soothing Christmas music plays, hordes of ravenous consumers battle each other for bargains in a huge mall, with slow-motion confrontations that turn increasingly violent. It's a blunt but entertaining critique on the rampant capitalist free-for-all that Christmas has become. After that opening sequence, though, Krampus doesn't really have anything to do with consumerism or the commercialization of Christmas, and its early plot-establishing stretch is a little slow, as various family members gather at the home of Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette) and their two kids for a Christmas full of strained familial relations.

But once the horror plot kicks into gear, the movie turns out to be tons of fun. While the clash between the bourgeois Tom and Sarah and Sarah's redneck sister Beth (Allison Tolman) and her husband Howard (David Koechner) makes for some cliched comedy, director and co-writer Michael Dougherty switches things up by having the adults band together, their differences making them stronger rather than turning them against each other. Dougherty creates a real sense of eerie dread in the deserted, snow-covered suburban neighborhood, and the grotesque Christmas-themed creatures that torment the family are inventively nasty.

Krampus himself arrives because Tom and Sarah's son denounces Christmas, and with the early theme of family squabbling, it seems like the movie is heading toward a sort of happy ending about holiday harmony after all the carnage. But as the characters (including innocent children) keep getting picked off one by one, that becomes less and less likely. Dougherty opts for a sadistic ending that mitigates the violence but still leaves his characters in eternal torment. Even so, the movie remains playful in its nastiness, turning the longing for family togetherness into something resembling Jean-Paul Sartre's vision of hell. That's quite a Christmas miracle.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Silent Night, Bloody Night' (1972)

Not to be confused with the much more popular Silent Night, Deadly Night (which came out 12 years later), Silent Night, Bloody Night is a grimy, micro-budget indie horror movie with only a minimal connection to Christmas. (Its title is sometimes listed as Night of the Dark Full Moon or Death House, but of course the Christmas connection is more attention-grabbing.) Weird, atmospheric, slow and often nonsensical, it's half horror B-movie, half art project, with a cast that includes a number of Andy Warhol favorites. If it had been more avant-garde or more straightforward, it might have worked better, instead of ending up in a disappointing middle ground.

Set in a small Massachusetts town, the movie takes place on Christmas Eve, but aside from a few decorations in the background and instrumental versions of "Silent Night" on the soundtrack, the time period isn't really addressed. The main significance of the date is that terrible events at Butler House seem to have always occurred on Christmas Eve. The house's reclusive owner Wilfred Butler supposedly died on Christmas Eve in 1950, and now his grandson Jeffrey (James Patterson) has finally returned to town to sell the house that's sat empty for 20 years. Why has Jeffrey waited this long? Is he actually the escaped mental patient mentioned at the beginning of the movie? Director and co-writer Theodore Gershuny is not interested in answering these questions, and even when the movie stops cold on several occasions for reams of exposition (often courtesy of cult icon Mary Woronov as Diane, daughter of the town's mayor), it usually provides just as many questions as answers.

Pretty much everyone in the town is creepy, including Diane's father the mayor, and the awkward acting adds to the unnerving atmosphere. Whether that was a deliberate choice by Gershuny or a product of poor acting and/or directing is tough to say, but the presence of various Warhol players (including Woronov, Candy Darling, Ondine, Tally Brown and others) gives at least some hope that it was the former. Either way, the movie is often off-putting just in a basic dramatic sense, in that the actors seem to be almost unaware of each other at times, acting into a vacuum rather than with their scene partners. Gershuny pulls a Psycho-style bait and switch with the most conventional characters, lawyer John Carter (Patrick O'Neal) and his assistant/mistress Ingrid (Astrid Heeren), appearing to be the main characters (O'Neal even gets top billing), only to get killed off after the first half-hour, right in the middle of getting amorous at Butler House. Carter claims to have been retained by Jeffrey Butler, but once Jeffrey shows up there's little indication that he actually knows or cares about the lawyer.

Jeffrey eventually teams up with Diane to investigate the murders happening up at his old house, but of course he behaves weirdly enough that it seems like he might be the killer. Even after watching the entire movie I'm not entirely sure the extent of his involvement. There is some creepy atmosphere as the killer lures various townspeople to Butler House with menacing, whispered phone calls, and a sepia-toned third-act flashback meant to explain the backstory (with only limited success) has a kind of surreal, haunted quality that would have been effective if extended to the entire movie. In addition to the Warhol players, John Carradine shows up as the town's mute newspaper editor (which has to be a tough position), and Troma mastermind Lloyd Kaufman is one of the movie's producers. It's an odd assortment of talent that might have produced a misunderstood masterpiece, but instead came up with a movie that's just easy to misunderstand.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'A Christmas Horror Story' (2015)

An anthology film of sorts, with three directors and four screenwriters, A Christmas Horror Story weaves its four stories (plus a framing sequence) together somewhat inelegantly, cutting back and forth among them when laying them out one after another might have been more effective. Then again, it might have also highlighted the disparity in quality among the various segments, which range from fairly creepy to annoying and cheesy, and which resolve in mostly unsatisfying ways. Three of the four segments (and the framing sequence) take place in and around the small town of Bailey Downs, which is experiencing an inordinate amount of unpleasantness on Christmas.

In the best story, a couple with a young child heads out to cut down a Christmas tree in the forest, where their son gets lost and returns to them as some sort of evil creature. It has the surreal tone of an old fairy tale, with the naturally unsettling presence of an evil child (or an evil entity that looks like a child), and the acting from Adrian Holmes and Oluniké Adeliyi as the beleaguered parents is the strongest in the movie. Only when the creature's true nature is revealed does the story falter, thanks to the cheap, silly-looking special effects.

Those effects also hinder a story about an entitled rich family being stalked by Christmas demon Krampus (who's really having a moment in horror movies in the last few years), as they drive home from visiting a miserly old aunt. There's some quippy, snarky dialogue in this segment, but it's mostly just a lot of running away from a monster, and it gets old quickly. The ending has a Twilight Zone-style twist in which a nasty person gets their comeuppance, but it takes too much generic peril to get there. Also generic is a story featuring a group of teens exploring a spooky, probably haunted school after hours, armed with video cameras (although it isn't presented as found footage). Surprisingly, the school used to be an asylum! Imagine that. The eventual explanation for the haunting is somewhat clever and creepy, but again, there are too many horror cliches on the way there.

And then there's William Shatner. The only recognizable star in the movie, Shatner plays a Bailey Downs radio DJ getting increasingly drunk and ranty as he broadcasts on Christmas Eve, tying the various stories together. He's typically hammy and loose, and a lot of his dialogue sounds like it was improvised (although it might not have been). His character also eventually ties in to the movie's weakest story, and the only one not really set in the town, in which a buff Santa Claus must fight his way through a workshop of zombified elves. It's a one-joke premise played out repetitively on underdressed sets, and even if the unexpected twist ending explains some of that away, it's not worth all the tedious gore and lame jokes that lead up to it. For undemanding horror fans, there are a handful of chuckles and some comforting familiar elements here, but A Christmas Horror Story doesn't manage to capture anything distinctive about Christmas or horror.

Friday, December 15, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Elves' (1989)

Already an object of cult fascination, Jeffrey Mandel's Elves has the potential to be a bad-movie phenomenon if it were more widely available. As it is now, though, I was only able to watch a low-quality VHS rip on YouTube, and even in that degraded state it was still a fun time, the kind of crackpot vision that makes for the most enjoyable terrible movies. Director and co-writer Mandel isn't at the outsider-artist level of someone like Tommy Wiseau or Neil Breen, but he isn't just some Hollywood hack churning out generic crap for a paycheck, either. There's a level of professionalism to Elves that makes it look like a "real movie," which in turn makes its batshit absurdities all the more surprising and delightful.

There's actually just one elf in this movie, and although it takes place around Christmastime, the elf in question has nothing to do with Santa Claus or his toy-making minions. It's a sort of ancient monster that goes back to Biblical times, accidentally raised up by teenager Kirsten (Julie Austin) and her two friends, when they perform some sort of silly "anti-Christmas" ritual. Really, though, that's just a goofy distraction, and the elf rises thanks to the spilling of Kirsten's blood. As we later learn, Kirsten is the product of inbreeding between her Nazi grandfather and her cold-hearted mother, conceived with the sole purpose of mating with an elf on Christmas Eve and thus giving birth to the master race. Yep, the elves and the Nazis are in league with each other, and Kirsten must avoid being raped by an elf in order to save the world.

She's helped by Mike McGavin (Dan Haggerty, best known as TV's Grizzly Adams), a cop turned department store Santa who takes an inordinate interest in the secret history of elves, even accosting various university professors on Christmas Eve in order to learn about the movie's ridiculous mythology. Mike's interest in Kirsten seems like it would edge into leering or prurient, but he's apparently just a really well-meaning guy who's willing to believe all sorts of crazy shit about elves in order to help some teenage girl he just met. (He's way better than his predecessor as store Santa, who feels Kirsten up, snorts cocaine in his dressing room and then gets stabbed to death in the genitals by the elf.) There's a lot of weird sexual suggestiveness in this movie, including Kirsten's preteen brother talking about her "big tits" and her friends all planning what amounts to a sex party for them and their boyfriends after-hours in the department store.

The elf itself is a rather stiff-looking effect, shuffling along awkwardly toward its victims and never speaking or making much noise at all. It doesn't appear to have any supernatural abilities, instead requiring a knife or other tool to kill its victims. Far more dangerous are the Nazi associates of Kirsten's grandfather, who have no qualms about killing anyone who gets in the way of the grand rise of the elf-Nazis. They even plant a bomb in Mike's car, which leads to the hilarious scene of him discovering it in the glove compartment and then awkwardly tumbling out of the car before it explodes. Those awkward moments are the movie's greatest asset, though, as Haggerty and the other cast members throw themselves into the movie's increasingly nonsensical plot. Clean up the picture, get some bemused cast member to do a commentary track while Mandel explains his artistic vision, and a Blu-ray release of Elves could be a cult-movie goldmine.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Black Christmas' (2006)

Back in 2010, I wrote a series of posts on Christmas movies, including a handful of Christmas-related horror movies. When I wrote about the 1974 proto-slasher classic Black Christmas, I mentioned that I could probably fill an entire month with just holiday horror. That might stretch things a bit thin, but for this holiday season I figured I could cover the Christmas-appropriate number of 12 yuletide horror movies, starting, fittingly enough, with the 2006 remake of Black Christmas. Part of the ongoing trend of remakes of any horror property with a remotely recognizable name, the new version of Black Christmas keeps the same basic plot (a killer terrorizes the members of a sorority during the Christmas break) while adding in a lot more gore and extraneous back story.

Both of those are pretty standard tactics for horror remakes, and pretty much everything about this movie is standard-issue for a mid-'00s horror movie, including its cast of former and future stars, led by current CW superhero favorite Katie Cassidy. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Lacey Chabert and Michelle Trachtenberg are the other recognizable faces as the sorority sisters of Cassidy's Kelli, and Andrea Martin, who played one of the college students in the original, shows up here as the sorority's house mother, in a nice little nod to the past. Martin's comedic talents are mostly underused, though, and while the younger stars are all solid performers, none of the cast members particularly stands out. Mainly they go through the familiar slasher-movie motions, as a mysterious killer picks them off one by one.

That killer may be Billy Lenz (Robert Mann), former inhabitant of the sorority house and current mental institution inmate, who killed his mother and stepfather years ago. Writer-director Glen Morgan, a genre-TV veteran, includes a lot of flashbacks to Billy's origin story, but they only clutter up the narrative, facilitating a climactic twist that is mostly underwhelming. The gory kills are sometimes creative and fun, but a lot of the blood and guts seem gratuitous, and the various sorority sisters are mostly interchangeable, even as the story goes on and the killer whittles down the numbers. Kelli gets a subplot about her relationship with her boyfriend (Oliver Hudson), but that's mostly just a tool for Morgan to set up red herrings.

Morgan creates an impressive visual style for a Christmas horror movie, bathing nearly every shot in the garish red or green glow of Christmas lights, almost like a Dario Argento version of a holiday tale. He doesn't go quite far enough with the Christmas iconography to make any kind of commentary on the holiday, though, and the story never amounts to anything more than your basic slasher beats. After the requisite fake-out vanquishing of the killer, it ends anticlimactically, with the killer's entire saga closed off, as opposed to the eerily ambiguous ending of the original. Morgan shouldn't have to tell the exact same story that's already been told, but his updates only make the movie less distinctive. While the original pioneered a genre, the remake is just a generic follower.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Demons' (2016)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

There are no actual demons in the cheapo straight-to-VOD "horror" movie 13 Demons, and even the faux-demons slain by the main characters never quite add up to 13. Shot almost entirely in two cramped rooms, 13 Demons has a grand fantasy premise that is far beyond the meager means of its filmmakers, who fail completely at conjuring up a fantastical realm outside the limited onscreen action. The title refers to a notorious board game discovered by a trio of unnamed gamer nerds (played by Stephen Grey, Michael Cunningham and writer-director Daniel Falicki), who bring it back to their dingy apartment to play. The nerd who finds the game tells the other two that 30 years ago it was banned because players went crazy and committed murders while claiming to be characters from the game. So once the main characters start playing, they ... go crazy and commit murders while claiming to be characters from the game.

Plus, the movie starts with a flash-forward to two of the three gamers being interrogated by the police, who begin by helpfully recounting how these two guys murdered a bunch of people, while the gamers spout a bunch of nonsense about being knights on a quest. So the movie tells you what it's going to be about, in two different contexts, and then proceeds exactly along those lines, without any deviations at all. We don't even get to see any of these brutal murders being committed, because the production is too limited. Instead we spend what feels like an eternity watching these three slovenly nerds roll dice and read overwrought Dungeons and Dragons-style prose from the game's manual, as they move pieces around a board that looks like it was made at a summer-camp arts and crafts activity.

Even at only 73 minutes, 13 Demons drags on interminably, and in the first half, the characters constantly comment on how dull and repetitive the game is, speaking in monotonous tones and frequently yawning. It's like one of those YouTube videos designed to help you relax and fall asleep, and it came close to working on me a few times. When we finally get to the demon-slaying, it's a crappy green-screened hallucination, as the characters imagine themselves dressed as knights and killing the exact same shadowy-looking demon each time, against a swirling CGI background that looks like an effects program's sample graphic. There's virtually no violence or blood, just the same rudimentary attack over and over. When the movie returns to the police interrogation, it devolves into the gamers and the cops yelling the equivalent of "Is not!" "Is too!" at each other, until the movie just ends abruptly without any resolution. Even the crappiest boards games know to come to some sort of conclusion.