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).

No comments:

Post a Comment