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

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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!

Pet Shop of Horrors (1999) – Anime Review

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A four part anime mini-series based on the collection of manga books, Pet Shop of Horrors stars the mysterious, androgynous Count D who runs an equally mysterious pet shop in the heart of L.A.’s Chinatown. It goes without saying that the Count doesn’t really deal in hamsters and goldfish; every creature sold in the store comes with a strict contract and quite often a rather dark secret, introducing Leon, a detective investigating a series of unusual deaths – all of whom seem to have at one point visited this pet shop in Chinatown . Each episode focuses on a different customer of the store, looking at the events leading to them entering the shop and the consequences their pets bring upon them.

Excuse me Sir, you have a “What the fuck is that?” on your shoulder

The individual stories are really interesting – cherry picked from the manga (which I have not read) they are each quite unique but always very dark, looking at deep issues in the featured characters. The imagery the creatures provide to the stories varies from unsettling to beautiful, and occasionally both at once. This, coupled with the neo-gothic design and a dreamlike haze added to many of the scenes makes this a visually powerful series. Sound design is less impressive – the 90’s drum n’ bass soundtrack attempts to be brooding and mysterious but ultimately, no matter how they may have tried to do something unusual the high-tempo drums don’t lend well to the twisted, suspenseful scenes. Plus on a personal level I found it bloody irritating.

Come on now, the music isn’t THAT bad.

The major downfall of the series however, is the overbearing storyline, or lack thereof; for the first few episodes the interaction between Count D & Leon is set up to be quite gripping; the makings of a cat & mouse battle of wits are planted; and it’s clear that there’s much more to learn about The Count himself. It has a slow burn feel to it, so that it’s only really by episode 3 perhaps that I started to get to know the recurring characters and everything points towards it lasting more like 12 episodes. But by the end of the fourth & final episode the loose ends aren’t even slightly tied up. If anything, the final revelation of this episode makes it even more frustrating to see the series end, as the wider implications would make a great story. I don’t know if a lack of budget forced this to be so short, but it feels more like a feature-length trailer for the manga than a standalone anime in its own right which is a great shame. If viewed purely as an anthology for the individual stories and the grotesque & wonderful images they supply however, it’s definitely worth a look. Just don’t expect the main storyline to go anywhere.

5/10

Super (2010) – Review

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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

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