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

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!

The Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence (2015) – Review & Retrospective

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The main part of this review was written for the awesome folk at Acting Hour

Has there been a more divisive franchise in recent years than The Human Centipede? Tom Six’s 2009 original introduced us to the mad scientist Dr Heiter’s stomach-churning, “100% medically accurate” idea of attaching three people anus-to-mouth to form the continuous digestive passage of the titular creation. Filmed clinically and largely straight-faced some saw the film as body horror gone too far; a sick fantasy reserved for the darkest deluded souls; while others saw a sly humour weaved into the grossness. This divide couldn’t have been clearer in my local cinema where my friends and I sat laughing while others walked out in disgust. So too this image clearly reveals which side of the fence I found myself on. Never is anything played for laughs, but all through the film there seems to be a tongue firmly lodged in Six’s cheek. Also Dieter Laser’s Dr Heiter is a true horror villain: understatedly eccentric with a natural air of unhinged terror about him, he really makes the film.

“This was a TERRIBLE idea”

2011’s sequel seemed to be Six’s personal address towards everyone who commented on the first by defiantly raising two fingers – those who derided it as sick were shown just how bad things could be; those who loved it and wanted more were given something almost impossible to enjoy; and those who sneered that the original was too tame were taught to be careful what they wish for. A clever bit of meta-film-making saw the sequel set in the “real world” where Laurence R. Harvey plays Martin; a devoted fan of the original movie. Martin is severely mentally challenged, beaten and abused by all those who should care for him, creating a much darker and unpleasant character study than the first. Shot in dingy black & white, with filthy locations and unrelentingly brutal violence as Martin haphazardly mutilates and staples together now twelve individuals for his homage to Heiter’s fictional creation, it is among the most unpleasant films I’ve ever seen. It was initially refused certification by the BBFC, a rare decision effectively banning the movie in the UK; a decision that was soon overturned following public backlash and a swathe of cuts, but the franchise had already attained widespread infamy through the free publicity that only a banned movie can garner. Did I enjoy the Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence? No. But I love the sheer belligerence it displays, and I think you have to at least acknowledge the success with which Six fulfills his intent of creating a hateful, near-unwatchable experience.

“Oh god what have I done”

Finally, fast forward to 2015 and the much-awaited-by-some third and final part to the trilogy is finally released with a glitzy L.A. premiere, a number of famous faces in the cast, and a scope & production value far greater than its predecessors. Don’t get the idea that The Human Centipede has gone ‘mainstream’ though; the gleeful tagline “100% Politically Incorrect” suggests this films tone will be far from the tried and tested horror-by-numbers sensibilities of a Blumhouse Production. The main question that dampered the hype building up to release was whether, after two whole films, the concept of the Human Centipede itself had anything left to offer.

Set in the fictional George H.W. Bush Penitentiary in the middle of the Texan desert, the deranged, racist, and misogynist warden Bill Boss and his simpering accountant Dwight Butler are played respectively by Dieter Laser & Laurence R. Harvey, both of whom played the main characters in the previous two installments. Yes, this film pushes the meta styling of the second movie to Inception-style lengths by having both films existing in this fictional setting, making the original essentially a film-within-a-film-within-a-film. Unruly prisoners and sprialling costs (unaided by Boss’ tendency to inflict a few injuries on his patrols) prompt Eric Roberts’ Governer Hughes to insist on major changes else the duo are fired. After a string of failed schemes aiming to achieve Boss’ dream of domination over the prison, each involving some form of torture or dismemberment towards the prisoners, Dwight suggests they take inspiration from the infamous Human Centipede movies.

That’s… er, lovely

This film is not going to win any Oscars. In place of any strong characterisation or plot, each scene is intended to repluse and offend, with no taboo left untouched. Most people have a certain topic that hits a raw nerve & offends them. Rest assured that this film will certainly address it at least once. The thing is that it is done with such mindless glee, never hesitating for a second, that I found myself laughing at the most abhorrent things. I’m not sure how to defend the idea that a boiling waterboarding scene could be in any way funny, but it is, along with the countless unthinkable things that are done in this movie. Of course Six’s unflinchingly twisted screenplay and grindhouse-style direction are accountable, but I think a fair share of the humour comes from Dieter Laser’s performance that can only be described as insane. He’s a strange man to look at anyway; his skeletal features accentuated by a completely shaved head, atop a gangly frame that moves with such deliberate control, he seems more like an alien that’s doing a mediocre job at pretending to be a human. Every action is so overblown and expressive, and every line is screamed out loud with such manic passion. The combination of wild agression and his thick German accent results in a good portion of his lines being barely distinguishable, but some grotesque gesticulations tend to fill in any blanks as to what he was referring to. Laurence R. Harvey is not given the opportunity to steal the show in the way Laser does, but seems just as comfortable in this overblown comedic style of acting as he did in the brutally grim, straight-faced style of the second installment to the franchise. Just like Laser, though, he seems to really become his character – every action & intonation seems considered. Six has either had an enormous stroke of luck or has done a fantastic job (or probably a combination of the two) in searching out these two actors for his trilogy.

NO DEITER. PUT IT DOWN.

One surprising bit of casting comes in Tom Six, cast as himself. When the duo decide to form their prison human centipede, they naturally call on the director for advice. In brilliant self-parodying narcissism, Six gives himself his own theme music whenever he enters the prison, and allows a minute or two for characters to fawn over him & discuss the cultural impact of the two previous Human Centipede movies. In an answer to every cringeworthy director cameo (Tarantino, I’m looking at you…), Six creates a charicateur of himself in moments that are so deliberately cringeworthy they’re hilarious.

“… with barbed wire?”

This is the best looking film of the trilogy. After the simple, clinical look of the first, and the grimy, handheld, snuff-esque aesthetic of the second, this has a real American indie film look to it, with the Texan location offering wide, empty vistas, sweeping camera movements and a warm colour grade. If it wasn’t for every single moment of the movie being entirely inappropriate, this wouldn’t look out of place at Sundance or the like. Six has clearly realised his Human Centipede concept, no matter how many legs it may have, can only run so far: managing to squeeze two films out of it without it feeling unnecessary was impressive, but a third really would have pushed it too far. As such, the ‘pede itself is really a footnote to the wider story of the prison; merely the method by which Boss aims to take control of his prison. Little time is dedicated to the process of creating it, or even to the finished piece. An astute move when horror sequels often tend to repeat the same formula over and over until no one notices they stop making them.

He chose this over watching yet another Paranormal Activity sequel

The last thing I want to touch on is something only available on the DVD & Blu-Ray release of this film: the alternative ending. As always, I will give no spoilers, but rather than a different ending, this is an additional scene that plays after the final moments of the movie. True to the spirit of the franchise, it creates a canonical nightmare that is the most bitter, cynical and ultimately hilarious “Fuck You” to everyone. It’s the sort of ending that you’d see as a cruel joke on a forum somewhere. It’s fair to say I’m gutted this wasn’t kept in the final cut of the movie as I’d love to hear more reactions on it. I can understand it being cut as people who haven’t seen the first two films will have no idea what’s going on, but for those familiar with the series I consider this the “true” ending.

Both expressions sum up my reaction to the alternate ending

The Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence is an anarchic and outrageous film; it gleefully over-achieves on its clear-set goal of offending anyone and everyone and manages to be incredibly funny in the process. In case you had any doubts before sitting down to watch it, you will certainly realise you’re a terrible person for laughing at half of the moments in this movie. You’ll definitely want to carefully pick who you watch this with, but with a hand-picked group of equally twisted friends this is a hilariously disgusting experience with some magnificent performances that rounds off the trilogy with excessive, self-referential style.

8/10

Deadly Waters (2015) – review for ukhorrorscene

Another zero-budget British horror review here for ukhorrorscene.com – Deadly Waters is about a seaside town where men keep disappearing mysteriously. Is it a killer? Are they running away? Is it something to do with the legends of the bloodthirsty sirens living off the shores? There’s only one way to find out! See my review HERE & social media links are at the end the reivew to keep up with release information!

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Predator: Dark Ages (2015) – Comic-Con Premiere Review & Watch the Film!

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I have returned, like a six foot Hobbit, to my quiet little village in the Highlands safely and relatively unscathed, if exhausted and penniless, after a voyage to the big city of London where I attended my first Comic-Con. It was the most incredible three days; surrounded by cosplayers, merchandise, artists, food, and weird “squashy loaf of bread” toys from Japan. I was also lucky enough to drop by the world premiere of Predator fan-film “Predator: Dark Ages” followed by a Q&A from the cast & crew. The film has since been made available online, it follows my mini review.

This is just awesome.

Walking into the Vidzone tent to see an independent fan film I really wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. My fears were dispelled about 0.3 seconds into the movie however, when it was evident that this is an incredibly slickly produced short. Running just over 25 minutes, the budget of about £13,000 is a bit more than nothing, but it has been very well spent; the quality of this film could easily sit aside professionally produced films that cost many times that amount per minute. The cast have a very impressive collective CV, and it shows. A tightly written script that restrains itself to only a handful of cheeky throwbacks to other entries in the franchise is carried brilliantly by the cast. A slow build pays off with fantastic effects, brutal gore and brilliant fight scenes – everything a fan of the original movie(s) could have hoped for.

“U HAVIN A GIGGLE M8?”

The tropes of the two genres have been thrown together perfectly, to the point that it doesn’t feel like a fan film theorising “What would happen if…”, but it feels like a legitimate entry to the franchise, and a bloody good one at that. It doesn’t take liberties with the material, remaining wholly faithful in tone and content, but does give a great insight to the nature of the Predator that I think also fits brilliantly with the franchise as a whole. One question threatened to tear the fim apart, as to why the Predator still has the laser gun & heat tracking technology 1000 years ago, but this was calmly shut down by the director who pointed out that they had this technology 3000 years ago in the Aztec sections of Alien vs. Predator. So there.

I wish I could find something bad to say about this film, but it’s too difficult. All I can say is watch it NOW!

10/10

Extraterrestrial (2014) – Review

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Just in case the Vicious Brothers felt they were risking becoming typecast as supernatural found-footage directors after their incredibly well-received Grave Encounters and its sequel they took a sudden turn with this movie, a mostly traditionally-shot Sci-Fi/horror mashup pitting the standard troupe of teenagers partying in a cabin in the woods against vicious (heh) alien invaders.

Like moths, actors are attracted to blue lights

That’s about all there is to say about the setup of the movie. The opening scene sets the tone pretty firmly; with incredible visual flair a poor sod is zapped away by some unknown presence, leaving local police baffled, especially since the phone box disintegrated with him. This strong sense of visuals carries through the movie with no end of red and blue lights and a very modern glossy sheen to everything, it looks like something the 1980’s could only have dreamed of. Once we finally see them fully the design of the aliens is basically the standard “alien” trope, nothing particularly original, but this is often the point of the movie in my opinion; so many elements are throwbacks to standard tropes of the Sci-Fi and horror genres, it’s doesn’t seem like an entirely original movie was the aim, more a unique blend of the two genres in their purest forms – a cinematic smoothie. This could be seen as a strength or a weakness for different people but for me the result was such a bizarre, jarring experience that I actually loved every minute of it.

It’s like this, but imagine Drew Barrymore getting her face torn off in 1.5 seconds

It jumps wildly from “cabin in the woods” slasher to government conspiracy to all-out alien action, with characters and tropes of each genre, often interacting with each other with such dissonant tones and various concurrent plot threads that could never belong together in the same movie unless it was helmed by the gleeful, almost stubborn persistence that the Vicious Brothers have shown here. As such it’s not always easy to determine what will happen next – it could be argued that much of the plot is cliched with hindsight but the question remains which genre’s cliches the next plot twist will adhere to! The main cast are perfectly likeable; performances aren’t stand-out but neither are they awful; and certain characters are given some heartfelt backstories and relations that are often fairly predictable but still give a welcome human depth to the plot and characters.

“Terribly sorry to interrupt your soirée, but someone appears to have left their headlights on”

I’m sure this isn’t a film for everyone – some other reviews I’ve read confirm this, but for me it was a consistently entertaining ride and I would happily watch it again. While this is of course far from the first Sci-Fi-Horror, and no question far from the best (though it has some extremely high competition against Alien & co.), it is quite unique in the way it merges the two genres as separate entities rather than settling on some middle ground. As would be expected for the established horror directors the horror elements of this movie are very effective – plenty of tense cat & mouse sequences, a number of decent scares and some brutal gore should satisfy any horror fiend who doesn’t mind a film that plays on the genre conventions & doesn’t always take itself too seriously.

7/10

The Babadook (2014) – Review (and the curse of high expectations)

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I’m quite late to the game in watching The Babadook but it was quite nice to let the dust settle from critics clamouring to declare it the greatest horror movie ever made, that I could at least try and approach it without ridiculous expectations. While the crazy expectations such acclaim can give a film, there are still many such horrors that have met or exceeded my high hopes – REC, The Mist, Let the Right One In, all massively acclaimed but I loved them still. Unfortunately I found The Babadook was not able to live up to its reputation. Though I’m not sure if it ever could have.

“See there are no mons- OH GOD SOMEONE HID A CAMERA UNDER THE BED”

Following Amelia, an exhausted widow who balances her job as a care home assistant with single-handedly raising Samuel, a little shit of a son who, aged six years old, has a preoccupation with fighting off a monster and so builds plot devices from scrap around the house that fire heavy balls, darts and so on like a miniature Australian John Kramer. Unfortunately his teachers aren’t so impressed with his ingenuity when he takes his dart gun to school, pushing Amelia even closer to some sort of breaking point. Luckily, just as things seem unbearably awful for this poor innocent woman, a creepy storybook mysteriously appears in Samuel’s bookcase, called The Babadook, the sort of thing that would have been created if Dr Seuss had taken a really bad acid trip one night. Naturally, this story does nothing to calm Samuel’s monster fantasies and as everyone gets completely worn out and stressed out it seems more and more likely that The Babadook is paying the household a visit.

GREAT IDEA. Find a creepy book lying around and read it to your paranoid child.

This is far from a terrible film; produced on a relatively slim budget of $2 million it looks fantastic and the two main characters are played brilliantly – especially Noah Wiseman as Samuel who is not only a child actor who isn’t pailful to watch, but is genuinely affecting and seems to take the schizophrenic switches from screaming brat to caring son in his stride. So too, the writer/director Jennifer Kent has cleverly acknowledged that even when we’ve spent 20 minutes pulling our hair out watching the boy screaming and kicking, the SECOND she shows him scared and crying, our hearts involuntarily melt to become putty in her hands. But after seeing so many 5 star reviews, a 98% Rotten Tomatoes rating and so on, niggling issues that I’d usually pass off become sticking points. Secondary characters are terribly two-dimensional: one or two are kind of stuck in their own world, too busy to pay full attention to Amelia’s issues which is realistic, but when she’s turned away from a police station by officers who think it’s hilariously contrived for a visibly stressed, bedraggled young widow to be worried that someone’s stalking her and her child it’s one of those moments where the I think the film would be markedly improved if the whole scene was removed. One or two other issues I had would require me massively spoiling the movie which I certainly won’t do, but suffice to say I was at one point rolling my eyes waiting for a certain character to say “I’m free now!” & dissolve into a thousand butterflies as some music reaches a passionate crescendo.

SHUT. UP.

Onto The Babadook itself, the design is a cool throwback to the horror movies of the 1920’s with Lon Chaney and co., with extreme make-up and wide eyes that always look far more unsettling than they ought to. The movement of the monster is decidedly low-fi, throwing back to the earlier cinema, not least the films made by Georges Méliès around the 1890’s/1900’s which are actually incorporated into a dream sequence at one point. But despite all these cool visuals and a creepy design there never really seemed to be any particularly scary moments. Many people have already picked up on the admirable avoidance of cheap jump scares, but it’s a shame that nothing scary takes their place.

Some people complain about the lo-fi effects but I thought they were quite effective…

Despite what sounds like a pretty negative review I’m going to say it clearly – this is a very good film. Not only given the budget; it is a genuinely good film regardless. But it is far from the scariest I’ve seen, even from the last couple of years, and it is certainly not without its flaws. Had I picked it up unwittingly in HMV having never heard of it I don’t think I’d have been blown away necessarily, but I’d have been much more impressed I’m sure. That’s of course no fault of the film itself so it’s a shame, but I ended up underwhelmed – ultimately while The Babadook is among the better horrors of the last few years I feel this is an unfortunate case where a film’s reputation has become too much for it to live up to.

7/10

The Zombie King (2013) – Review for ukhorrorscene

Unusual in the horror genre, this is a low budget zombie movie. However, with a lot of dry British humour and cameos from Edward Furlong & Corey Feldman it stands out a bit more than the standard fare. Despite being made in 2013 it’s only getting a UK DVD release this August. Is the saying true; “good things come to those who wait”? My review is on ukhorrorscene here!
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Watch Eli Roth’s bizarre student movie from 1994!

Eli Roth’s YouTube channel Crypt TV, dedicated to the odd and unusual, has just uploaded their founder’s student film from 1994; Restaurant Dogs. It’s not a particularly big revelation to see Eli Roth reveling in excess and gratuity, but fans of his often divisive movies should be pleased with this 10 minutes or so of “What the Fuck-ery”, and for anyone else it’s an interesting insight into the already anarchic, very early work of the student that’d eventually become a major player in the horror world. Some unashamedly lo-fi Python-esque animation with incredibly squishy gore effects make it a delirious zero-budget delight, and it’ll tide us over for a while as we wait until The Green Inferno FINALLY gets released, some time in 2043.