Monday, December 31, 2012

Meltdown 06: Yuletide Spooks (Part III)

 A View from a Hill (2005) dir. Luke Watson


In 2005, after nearly three decades of inactivity, the BBC brought A Ghost Story for Christmas back for that year's holiday season. Apparently having learned their lesson from the backlash against the final two entries of the 1970s series (the ones without, you know, ghosts), the program returned with two adaptations of hitherto unproduced M.R. James stories. The first, A View From a Hill, does a fine job of capturing the Edwardian look, but falters in most other respects. The odd attempts at updating the fright components for modern audiences are regrettable, as sharply edited jump cut jump scares aren't exactly what one associates with mannered ghost tales. Modern sensibilities towards characterization also detract from the story: though the personalities of the three central characters are all intensified and thus help make them more well-defined (timid, proper Fanshawe (Mark Letheren); frivolous, cheeky Squire Richards (Pip Torrens); stodgy, sullen Patten (David Burke)), this also works towards making them all rather unsympathetic, and it's tough to become anxious over the safety of characters that one doesn't particularly care for. But perhaps the largest issue with this return installment is the choice of "A View from a Hill" as the story to adapt. More so than many of his offerings, this tale is singularly undramatic (though possessing a novel central concept of a pair of haunted binoculars that can see one's immediate surroundings as they existed in the past), and so to adapt it into a compelling television feature required a slew of adjustments and additions to the source narrative. Some additions, like the climactic search party discovery, are less ill-conceived than poorly executed (the identity and fate of the body discovered is not immediately clear). Others, like Fanshawe's daytime trip to the ruin of the cathedral accompanied by the magical binoculars, are better, though perhaps rob the story of some of its mystery. But I found this particular adaptation to falter most in its omissions, for why adapt this story only to leave out its two most chilling parts?: it's an adaptational crime that we're prevented from seeing the ghostly hanging on Gallows Hill and the binoculars leaking black bone ooze.

Number 13 (2006) dir. Pier Wilkie

Among those covered thus far, Number 13 adapts my favorite James story of the bunch, and that might be coloring my opinion of it. I say this so that you can adjust your reception of my assessment however you see fit when I tell you that it stinks. It transforms its protagonist, Professor Anderson (Greg Wise)-- a generally amiable chap in the source story-- into an unbearable upper-class snoot who turns up his nose to everything and everyone. He's an abominable personality, so again (like with A View from a Hill) we care not one iota for what becomes of him. Also like the previous installment, Number 13 bungles the representation of its supernatural activity. The story's ghoulish singing and dancing emanating through the walls from the nonexistent Room 13 are replaced with stock ominous creaks and teasing ghostly laughter. The yellow, monstrously hairy arm that reaches out from the room and attempts to drag one of the characters inside is lost in favor of a bland black leather gloved hand. This is the new series low. The Ice House, this dubious position's previous occupant, had its share of narrative problems, but it also wasn't burdened with being a literary adaptation. Number 13 is one, and even if we attempt to divorce it from any of the expectations carried over from appreciation of the story it's still difficult to claim that this film does anything but fumble completely. After only a two year resurgence, A Ghost Story for Christmas died for the second time after Number 13. Cause of death: a one-two punch of mediocrity. (Caveat: though the BBC did produce some more annual ghost stories around Christmastime up through 2010, these are generally not considered a part of the official A Ghost Story for Christmas program).

Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968) dir. Jonathan Miller & Whistle and I'll Come to You (2010) dir. Andy de Emmony

The BBC has also twice produced adaptations of one of M.R. James's most popular ghost tales, "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad," though neither falls under the A Ghost Story for Christmas series. The first was produced a few years before that series began, for a long-running program titled Omnibus, which generally produced short documentary features. It's a strong film and an interesting counterpoint to the two above films' uses of added characterization. James himself is rather light on character (as most of the 1970s adaptations attest to), with most of his protagonists being affable but colorless fellows who unwittingly bumble their way into supernatural trouble. While there might be enough compelling elements in a fifteen page story to excuse such a lack of complexity, the temptation to develop the characters a bit in a forty minute film should be expected. A View from a Hill and Number 13 wish to do this and so end up adding mannerisms and attitudes until their characters become detestable. However, Whistle and I'll Come to You's protagonist, Professor Parkins (Michael Horndern), is-- with his quiet muttering, awkward loitering, atrocious eating habits, and general social incompetence-- quite a departure from James's less complex young professor and is far from a hero, but he's also rather sympathetic in his pathetic, elderly eccentricity. (It also doesn't hurt that Hornden gives his performance his strangest). Like one of James's characters, we feel that he is essentially an innocent thrust into a terrifying and dangerous encounter due to his unfailing rationalism (he's a man who questions the semantics of the term "ghost"), but his development allows us to learn a bit more about the interior psychological state that drives him to the point of gibbering while sucking his thumb after seeing a bed sheet rise into the air. Director Johnathan Miller and cinematographer Dick Bush film the story in luscious and foreboding black and white photography, favoring close-ups and long takes of seaside hotel and landscape tedium, which complement the story's focus on loneliness and isolation. Its visualizations of the haunting are filmed in a belabored slow motion, which helps make a bit of cloth suspended by wire a tad more menacing and visually dynamic. With some small and tasteful variations, it follows the basic plot line of the source story. It's slow, deliberately paced, and in this way one of the most Jamesian of all the adaptations.

By contrast, a 2010 remake starring John Hurt is about the farthest thing from M.R. James's literary atmosphere that one could conceive of. His source tale is transmogrified into, essentially, a doomed love story (unfathomable in the antiquarian library) and populated with loud banging on doors in place of slow suspense. John Hurt's James Parkin is also a developed character (here as an elderly man returning to the seaside location of his honeymoon after depositing his catatonic wife in a rest home), and quite sympathetic for it. In fact, he's a nice old man and his loneliness is more circumstantial than self-wrought, which makes the film's ultimate treatment of him quite cruel. Very little of Andy de Emmony's Whistle and I'll Come to You resembles James's story on the most basic of levels: there's no sheet ghost, no strained interaction with other hotel guests, no questioning of rational thought or superstition, and there's not even the titular whistle (!) (A haunted ring suffices. Ugh). In truth, if the film hadn't been given the title it has been, it would be a passable ghostly yarn that would only obliquely remind of James's story. It would still be a bit harsh in its tragedy, but it would not be a wholly ineffective entertainment. But as an adaptation (especially of one of a master's most beloved tales), it is wholly deficient. One hopes that if the BBC returns to James's work in the future-- as one hopes they will-- they'll do so with both the respect and freedom of creativity that they used to.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Meltdown 06: Yuletide Spooks (Part II)

 The Ash Tree (1975) dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

The Ash Tree is the last of the BBC's M.R. James adaptations for A Ghost Story for Christmas during the initial 1970s run. The series would take some different and then eventually questionable turns with the entries that followed (see below), but The Ash Tree lines up more or less squarely with Lawrence Gordon Clark's prior James films. However, it does possess some distinguishing features: its mid-eighteenth century setting and costumes make it the most period piece-y of the lot, and its predilection towards quiet, dialogue-free sections and dreamed hallucinations render it even more abstract than the similarly moody A Warning to the Curious. Like nearly all of these adaptations, it omits the source tale's historian narrator for a narrative without framing, and this one begins its narrative about halfway through James's "The Ash Tree," in the later section concerning the fate of Sir Richard (Edward Petherbridge). Such a move would forgo much of the tale's important back story (including the hanging of a witch and the mysterious death of Sir Richard's distant ancestor, Sir Matthew) if not for a rather ingenious use of flashbacks. Rather than having Sir Richard discover the history of his newly inherited property and its tangly ash tree through written records or spoken testimony, he is actually haunted by visions of the past. Mid-thought or conversation, Sir Richard will slip through time into the past, re-living previous events as Sir Matthew (both roles are played, in a most "confounded" manner, by Petherbridge). I found this discontinuity of time, place, and character a novel way of approaching the material that-- while certainly a departure from James's structural intentions of the inevitable lineage of foolhardiness-- adds further unease and uncertainty (are they merely hallucinations?) to the relaying of information.

This ancestral haunting of Sir Richard's mind can also be appreciated on another level, as it is the only tangible sign of ghostly happenings in what is otherwise James's great monster story (and we do expect ghosts given the series' title). But Clark and writer David Rudkin have some fun interpreting the the monsters as well. The tale's revelation of a nest of venomous, human head-sized spiders living in the hollow of the property's ash tree is here modified to a rather drastic though equally horrific degree: though still ostensibly spiders, the monstrous creatures that crawl in through Sir Richard's bedroom window have, in addition to eight spindly legs, the furry heads of human babies which they use to cry out into the night for their mother. The creature design, though cheap and often obscured by low light, close-ups, and quick camera movements, is about as terrifying as it sounds, and the image of them hovering (nay, suckling) on Sir Richard's sleeping corpse will not soon leave me. The film creates a sort of internal logic for these creatures (which is more than the James story provides) by changing the hanged witch's final words from the rather banal "there will be guests at the hall" to the more explicit "mine shall inherit" and placing her shriveled, leathery corpse-- upon discovery beneath the ash tree-- in a birthing position. These are some perhaps unnecessary but nonetheless intriguing alterations that leave The Ash Tree as a fine conclusion to a strong run of adaptations.

The Signalman (1976) dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

For 1976's entry in the series, Clark and writer Andrew Davies turned to Dickens for fresh material for adaptation to the small screen. Choosing Dickens's nearly perfect short ghost yarn The Signalman, they make the correct decision by leaving the story's narrative relatively intact. It's a wonderful short film, with a pitch-perfect performance by Denholm Elliot in the titular role of the haunted and despairing signalman. By putting into words much of the conversations held between the Traveler (Bernard Lloyd) and the Signalman (which the story glosses over in narration), the film emphasizes the existential underpinnings of the story and the plight of the Signalman. Lines like, "so little to do with so much depending on it," "take comfort in the discharge of your duty," and "I'll stick to my duty. Nothing else to be done" all make plain his aimless lot in life. He even claims to no longer find value in learning and knowledge, for what is he to do with such information stuck down below in his shack by the railway tracks, waiting for a bell to ring so that he can put into action his mindless, mechanical responsibilities? The visual realization of the supernatural appearances is wonderfully done, and most of the changes made to the story (like the Traveler witnessing the Signalman's death) seem very minor and more for dramatic purposes. However, one change struck me as more significant: the second disaster that the ghost forewarns of (in the tale, the instantaneous death of a woman riding in a train cabin) is converted into a woman (specifically, a newlywed bride in her wedding dress) throwing herself from her cabin window to her own death. We're not informed as to why she chose to kill herself, but we can ponder. Might she have been taking action, however grim, against the solitary and isolated existence she had consigned herself to through marriage? If so, her actions are paralleled by those of the Signalman who (perhaps unwittingly, but perhaps not) is relieved of his chosen daily grind by an easily avoidable death. Though the program's move away from M.R. James's ghost stories is a perplexing decision (especially considering the large number of them left untapped), The Signalman hardly makes a solid case against it.

Stigma (1977) dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

After the creative success of The Signalman, the minds behind A Ghost Story for Christmas opted to abandon literary adaptations altogether for the next round, commissioning an original story and script from writer Clive Exton. Perhaps this decision in itself wouldn't have been enough to rise anyone's ire, but the updating of the setting to contemporary England certainly was. Watching Stigma without background information would provide the viewer with no evidence that what she was watching belonged to a nearly decade-old series. Where are the period costumes, the fog-drenched landscapes, the lantern light revealing untold horrors? If we consider The Ash Tree to be a ghost story, then Stigma fits the title nearly as well, but it fails to feel like a ghost story in the same mold. It concerns a small, quietly dysfunctional family moving into a new house in the country. When the mother, Katherine (Kate Binchy), has some laborers use heavy machinery to lift a long-standing boulder off their lawn, a powerful gust of wind and saxophones blows from underneath into her face, possessing her with some sort of ancient curse that causes copious amounts of blood to persistently well up on her skin under her breast, despite the absence of any wound. It's a chilling premise, and Katherine's frantic handling of her own bleeding is effective in its horror. And not shying away from uncertainty, the "simple" explanation for her sudden fatal ailment (the presence of a spooky knife-pierced skeleton under the boulder in their lawn) is complicated by her glum daughter's (Maxine Gordon) apparent knowledge of the arcane and (of all things) a recurring onion motif. Stigma is a great horror short (and at barely over a half hour, it is short), but a Christmas story to be enjoyed by the warmth of the fire it is not.

The Ice House (1978) dir. Derek Lister

Though unquestionably the low-point of the series thus far (and, as far as one can tell, the film that killed the initial run of the series), The Ice House retains some fascinating qualities. It's the first entry not to be directed by series mainstay Lawrence Gordon Clark, and, like the previous year's Stigma, forgoes a literary source and sets its action in the present. But while one could perhaps make a case for Stigma's inclusion in a series under the header A Ghost Story for Christmas (being that it is at some level a ghost story), the same could not be done for The Ice House, which features neither ghosts nor hauntings. In fact, the supernatural events in this entry are the most inexplicable of the lot, with some frozen corpses, incestuous (possibly alien) brother and sister proprietors, and sentient vines all mingling together during Paul's (Bernard Lloyd) stay at a posh spa for the lonely and isolated souls of England. It's an entrancing watch, but laden with enough unresolved and unexplained intrigue to leave most viewers (ahem) cold. Because the film is so willfully ambiguous, I find it difficult to unpack much of its symbolism or dialogue (so I won't). It's a peculiar (and perhaps fatal) misstep for the series, being so far removed from the concerns and aesthetics of the previous seven entries. The Ice House would have made a perfectly enjoyable (if inscrutable) entry in any other horror or science fiction anthology program, so it's a shame it wound up as the runt of this one.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Meltdown 06: Yuletide Spooks (Part I)

Contrary to what you'd probably imagine, I've never been much of a fan of horror literature. Because the appeal of horror is (for me) rooted so deeply in sound and vision, I'd been less than impressed with the textual approximations of those senses found in the works of the odd author or two that I'd sampled over the years. But throughout the past year and a half I've been perusing a wider variety of supernatural literature, in the hope of warming to the genre, and have acquainted myself with more than a few masters: Algernon Blackwood, Robert Aickman, William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen, Sheridan Le Fanu, H.P. Lovecraft, L.T.C. Rolt, and Robert W. Chambers. I discovered that each of these authors skillfully and subtly creates dread through detail and deliberate pacing. Their thrills are not visceral but bone-chilling. They are practitioners of the slow-burn horror: as readers, we're the frogs stuck in their slowly boiling pots, failing to realize the danger we're in until it's too late.

Perhaps foremost among these writers is M.R. James (1862-1936), who wrote only around thirty tales of the supernatural in his career (all of them ghost stories, of a sort) but who perfected the art of the creeping terror like no one before him. In his introduction to his own Collected Ghost Stories, James recounts that the majority of these tales were written to be read at the fireside on cold December nights, so it shouldn't seem inappropriate that, in 1971, the BBC began an annual tradition of filming adaptations of James's tales for a program they called A Ghost Story for Christmas. The following movie marathon will cover all of the BBC's adaptations of James's work, plus one by Dickens and two stories original to the series. These titles have recently been collected and restored by the BFI for a home video release, which of course comes highly recommended.

The Stalls of Barchester (1971) dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

After plotting the demise of his predecessor and stroking a grotesque cursed statute on his stall, the new Archdeacon at Barchester Cathedral is plagued by the nightly apparitions of a large cat waiting in the dark outside his bedroom and a menacing whisper that urges him to "take care" and wishes him a happy new year. The inaugural entry in A Ghost Story for Christmas, The Stalls of Barchester refrains from deviating from its source material. It is a nearly exact adaptation, and a more than admirable one at that. James's frame narrative is retained with the film featuring his narrator discovering the grim story of Dr. Haynes (Robert Hardy) in a gloriously musty old library that would set any of the antiquarians that populate these tales tittering. Some playful work in adapting the story for the screen, like a humorous montage spanning a decade as Haynes waits and prays for the persistently living current Archdeacon to croak, help makes the tale as enjoyable to watch as to read. Though a well paced and imagined adaptation on the whole, the visualizations of James's subtle ghostly manifestations vary in effectiveness: for every inspired moment-- like Dr. Haynes's climactic tumble down the staircase by way of some horrific help-- there's one a bit hokier undercutting the atmosphere (a furry monster hand grabbing Haynes's shoulder, though well intentioned, feels too much like it came from the costume shop's clearance basement). Regardless, The Stalls of Barchester is a fine start to the series and definite proof that James's decidedly bookish and literary tales can-- with some wise tinkering-- make a successful transition to the screen.

A Warning to the Curious (1972) dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

The Stalls of Barchester was followed up a year later by A Warning to the Curious, a less precise and (perhaps because of this) in many ways even more effective adaptation than its predecessor. A Warning to the Curious is one of James's most structurally complex narratives, featuring at one point four (!) whole levels of framed mediation, as the narrator recounts the narration of a narrator recounting the narration of a third narrator telling of what a fourth narrator told him about the English Seaside town's belief in the folkloric buried crowns of Anglia, protecting Suffolk for centuries from foreign invasion. Clark's adaptation jettisons the multiple narrators, alters the central character's motivation (from unfortunate scholarly curiosity to personal greed), collapses several characters into others (bringing over Dr. Black (Clive Swift), the library scrounger from The Stalls of Barchester, in place of a few of them), and streamlines the narrative into a chronological account (while throwing in a prologue that is perhaps too revealing of the ghostly crown protector's living temperament). Continuing the theme of pagan superstitions proving all too real and baffling uncritical adherence to the Christian faith, this tale concerns Paxton (Peter Vaughn) a cosmopolitan Londoner hit hard by the Depression who has traveled to the seaside town of Seaburg in search of the mythical third buried crown, presumably so that he can hawk it for some easy cash. Paxton meets some resistance from the locals when he brings the crown up in conversation, and after he discovers and nabs it for himself he is then pursued by the ghastly shade of its tireless protector, William Ager, who has been dead a few years but won't seem to cease carrying out his duty.

The film's murky seaside landscapes, filmed primarily in gorgeous long shots and often punctuated with the indistinct, out of focus figure of Ager lurking in the background, are entrancing and lend a sense of hostility to the atmosphere, as if the land itself is rearing up in supernatural fury at Paxton's desecration of it. It's a quiet film, and a bit overlong (it's the longest adaptation of any of them, clocking in at over fifty minutes), but it's also undeniably frightening: the reveal by flashlight of Ager's sickly white ghost  from behind, crouched in Paxton's hotel room, as he slowly turns his head toward the camera was enough to produce an audible gulp in this viewer's throat.

Lost Hearts (1973) dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

A twelve-year-old orphan boy, Stephen (Simon Gipps-Kent) is invited to live in the mansion of his reclusive elderly cousin, Mr. Abney (Joseph O'Conor), whom he has never before met. Upon arriving, he is greeted warmly by Mr. Abney, who seems overly concerned with Stephen's health, and it's not long before the friendly facade of his welcome gives way to tales of missing children, visions of ghostly figures crowding in windows, and vestiges of something scratching at Stephen's bedroom door in the night to be let in. Lost Hearts is derived from one of James's weakest stories, and though it makes a clever decision by bringing the latent fairytale elements of the original story to the surface it still can't escape the tale's ordinariness. It's conventional, storybookish, predictable. The revelation of Stephen's cousin's alchemical madness and murder is no shock, and the hauntings leading up to it (at least in the story) are hardly memorable. James's story  struggles with this conventionality: he attempts to incorporate his requisite antiquarian narrator into this otherwise straightforward third person yarn, and the mixture reads awkwardly, with the plot being sidelined for one of the narrator's misplaced tangents every now and again, which only makes the reader wonder how it was he came across this tale and chose to believe it. Clark's adaptation drops the narrator's frame and, consequently, the story becomes all the more conventional. 

However, Clark's Lost Hearts, to a degree not seen in the previous adaptations, explores the psychological and sexual implications of its characters' motivations. Its conclusions aren't very complex, but the emphasis on the pedophilic intent of Mr. Abney (brushed over in the story) adds a smidgen of lurid interest to the narrative. Mr. Abney salivates over Stephen's warm hands and strong pulse, is overly concerned that the boy is exactly twelve years old, and can't wait to feed and plump him up. (That last bit will correctly bring to mind "Hansel and Gretel," but in this case the Hansel and Gretel proxies have already been gobbled up by the witch and have come back as ghosts to warn off his next victim). Mr. Abney's inclinations become even more overt when he invites Stephen to a midnight rendezvous, which fails to transpire in the source story. When he arrives in Mr. Abney's study, Stephen is forced to drink some drugged wine, after which Mr. Abney tears open his shirt, caresses his hairless chest and hovers a big old ceremonial blade over the boy's heart. The phallic symbolism of the blade is, well, apparent, and soon after we're given a lovely play of silhouettes as the ghosts remove the blade (or his piercing masculine power) from his hands and turn it on his own heart. 

The last bit of interest, and one that sets Lost Hearts far apart from any of the other adaptations covered in this post, is the willingness with which it clearly displays its ghostly entities. When the camera isn't zooming in on their faces cramped against circular windows (as if they were in a Mario Bava film), the ghost children are shown in full traipsing down hallways playing a hurdy gurdy and wiggling their finely pointed fingers in the air. They're less frightening than they are magical, but that is hardly inappropriate for a fairytale.

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974) dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

Though an even looser adaptation of its source material than A Warning to the Curious, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas benefits similarly from its decision to forge a path separate from its literary antecedent. In truth, it's the best film of the initial four, presenting an engaging mystery, an unnerving supernatural presence, and a well-developed central character. Rev. Somerton (Michael Bryant) and his young pupil Lord Peter (Paul Lavers) are entranced by the historical puzzle they uncover in library records of Abbot Thomas, a man who claimed to have been an alchemist who converted base metals into gold and then hid his loot and clues to its location somewhere around the local church grounds. James's story finds Somerton pursuing the mystery on his own and recounting its horrific outcome to a rector, the story's narrator. Clark and writer John Bowen's adaptation drops this structure in favor of a linear narrative and gives him a partner in Lord Peter, who in many ways seems a younger version of Somerton himself. 

In making Somerton the central character, the adaptation also chooses to explore his psyche as the rationality of his non-supernatural world crumbles when faced with undeniable and unexplainable phenomena. The Treasure of Abbot Thomas adds a charming opening scene in which Somerton, at Lord Peter's behest, debunks a phony pair of mediums staging seances for Peter's mother's benefit. Somerton clearly has no tolerance for the "supernatural," but his ceaseless pursuance of Abbot Thomas's treasure hints at his sense of doubt. Does he wish to uncover the truth behind this arcane myth that no one knows much about to prove its non-supernatural origins to the world or to himself? In either case, what is clear is his inability to cope with the supernatural when it is presented to him as fact. At one moment, in conversation with Peter after having discovered the abbot's treasure, Somerton dismisses its value, claiming that it is all worthless metals though the bag that Peter noses through is clearly full of gold. Faced with the existence of the non-rational (in both the existence of the gold and the gooey guardian that protects it), Somerton crumples, emotionally and psychologically, and ends up wheelchair bound, with his ambiguous fate at the film's conclusion (again an invention of the adaptation) making plain that he'll never be able to to escape the unearthly forces that have invaded his worldview. 

Of further interest in this adaptation are the delightful clue-finding and cipher-breaking sequences (reminiscent of Poe's "The Gold-Bug") and the visualization of the treasure's ghostly protector, here rendered as a Blob-like entity that attempts to ooze under Somerton's door every night until the abbot's treasure is returned to its designated hiding place. Series director Lawrence Gordon Clark's style and visual flourish has in many ways varied with each entry, and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas finds him at his best, somewhere along the border of the empirical world and that of nightmares.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Meltdown 05: Slay Belles (Part IV)


Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) dir. Charles Sellier

Charles Sellier's Silent Night, Deadly Night allegedly caused quite a row between its distributors and various watchdog groups in the U.S. upon its initial release in 1984, due to a perhaps too-effective ad campaign. The notion of a murderous Santa Claus was simply too sacrilegious for the moral majority to bear, despite the fact that it had been done twice before in 1980 with Christmas Evil and To All a Goodnight. True, Silent Night, Deadly Night does manage to nick the concept from the former film (the inherent creepiness of the Santa Claus legend) while making it all the more lurid and slasher-audience-friendly, but it's still a relatively tame film, even by contemporary standards. It has a wonderfully ironic prologue, in which a murderous convenience store burglar dressed as Santa Claus traumatizes a young boy by murdering his parents soon after he was warned by his catatonic grandfather to fear the ever-ready-to-punish Santa. The grandfather brings up a good point: children-- even the most well-behaved children-- aren't nice all the time, and if Santa is as all-seeing as he's supposed to be, even the slightest bit of naughtiness should go punished. This fact, the grandfather states, makes Christmas Eve "the scariest damn night of the year," as one waits for the verdict and Santa's wrath. After this formative experience, the child grows up with the help of some nuns at an orphanage into a strapping, solidly built lad named Billy (Robert Brian Wilson), who the nuns then find a job for at a toy store, despite his still crippling Santa phobia and the fast approaching holiday shopping season. Billy's a wholesome fellow (we see him turn down a shot of J&B whisky in favor of a carton of milk), but after being compelled to dress as the store's Santa and greet frightened children he quickly decides to inherit the mantle of the great yuletide punisher of naughtiness, embarking on an eve of Christmas-flavored slaughter. 

Although the film wants us to chalk Billy's actions up to his childhood trauma, we also can't help but notice the self-interested nature of his rampage: what initially spurs his anger is seeing Pamela (Toni Nero), the co-worker he has a crush on, snogging with another fellow. One might claim Billy's actions as dictated by morality-- after all, he doesn't take action until Pamela's snogging partner attempts to rape her-- but his quick decision to then punish her with death as well deflates that argument (she's guilty of... being a victim?). It also reveals a second culprit responsible for Billy's psychosis: religion and its repressive doctrine. In Billy's mind, Pamela is guilty of not only a personal betrayal but also the crime of sexual activity, which was drilled into his impressionable brain by the nuns at the orphanage as a naughtiness worthy of punishment. The stricture against sexual thoughts or activity leads to some self-loathing on Billy's part (a naughty Pamela dream turns nightmarish) but mostly it leads to aggression-- a later pair of "naughty" victims are two young lovers whose only crime is going at it on a billiard table. Billy's problem is one of interpreting the Santa legend (and its relationship with religious morality, punishment, and atonement) far too literally, to the endpoint where he believes that even he, the punisher, should be punished.

A handful of the film's murder set pieces are fun (particularly the sledding decapitation and poor Linnea Quigley's skewering on a pair of mounted deer antlers), but the film appears to lose its bearings on the narrative at a certain point after the halfway mark, caring more-- as many slashers do-- for the efficiency and frequency of those set pieces above all else. A solid conclusion is reached by way of a rather clunky Santa Claus manhunt (again pilfered directly from Christmas Evil), preventing Silent Night, Deadly Night from enduring as a killer Santa flick par excellence.


Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 (1987) dir. Lee Harry

Suffering from Boogeyman II syndrome, Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 is a belated cash-in re-edit of the first film with some additional (yet inspired) new footage. No exaggeration, the first forty minutes of this ninety minute film are cut straight out of its predecessor with minimal interstitial footage of Ricky Caldwell (Eric Freeman), Billy's now-also-deranged little brother, being interviewed by a clinical psychiatrist. If one has watched Part I at any point in the recent past, it's advisable to skip this lengthy retread, but if one has not then it does serve as a competent enough Greatest Hits compilation of the first film's antics. What I found interesting was that the film continues with the flashback interview structure even after the forty minute mark, as it begins to utilize the newly shot footage. Strangely, this is an effective technique. Because Silent Night, Deadly Night 2, like the original film, expends most of its effort on crafting attention-grabbing murder set pieces, this structure provides a comfortable frame within which these random, discontinuous strands of mayhem can comfortably co-exist in a more-or-less coherent narrative. Not that the film seems to care much about coherency. I admire the way in which it shrugs off its own implausibility: when the shrink asks Ricky how it is that he could have been traumatized by the murder of his parents considering he was only an infant at the time, Ricky aggressively replies, "I was there!" And, later, when Ricky recounts a date at a movie theater in which he watches the opening scene of the original Silent Night, Deadly Night (or, you know, his life, which we also already saw in the first forty minutes of rehashing), we realize the flagrantly nonsensical nature of this postmodern sequel/cinematic remix. (A nature that makes sure to wink: one audience member in the theater barks at the screen, "This movie is so bogus. It really is"). 

Eric Freeman's bizarro performance as Ricky has been well-appreciated by Internet culture, but even that prime clip fails to capture the peculiar tenor of his truly unique (and, yes, uniquely awful) performance. He's a joy to watch, and is actually somewhat menacing on occasion-- we're never quite certain if it's the character who is about to snap or the actor portraying him. And returning to those murder set pieces, they really are quite something, as Ricky gores any poor sap who happens to be around or near the color red (he's like a bull in this way). My favorite-- and one of the most sublime murders in all of genre cinema-- involves Ricky impaling a homeless man with an umbrella, which he then expands after it has passed through the man. Ricky drops him and the umbrella onto the alley floor and ambles out of frame. The opened umbrella faces the audience, and we notice that its nylon canopy is slick with blood. The static camera lingers for a moment in its wide shot position before rain begins to downpour, slowly washing the blood away. It's an incredible moment, and it stands as a solid piece of artistic evidence demonstrating that the filmmakers, as raw of a deal as they were dealt in this film project, made the most of it.


Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989) dir. Monte Hellman

Before the franchise descends into some awfully strange places in Parts IV and V, Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! gives one last hurrah for the Billy/Ricky story, though in fairness it hardly resembles either earlier film. Gone is the moral Santa phobia, replaced by telepathy, pseudo-science, and blindness. The ideas are fine enough on their own, but they're not well integrated into the preexisting continuity. Christmas hardly seems to be the motivation for the zombie-like Ricky's rampage this go-around, and he never even dons the iconic costume (though he does sport a goofy post-coma brain dome, that at one point he covers with a beanie cap-- I suppose in order to avoid brain freeze). This is a shame considering that the naturally wild-eyed Eric Freeman was replaced in the role of Ricky  by the always manic Bill Moseley, who one can easily imagine becoming the smirking, wire-thin Santa of naughty children's nightmares. Keeping Moseley's Ricky mostly mute and expressionless for the duration is a wasted opportunity, not least because it renders him into another bland stalk-and-stab machine of a villain. What the film does have going for it (which is, in the end, not enough to recommend) is a much more somber and moody atmosphere than either previous film, peppered with waking nightmares and slightly surreal imagery. The presence of a few David Lynch actors to-be (Twin Peaks' Eric Da Re and Richard Beymer; Mulholland Drive's Laura Harring) helps with this feeling from a retrospective position. But at its core, Part III is a standard issue thriller. It's the first in the series to present a conventional heroine (and quite a strong and interesting one at that) making it the most traditionally slasher-esque, but its low body count and labored pace is unlikely to set any pulses pounding. My jaw dropped a little when Monte Hellman's directing credit came on screen in the opening credits. But the director of Ride in the Whirlwind (1965), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and Cockfighter (1974) lends little of his signature existentialism to the film, and it ends up displaying only his professionalism. If nowhere near a disaster, it's still the series' biggest disappointment.


Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1990) dir. Brian Yuzna


Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 3 had only a tangential connection to Christmas, but Part 4: Initiation is happy to sever ties completely, in more ways than one. Ricky Caldwell and his Santa hat are no where to be found (after the last film, perhaps a blessing), and neither is any subversive skewering of the holiday (this is less desirable). The film takes place around Christmas, but this holiday time frame is incidental at best. It's a Brian Yuzna production, and in many ways it's a less sophisticated rewrite of some of the queasy situations and set pieces of his superior debut feature Society (1989), a much more subversive and socially-conscious film (if less serious) than what this fourth Deadly Night brings to the yule log. Part 4 replaces the cultish and disgusting class warfare of Society with cultish and disgusting gender warfare, adding some religious mysticism in the process. But while its notion of a female empowerment coven that chooses to forsake and live without men (with all the lesbian overtones that implies) is provocative, its execution is problematic (our intrepid journalist heroine needs to be raped by a man (Clint Howard, no less), have her body violated by an oversize slimy phallic centipede, and kill a prepubescent boy in order to be liberated) and its conclusion is ambivalent as to whether or not such freedom from patriarchal control is either possible or desirable, even though all of the film's men prove to be real blowhards. But again: it's a Yuzna film, which means it's a gross-out masterpiece, and for many viewers that's where the film's value will lie. The whacked out body horror is as goopy and as sweaty as ever: centipede vomiting, hands melting together, and the constant threat of spontaneous combustion. Just forget the title and watch it any season you desire.


Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991) dir. Martin Kitrosser

The last entry in the initial franchise, Part V: The Toy Maker is Yuzna-produced and co-written, but his influence feels minimized. Unlike its immediate predecessor, it's a bit more Christmasy (toys and gift giving are the organizing principles) but then again the Geppetto and Pinocchio story, which is the film's true inspiration, is hardly the go-to holiday material. Like a lot of these Christmas horrors, the film begins with a child witnessing his parents boning. This in itself doesn't seem to traumatize the boy, Derek (William Thorne), directly, but the event immediately following, when an evil Santa-shaped Pokeball facehugger attacks his father and causes him to impale his face on a fireplace poker, sure does. This experience drives gentle Derek into muteness and fosters in him a strong distrust of toys with moving parts that appear as if they want to murder him. Appropriately, the film proceeds with a local hand-crafted toy merchant, Joe Petto (Mickey Rooney), and his son, Pino (Brian Bremer), sending sentient, diabolic toys Derek's way in order to murder him. Failing that, these clever toys settle for creating havoc in the lives of random folk: a centipede crawls into one dude's mouth and pops out of his eye socket; a pair of super-powered roller blades send a cool preteen for a fiery ride; the babysitter's boyfriend Buck gets his butt felt up by a toy arm (he enjoys this very much) before a saw-equipped battlebot, fully loaded toy tank, and exploding superhero action figure make short work of the horny teens. The film's concluding "revelations" concern Pino's robothood (and the lack of genitalia that such status implies) and his desire to get rid of Derek and so take his place in his mother's affections, which he demonstrates by feeling her up and calling her mommy (we just can't escape incest during the holidays!). Probably the most noteworthy aspect of the film is the involvement of Mickey Rooney. Back in 1984, Rooney publicly condemned the first Silent Night, Deadly Night for its monstrous presentation of a Santa figure, and yet here he is less than a decade later villainously hamming it up in Santa costume. How quickly minds change. If you ever wanted to see Mickey Rooney snarling and tussling with a teenaged boy while looking as if he is experiencing a series of small strokes, look no further.


Silent Night (2012) dir. Steven C. Miller

Steven C. Miller's loose remake of Silent Night, Deadly Night announces itself pretty quickly as an adherent to the same sort of grimy, trashy, needlessly violent aesthetic that the majority of modern horror of the last decade also pledges by. I guess one might call it "The Heavy Metal Horror Aesthetic," as it prizes whatever aspects can make a film the biggest, loudest, and dumbest. (No joke, the film's killer Santa is even revealed to be listening to heavy metal in his car at one point). This dreck wears those superlatives proudly: Silent Night revels in torturing its victims for pitiful laughs in dank locales with a muted color palette. It's not amusing, thrilling, or entertaining on any level, which is problematic when those appear to be what the film is aiming for. What, precisely, about a topless model being chased around a Christmas tree lot for several minutes, having her leg chopped off, and then being slowly (and screamingly) ground up in a wood chipper is pleasing? Miller has nothing interesting to say with his film (either about the holiday or religious morality or anything else) and so fills Silent Night with weak homages to the first two films and a thick, choking layer of seediness. Prepare for Santa-fied sexual innuendo along the lines of "It looks like Santa is coming early this year." Brace yourself for Malcolm McDowell looking like he couldn't care less as the world's first small town sheriff imported straight from the U.K. Hold on for a perverted priest who takes pictures of teenagers' breasts and blames the sin of society on "American Idol and Internet porn-ah-grow-phy." Whimper at the sight of the killer Santa's opening suit up sequence, straight out of Batman and Robin (1997). Sigh as you realize that Silent Night is not the wayward, groan-inducing exception for modern horror in the 2010s, but the rule. Bah humbug.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Meltdown 05: Slay Belles (Part III)


Black Christmas (2006) dir. Glen Morgan

Most of the (um) creative minds behind the previous decade's horror remakes were quick to try to self-adopt the label of "re-imaginings" for their films. They wanted us to believe that their shameless repurposings of quasi-recognizable titles of horrors past-- Sorority Row (2009), Prom Night (2008), House of Wax (2005)-- are not actually shameless but in fact thoughtful reconsiderations of the themes, premises, and characters of these earlier minor classics. They're full of it, of course, on the whole, but there does exist the odd outlier or two, and Glen Morgan's Black Christmas, a riff on Bob Clark's 1974 original, actually does feel as if it has a bit of imagination fueling it. As a remake it isn't an in-name-only cash grab nor is it a thoughtless carbon copy of its predecessor. Instead, it's a modernized intensification and elaboration of aspects left only ambiguous in its source material. It drops subtlety and mystery in favor of audaciousness and gross-out chuckles as it explores-- in the tongue-in-cheekiest of fashions-- the troubled family origins of the original film's killer(s). In fact, it devotes about half of its length to flashbacks stylishly chronicling this back story, leaving the present day action-- which loosely follows the events of Clark's film-- to be sped through at a hasty rate (a body added to the count every five or so minutes feels accurate). In this way, it resembles (for better or worse) Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007) with a modicum less grimness.

It's the attention lavished upon the stories of its killers that separates this film most significantly from Clark's. While the earlier film was content to leave Billy as an elusive, shadowy menace, Morgan's Black Christmas strives to mythologize Billy and his sister Agnes and position them as new and fearsome silver screen boogeymen for the noughties. I'd call the effort more-or-less successful, even if the series has failed to produce a franchise.These villains are given interesting quirks that set them apart from the traditional horde of costumed villains: Billy was born with sickly yellow skin and enjoys eating fleshy X-mas cookies; Agnes has lost an eye so enjoys popping out and sucking on those ocular orbs of others. Their shared motive is both hilarious and chilling (they kill because their early childhood experiences have taught them that killing is how one expresses love) and their history, revealed in bits and pieces, has all of the seedy, incestuous allure that I've come to expect in a Christmas horror. Perhaps unfortunately, all of the time spent developing these two takes the same away from the group of sorority sisters, who are all unindividuated in their stock cattiness and status as victims-to-be. With a strong stable of recognizable young faces (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michelle Trachtenberg, Lacey Chabert, Crystal Lowe), it would have been nice is the film helped the viewer to remember anything about them. (As it stands, the best character moment is when Winstead's sheltered heiress is presented with a snow brush and can only exclaim, in horror, "what is that thing?").

The film's most distinctive feature is its oddball tone, smashing together over-the-top carnage, goofy jokes, and semi-palpable suspense, all set to the sort of mischievous score you'd find in a family adventure film. Theirs is a tough balancing act to pull off, but it's one that Morgan and his partner, James Wong, have proved themselves capable of in their earlier efforts: Final Destination 1 & 3. With a pedigree like that series, it should be no surprise that the film's violence skirts the line between cartoonish and sickeningly brutal. The Christmas atmosphere is more integral here than in some other holiday horrors I've watched recently (a colossal snowstorm strands the characters in their sorority house, and virtually every holiday decoration or artifact is used as an instrument of death at one point or another). And in an obligatory Post-Scream postmodern moment, Lowe's character, between hearty gulps of yuletide wine, points out for the viewer all of the pagan elements of traditional holiday celebrations that have corrupted the religious significance of the annual event. This re-imagining of Black Christmas has an overtly cynical attitude towards Christmas and its notions of family togetherness and peace on earth, here transmogrified into family homicide and resting in pieces. Even more so than the original, it earns the "Black" of its title, and is as a whole best encapsulated by one of its characters' quips: "Fuck you, Santa Claus."

3615 Code Père Noel (a.k.a. Game Over) (1989) dir. René Manzor


On Christmas eve, an ingenuous and precocious child is forced to construct a series of elaborate traps in order to stop a home invader with nefarious intent. The child psyches himself up after arming himself to the teeth: "This is my home. I'm gonna make you wish you never came here." John Hughes, you're busted. In reality, the odds that Home Alone (1990) intentionally ripped off this barely earlier French film (it didn't receive a general release in its country of origin until January of 1990) are quite slim. What we're dealing with is more likely a case of Great Minds Thinking Almost Exactly Alike. (And, pointedly,  3615 Code Père Noel takes more than a few cues from the classic EC Horror Comics killer Santa yarn "...And All Through the House," previously adapted in 1972's Tales from the Crypt). But then, it's the differences between these two films that are interesting. Kevin McCallister's wet bandits Harry and Marv are almost cuddly in comparison to Thomas's (Alain Lalanne) psychotic, vaguely pedophilic Santa Claus (Patrick Floersheim). Moreover, Kevin and Thomas couldn't be more different from one another: though they share a similar quick wit and creativity, Thomas is a mulleted, heavy metal-listening, self-styled Rambo with war paint, glistening child muscles, and an inexhaustible arsenal of knives and guns (and, if nothing else, the knives are real). Alain Lalanne plays Thomas with a curious mixture of hardened paranoia and childish naivety-- he still believes in Santa Claus, despite his intelligence and better judgement, and addresses his letters to him, "To Santa, In Heaven." On one level, 3615 Code Père Noel concerns itself with that last gasp of Thomas's childhood innocence, as he learns that the world is populated by monsters-- both literal and figurative-- who are always ready to frustrate your optimistic expectations.

But on another level, 3615 Code Père Noel sort of resembles a disturbing ode to class warfare. Thomas's family is obscenely wealthy (he jokes about selling his surplus toys to Santa-- a budding young capitalist), and his world-weary, gun-toting paranoia-- even at such a tender age-- seems to be a result of his general class consciousness. He holes himself up in his one-hundred-room mansion and builds eccentric devices and traps, preparing for some sort of imminent conflict-- perhaps for when the barbarians begin to storm the gates. The particular barbarian who arrives is a poor, dejected homeless man who, after being spat upon by higher society (and unsympathetic children, who tell him they "don't like his face") once too often, goes a little bit mad, dresses up like Santa Claus, and finds his way to Thomas's abode through conversing with him over a late 1980s Internet chat service for a game of deadly hide and seek. (As if to illustrate the divide between them even more clearly, we see Thomas chatting from his stylish personal computer system and Psycho Santa from a dinky public terminal on the sidewalk). Thomas's endless resources and tireless spirit allows him to prevail against the evil homeless menace, but it's somewhat less than a satisfying victory. While Santa is clearly deranged (he knocks off a handful of folks and one pet dog), we're not totally certain that he's an embodiment of unmitigated evil (for example, he doesn't always seem as if he wants to harm Thomas and at one moment he has a knife to his throat but lets him go, telling him he's now "It" in their jolly game of hide and seek). In a way, Santa's intrusion into the mansion is a misguided, wholly pitiable cry for acceptance from a society that won't even acknowledge him as a human being. He's mad, sure, but isn't the society that fanatically arms itself against him without prompting and would prefer (like Thomas's mother does) to stay at work on Christmas Eve away from her young son in order to make even more money a little mad too?


Elves (1989) dir. Jeffrey Mandel

An abridged set of notes compiled during a screening of the movie Elves, starring Dan "Grizzly Adams" Haggerty: "girls are the master race -- anti-Christmas League, forest coven -- cut hand, blood on ground, elves born -- parental and grandparental abuse: 'Are you hurt? Good.' -- peeping tom preteen brother to sister: 'I'm not a pervert; I like seeing naked girls. You've got big fucking tits and I'm gonna tell everyone I saw 'em' -- Agamemnon the Cat, 'I'm living a cliche' -- elf vision -- 'let's goof on Santa' -- on Santa's lap, as he cops a feel: 'Santa said oral' -- Santa doing coke -- Agamemnon drowned by girl's mother in toilet -- rampant crotch violence on Santa -- Haggerty: 'First you're Santa, then you die [...] in my case they piss on you' -- Nazi conspiracy, pure genetic line, New World Order -- Department Store Detective Santa Haggerty, smoking and brushing his teeth simultaneously -- 'it's not too tuna, is it?' -- girl in department store fashion show: 'I'd rather be raped' -- Nazis want to help elves rape so more Nazis? -- elf finger fetish -- mother calling operator for the number to 911 (Tim the Tool Man Taylor moment) -- typology at work: Genesis' 'little creeping things' = Elves! -- incest (naturally) -- 'roast beast' -- elves are perfect assassins? the characters keep comparing them to ninjas -- 'Daddy, what's elfs?' 'Elves!' -- plot: Santa Haggerty must stop Kirsten from being raped by Nazi elves --  'are we gonna be alright?' 'No, Willy. Gramps is a Nazi' -- swastika breast doodle (connect the dots) -- 'we have to get the crystal from grandfather's study!' -- did she just call the troll a 'little faggot' and did he then explode? -- final line, peace on earth: 'Shh, it's snowing.' -- elf fetus end credits sequence -- where's Haggerty?" 

What, precisely, defines a great film? Based upon any criteria I've ever encountered, Jeffrey Mandel's Elves is about the farthest thing from one. Nevertheless, I can't escape this pestering feeling that it deserves a spot among the hallowed greats. Conventional standards don't apply: Elves looks horrible, sounds horrible, probably actually is horrible. Attempting to intellectualize the movie to any extent seems a foolhardy endeavor. But it remains an undeniably enjoyable cinematic experience, uncomfortably coexisting with a dual sense of clever self awareness and absurd earnestness. When Haggerty's grizzled yet gentle department store Santa detective ponders aloud, "what the hell are these Nazis going to do with these elves?", we're made aware that the film knows how preposterous that sounds... and yet this is exactly the plot that it will continue to pursue, wholeheartedly, until its conclusion. One wants to call the approach self-deprecating (another dejected and incredulous Haggerty line, after being pointed in the direction of the Demonology section at the local library under the nonexistent Dewey Decimal call number of '666': "you're kidding me, that's got to be a joke"), but that doesn't rest quite right. It's a film of seemingly endless no-budget ambition and whacked-out creativity tinged with a sense of irony that is less snooty than matter-of-fact: marvel, for instance, at a trio of horny teens foaming at the mouth while banging on a steel door for their girlfriends to let them into the department store after hours who then stop short, shrug, and deadpan a rationale for their behavior-- "hormones." Elves is an unrivaled experience and a nonsensical pleasure-- I couldn't recommend it more highly for your holiday season's viewing.

Better watch out for a next entry is coming all too soon to town: Silent Night, Deadly Night I-V (1984-1991) & Silent Night (2012).

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Meltdown 05: Slay Belles (Part II)


Home for the Holidays (1972) dir. John Llewellyn Moxey

Back in October I caught up with director John Llewellyn Moxey's later made-for-tv quasi-slasher No Place To Hide (1981), and now, after watching the earlier Home for the Holidays, I feel confident in saying that his career didn't peak early. Despite a deliciously evil premise (five wayward daughters are called back home for the holidays by their ailing wealthy father in order to take revenge against his new wife with a shady matrimonial past who he believes is slowly poisoning him) and its status as a proto-proto-slasher (its yellow rain slicker-sporting killer, who orchestrates a wealth of grisly demises, predates virtually every other American slasher of note and is roughly contemporaneous with the peak of the Italian giallo thriller), this Aaron Spelling-produced holiday family get-together from hell is only slightly more thrilling than opening up the package-of-socks-shaped present under the tree. A sock-hoarding genre connoisseur will know exactly what she's getting. (But then, it's not as if you want to seem ungrateful for socks...)

It's not hard to imagine Home for the Holidays seeming a shade more enthralling for TV-watching audiences in 1972, with all of the undeniable charms it has to offer: a novel costumed killer, surprisingly sudden and creative murders, a magnificent Gothic mansion setting, perpetual rainstorms punctuating dialogue with thunder, the young and adorable version of Sally Field, and barely restrained histrionics (courtesy of Jessica Walter, fresh off her totally unrestrained histrionics in Clint Eastwood's Play Misty for Me (1971)). It's a film in transition-- a little bit of the old classic murder mystery commingled with the brutality of the upcoming slasher era-- and that gives it a peculiar placement within the horror genre that's easy to appreciate.

But for a plot-heavy murder mystery (one written by the screenwriter for Psycho (1960), no less!) it sure is low on plot. Once the daughters are assembled and given their mission from their father, little more transpires other than their aimless standing, sitting, and wailing around, waiting to die. Where's the duplicitous whispered scheming, or the committed investigation with shocking revelations? The most sensible daughter decides to split and for her trouble has a pitchfork promptly deposited into her belly-- the film seems allergic to its own characters taking meaningful actions. (One is killed simply by being too drunk to raise her head out of the water while lying in a bathtub. This is not the most energetic lot). The characters are all troubled and have weird relationships with their father, but this never amounts to anything of thematic importance. All works in service of the murder mystery, which, at just over an hour and featuring only a handful of characters as potential suspects, can't spare the room for any significant twist or surprise (though the resolution is a well-acted bit of mania). I'm probably harping on the film more than it deserves. It's never not enjoyable, but for a film ahead of its time it's far too streamlined and conventional to be that eccentric pair of Christmas socks that you truly cherish.


The Thirteenth Day of Christmas (1985) dir. Patrick Lau

Patrick Lau's The Thirteenth Day of Christmas, a UK-produced hour-long thriller for Granada's Time for Murder series, is one of the most bizarre and unpleasant made-for-TV oddities I've yet beheld. I suppose I say that as a compliment, but I also can't claim this relentlessly nasty, downbeat, nihilistic dirge to schizophrenic madness is a treat. It's so very grim that one wonders what the filmmakers who imagined it would appeal to the general television-watching English public during the holiday season of 1985 were thinking. I can't decide whether I'd like to fancy them aware of the nasty joke they played on that unsuspecting audience or totally oblivious, astonished that their viewers were as disturbed as they must have been. Regardless, the film is awfully interesting.

Richard (John Wheatly, in an inspired performance) is a paranoid schizophrenic who, after spending quite a bit of time in an asylum, now lives at home with his loving but embarrassed and frustrated parents. Those latter qualities are not wrongly formed, as Richard regularly tends toward demented acts like talking to himself, letting his pet boa constrictor slither about the house, and barging in on dinner parties to shovel food into his mouth with his bare hands before spitting it back out. Richard's paranoid delusions place him into a spot of trouble this particular holiday season when that reliable voice in his head informs him that his real father has been body-snatched by the imposter father downstairs (Patrick Allen) and that the only way to solve this problem would be to kill him. Without too much fuss, Richard murders both his mother and father and waits until his sister, Juliet (Joan Moon), arrives home unsuspecting of anything awry.

Watching a mentally ill man-child bludgeon and shoot his parents to death falls somewhat short of holiday cheer, but it is all rather compelling. When Juliet discovers the bodies and Richard confronts her, the film carries on in a suspenseful series of scenes threatening to cross the border into violence and (momentarily) incest, as Juliet attempts to reason and Richard continues being his insane self. The film's closing revelation-- that Richard was, in fact, adopted, therefore proving his paranoid delusions about his father but in a totally unexpected way-- is troubling: the patient and loving adoptive parents are punished for their kind act by being straddled with a schizophrenic child who is, most likely, mad precisely because of his abandonment by his biological parents. This is not the most uplifting of messages, nor does it seem to possess a very beneficial grasp of child psychology. But it is unerringly grim, and the film's yuletide horror is not unsubstantial: the walls of the film's single set, the family's home, are decorated with numerous weathered, eyeless Santa mask, staring down blankly on the film's events from their elevated positions. When Juliet discovers her father's corpse, we see that (while off-screen) Richard has dressed him in one of these masks, making The Thirteenth Day of Christmas, effectively, the film that killed Father Christmas.


Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) dir. Theodore Gershuny

It's a shame that Silent Night, Bloody Night has been saddled with such a lame duck of a title because, oh my, it's basically perfect. Shocking, eccentric, humorous, and twisted-- it's everything my warped, candy cane-addled brain could plead for. Filmed in the same year as Home for the Holidays and nearly every bit the almost-slasher that one is, it excels in every category that I feel the other film falls short in.

What begins with some Mary Woronov voice-over narration and a man running out of his own mansion on fire soon progresses, escalates, and digresses into a tale featuring insane asylum breakouts, creepy phone calls, mistaken identities, revenge murders, sepia-tone flashbacks, bulldozer jokes and callbacks, switchboard operators, mutes with bells, horrifying slashings, incest, secret family diaries, abandoned automobiles, broken glass eye gougings, flashlight torture, and nude fur lounging. To call it convoluted would be only the slightest of understatements, but if an inspired, creative, and slightly offbeat approach to material like this isn't what appeals to you, then what, pray tell, are you sticking around for?

Most of the joy lies in letting this cavalcade of cinematic information unfurl before you. This isn't a particularly deep film, and its big final act revelation (that the townsfolk are long-escaped raving, murderous mental patients... who then founded the town that they live in and have run it rather successfully ever since, without major incident or question) is uniquely preposterous, but this is all part of the fun. It's a moody, low-budget American exploitation horror that has the gall to be both surprising and unapologetically different. Only so many films cast John Carradine and then have him sitting around flicking a bell instead of talking ("so many" meaning only this one, primarily). Most importantly, it never fails to work as a horror film, which is of course a facet that could have been lost in its onslaught of ideas. Besides its queasy, gore-drenched moments of sudden violence, the abandoned and cursed Butler house, around which most of the action takes place, becomes an unnerving character in the film, producing the same sort of sentient, tenant-devouring dread as does the titular house in the Amicus anthology horror The House That Dripped Blood (1971) from the year previous. One wouldn't expect a film called Silent Night, Bloody Night to be quite as well made as it is, but that only benefits the appreciation it garners.

Rockin' around various trees next time with Black Christmas (2006), 3615 Code Père Noel (1989), & Elves (1989).

Friday, December 7, 2012

Meltdown 05: Slay Belles (Part I)

What better organizing principle for mayhem and bloodshed than a holiday? Because holidays come served with so many ingrained cultural associations (scary costumes, boxes of chocolates, ostentatious firework displays, turkey dinners, sleigh rides in the snow), a horror film can have a right fun time toying with expectations, enlivening annual habits and traditions with shock and awe. The slashers have mined virtually every bank holiday and a whole slew of the others in their perceptive (though often rudimentary) understanding of this fact. But besides the obvious choice of Halloween, there's not another holiday with as much horror cinema structured around it as Christmas. That makes sense. Some folks take Christmas awfully seriously, and turning its warm, pious, comforting, peace-on-earth images into varied grotesqueries is too much of a temptation for some transgressive filmmakers. Moreover, as some of these Christmas horrors aim to illustrate, there's something more than a little off with our uncritical acceptance and celebration of a myth concerning a jolly fat man breaking into our homes while we're asleep, armed with his list of naughty and nice children...

Join me as I plunge headlong into a bowl of figgy pudding and emerge some days later at the surface, bubbling and bright-nosed, with 15 Christmas horrors strapped firmly to my antlers. Presenting: Slay Belles: Part 1 (of 4).


Christmas Evil a.k.a You Better Watch Out (1980) dir. Lewis Jackson

Lewis Jackson's Christmas Evil is a film concerned with the perversion of the holiday's mythological ideals. Our troubled hero, Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart), is a schlubby middle-aged man who, after developing an "I Saw Mommy in Garters Being Stroked By Santa Claus" complex at a young age, becomes obsessed with everything Christmas and begins to model his own actions after St. Nick's. His apartment is decorated year round, he wears Santa pajamas to bed, "ho ho ho"s with a shaving cream beard, and, most creepily, spies on the behavior of the children in his neighborhood, diligently recording their every good and bad deed in the respective Naughty and Nice tomes. After witnessing too much naughtiness in the world, Harry glues a beard to his face, sews his own padded costume, and starts spreading cheer (and death) to those around him. Soon enough his actions lead to the residents of his city declaring a full scale war on Santa, which culminates in a seedy Santa Clause police line-up and a chase through the city streets with a torch-burning lynch mob. Is it any wonder that John Waters has repeatedly cited it as his favorite Christmas film?

A certain lack of subtlety doesn't prevent the film from having a powerful message. We "don't want Santa Claus," Harry cries out at the end of his one-man holy crusade, meaning society doesn't want the real Santa Claus, but instead would prefer the tacky facsimile, who can attend our holiday parties and entertain our children. The mythological Santa that Harry tries so hard to emulate is an ever-scrutinizing moral authority who sees all and, more importantly, doles out punishment for transgressions. Harry's punishments don't quite fit the crimes-- you're likely to receive a Nutcracker sword to the eye or a Christmas tree star across the throat for an insult or a duplicitous switched work shift-- but the sentiment remains consistent: this is what Santa does. Harry's actions, however objectionable, are attempting to rectify what Santa is supposed to be. Unfortunately, what Santa is supposed to be is the man who hides in bushes and threatens naughty kids with sacks of coal and much more horrible things.

Christmas Evil is an excellent character study in madness, and Maggart turns in a rather incredible performance in the lead role. He imbues Harry with a sackful of pathos, allowing him to be a sympathetic character even when he's at his most homicidal. Scenes of him struggling unsuccessfully to fit down a chimney and practicing the best jolly voice with which to deliver the lines "Merry Christmas, everyone" are a little bit heartbreaking in their conviction. However at odds his conception of the holiday may be with the rest of society's, Harry is a man who believes in the spirit of Christmas. For every person he chops up with his yuletide axe, he brings joy to a handful of other, more deserving folk: he spends the middle of the film stealing toys from his own place of employment-- a Christmas toy factory, of course-- in order to deliver them to a hospital care home for mentally disabled children. His dysfunction is his inability to accept a neutered, commercialized version of Santa, the one that he saw his mother (and the rest of society) corrupt for her personal pleasure. For Harry, a world that treats Christmas so lightly and callously isn't a very jolly place. And, as the motto of his toy factory employers reminds us, "If It's Not a Jolly Dream, It's Not Worth Having."


 Don't Open Till Christmas (1984) dir. Edmund Purdom

A deliriously sleazy British yuletide slasher, Don't Open Till Christmas is probably the only film you'll ever see in which Santa Clause attends a peep show. And then: It's almost certainly the only film in which that same lusty, peeping Santa (and a whole sleighful of other Santas, of various BMIs) will then be dutifully slashed by a masked killer. One can imagine that simple concept was all it took to sell the film, and one must also admit that the incessant Santa-skewering carnage carries Edmund Purdom's film to a sublime level of amusement. The fact that Don't Open Till Christmas was produced by the legendary Dick Randall, producer of Pieces (1982), should give you a general idea of the tasteless, senseless insanity to expect. Unreservedly, I adored it.

It's difficult to talk about the film as a coherent narrative because it simply isn't one. Sure, it fitfully masquerades as a whodunit, but it's more accurately described as a suite of increasingly absurd scenes, of which I will now list the highlights: a Christmas Halloween costume party in which Santa takes a spear through the mouth while giving a speech; a urinal closeup while a Santa is castrated; the heroine's boyfriend attempting to persuade her into a kinky holiday-themed nude photo shoot a few days after her father (dressed as Santa) was murdered; another hoboish Santa peddaling a bike while being chased by angry street punks. Following the plot seems a foolhardy endeavor, and when nearly every scene is punctuated with a new, creative death for some Santa or other, why bother? The film knows to tip its gag for every last drop of eggnog.

Similarly, spending too much time considering the killer's motivation is a bit of a fool's errand. While ostensibly the same as Christmas Evil's-- mommy just can't take her cookie mitts off Santa!-- it's all the more preposterous here. The killer's actions are terribly inconsistent (he spares a nudie model in a Santa coat after ogling her panties), and his one-sided sibling rivalry (again poached from Christmas Evil) is never satisfactorily explained. The conclusion is either bold or shoddy, whichever you prefer, as the heroine is abruptly killed off, the final chase is revealed to be possibly only a dream, and events end rather (literally) explosively. Don't Open Till Christmas is, to repurpose a line of the film's own dialogue, a "supreme sacrifice to all the evil that Christmas is." Or: a soot-black lump of the sort of coal you don't mind discovering lodged in the toe of your stocking.


To All A Goodnight (1980) dir. David Hess

Relentlessly stupid, To All A Goodnight is a slasher with a Santa-costumed killer that is duller than just about any of the thirty-one slashers I watched back in October (and some of those were dull indeed). Its soporific qualities stem, somewhat paradoxically, from a swiftness of pace: the slasher-patented "Inciting Crime in the Past" happens in the first thirty seconds as a frazzled, wide-eyed girl is pushed over a staircase railing at a School for Girls by some others girls motivated by reasons totally obscure to me, and then, as the film segues to two years later, the body count begins racking itself up right away, with four of the principle cast dispatched by the 23-minute mark. With the film proceeding at such a clip, its nigh impossible to distinguish these characters from one another, much less begin to enjoy their eccentricities. (And there are eccentricities: the girls' favorite meal is "stew and apple pie"). Some might see the almost immediate bloodletting as a blessing, but I find within it none of the amusing creativity or brutality that's bursting from similarly paced slashers, like the above Don't Open Till Christmas. We receive primarily slittings and stabbings until the final act, wherein we're gifted an inspired but sloppy stealth lynching, two deaths by propeller, and (in the film's best corny visual pun) a shower head

Somewhat pleasantly mystifying are the strange musical chairs love affairs between the film's teenaged protagonists. Each pair established in the first half breaks off (without discussion or squabble) and reconfigures with new partners in the second, with none seeming to care much who ends up in bed with whom. Let's call them enlightened lovers. Similarly, I also appreciated the unusual choice to have the, ahem, sexually experienced stock female character, Melody (Linda Gentile), actively court the sexually disinterested nerdy stock male, Alex (Forrest Swanson), without belittling, teasing, or being turned off by his obvious virginity. It's a touch of bizarre sweetness in otherwise emotionless heap. (Though this is one heck of a flirtatious line for her to employ: "It's time for your advanced course in relativity").

This film is the sole directorial credit on exploitation actor David Hess's resume. You would expect the foaming-at-the-mouth psychopath from Last House on the Left (1972) and House on the Edge of the Park (1980) to turn out a film with sharper teeth. Instead, a bewildering amount of To All a Goodnight takes place while characters stand in front of the open refrigerator looking for milk or beer. Furthermore, the only holiday content present in the film is the killer's (or is that killers'?) Santa Claus costume, which I suppose is only present because it was on the clearance rack at the Slasher Depot. The film expends not one iota of mental effort attempting to tie into the holiday otherwise (there isn't even any snow on the ground!), so I shan't either.

Ready your advent calendars for next time: Home for the Holidays (1972), The Thirteenth Day of Christmas (1985), and Silent Night, Bloody Night (1974).