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).


  1. Black Christmas or Black X-Mas is wonderful. I love it and I find that I can skip the original during a holiday season in favor of this one. I'm being totally serious. Black X-Mas has four things going for it: 1) gore, 2) relentless energy, 3) amazing lighting, and 4) superb camerawork. Of course, the elephant in the room: no likeable characters. Nope. None. You called it right in your review, man. If the writers had given us just one scene with the sorority girls doing anything other than bickering, the movie would improve tenfold. Just a few lines of dialog between any of the girls and I would be happy. All the attention went to the villains and their back story which is fine but it's never explained how Agnes Lenz grew up into a hulking murderous man is never explained though. But yeah, I adore this film despite it's obvious missing pieces.

    1. I still love and prefer the original, but I also think that Black X-Mas is a perfect complement to it for all of the reasons you've listed above and is way better than its reputation hints at. Mayhaps I'll be revisiting it in the coming week, if I can get off my pretty piggy & punt it into the DVD player.