Yuletide Terror – Christmas Evil (1980)

Christmas-Evil-Poster.png

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?

christmasevil3

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.

christmasevil2

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.

christmasevil1

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

Advertisements

ABCs of Death 2 – Review on ukhorrorscene

Any of you in America have been able to see this film for ages but it’s only coming out on DVD here in the UK on Monday! And because of this I have reviewed it for UK Horror Scene – read my in-depth (but spoiler-free as always!) review HERE!

PS I am going to be in Paris for the next week (I’m writing this on a Megabus) so there is not likely to be any reviews from me in that time. Stop crying, I’ll be back soon enough!

Wolfcop (2014) – Review

wolfcop

Sometimes a movie comes along with a title that makes me say to myself “I need to see that”. Coupled with the awesome art on the DVD case Wolfcop had me sold without question. This instant, unquestioning enthusiasm with little to go on has lead to some fantastic surprises, but also a great deal of disappointments making a quick sale on a great title alone (Osombie?). The basic premise of Wolfcop is pretty self-explanatory, but to be clear it follows Lou, a slacking, alcoholic policeman in a small Canadian town, who has some sort of curse put on him that turns him into a werewolf. The newfound power he has when transformed prompts him to begin a crusade against the local gang leader, as the titular uniformed “Wolfcop”.

It’s a werewolf. Who’s also a cop…

There’s a strong tone of a deliberately “cult” movie here, with fantastic practical effects defying the $1 million budget, red & blue lights painting every second shot like something straight out of the 80’s & a script overflowing with wolf puns that does a reasonable job at balancing the level of groans and laughs. Depite a short runtime just shy of 80 minutes however, it seems to go by very slowly when much of the film feels far too polite for it’s sleazy, gory ambitions. It was such a recurring problem for me that I actually started to wonder if it was some play on Canadian stereotypes against the loud, brash American standard for such movies, but whenever the tough-talking police chief chastised Lou, or his over-achieving colleague put him down a notch, no matter how harsh the words were, the delivery felt like the characters immediately regretted what they’d said. Even when the brutal gang leader stabs one of his cronies’ eyes out he looks and sounds like he’s about to apologise profusely for calling him nasty names. It all takes away from the gritty, trashy feel it seems to be emulating. Whether the result of a poor cast, or a deliberate decision it really didn’t work for me, and detracted from what could have been a fun, bolshy script.

“Smile!”

All is forgiven in the action scenes, though, however far and few between they may be. I’ve already mentioned the effects but fuck it, I’m going back to them. They’re genuinely very good, and not in a condescending “well, they did a good job with what they had” way; I was surprised to see how low the budget was after seeing the quality & screen time of the all-practical effects. We get more than one “transformation” scene, each focusing on different aspects of Lou turning into a werewolf. The first glimpse we get, showing a certain body part transforming, will have at least half of the audience wincing in agony but is the first example of multiple gruesome visual gags that rival Peter Jackson’s early horrors for inventiveness and hilarity. The brilliant pacing of this handful of high-energy scenes is about enough to nudge this movie into being worth a watch when elsewhere there’s very little bite not much to get excited about.

4/10

Super (2010) – Review

super

James Gunn has become a major name in superhero movies after directing Marvel’s surprisingly subversive and totally bonkers Guardians of the Galaxy last year, along with being announced to direct the sequel, but this wasn’t his first time looking at troubled ‘super’-heroes. In 2010 he wrote & directed this low-budget yet somehow fairly star-studded movie that takes apart the whole concept of superheros & their origin stories.

Bridging the gap between schadenfreude & pitifulness

Super is about Frank (Rainn Wilson), a middle-aged married man who has lived a terribly uneventful & boring life. His wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for Jacques (Kevin Bacon), a local nightclub owner & drug dealer, prompting a momumental breakdown that culminates in him experiencing a vision of God informing him he is “chosen”. Following the lead of TV Evangelist superhero The Holy Avenger (hammed up brilliantly in a cameo from Nathan Fillion) he crudely constructs an alter-ego named The Crimson Bolt & proceeds to dish out justice on the criminals of his town. Setting aside the religious satire this seems a fairly standard origin story, but it’s the heavy-handed, if still carefully balanced tone of the film that makes it very different. With his main weapon being a red pipe wrench, The Crimson Bolt brutally bludgeons criminals, ranging at first from street drug dealers to paedophiles, in sequences that certainly don’t shy away from gore like most Superhero films do to attain that magic 12A rating. While there’s a very strong tongue-in-cheek sense of dark humour throughout, there’s still a serious side to it. The Crimson Bolt’s actions rarely feel entirely heroic; it’s uncomfortably evident that we are witnessing a broken man in the midst of a mental breakdown and as his definition of ‘criminals’ widens, his morality becomes more and more ambiguous.

This film also addresses the issue of Wolverine’s somehow bloodless claw attacks

When Frank’s eventual side-kick Boltie (Ellen Page), in reality Libby the foul-mouthed if seemingly naive cashier at the local comic-book store, turns out to be even more unhinged than himself, the film has no reservations about going to some incredibly dark places that the humourous edge doesn’t even attempt to make light of. These shifts in tone come about without any warning and it could be viewed as somewhat schizophrenic but between the competent direction and the excellent cast, each scene manages to elicit the desired effect, resulting in an unpredictable rollercoaster of a movie. Understandably likened to Kick-Ass (which I love and have seen many times), I feel this film is perhaps more successful in drawing out a really unpleasant edge from deep within the broken characters beyond depicting an 11-year-old calling people “cunt”, but that’s not to say it’s necessarily a better movie on the whole. At any rate, in a time when Marvel & DC seem to have a film set for release every month for the next 30 years I think there’s plenty of room for 2 individually brilliant, if vaguely similar subversions of the genre to sit side-by-side.

7/10

Critters (1986) – Review

Critters was released in 1986, and was definitely not a cash-in on the success of Gremlins two years prior (incidentally one of my favourite films of all time). It was apparently written before the Joe Dante film was released and they claim to have actually reworked the script to make it less similar. Regardless, it’s not the first time, and far from the last time, that two films have stark similarities so I’m not going to try and draw comparisons between them. (But obviously it’s nowhere near as good as Gremlins.)

Eeeewww.

The sci-fi opening to this film immediately demonstrates the good intent of this film. It has a visibly low budget, but a great deal of care has gone into the sets and costumes of this sequence. It’s a simple set-up scene with the “Crites” escaping a meteor prison (?). The apparent chief, an obese blue… thing, instructs two bounty hunters to hunt them down. No explanation is given about any of this, and it’s perhaps for the best. On their way to Earth, they take on human form in a sequence with some awesome Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque effects. One of them takes their form from a transmission of fictional rock star Johnny Steele’s music video “Power of the Night”. This is seemingly an enormous hit in the film’s setting as it’s played repeatedly by different characters throughout the film, but oddly no one ever seems to recognise the alien who’s taken on his image, but I digress. This duo is given some of the best scenes of the film, as they wreak havoc across the town in their search for the Crites. Their deadpan destruction lends a genuine dark humour to the film that carries over in many later scenes.

“Take me to your leader”

We are also introduced to a family that lives in Kansas. Supposedly the main characters, they’re lifted directly from every family film that has ever been made; the troublemaking brother that irritates his older sister and their parents who are just there with little purpose beyond the Dad owning a shotgun and the Mum from E.T. screaming a lot. They’re likeable enough, but a little bit too long is spent setting up their paper-thin characters, and those of some other citizens of the town, with some incredibly awkwardly acted/directed dialogue and ensuring that the boy has plenty of dangerous toys and hobbies that would come in handy in the slim possibility that a group of alien beasts started terrorising them, or anything like that.

Etc.

It seems like quite a long time after the opening scene that the Crites feature again, and they’re only seen in brief glimpses for the first part which gives a good build-up to the attacks.Eventually it builds to a full face-off which is exciting and tense and funny when intended, especially a gag involving the Crites’ subtitles that I expect will be rehashed through the sequels. It does feel like this film was dialled back to attain a more family-friendly rating as the brief glimpses of somewhat nasty deaths coupled with the antics of the bounty hunters and wide pool of expendable secondary characters suggest much darker early drafts, but the result is an entertaining, funny sci-fi monster movie that’s a good introduction to this type of horror for younger viewers and a good, if almost entirely by-the-numbers example of 80’s horror, for better or worse depending on your view (in my opinion for the best).

7/10

Curse of Chucky (2013) – Review

After 2004’s troubling Seed of Chucky, the near-decade lull suggesting the Child’s Play franchise may have ended was not entirely unwelcome. Inevitably though, a 6th instalment was produced amid a mixture of hopeful anticipation and apathy. The promise of a return to the horror elements of the original 3 as opposed to the splatstick comedy of Bride and Seed certainly had me interested.

Starting off rather slowly, some stock characters are introduced and the film really doesn’t seem comfortable with what direction it’s taking. However, as it progresses many of the stock characters actually develop personalities and their backstories become clearer in a surprisingly well-written manner compared to most horror reboots/sequels (that is, that there’s any characterisation AT ALL). The fact that the film is scaled back to take place almost entirely in a single house allows the plot to be carried along by these characters, the biggest issue again being that it does take a little while for them to become fully fledged characters. The intended suspense surrounding the titular Good Guy doll himself feels half-baked too, as though it’s accepting the inevitability but feels obliged to throw in some faux suspense regardless.

“OH WHAT A LOVELY DOLL I’M SURE IT WON’T TRY AND KILL US”

When Chucky finally does come to life, he brings with him a number of horror set-pieces that, despite the uneasy beginning, consistently hit the mark; be it drawn-out tension such as a Russian Roulette-style dinner sequence, or an all-out gore-filled murder, which are all joyfully explicit in a somewhat ‘Final Destination-esque’ cartoony way. These moments manage that perfect tone where half of viewers will cover their eyes in shock while the other half burst out laughing. It’s a pleasant change to see a horror that isn’t taking itself unduly seriously, and of course Brad Douriff’s non-politically-correct one-liners are present and correct. Chucky himself is obviously a pre-established character and they haven’t messed with his attitude or origins to try and give him an ill-advised ‘modernisation’, and though it seems the filmmakers were obliged to insert two or three naff CGI shots of him, 95% of the time he’s some type of animatronic as in all previous entries so there’s nothing to complain about there.

CGI has it’s place, but Chucky wouldn’t be the same any other way

It’s not until the third act that the film really reaches it’s peak; becoming comfortable with the occasionally brutal, darkly humorous tone it suddenly gets extremely clever, tying up a number of loose ends that more cynical viewers will have noticed, offering plenty of moments to appease fans of the series (especially in a brilliant post-credits scene), and making the film much more intelligent than ‘Child’s Play 6: Chucky kills some people’.

Every still I could find was a massive spoiler, so here’s a promo image

Despite a slow start, this film continuously picks up the pace to become a worthy Child’s Play film and a vast improvement on the last two comedy entries in the series. A tone is found that reflects Chucky’s character brilliantly. The greatest obstacle this film forces itself to overcome is the slow reveal of the eventually well-written characters and plot, whether this is intended or not. Impatient Netflix browsers & channel surfers may be tempted to switch it off after 15 minutes, but it certainly rewards you for sticking through just a little bit longer to the numerous reveals. A sequel has been greenlit so it certainly looks like this entry has put the franchise back on track.

7/10

Meet the Feebles (1989) – Review

When asked to name films starring foul-mouthed, crude puppets many people will only think of the excellent Team America: World Police. However, 15 years before, a then little-known Peter Jackson unleashed his second feature film after Bad Taste; a pastiche of The Muppets, featuring Jim Henson-esque puppets running a small variety show, hoping to make it big on TV. The familiar set-up is really where the comparisons end, as the original tagline for this film suggests; “From the makers of Bad Taste comes a film with no taste at all!”. Behind the scenes of the show a wide range of characters display every vice and taboo one could imagine putting on film; adultery, alcoholism, drug abuse, S&M dungeons, rape, vietnam flashbacks, murder, STDs, and a number of things that would be difficult to put into words, often involving a particularly hideous journalistic fly whose scatological dining habits proved to be a tipping point for at least one person I watched this film with.

Yes, it is what it looks like

The general plot of the film is the run-up to an important show that will decide the fate of the theatre and the Feebles themselves, but much of the film is taken up by the sub-plots surrounding many of the disgraceful characters. Despite most of these plots being disgusting and/or shocking, the way the different plot lines tie into each other is extremely well done so that it doesn’t feel episodic, and the film is consistently very funny provided you have a seriously warped sense of humor. It can’t be said that the characters are well-rounded as all but a small handful are two-dimensionally abhorrent but the spectrum of offensiveness covered in these 90 minutes is quite marvelous and that is definitely the point of this film. It is a sign of relatively sound mental health to come away from this film feeling in some vague, unplaceable way violated, but if anyone is genuinely offended by any aspects I feel they might have missed the point by a mile. In a technical sense, I expected ropey puppets and crude animation but the puppets do have a high quality, Jim Henson-like authenticity and the performances are very good so the marmite quality to this film is drawn purely from the disturbing oddness and midnight-black humor rather than it being so-bad-it’s-good.

“Oh looks it’s the Muppe- OH GOD”

Barely available on DVD in the UK (a poorly-made release from 2003 is selling for £20+ on Amazon) I tracked down an old VHS copy to see this like many others will no doubt be forced to do, but it has been suggested by Peter Jackson himself that once he’s done with a small Hobbit project he’s currently working on he’d like to go back and restore his first films and re-release them with the type of comprehensive packages he is famous for.  I would jump at the chance to own this and see more about it’s production, to see how the hell they managed it for NZ$750,000 (about $600,000), though it ought to come with a warning on the box to prevent any stray, unassuming Lord of the Rings fans from ending up being treated for Post-Traumatic Stress. That said, for any retro-Jackson fan it stands alongside Bad Taste (which I intend to revisit for a review in the very near future) as a brilliant example of the man’s roots in brutal dark humor; a trait that still remains in many of his films, even if for brief glimpses. Until such a re-release I don’t imagine I’ll find myself wanting to be subjected to the horrors of Meet the Feebles again in it’s current VHS form, but that is not a criticism as it sets out to amuse & shock, and there’s no doubt that it does both extremely well, perhaps occasionally TOO well in the latter.

7/10