Saturday, December 26, 2015

Black Christmas (1974)

Bob Clark’s career has certainly gone on some interesting tangents. He started out back in the 70s with this movie, one of the first slasher horror films ever made. Later on he would make A Christmas Story and the Baby Geniuses films. So I guess he was just doing a test run with Black Christmas here. There sure are lots of different angles you can approach Christmas and youth from! This is the dark, depressing side of Christmas with characters talking about abortions.

Director: Bob Clark
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, John Saxon

Co-written with Michelle.

The film is uniquely dark and morbid. It’s just a fucked up trip all the way through, opening up with some very seedy and unsettling camera shots showing the inside of this sorority house of a bunch of college girls. Apparently, someone is stalking them, or at least living in their attic. But back in the 70s, all frat and sorority houses came with a crazy homeless stalker living in the attic. It was just the times.

The characters are all very 70s, including fat white guys with huge afros and pornstar mustaches, girls wearing bell bottom jeans and guys with mullets. One of the most entertaining has to be this house mother lady who seems to know where every hidden bottle of alcohol is in the whole house. Throughout the film, she finds bottles of alcohol in places including inside a book and inside a toilet’s pipes. Hey, that’s called resourcefulness. It’s a necessary skill.

But for the most part, these characters are good and keep the movie interesting. They have distinct personalities and they aren’t just assholes for the sake of the plot lined up to die. The film has a very personal, close-up feeling because of that, and like other 70s horror films, it’s good to actually have a real story and characters, unlike some today. Bob Clark says in one of the special features things that he wanted to create a set of characters that acted like realistic college kids. I think he succeeded. Plus, it actually passes the Bechdel Test, which is kind of cool too.

But not all is safe, as there are greater dangers afoot than having to spend the holidays alone in a sorority house - like the guy in the closet who strangles one girl with a plastic bag. She gets killed and stuffed in the attic, where - spoilers - she’s never found for the rest of the fucking movie. Meanwhile, all the girls keep getting obscene phone calls downstairs from a creepy voice that sounds like the drain pipe from a sink getting attacked with a chainsaw.

"Quiet, they're telling me I won the lottery!"

The main character is Jess, a girl who constantly is having arguments with her boyfriend about wanting an abortion, but he’s an ass who just tells her they’re getting married and she’s not having an abortion. Yeah, fuck women’s rights, right? Wrong. Right. The boyfriend, Peter is shown to be increasingly unstable, but really, it’s all a red herring - he isn’t a danger to anyone except pianos:

To be fair though, that piano did kill his whole family.

I think the added stuff about the abortion and Jess and Peter’s crumbling, obviously dysfunctional relationship adds to the movie, too. Horror movies should never just be horror and nothing else. It’s the human, real life drama that accents the horror and gives it more dimensions.

I really do like the murky, grim tone of this whole movie. It’s very opaque and tense at its darker moments. There’s a sense of horror and foreboding about it, but in a quiet, normal way - there’s nothing supernatural or schlocky going on, just a real life missing girl case and real life problems. It adds a very grounded feel, and fans of later horror movies might be a bit surprised by how “normal” everything in this movie is. Most of the movie's conflict is about the town just searching for the missing girl from the opening - that provides the framework for the rest of the story.

We do get some comedy in there, too, like the idiot cop played by Doug McGrath. One of the sorority girls tells him the new phone number for the sorority house is “fellatio,” and he believes her. Because apparently back in the 70s, nobody knew what fellatio was except for a few privileged, all-knowing individuals. It was lost in a tomb in the Mediterranean for years and unearthed by explorers in the late 1980s, far after this movie was released. I haven't seen the remake, but I do hope it at least had the characters all knowing what fellatio meant.

Unlike this palooka...

To be fair, though, that cop did have it coming - the guy is a jackass who constantly dismisses the women’s worries and fears. His initial response upon hearing that the opening kill girl is missing is to say she’s “probably just off with a boyfriend.” That is one of the film’s underlying themes. The way this guy acts, along with Peter’s domineering attitude toward Jess, points out the ways women are often not taken seriously and marginalized in these tiny ways - it's a societal attitude. So then this becomes a horror movie with something to say.

There is one guy who listens though - John Saxon playing the chief, presumably before he gets transferred to Elm Street in a few years. Saxon is a genuinely good detective who wants to help, and he does. Unfortunately, to track the calls they have to listen to more of those fucking crazy phone calls in the first place. Which, frankly, isn’t the Christmas Carols they wanted - though some would argue it’s all the same either way. I can't tell you how many times I've had carolers come to my door and start shrieking like banshees about killing babies. Ahh the holidays...

The movie just gets more and more claustrophobic, making use of the house’s dark corners and the various characters disappearing in the house’s folds as if they were just magicked away. The violence is minimal and the movie is effective for that. It would kind of ruin the dark, grim, morally grey atmosphere to have a bunch of blood splattering all over. Which is why, I guess, they just showed the killer’s eye.

I guess it’s also rude to say “the killer’s eye.” What I meant is the eye of whatever stage hand or sound effect guy they cast in shadows for those shots. I’m fairly sure they weren’t actually killers. But then again, maybe the killer just actually looks like this:

Yes, literally just a black silhouette with one eye. It's a birth deformity. He gets a lot of strange looks. He's got a face only a mother could love...

The movie creeps toward its macabre end. Jess is cornered in the basement after finding out that the calls have been coming from inside the house. Peter shows up, who she now is almost convinced is the killer. Because he seems to be acting strange, she kills him. Which really is in the spirit of Christmas, even if only because he died wearing a Christmas sweater.

Then the movie ends rather ambiguously, with Jess asleep, exhausted from all she's had to deal with, and then the phone ringing at the end like it has been all movie, signaling that they probably never actually caught the killer and Peter was innocent. The killer, it seems, is still on the loose. At least until the police look in the attic and find him and his victims! So I guess it maybe isn't such a dark ending after all. It'll be fine.

Or maybe the police just never check the attic and the killer gets away. It's open to interpretation!

The film is just a classic. I love how murky, strange and understated it is. There's no cheese or over the top gore here, and the story is always mysterious and cool. The killer is never even fucking revealed, which could probably be frustrating. Personally, though, I'll just go with what lead actress Olivia Hussey said in an interview on my Special Edition DVD: "I think today, they show too much in films. I think a lot of times, like Hitchcock - you don't really see anything, but you have the idea that you've seen. The thought of some man standing behind a door, peering at you, is a lot more frightening than watching somebody. You see the bodies once it's happened, but you don't actually see it happening. To me, that's a lot more terrifying, the thought of something."

The way it takes such a wholesome time of year and perverts it is ghoulishly fun. There's quite a bit of humor in this, but it all meshes well with the story and doesn't feel intrusive, nor does it block out the horror. It's not a horror comedy, it's just a horror movie that doesn't feel the need to eschew other basic tenets of storytelling - humor is part of our daily lives, so it makes sense to include it in a movie to humanize it a bit. More modern horror movies could learn from this - add a bit of comedy or drama into it to humanize the characters and make the audience give a shit, because comedy and drama are the building blocks for everything else, the over-arching pillars. You can't just be horror. Black Christmas knew that and was scarier for it.

The film moves slow, and fans of more modern horror movies may not "get" this. But for those who love old, gritty 70s flicks, this should be right up your alley if you don't know it already. It's just a well told story and an essential horror movie.

And personally, it's my kind of Christmas movie. I've never really been one to rewatch all the normal, happy Christmas movies over and over again. I always liked the darker, stranger and more eccentric side of the holidays, the subversive and bizarre movies that come out and say hey, fuck it, it's Christmas and we're not afraid to go dark. The holidays are such a universal and shared experience in our culture, and there isn't one single way to enjoy Christmas. Oftentimes, for all the beauty and wonderment, there's a lot of frustration, annoyance, uncertainty and insecurity around the holidays as well, and movies like this do kind of show that, in a way. That's really what this movie symbolizes for me, the dark heart and the other side of the holidays. So go see it and enjoy a devilish Christmas good time.

Images copyright of their original owners, we own none of them.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

You're Next (2013)

As the holidays is a time for sitting around a table with people you're not sure you like, I figured I'd take a crack at one of the movies that shows exactly what it's like to sit at a table with people you hate and then die from an arrow to the throat. You know, like you do. This is You're Next.

Director: Adam Wingard
Starring: Sharni Vinson, Nicholas Tucci

Co-written with Colin.

This is apparently a part of a new subgenre called “mumblegore,” which I can only imagine is referring to the endless mumbling every single character has in place of real dialogue. As You're Next doesn't have much mumbling and instead just has regular, shitty dialogue, I have to say this is a bad example of mumblegore. Then again I might have the wrong definition of what mumblegore is. But I'm always right, so I doubt that.

I rated this movie the worst of 2013 back on my list for that year. It was nearly unwatchable when I didn't know what to expect. But now that I know to set my expectations lower than the water level of Florida for this, I don't have the same frothing hatred for it. Plus I teamed up with Cinema Freaks alum and sometimes-contributor The Observer for this, like old times, so it was a little better that way.

The movie begins with a scene of characters we don't know fucking. As an added bonus of worthlessness, they aren't the main characters, and we don't know their names and never see them again. But the opening does provide us with one of the staples of any erotic porno: the erotic orange juice pouring scene!


Anyway, they're killed off, and we then move on to our main annoyances – a bunch of people meeting up at this big house for their parents' anniversary dinner. The mother and father get there first and things are already weird. Like all good horror movies, there's a pointless and dragged out scene where the father searches upstairs for the source of a mysterious noise that scared the mother, only to find out it was his weenie of a son Crispian rummaging around up there.

"Hey Dad, I know how much you liked being jump scared, so of course I had to do it this way!"

Red herring, awesome! How did Crispian get up there without them seeing him come in downstairs? Did he scale up the wall like Spider-Man? Was there a secret passage in this house? I mean, it does kind of look like the house from the Clue board games.

The main character is Erin, an Australian girl who's dating Crispian. They lay around later and spew soulless exposition to lay out the very easy story – their parents are having an anniversary and all Crispian's siblings are coming the next day. That's really the only reason to film this scene, to info-dump that on us. Uh, great job? I think you should go back to just mumbling everything, movie.

The family gets there, and it's basically all downhill from there. They argue over silly things like how unprofessional it is for Crispian, a teacher, to date Erin, who used to be one of his students. His brother is a real dick about it and they erupt into a full scale battle over it immediately, ruining their parents' anniversary like champs!

Fortunately, the parents were used to their children being insufferable morons.

As that apparently was enough character development to last an entire film, we're just done with all that shit now, and it's time for people to start dying. A bunch of unknown killers start shooting arrows into the house, which is frankly a blessing in disguise for these miserable people. They kill a few people, and the survivors huddle together and attempt to plan a way out. One of the girls volunteers, saying she's a very fast runner, but then she runs in stupid slow-mo cam and gets hit by barbed wire in the neck the second she opens the doors!

That isn't a camera trick - she just runs really slow and lies about being fast.

So it was a terrible idea, but at least that scene was pretty funny. So there was that. There's another killer waiting under the bed, who stabs the mom. He was apparently there for quite some time, and he still can't kill the rest of them. I guess it's just more conveniently dramatic that he did it this way. Of course no one else finds him and there's nothing that comes of this aside from the mom's death. What, did you want something actually interesting to happen? Pfft.

But to be fair, we DID need a hokey title drop scene!

The next thirty-odd minutes is just them scampering around in the house and sometimes dying. The fact that the characters wear animal masks really is pretty dumb. Somehow, Jason Voorhees always came off as somewhat menacing, but these guys are just clowns. There's no mystique, even before you get to the twist later. It just looks like the killers were lazy and had no imagination, so they grabbed the worst, cheapest masks at Party City.

It's revealed somewhere in the middle of all this that the main girl Erin was actually a child of a survivalist who learned how to fight and survive attacks just like this as a child. It's kind of glossed over, but the idea of a kid growing up in that environment is actually pretty cool. I certainly would have liked to see that instead of the movie we ended up getting!

Seriously, though, it's really just shoehorned in there because they needed SOMEONE to fight back, or else we'd have no movie! It's like “hey, we can't just have them kill everyone off, the movie will be over in ten minutes.” “Okay, whatever, throw in a survivalist character. Make her a hot chick, too.” Movie saved!

The best part (read: worst part) of this is that she didn't tell her boyfriend Crispian yet, for no reason other than that it would conflict with the plot twist of him being a killer later, and if he'd known she was a badass fighter, he never would have brought her, and we wouldn't have a fucking movie. Good writing! High five!

Then it's revealed, I guess, that the whole thing has been a plot by some of the family members to get their parents' inheritance money. You know how it goes, sometimes you're down on cash, and you need to stage an all-night-long murder fest in which everyone gets shot by arrows. Fucking please. There was no other way to enact this plan? You HAD to put on dumb animal masks and shoot everyone with arrows one by one? I guess poisoning their food or just hiring a guy to walk in with a gun would have been too much. But really they just didn't do those things because then there would have been no movie.

There's just no humanity to these characters, and no reason for them to act the way they do. I'm not saying we need a long exploration of their motivations, but what do we get instead of any development? A scene of the brother's goth girlfriend asking him to fuck her next to his mom's dead body on the bed? Yeah, I can see what they were going for now. I take it all back.

The rest of the movie doesn't even really try. It's full of dumpster-bin cliché like the henchmen thugs working themselves into a self-righteous lather when one of their own gets killed. HOW DARE YOU FIGHT BACK WHEN WE'RE TRYING TO KILL YOU!!! Maybe your job security isn't that good on this job after all!

The chase scenes are pretty goofy, too. One highlight for us was the guy who tries to step through a window. He sees the one row of nails on a wooden board, goes 'okay, I can do it,' and then steps down without even looking and impales his own foot on another nail. He then starts galumphing around and probably making it worse, because what horror movie has NOT been helped by comparisons to a Looney Tunes cartoon?

Just add the Roadrunner giving the audience a wink and it'll be gold.

Then there's the scene where Erin kills a guy with a blender, which totally is something she was taught in survivalist camp, I'm sure. That's just basic 101 stuff.

Oh, and the height of ridiculousness has to be when it's revealed that Crispian was a part of the whole thing, as the movie had kept him out of action for the last 40 minutes and made you wonder. He gives a very stupid, shitty speech in the most callous way possible about how he just wanted money so they could go on vacation, and c'maaaaaaaaahhhnnn, babe, don't you see why this was a good idea?! He really sounds like he's talking about not tipping a server at a restaurant, when he's actually saying he hired some guys to kill most of his family for money. It's just about the dumbest thing I've seen in the movie yet, which is no small feat.

"Hey, I'm a real catch, I killed my family so we could get some extra pocket money. On second thought, saying it out loud, maybe this was a bad idea. Man am I dead inside!"

So she kills Crispian, and then the cops come in and shoot Erin too, because I guess they hated having clean work performance records and wanted to be total fuck-ups. This scene was kinda like Night of the Living Dead, though! In...pretty much the only weird comparison to that classic flick that You're Next will ever draw.

This is a piss poor movie with nothing to recommend, frankly. Bad characters, no good scares, no atmosphere, and oh yeah, a tired home invasion plot with a weak twist at the end. There's really no exploration of the theme they seemed to be going for, this whole idea of a Great Gatsby-esque profane wealth, and what wealth does to people, makes them crazy and moral-less, et cetera. That seemed like the basic idea they wanted to get across. But instead, it was just a shitty home invasion movie, and you never really gleaned any point.

It's basically complete shit. Shame, because it seemed like it could have been good, based on the people involved, but I guess you can't win 'em all. Anyway, at least your holiday family dinners won't be as bad in comparison.

Images copyright of their original owners; we own none of them.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Cinema Freaks LIVE: Krampus (2015)

WARNING! WARNING! Yuletide spoilers abound!

If your kids believe in Santa, the best thing to do if you're a normal parent is probably just let them keep believing in Santa. But if you're a terrible (read: hilarious and awesome) parent, you just tell them if they're bad, the Krampus will show up and kill us all, and it will be the worst Christmas since Uncle Jerry pissed in the mashed potatoes last year.

Director: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Emjay Anthony, Adam Scott, Krista Stadler

Co-written with Michelle.

This is Krampus, guys. Let's dive right in with a podcast:

Michelle and I saw this movie, by the director of Trick 'R Treat Michael Dougherty, which means he is trying to monopolize the holidays with horror movies. And that is a cause I can really get behind. Fuck Toys for Tots, give money to this guy so he can make more movies.

We both liked it. It's about this mythical beast called Krampus, a monster from Alpine folklore that punishes bad children at the holidays, and which I think is the much better alternative to Elf on a Shelf. Anyway, it is summoned to a house where a young boy named Max is dissatisfied with Christmas. He and his huge, dysfunctional family, stuck inside during a blizzard, have to fend off an assorted array of weird, bizarre creatures in the dark. It's all pretty wacky. But compared to red Starbucks cups, I have to say this isn't the worst slight against Christmas this year.

It's a horror comedy that actually has both horror and comedy – what a fucking revelation, right? That doesn't seem hard, but I guess I just don't understand the subtle nuances of where movies like The Visit and Thankskilling failed. Those films had terrible comedy and were terrible movies. Krampus works because it's funny and knows when to switch it out for the actual horror. Neither one feels half assed or phoned in, so it all works together and makes a better movie. The way all the characters bicker and fight is sort of like National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation style. Like Christmas Vacation, too, there is a kind of softening of the characters, too, and they're never portrayed solely as loathsome douchebags like a lot of terrible movies do. They do have a humanity to them.

And also like Christmas Vacation, a monster shows up and kills everyone at the party.

...what? Did I get it mixed up with a different movie?

The horror elements are quite well done, rife with wintry darkness as they are, and the production value is outstandingly high. Finally we have a big budget horror film that uses it to craft some really good scenery and atmospherics. The creatures also look good. In terms of living Jack in the Boxes with vampire fangs and demonic teddy bears, this movie definitely has some of the better ones of those I've seen. A lot of the scares take place inside the house, which is normal for the holidays, but the movie manages to make use of the house well.

So the whole movie basically happens because main character Max wrote this letter to Santa pleading to have a good Christmas without anybody fighting. When his family found the letter and several cousins made fun of him, Max tore it up and threw the pieces out the window. Because he lost faith in Christmas, the Krampus showed up to kill his family, mostly through action scenes so dark that I suspect the power went out in real life on the set.

Now, at the end, Max faces the Krampus – looking like Santa if he spent some time living off the wild of the Everglades – and says he takes back everything and wants to revert things to how they used to be. I was really hoping here that the Krampus would do it, and everyone would be like 'Max, this was the worst Christmas ever, thanks for nothing you little bastard.'

But no, actually the Krampus just drops Max into a flaming hole in the ground too, which is awesome, and the way every Christmas movie should end. The movie doesn't actually end there, which Michelle and I found disappointing, but the actual ending - involving a macabre dream sequence of sorts - was fitting for the dark fairytale-esque nature of the film.

The film is skips along with a gleeful, evil sense of fun. It's a perversion of everything about the holiday is about, and that's great. Though, I do have to say it's kind of funny when you think about it. The Krampus kills people who don't believe in Christmas. That could be stretched, in a very liberal way, to people who want to take the Christ out of Christmas. You could make the argument that he is the ultimate protector of the holiday. Christian rights groups should be loving this guy! He should be their new poster boy.

We both liked the way this movie was a big mainstream horror flick that didn't suck. It isn't cliche, it has a cool idea and a lot of energy. It's a good movie, and it actually is not an indie flick like other luminary films like It Follows or The Babadook. I like that it's this wide-released, big horror movie that isn't a sack of shit. That warms my icy heart. Horror isn't dead, and Krampus is good. Merry pre-Christian Christmas.

Images copyright of their original owners, we own none of them.