Yuletide Terror – Christmas Evil (1980)

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This post is part of my Yuletide Terror season where I am reviewing various alternative Christmas movies.

Christmas Evil, sometimes also referred to as You Better Watch Out, or the completely irrelevant title Trouble in Toyland, is one of the more obscure Christmas horror movies out there, but over time it has gained a cult status, with its fans including controversial director John Waters who has declared it “the greatest Christmas movie ever made”. Certainly a big statement to live up to. Does it manage to, and does it deserve its cult status?

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I had to put an image of the split focus shot just because it’s cool

The film is often marketed as though it is a typical 80’s slasher. I went in expecting silly festive themed kills and hoping for nothing more than to be entertained. This in my opinion is a huge injustice. It turns out to be a really very dark character study taking the form of a slasher horror. In fact, the kills are quite few and far between, albeit very nasty when they do come around. The story follows Harry, who as a child witnessed his Dad dressed as Santa groping his Mum which causes some Christmas-related trauma in the young boy’s mind resulting in a twisted obsession with Christmas when he is a middle-aged man. Living alone in his permanently decorated apartment, like some sort of self-styled Santa he keeps watch on the children in his neighborhood, noting down their activities in his naughty or nice books. He also works in a toy factory; he’s by far the most enthusiastic employee but this is both mocked and taken advantage of by his co-workers. This Christmas he cracks entirely and he goes on a spree dressed as Santa, simultaneously dishing out gifts to children and getting gruesome revenge on those who have wronged him.

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I could make a joke about sliding down a  chimney but this is a classy site

This is a premise that could have gotten very silly in the wrong hands if overdone, but this film doesn’t take that route, instead risking being boring. Many scenes depicting Harry’s descent into madness are uncomfortably long and surprisingly understated. Far from being boring though, these drawn out scenes display the brilliant performance by Brandon Maggart; one scene in particular sees him cheerfully humming a Christmas tune to a little toy soldier. As he considers his revenge on a Co-worker who humiliated him the tune turns more and more dark and angry until, in his frustration, he breaks the toy. On paper it’s a very uneventful scene filmed in one static shot but Maggart’s performance makes it so powerful that I still get a chill thinking about it some days after seeing the film. He is able to switch from jolly Father Christmas-esque chuckling to empty, self-loathing scowl in a terrifying instant and I never felt his insanity was overdone to the point that it can become unintentionally funny, like many horror movies have a habit of, and it is certainly never played for laughs, even if the movie in general does have a fair share of dark tongue-in-cheek humor.

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The budget isn’t THAT low, it’s supposed to be a painted van

As would be expected, the madness grows as the film goes on, yet it never loses focus on the characters, also including Harry’s younger brother & his family. Everything builds to a crescendo that provides the film with what I think is actually one of my favourite movie endings. It’s a very brave choice on the makers’ part as it might feel at first like a drastic shift in tone but I think it actually fits perfectly to the themes of the film. Contrary to my expectations this is not a cheesy, trashy slasher, but a genuinely excellent film that left a lasting impression on me and one that I would recommend to many people, not just those who enjoy horror movies. Whether John Waters is correct and it is truly “The greatest Christmas movie ever” is something that very much depends on your personal taste; not everyone wants such a dark and nasty story to be associated with the season, but if you’re looking for a Christmas movie that is the total opposite to what we have come to expect from the genre, then I don’t think you can get much better than Christmas Evil. Personally, I’ll take John Waters’ side and agree that it’s up there among the greatest.

9/10

Yuletide Terror – Krampus (2015)

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This review is part of my Yuletide Terror season where I am reviewing various alternative Christmas movies.

There’s a particular sub genre of horror that creates a very specific tone where you feel like you’re watching a family-friendly fantasy movie and a brutal horror at the same time. Different entries in this genre shift the balance between the fantasy fun and the more grim elements, such as the almost-family-friendly-but-a-bit-nasty Gremlins, all the way to the definitely-not-family-friendly-but-still-a-fantasy Pans Labyrinth. Either way, both of these movies remain favourites of mine in the way they touch on both my still strong childhood love of fantasy movies as well as my adult passion for horror movies. It seems to be the perfect fit, in the right hands, to make a Christmas themed movie that fits in this category, with the sentimentality of the season making a stark contrast against the darkness of horror. Michael Dougherty’s Krampus took on this challenge very recently, in 2015.

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Erm… *poke*

This fantasy/horror/comedy features Max, a little boy whose love of Christmas is tainted by the annual gathering of his dysfunctional family. When he allows his ‘Christmas spirit’ to die, as the rest of his family’s has long since done, it leaves room for Krampus, the dark alternate to Santa Claus to pay a visit. With a storyline that could have easily been drawn from a dark children’s book rather than a horror screenplay the film chooses the path of a true horror movie, with Krampus’ gifts to the family, and his eventual eventual visit being the centre of many gruesome setpieces, featuring awesome practical effects by Peter Jackson’s WETA workshop. Krampus’ ‘little helpers’ have some of the most original, creepy creature designs I’ve seen in a long time, and they work alongside the great visual style of the film that starts off like a perfect family Christmas movie before blending seamlessly with and morphing into pure horror movie. The cast are great, working with a script that is consistently very funny (only when it tries to be!), and actually genuinely affecting when called for. That brings me to the greatest strength of this film: despite the hilariously cynical opening sequence depicting the chaos and stress of Christmas shopping in a department store and the gory horror throughout the second and third acts, the core of this film is, without irony, a typical Christmas fable where a young boy & his family rediscover the meaning of Christmas.

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Oi nob did you get your licence in the mail yeah?

The plot suffers from the typical half-way lag when it reaches the the “we have to form a plan” stage, but it picks up again quickly enough to an action-packed third act that doesn’t lose track of the plot and point of the movie. It’s become almost standard in horror nowadays, after the threat has been banished and the story has come to an end, to have a tacked-on final scene where it suddenly returns with a smash cut to black and the credits roll. This scene is at best corny fun in the right hands but more often than not I find it incredibly tiring. This film however returns to the old-fashioned technique of actually having a good final surprise up its sleeve. I shall say no more of course, but the ending of this film is certainly one of the most effective in modern horror and rounds up an incredibly entertaining Christmas horror movie that doesn’t betray the cosy tone that we have come to expect from films made for this time of year while simultaneously proving to be a very effective, scary and bloody horror movie with fantastic creature design. This will remain a staple for future Christmases for me I am quite sure.

8/10

Yuletide Terror – Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

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This post is the first part of my Yuletide Terror season, featuring all sorts of ‘alternative’ Christmas movies; it’ll mainly be horror, but I’m starting with this Sci-Fi oddity from 1964

There’s a special place in most nerds’ hearts for the Sci-Fi B-Movies of the 1950′; despite the often terrible acting, and often terrible effects, and often terrible storylines there is an innocent charm and defiant inventiveness about them that is rarely matched by any other genre and/or time period of films. There are of course some excellent examples of effects (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) and some genuinely good films among this genre, but my point is that even those that fall short of the expected standard often have some lovable quality that makes them entertaining in a way that cannot be equaled. So, when this genre became rather mainstream if not over-saturated by the 1960’s it seems only natural that someone would think to make a Christmas movie in the genre. So was born Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Surely the combination of Christmas charm and B-Movie charm is a sure fire way to a cult classic? Well…

I don’t know which one we should be more afraid of…

The film’s opening credits are accompanied by the bizarre surfer rock-esque theme song performed by the Seventh Circle of Hell Children’s Choir. The few minutes the credits last ends up being somewhat like being punched in the ears repeatedly with concrete fists, but in retrospect I think that a further 80 minutes of exactly that may be more enjoyable than the film itself. These 80 minutes are stuffed with filler; people taking an uncomfortably long time to pull levers, long boring scenes of air force stock footage, and similar. However the moments that do contain a plot revolve around the inhabitants of Mars who are noticing their children become particularly despondent each year around the month of ‘Septober’ (yeah), which happens to be December on Earth. Because they are all able to watch TV transmissions from Earth (yeah) they are aware of Christmas and the excitement of Santa arriving so the Martian leader sets out to kidnap Santa and bring Christmas joy to his people’s children.

“For the last time Mr Clause; we are NOT children!”

In itself the plot allows for exactly what this says on the box; an weird, yet inventive and enjoyable Christmas-themed B-Movie; but the execution is just awful on every level without any charm or redemption. There isn’t an actor in the movie who I’d say is even acceptable; the children are unbearable, the ‘comic relief Martian’ merely waves his arms around all the time in a feeble attempt to make us laugh, while the other Martians are so flat-toned that it feels like it’s meant to make them seem scary in some way but it just makes everything they say incredibly boring (which is a real problem when they take up at least 90% of the movie). The real star should of course be Santa, but even he is played like a geriatric alcoholic who makes awkward and entirely unfunny jokes at every opportunity (even his own abduction), and who has such little wit & awareness that he ends up being saved more than a couple of times by the 8 & 10 year old children abducted from Earth alongside him who you’d think he really should be protecting.

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There’s probably a Japanese mange subculture dedicated to this

I spoke previously of poor effects in B-Movies being accepted in their own way, but this really pushes the limit. Even though my cheaply produced DVD of the movie has an awful, perhaps even VHS-sourced transfer, I could see the awful sets, botched together costumes, and don’t even get me started on the Polar Bear that is CLEARLY a man in a suit. The Martians are people wearing far-too-tight green costumes with enormous helmets sporting tubes and antennae at various angles with green/silver paint roughly smeared on their faces with a coverage that varies depending on the sweatiness of the actor. The worst effects of all are hard to pick, but perhaps it comes in the scene set in one of Mars’ great forests; a too long, panning, establishing shot suggests they were proud of the work here but some red lumps resembling tree branches with fake spiders webs strewn over them would not be good enough even for Ed Wood’s Mars-based feature. Speaking of Mars’ great forests; any movie is allowed some passes from real-world logic, and any Sci-Fi movie some techno-babble, but that isn’t to say the script can be comprised of nothing but the above elements. At every stage it’s totally unclear how characters know certain things, such as one of Santa’s Elves exclaiming “They’re Martians!” when the green-paint-smeared humanoids walk in even though they are the first creatures on planet Earth ever to witness the aliens. I always work to avoid spoilers in my reviews so I can’t be more specific because most of the major plot points in this film require the writers to simply assume that a character knows something that is otherwise totally unexplained, or for a threat to suddenly have a fatal weakness that had previously gone unmentioned. The quote “It… it turned into a toy!” should be enough explanation for anyone who has already seen this film.

“Can I get my make-up redone?” “KEEP ROLLING!”

This film stands with one foot in the so-bad-it’s-good section of cinema that I adore so much, but never manages to remain for too long. The unintentional jokes wear thin after a while, when the intentional jokes remind us they did expect us to laugh at this film for entirely different reasons, and it all becomes rather tiresome after a while. It does remain good-bad enough in sporadic bursts however to be entertaining for the most hardy aficionados of crap cinema, just don’t expect to introduce anyone to the potential joy of terrible movies with this one. You have to WANT to find this one funny to have any chance of finding some dark enjoyment here. It’s a challenge, believe me.

1/10

ANNOUNCEMENT! – ‘Tis the season of Yuletide Terror

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It all of a sudden turns out to be December, and as such the Christmas decorations are all around our apartment, we’re figuring out what to buy for friends and family that they don’t already have, and in general having a really nice time in what would otherwise be a very cold and dark Norwegian Winter. This season brings in tow it’s own genre of movies, which I love, but among those cozy and delightful Disney films & heartwarming family films there’s a certain darker side to Christmas Cinema, one that intrigues me most of all. So I’m starting a mini season of reviews called Yuletide Terror where I’ll work through as many of these dark and strange Christmas ‘Classics’ as I can. There’s more information on the dedicated page for the season… HERE!