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).

No comments:

Post a Comment