Friday, 11 December 2009

Seasonal Shockers

Traditionally, Christmas is a happy time associated with joy and happiness. It is also a time of year that, despite all the cheer and joviality, also has something of a dark side to it and holds a distinct chill. There is many a ghost story connected to Christmas such as A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and several ghoulish tales by MR James were actually written specially to be read at Christmas. Even the idea of Santa Claus has a few creepy connotations – the thought of someone snaking and shimmying their way down your chimney and into your home is actually quite sinister when you think about it. This notion certainly hasn’t been wasted on a few filmmakers who set out to sabotage the ‘seasonal cheer’ of Christmas with violence, blood on snow and all kinds of savage ‘slays.’ Below are a few of the best Christmas themed shockers to check out if you fancy giving yourself a fright this Christmas. You know, just to balance out all that bloody cheeriness.

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse… They were all DEAD!

Black Christmas (1974). The residents of a college sorority house are terrorized by a stranger who makes frighteningly obscene phone calls and then murders the sorority sisters during Christmas break. Preceding the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th, Bob Clark’s seminal seasonal shocker took inspiration from several Mario Bava body-count films and essentially laid out the blueprint for all subsequent American slasher movies. The unsettling atmosphere is enhanced by the use of Christmas carols and a bleak snowy landscape. Margot Kidder and Olivia Hussey are amongst the fresh faced cast of likeable, strangely sympathetic characters. The real terror comes when we learn exactly where the phone calls originate from. The film’s original tag line had a point – ‘If this movie doesn't make your skin crawl... It's On Too Tight!’ An immensely creepy, atmospheric and underappreciated chiller. Pledge 'Delta, Kappa, DIE!'

Black Christmas
Jack Frost (1996). This is the positively delightful and heart-warming tale of a serial killer who genetically mutates into an evil snowman after being involved in a traffic accident and some dodgy toxic waste, only to continue his killing spree with various ‘Christmas’ themed novelty deaths. If the themed deaths aren’t enough to get you into the Christmas mood, Jack Frost churns out some priceless Kruger-esque one-liners whilst despatching idiotic characters, including Shannon Elizabeth in an early role that really showcases her, erm, prowess. Director Michael Cooney displays some flair and innovation despite his ridiculously low budget and ridiculously ridiculous concept. It’s all played for laughs and proves to be a fun deliberately-so-bad-its-good romp. Cooney would go on to write the mind-melting psychological slasher Identity.

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). Another seasonal ‘stalk and slash' shocker - with bells on. Silent Night Deadly Night sparked a bloody wave of controversy on its original theatrical release thanks to its unforgettable premise: a seriously unhinged (is there usually any other kind?) serial killer dressed as Santa Claus has deep and dark issues with ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ due to the fact that he saw his mother and father touched inappropriately and then murderlised by a Santa impersonating psycho when he was a kid. The concept proved a bit much for some, and prompted a pitchfork wielding mob of angry parents, film critics and movie industry insiders to protest against this ‘immoral and indecent’ film, calling for it to be boycotted. Spoil-sports. The sight of ‘Santa Claus’ advancing towards his victims with an axe is memorable to say the least, and of all the psycho-dressed-as-Santa-slashers this one is by far the best. ‘Naughty!’

Curse of the Cat People
Curse of the Cat People (1944). This daring sequel to the Jacques Tourneur directed/Val Lewton produced moody classic Cat People (1942) revolves around Amy, the young daughter of Oliver and Alice Reed – survivors from the first film. Amy is a strange, lonely child who often becomes lost in her daydreams. She has trouble differentiating fantasy from reality, and has no friends her own age as a result. She makes an imaginary friend in the form of the ghost of her father's dead first wife, Irena. Unfolding more as a delicate and emotionally fraught study of child psychology and arguably not even a ‘Christmas’ film, Curse of the Cat People still has a story that takes place in part at Christmas time. Indeed some of the film’s most memorable and striking moments feature Irena (Simone Simon) standing in a snow-blanketed garden and the film’s climax unfolds on Christmas Eve as Oliver and Alice desperately search the neighbourhood for their missing daughter.

Don’t Open ‘til Christmas (1984). A murderer is causing havoc and panic (and maybe the occasional wry smile) on the streets of London, as he begins a killing spree solely targeting anyone dressed as Margaret Thatcher Santa Claus. Scotland Yard’s Inspector Harris has been given the unenviable task of tracking down the psychopath. It would seem that he's going to have his work cut out for him. This somewhat dreary horror is a seemingly endless series of scenes in which men, and maybe even a woman, dressed as Santa Claus are cut up, stabbed, emasculated, burned and generally just fucked up in increasingly grisly ways. Tension is as scarce as an Australian white Christmas and after a while it all begins to fade into one repetitive Santa massacre full of horrible characters and ridiculous ‘twists’ that you won’t even care about it. Not even Caroline Munroe in a bizarre cameo can save this film. If Santa leaves this in your stocking, throw it back up the chimney after the bastard.

Tales from the Crypt
Tales from the Crypt: ‘All Through The House’ (1972). Five people get lost and become trapped in a mysterious crypt. Events become increasingly creepy when they encounter a strange crypt keeper who relays to them stories of how they died. One of the tales concerns a young woman (Joan Collins) who makes the mistake of murdering her husband at Christmas time while an escaped mental patient dressed in a Santa Claus outfit is on the loose. She attempts to cover up her husband’s murder by making it look like an accident. Little does she know said mental patient has sneaked into her home and has a nasty surprise for her… Basically, she needn’t have gone to all that bother covering up her husband’s murder.

Gremlins (1984). Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) is given a small creature called a Mogwai by his father for Christmas, with strict instructions to keep it away from bright light, never get it wet and perhaps most importantly - never, EVER feed it after midnight. Of course young Billy and his clumsy pal Pete (it’s the 80s so it must be Corey Feldman!) accidently soak poor Gizmo who spawns a litter of similarly cute fur-balls. Billy accidentally feeds them after midnight and before he knows it, they’ve mutated into mischievous and dangerous critters that wreck havoc throughout the small town Billy calls home, ruining Christmas for everyone. Can Billy and his sassy girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates) stop the gremlins before the town becomes a bloodbath!? Perfect nostalgic Christmas viewing from Joe Dante, which at times is pretty darn scary – (well it was when I was 12. OK, I was a wimpy 12 year old. Leave me alone) especially when Billy’s mother searches the house when she hears strange noises - only to be attacked by 'something' in her Christmas tree. Playful, devilishly funny and fun to watch at any time of the year, Gremlins will always have a place in my DVD player at Christmas time.

Nightmare Before Christmas
Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloween Town, is bored with doing the same thing every year for Halloween. When he discovers Christmas Town he is so taken with the idea of Christmas that he persuades the residents of Halloween Town to help him put on Christmas instead of Halloween. Alas, they don’t quite grasp the concept and as a result some rather ‘alternative’ gifts are delivered to unsuspecting children at Christmas. Can Jack put things right before the idea of Christmas is tarnished forever?! Equal parts macabre and joyously sweet, Nightmare Before Christmas is a visual delight that is creator/co-writer/producer Tim Burton through and through. Undead reindeer, a coffin sleigh and gruesome toys that attack their recipients maybe aren’t features you’d associate with the usual Christmas movies, but this is a smart, delightful and compelling little Christmas movie that unabashedly states that we should be proud to be who we are no matter what time of year it is. 'Gawd bless us, every one'.

Christmas Evil aka You Better Watch Out (1980). Christmas Evil is the story of a young boy who is scarred for life when he sees his mother give ‘Santa Claus’ more than a little peck on the cheek. When he grows up, a nerdy/creepy loner, he becomes the foreman of a toy factory and is obsessed with the quality of his toys. He tries to keep up the Christmas spirit and maintain Christmas’s magical atmosphere, but when all he is met with is hypocrisy and cynicism, he loses his mind and goes on a yuletide killing spree. Played more for laughs than for scares, Christmas Evil is a low budget blackly comic no-brainer with a few nods to other genre classics thrown in for good measure. John Waters adores it.

For more choice holiday faves, why not head on over to Paracinema... The Blog and remind yourself why Home Alone 2, Die Hard and Batman Returns are just so darn watchable at this, the most wonderful time of the year...

Merry Christmastime!

6 comments:

WriterME said...

Lots of great suggestions there; I especially like the mention of Tales from the Crypt. The same story was done for the second episode of season 1 of the HBO Tales from the Crypt series (1989-), with Mary Ellen Trainor as the wife. Well worth watching.

In addition, I'd like to add a book: 'Christmas Babies', by Christopher Keane and William D. Black, M.D., about a doctor who genetically modifies foetuses (with, of course, disastrous consequences). Tagline: Red hair, green eyes, sheer terrors...

Matthew Coniam said...

Sorry to be contrary, but I think you'll find that Dont Open Till Christmas is actually the greatest film ever made in the history of cinematic motion.

Proof here:
http://carfaxabbey.blogspot.com/2007/12/your-christmas-film-guide.html

Merry Christmas!
Matthew

rogue evolent said...

Ah, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE... one of my favorite "anytime" pics...but so good at Christmas as well. And though Burton gets tons of flack...I really do enjoy his NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS!
Some might fine commentary James; your prose is goooood reading. Thanks.
r/e

James said...

I'm looking forward to rewatching Curse of the Cat People very soon! Hell, I might even treat myself to a double bill and watch it alongside Cat People. 'Tis the season after all. Not that it has to be any particular season in order to enjoy Cat People movies, mind.
Thanks for stopping by - hope you have a lovely christmas. ;)

Carl (ILHM) said...

Favorites, all, James, though I have yet to get my hands on DONT, must.. add.. it.. to christmas.. lineup... I love holiday Horror, which is ironic because I absolutely HATE Christmas.. Maybe that makes it unironic? Unronic?

James said...

Hey Carl - Maybe Santa will bring you a copy of DON'T. Have you been good this year? Quite a few people have recently expressed their hatred of Christmas to me. I have to admit - I like this time of year. It's true it's no Halloween - but I still enjoy it. I hope you manage to get through it somehow Carl - I recommend lots of red wine and horror movies!
Thanks for dropping by. Bestest wishes. :P