Thursday, December 22, 2011

Santa's Dark Side

There is definitely a darker side to the legends surrounding Santa Claus. From the earliest tales of St. Nicholas, to the modern depiction, the generous spirit of the mythical figure has often been coupled with something a tad bit scary. In many countries, St. Nick is accompanied by Krampus, a devil-like creature who punishes the "bad" children. The punishments vary from region to region, but they include everything from leaving switches for parents to beat their children with, to dragging the youngsters to a cave to be eaten! Other countries, like France, have characters like Père Fouettard (big thanks to Guillaume for hipping me to this particular legend), who whips the naughty children. In most North American homes, Krampus and the like are unknown, but the image of Santa as a benevolent, jolly soul is still tempered with stories of him watching the children, only rewarding those who have been good. Those that make the "naughty" list are said to receive lumps of coal. While Santa Claus is generally viewed as a wonderful, kind figure by most children, the fact that he is always watching and judging them is still ever-present in their minds. He operates as both kindly gift-giver and bogeyman for the children who believe in him.

In most of the films I've spotlighted recently, the image of Santa has been used by a murderous madman to bring terror to the "naughty" people. It isn't too hard to see that the reason this works so well is that the subconcious idea of Kris Kringle punishing the evil-doers is ingrained in most of us. Santa is used to keep children in line, to keep them from disobeying parents and other authority figures. As we turn to adults, we tend to remember the happier aspects of Santa, and just chuckle a bit at the other stuff. To children, however, it's a deadly serious business. A part of us, that "inner-child", still remembers looking forward to Santa's visit...but being a tad bit afraid that we just hadn't been good enough in the preceding year.

This brings me to my final film that I will examine this Christmas season. The Finnish movie, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is incredibly unique and original. It's like watching a festive, Christmas version of The Thing! This is NOT a movie that I want to spoil for viewers in the slightest. Part of the enjoyment of this flick is seeing how the story unfolds. At its core, Rare Exports is more dark comedy and satire than it is horror film, but it still has a gruesome overtone. The story is simple: A scientific dig near the Lapland region of Finland uncovers a burial mound of some sort. Soon, reindeer in the area are found slaughtered in the hundreds, which leads the locals who live off of the beasts to set a trap for whatever is preying on them. What they capture appears to be...Santa Claus. Within the mythos of this film, the source of the Santa legend can actually be traced to an old Finnish folklore tale about an evil, demonic creature who preys on those who have not been on their best behaviour all year. Basically, this flick folds the Krampus and St. Nicholas legends into one character. Krampus is never mentioned by name, but there is little doubt that he is the inspiration for the images seen in a book the young protagonist finds that educates him (and the audience) to Santa's "true" nature.

While I wouldn't recommend this story for young children (or any of the one's I've listed, for that matter), this flick really isn't all that scary. There is some gore and a few creepy moments, but all-in-all the tone is darkly humorous. Onni Tommila, who plays Pietari(the young hero of the piece), is absolutely fantastic is this. In fact, the acting in this one is really top-notch all around. I totally bought the depiction of these characters as living in a remote village in the northern wilds of Finland. There is a no-nonsense attitude that is conveyed by men who have to face the realities of nature all the time. These are not jaded, cynical city folk. They are accepting of the nature of their plight, and take action immediately, no matter how absurd the idea of dealing with a creature from folklore might be.

In essence, this film works because it juxtaposes the darker aspect of the Santa myth from it's more popular depictions. Here, the "jolly" side of Santa is downplayed in favor of his role as punisher of those deserving of such. Rare Exports plays off of the folklore, adding in its own twists and turns. I've read a couple of reviews that have reviewed RE as an "anti-Christmas" movie, but I don't think that's the point. I think it is actually taking a jab at the commercialism and watering-down of the Christmas iconography. Ironically, the figure of St. Nicholas was historically one of kindness and generosity to the less-fortunate. In our modern society, Santa Claus has been co-opted by corporations to sell their wares. He is, in some instances, the embodiment of greed and gluttony in our society. I'm not trying to say that everyone who enjoys the character of Santa subsribes to this depiction, in fact I'd argue that most don't, but it is undeniable that the sweet, generous Father Christmas is often used as a symbol of crass commericalism. One need only turn on the television during the months leading up to Christmas to see dozens of adds in regular rotation that show Santa Claus endorsing various products. The final act of the film, which I will NOT spoil here, brings this point home in a rather brilliant way.

I heartily recommend Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale to those of you with a dark sense of humor. If you're sick of seeing Santa hocking automobiles or fast food, then pick this movie up! It's an absolutely wonderful, creepy and funny flick!

For more about Krampus:

For info about Père Fouettard:

(sorry. I've never been able to get those HTML links-within-a-text things to work!)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What Fun It Is To Ride and Sing a Slaying Song Tonight!!

Santa's Slay is an utterly ridiculous movie. The story is beyond goofy, the characters are cartoonish and the kills are completely over-the-top. I freakin' LOVED this movie!

The plot itself is fairly telling of the tone of the film. Turns out Santa is actually the son of Satan! 2000 years ago, he made a bet with an angel and lost. As a result, Santa has had to spend the intervening years being good and bringing cheer to children. Now, the time agreed upon in the wager is up, so Santa gets to return to doing what he loves: murdering people! Former pro wrassler turned "actor", Bill Goldberg, plays the aforementioned Santa, and boy is he a hoot! The director, David Steiman, never treats the material as anything near serious, and the result is a truly hilarious "horror" film. It is campy, silly and downright fun. Sure, it has all the prerequisites of a slasher film: gratuitous violence, plenty of bare breasts and bad acting, but it's all executed in such a way that it is impossible to take it as anything but tongue-in-cheek.

Oh, I should definitely mention the cast here: James Caan, Fran Drescher, Chris Kattan and Rebecca Gayheart all have cameos in the opening segment, and greats like Robert Culp and Saul Rubinek have sizable roles. Some may read a deeper meaning into the fact that the bulk of the cast is Jewish, thinking that perhaps it's an anti-Christmas statement, but I think that's going a bit far. I'm sure the actors had a bit of fun with this fact, but I don't think this flick should be construed as having anything approaching "depth". If anyone is in doubt of this, Santa even uses a Menora to kill off an explicitly Jewish there!

While this film shares a certain motif with the past two films I reviewed (killer Santa), this one is definitely a departure in tone. It ultimately has more in common with a Wile E Coyote cartoon than it does either of those films. Oh, there are plenty of bloody impalements, decapitations and what-not, but this Santa is a wise-cracking, demented killer who enjoys his work. He isn't tortured by his childhood, and he doesn't discriminate between "naughty" or "nice". He's an equal opportunity murderer! In a nutshell, if you enjoy a bit of campy, violent, brainless fun, then check out Santa's Slay! All I want for a sequel to this flick!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Terror in Toyland

Christmas Evil is one weird film. I mean, really freakin' weird. So weird that it's John Water's favorite Christmas movie (no, seriously!). Originally released in 1980 as You Better Watch Out...(in some markets as Terror in Toyland), it was re-released and re-titled in 1984 to cash in on the success of Silent Night, Deadly Night. In all honesty, it really has little in common with that film, other than being a Christmas-themed horror flick.

As I understand it, there is a director's cut DVD that is quite good, with a sparkling transfer. I didn't see that one. In fact, the DVD I have I picked up for two-dollars at a used bookstore. As befitting such a cheap purchase, the transfer on this disc looks like it was struck from a print that was pulled out of a landfill, drug through raw sewage, and then left to sit on a dusty shelf for about 10 years. Yeah, it's almost unwatchable. Still, I found myself somewhat enchanted by its bizzare, off-kilter tone.

The story itself is rather hard to explain without getting majorly spoilerrific, so I'll keep it simple. Our Holiday killer this time is Harry (hey, this is the first Christmas horror film I've reviewed where the killer isn't named Billy! I was getting a little concerned that maybe I should avoid anyone named Billy around the Holidays...which would make things a bit awkward, since I have a sibling with that name. Still, I'll be keeping an eye on him if he's hanging out near the knives this Christmas. I digress). Harry sees his folks getting it on under the mistletoe as a kid. While it would be traumatic for most kids to see their folks getting frisky, it's especially bad for Harry, possibly due to the fact that his Dad is dressed up like Santa, and his mom is the mom from Home Improvement. Harry doesn't start humming "I Saw Mommy Schtuping Santa Claus", but instead goes upstairs and cuts himself with a shard of glass from a snowglobe, making him one of the original Emo kids. I wondered what the hell this had to do with anything, but apparently it shattered his belief in Kris Kringle...leading to him becoming obsessed with Christmas. Harry decides to do everything in his power to become a REAL Santa. A noble goal, but Harry is a bit off his rocker, so it doesn't go well for anyone.

This flick really isn't a true slasher film, and it barely qualifies as a horror film. While it naturally draws comparisons to Silent Night, Deadly Night, with its themes of guy-dressed-like-Santa-who-punishes-naughty-folk, the execution of these flicks couldn't be more different. It's really something of a psychological thriller with a heavy dose of black comedy thrown in for good measure. The story itself could be read as an indictment of the over-commercialization of Christmas, which is a bit deeper than your average hack-'em-up. Like SNDN, we feel a bit of pity for our killer here. In this case, Harry seems like a likeable guy who really just means well. It isn't his fault he's nuttier than squirrel poo. Brandon Maggart plays Harry beautifully, and the majority of this film is really just his character mentally deteriorating. We watch as his attachment to reality completely disintegrates over the course of the story. There is very little blood, and not much in the way of actual on-screen deaths here, but that's okay. The surreal tone of the film is better for it. If you're a gore-hound, or looking for something that will scare the crap outta ya...this really isn't what you're looking for.

This flick also boast one of the most bizzare endings I've ever seen of any film...ever! I'll leave it to you to see for yourself, but it'll have you scratching your head, wondering if you actually just saw that. did. You aren't experiencing hallucinations from that gawd-awful fruitcake you decided to take a bite of, even though it has to be at least twelve years old. It was every bit as strange as you thought it was.

All in all, I have to say I enjoyed this truly strange little movie. It's definitely not your typical Christmas tale, nor is it a conventional horror flick. It's a unique, surreal story that you'll be thinking about for years to come! Watch it, and then you can brag to your friends "y'know, I just saw the WEIRDEST Christmas movie ever"! You can then make them sit through it and watch their reactions. Holiday fun for everyone!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An Old-Fashioned Slay Ride

The late 70's and early 80's were filled with all sorts of holiday-themed slasher flicks. With the success of the original Halloween, a whole host of imitators sprung up in its wake. Friday the 13th led the pack, and when that was also a smash hit, pretty much every holiday was fair game for its own slasher. Everything from April Fool's Day to Valentine's Day had a low-budget hack-and-slash. As I stated in a previous entry, Christmas actually has more than any other. While it wasn't the first, the most notorious of these is Silent Night, Deadly Night.

When ads first started to run for this film, the collective reaction from Middle-America was one of complete shock, disgust and revulsion. The PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) picketed the theaters, and organized boycotts. Why? Well, it might have something to do with the ad campain featuring someone who appears to be Jolly Ol' Saint Nick on a murderous rampage. Critics Gene Siskell & Roger Ebert even went so far as to list, on their syndicated TV program At The Movies, the names of the producers,director & studio, while intoning "shame". Naturally, all this controversy made Silent Night, Deadly Night a huge hit (before it was pulled by its distributor, it was actually out-grossing the then-newly released A Nightmare On Elm St). So, was it worth all the outrage? Of course not.

Now, make no mistake, this flick is just WRONG on so many levels, although most horror fans will enjoy that about it. The tradtional, iconic imagery of Christmas, usually associated with innocence and childlike wonder, is completely subverted in every way imaginable. In many ways it's a typical slasher, following the formula almost to a "T" (it even has Linnea Quigley and her breasts, frequent stars of 80's horror in their own right). Where it deviates, however, is what makes this one stand out from the pack.

The film opens with a little boy named Billy, on a trip with his family to see his grandfather. Turns out Grandpa is in a mental asylum (always a great place to take children). Grandpa, being a rather sick bastard, scares the bejeezus out of little Billy by telling him Santa will severely punish anyone who has been naughty on Christmas Eve. Naturally, this gives the youngster a bit of trepidation about the idea of meeting up with ol' Kris Kringle. As fate would have it, the family is carjacked later that a guy in a Santa suit. Billy sees the rape of his mother, and brutal slaying of both parents, by someone he believes to be Santa. Yeah, it warps him just a tad.

Billy and his brother wind up in an orphanage run by a nun who is pretty much the epitome of Catholic guilt. She teaches the kiddos that punishment is a good thing. Years later, he gets himself a job at a toy store. When the store's Santa is injured during the height of the Christmas rush, Billy is put in the Santa suit. I won't go any farther into the spoiler-zone here, but you can probably guess what happens at this point.

The very fact that Billy is given such a in-depth "origin" is one of the things that set this film apart from the typical slasher of the era. In fact, Billy is the focus of the narrative, and the audience feels a sort of pity for him. That isn't to say that we cheer his murderous spree on (with the exception of a couple of douche-bag characters that every slasher has to have), but we do feel some empathy for this guy. He's a complete product of his upbringing, a sort of "perfect storm" of madness. It is a bit far-fetched, but not by much. What makes this flick so disturbing is the fact that the images most of us associate with pleasant childhood memories are presented here as Billy's triggers. They bring terror to him, and set him on the path to a complete psychotic break.

Now, I'm not trying to claim that Silent Night, Deadly Night is some form of high art, or a brilliant film that examines the human psyche. In the end, it's just a slasher film. It's a low-budget affair, with middle-grade acting at best. Still, there is something oddly gripping about it. The story follows a logical progression, and delivers some truly good frights along the way. It is NOT something for the faint of heart, or for anyone looking for a "feel good" movie. It's a nasty little film, with a generous dose of sex, brutal violence and horrifying imagery. If this is your cup of egg nog, then I recommend giving it a watch!

And here, for your amusement, is the original trailer that stirred up so much controversy to begin with:

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas

If you're looking for a Christmas movie with a little less cheer and a little more fear, Black Christmas is the flick for you! As I've previously blogged, it has been cited by John Carpenter and Debra Hill as a huge inspiration for Halloween. Some claim it to be the first "slasher", but I feel it falls squarely into the "proto-slasher" category (i.e., it was one of the films that led to the slasher sub-genre, but doesn't completely belong to that classification). Regardless, of how you classify it, there is little doubt that it was a major influence on the stalk-and-slash fests of the late-seventies and the early-eighties.

Made in Canada in 1974, & directed by Bob Clark, this is one dark, atmospheric film. Clark would later go on to (rather ironically) direct the Yule Season classic A Christmas Story. In some ways, these two films represent the two different sides of Christmas. While many choose to ignore the darker aspects of the Season, this film pretty much wallows in it!

The premise is simple: a group of sorority sisters are being stalked by a madman during the Christmas break. The enigmatic stalker taunts the girls with obscene, disturbing phone calls. Sure, you've seen this plot a thousand times...but it originated here. Much like Psycho and Halloween, this film has been ripped-off time and again by lesser horror films (When A Stranger Calls pretty much copies entire scenes). It may not seem quite as scary to today's audience for this very reason, but it's still worth a viewing. Clark uses restraint when depicting the murders, going more for creep factor than gore. In fact, the blood is very minimal throughout.

I don't want to give too much away with spoilers, but I will say that the unseen stalker (who may or may not be named "Billy") is extremely disturbing. We never get a clear view of him, and the film leaves the audience to wonder about his motives and history. Some modern audiences won't care for such ambiguity, but I find it far more frightening. This guy doesn't NEED a motive...he's just nuts! We get lots of shots from the killer's POV (which would later become a major cliche of the slasher films, but it was rather new here), and hear his twisted, warped rants. It's a frightening glimpse into a truly sick mind.

The performances here are top-notch, with a fantastic cast. Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon and the fantastic Marian Waldman all put in amazing turns. In fact, this flick has one of the best casts of any horror film, most especially a low-budget entry from the mid-seventies!

I'm really not going to go into any more detail here. If ya like the scary stuff, or you just want a change of pace from seeing It's a Wonderful Life for the 1000th time, then do yourself a favor and watch this film! It's a true horror classic, in every sense of the word!

One word of warning: don't get this fine flick confused with the recent remake (usually referred to as Black X-Mas). While I haven't seen that film, from the reviews I've read it seems it is pretty much the opposite of this one. Definitely see this one first!

I'll leave you with the original US trailer. It was originally released in the States as Silent Night, Evil Night. When the film tanked, they went back to the original title. (It also got another title when it was shown on TV of Stranger in the House)

Friday, December 9, 2011

The 12 Slays of Christmas

Ahhh...the Christmas Season! It brings to one's mind visions of sugarplum fairies, fresh snow, the twinkling of lights...and Santa chasing folks with a bloody axe!!! What, this isn't YOUR idea of Christmas? Well, perhaps it should be!

A few years back I decided to watch a film that I had always heard was a classic of the horror genre, Black Christmas. This flick is often cited as a "proto-slasher", with some even proclaiming it to be the first of the sub-genre. John Carpenter and Debra Hill both cited it as a huge influence on them when they were formulating Halloween, and it continually cropped up on horror fan's websites as a "must see". While I'll save my review for another blog, I will agree that it was a true classic, on par with Hitchcock's Psycho. This, in turn, reminded me of another Christmas themed horror film I'd seen previews for as a kid, Silent Night, Deadly Night. In the process of searching for information about this flick, I discovered a whole little sub-genre-within-a-subgenre: The Christmas Slasher. In fact, I would go so far as to say there is just as many tales of terror for the Yule Season as there is for Halloween (in fact, it's entirely possible there are MORE).

Here is a list of those films I discovered. I don't claim for this to be all-inclusive, by any means. I'm sure there are plenty of Holiday Horror flicks I've yet to stumble across:

Black Christmas [aka: Silent Night, Evil Night, Stranger in the House] (1974)

Silent Night, Bloody Night (1974)

Christmas Evil [aka: You Better Watch Out, Terror in Toyland] (1980)

Silent Night, Deadly Night [aka: Slay Ride] (1984)

Don't Open Till Christmas (1984)

The Thirteenth Day of Christmas (1985)

Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987)

Elves (1989)

Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989)

Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1990)

Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991)

Satan Claus (1996)

Santa Claws (1996)

Jack Frost (1997)

Feeders 2: Slay Bells (1998)

Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman (2000)

Nutcracker (2001)

The Christmas Season Massacre (2001)

Christmas Nightmare (2001)

One Hell of a Christmas (2002)

Santa's Slay (2005)

Films to Keep You Awake: The Christmas Tale (2005)

The Gingerdead Man (2005)

Two Front Teeth (2006)

12-24 (2008)

Gingerdead Man 2: Passion of the Crust (2008)

Silent Night, Zombie Night (2009)

Deadly Little Christmas (2009)

Bikini Bloodbath Christmas (Video 2009)

Saint (2010)

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

Gingerdead Man 3: Saturday Night Cleaver (2011)

That's a helluva lot of Christmas Fear! I've only seen a small portion of these, but I'm extremely intrigued by the idea of it. What is it about Christmas that lends itself to horror films? Is this a backlash against the over-hyped holiday commercialism? Perhaps it's an expression of disgust at the way Christmas seems to be eclipsing Halloween & Thanksgiving by showing up in stores a bit earlier every year? Are we looking at a way of folks dealing with all the angst and tension that Christmas seems to bring with it? Do these films simply exist as a counter-balance to all the syrupy "feel good" movies that are shown ad-nauseum around this time of year? I don't know the answer, but I'm fairly fascinated!

In the days to come, I plan to take a closer look at a few of these movies. So, pour a cup of wassail, cut a piece of pumpkin pie, and join me for the fearful festivities! Oh, and pray that Santa doesn't have you on his naughty list!