Thursday, 20 December 2012

Christmas Evil

1980
Dir. Lewis Jackson

AKA You Better Watch Out

When he sees his mother fooling around with someone dressed as Santa on Christmas Eve, something snaps in little Harry Stadling’s head. Years later, when he’s all growed-up, Harry has developed an obsession with Christmas, and with being Santa Claus. Intent on delivering presents to those he deems ‘good’, Harry sets off into the night with toys stolen from the factory where he works, determined to bring joy to the hearts of children - whether they like it or not - and vengeance upon his bullying co-workers.

Part psycho-on-the-rampage narrative, part character study, Christmas Evil is many things; most of all surprising. To begin with, it really taps into the arguably inherent creepiness of the notion of a man who leaves presents for children by entering their house in the dead of night via their chimneys. Of course, for a modern audience, many of the moments in the film - such as when Harry (a brilliantly unhinged Brandon Maggart) spies on his neighbour’s children to see who’s behaving and who’s not - carry unsettling connotations and layer the film with an added perversity. As events unfurl though, it quickly becomes obvious that while its tone is wildly uneven, Christmas Evil has more than a few surprises up its white-furred red sleeve. It benefits from an off kilter humour, which veers between uncomfortably dark and unabashedly camp, and its attempts to subvert a number of Christmas movie clichés are spot on. In any other film, a man who dresses as Santa Claus to deliver stolen toys to children would most likely be a warm-hearted family affair. In Christmas Evil, there’s an almost ever-present creepiness to proceedings. Any sympathy the audience feels for Harry is down to Brandon Maggart’s performance. We see him quietly despairing in subdued, reflective moments, as well as committing sporadic acts of violence.



As mentioned, a number of moments wouldn’t be out of place in a feel-good family flick about Santa Claus. When he’s seen looking in through a window at a party, Harry’s invited in to dance with the guests and give gifts to the children; basking in the glow of the warm welcome he’s given. There’s also a strangely moving moment where he delivers toys to a children’s hospital and is later protected from a rampaging mob of parents by a group of children who believe he is Father Christmas. Later though, when Harry is pushed over the edge by the hypocrisy of his employers and events move into overt horror territory, a startling bloodbath erupts outside a church, and the star from atop a Christmas Tree becomes a means to a bloody end. The fact that Christmas can be a desperately sad and lonely time for many individuals is also rife throughout the narrative. The juxtaposition of Harry’s isolated existence with that of his brother’s family life is particularly effective, if somewhat under-explored. Director Jackson also takes barbed pot-shots at the scaremongering tactics of the media, evident in the scenes featuring TV broadcasts urging viewers to avoid anyone dressed as Santa - there’s even a line-up of Father Christmases.

As soon as we begin to think Harry is harmless enough (the worst he initially seems capable of is leaving a bag of coal at a badly behaved boy’s front door), he does something that’s just downright creepy (he’s seen spying on the boy from nearby bushes, and marking the homes of naughty children by leaving an imprint of his mud-smeared face and hands on the front door)… A few anachronistic moments add a touch of the fantastical to events, such as the scene where Harry is pursued through the night by local residents brandishing flaming torches - which echoes any number of old Universal Monster movies - and the genuinely bizarre twist ending that may very well make you spit out your mulled wine… Also unusual and unexpected is the way in which Harry actually fetishises Santa Claus. The moments where he’s putting his costume together while longingly gazing at himself in the mirror as he tries on an assortment of wigs, beards, clothes and padding are as humorous as they are worrying.



With its coal-black comedy and sudden moments of violence, Christmas Evil should surprise those willing to come to it with an open mind. It is often unexpectedly sweet - in its own demented way of course, and emerges as a deranged Christmas-themed oddity John Waters described as "the greatest Christmas movie ever made." That probably tells you all you need to know.

Christmas Evil is available now courtesy of Arrow Video. Special Features include: Widescreen transfer in the original ratio of the Director’s Cut - Optional English SDH subtitles - Audio commentary with director Lewis Jackson - Audio commentary with Lewis Jackson and director John Waters - Interviews with Lewis Jackson and star Brandon Maggart - Deleted scenes - Original story-board sequences - Rare audition tapes - Collector’s booklet featuring writing on the film by critic and author Kim Newman, John Waters and a new introduction by Lewis Jackson, illustrated with rare stills and images from the personal files of Lewis Jackson - Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys.

Region 2 PAL, RRP £15.99

Monday, 17 December 2012

All the Colours of the Dark

1972
Dir. Sergio Martino

When she loses her unborn baby in a car accident, a troubled young woman becomes the target of a Satanic cult who may have been responsible for the death of her mother many years ago…

Sergio Martino’s All the Colours of the Dark is a psychedelic trip of a giallo filtered through the gothic aesthetics of Hammer Horror and the Satanic Panic-induced paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby. Reconceptualising the usual conventions of the giallo into a plot about a Satanic cult’s advances on a traumatised young woman, it falls into a miniscule group of films critic Kim Newman dubs ‘giallo-fantastico’; gialli which boast overtly supernatural aspects as well as typical troupes such as sexual perversion, blackmail and murder. Adding to the delirious nature of the plot are abstract dream sequences and myriad moments which cunningly blur the line between reality and deranged fantasy. Jane (Edwige Fenech) has increasing panic attacks, hallucinations and nightmares which are woven into the narrative with twisted aplomb. In place of the whodunit murder mystery plot typical of the giallo, everything hangs on the notion that she may or may not be losing her grip on reality.



While Martino has a penchant for exploitative fare loaded with sex and violence, his stylistic approach to Colours is undeniable; it is one of the most striking and unusual giallo titles ever to be produced. The way in which it toys with conventional plot structure is also rather radical for a film of its time. The audience is frequently jolted as the lines between reality and delusion are consistently rippled. The incorporation of the Satanic cult echoes the likes of Aldo Lado's Short Night of Glass Dolls and Riccardo Freda’s The Wailing, while imagery more akin to gothic horrors of bygone years - animal sacrifice, blood offerings, orgies and Satanic rituals - really enhances the nightmarish atmosphere. Something of an ‘unreliable narrator’ due to her prior trauma and nervous disposition, Jane’s perception of reality is further warped as the blue-eyed killer from her dreams begins to invade her waking world too. Its these very elements that imbue All the Colours of the Dark with an atmosphere and tone quite distinct from its peers.



While it does contain a few plot holes – no giallo is seemingly complete without ‘em! – a number of arguably clichéd moments are given an alarming hot-wire courtesy of some frenzied editing, drawing us deeper into Jane’s panic. All the red herrings typical of the giallo abound, including Jane’s therapist, sister, boyfriend and her weird neighbour Mary (the ever-watchable Marina Malfatti) who invites her to join the cult. Throughout it all, the lovely Edwige Fenech exudes a sensual vulnerability and ensures we entrust our sympathy to her. She’s joined by Ivan Rassimov and George Hilton - about as synonymous with the giallo as she is - and all three are on fine form; even if the devilishly charming Rassimov is typically underused. Behind the camera is peopled by just as many stalwarts of the genre; including writer Ernesto Gastaldi and composer Bruno Nicolai, whose evocative score utilises sitar to disorientating effect, enhancing the atmosphere of exotic mysticism. Martino’s camera is rarely still and it lends even the most dialogue heavy scenes a real fluidity, while enhancing the clipped pace. He utilises widescreen to full effect, as his camera stalks and swirls around the London setting, exploiting the chilly autumnal environs, while filming the trendy apartments and vast mansions the story unfolds within, from all manner of skewed angles.



Perhaps because of his willingness to experiment and work in different genres, never allowing himself to be associated with any one kind of film, Martino doesn’t really receive the recognition that he should for his contributions to Italian genre cinema. His gialli straddle the line between epitomising the cycle/filone, and slyly subverting it. The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail are shiningly typical examples of the giallo (in a good way!), while Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I have the Key and Torso push the envelope; the former exuding a decadent gothic foreboding, while the latter - arguably a proto-slasher - strips plot to bare bones and edge-of-seat tension. Anyway. I digress. All the Colours of the Dark is a highly unconventional, heady giallo, and one which gradually emerges as a twisted remix of Rosemary’s Baby with copious Satanic Panic, sex, violence and a ground-breaking narrative structure.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Exquisite Terror 3

Exquisite Terror is an independently produced periodical, the intention of which is to take a more academic, analytical approach to the genre of horror. This is Exquisite Terror III. Isn't it beautiful? It's now available to pre-order.

Inside you'll find in-depth essays on The Exorcist, Jörg Buttgereit, a little something by myself on the presence of cats in horror, exclusive hand-drawn artwork and much, much more. All for only £2.45.

Exquisite Terror is a labour of love for all involved. Print isn't dead - support independent publishing. Click here to pre-order your copy today. 

For international sales, please contact info@exquisiteterror.com prior to order.

"Exquisite Terror is something rather different… genre fans looking for interesting, sometimes provocative features on the fringe elements of the genre will find much to enjoy here." Strange Things Are Happening

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Paracinema Magazine: Issue 18

Mouldy mildew, mother of mouthmuck! Issue 18 of Paracinema Magazine is now available to pre-order!

Packed full of ridiculously good ‘letters that stay’ on all kinds of genre cinema, this issue includes the likes of When Single Shines the Triple Sun: Duality and Self Discovery in The Dark Crystal by Christine Makepeace, Marriage Bites: Lesbian Vampires and the Failure of Heterosexuality in Daughters of Darkness by Erin Wiegand, 3D’s Use and Potential in Today’s Cinematic Landscape by Caleb McCandless, Speed Racer: The Art of Absurdity by Patrick Smith and The Goriest Film You Never Saw by Jose Cruz.

Sound good? Duh, of course! Fancy picking up a copy? Erm, yes! Well then, head over to Paracinema.net and pre-order one now. Support independent publishing, or, you know, face the wrath of the Skeksis! 

Happy Bloody Birthday, Behind the Couch

Cake by Emma/Photo by me.
Behind the Couch turns four years old today!

Thanks so much to everyone who has swung by. While this year has been slightly quieter than usual on the blogging front - mainly due to another Argento related project I’ve been working on – I still found time to dander down Elm Street with a movie marathon, swoon over Vincent Price, talk about Italian horror cinema with a pop star, and loiter in graveyards with prematurely buried maidens…

There were of course also the usual reviews of old favourites, new favourites, obscure gems and obscure trash, as well as chats with fairytale experts and authors of creepy poetry for children. Behind the Couch was also invited to join LOTT D and get nerdy over horror with its lovely members.

This year not only marked the 30th anniversary of Dario Argento’s Tenebrae, but also my (hopefully endearingly) bumbling foray into the world of podcasting; the results of which included helping to put together Paracinema’s first podcast (on the music of John Carpenter) and chats about Italian horror with Aaron (The Death Rattle) Duenas and Jon (Shocks to the System) Towlson, which you can listen to here and here.

Away from blogging and podcasting I continued to contribute to publications such as Paracinema and Exquisite Terror - which, if you’re not familiar with, are really worth checking out – as well as embarking on a Photo A Day For A Year project.

Thanks again for stopping by, reading my scribblings, leaving comments and inspiring conversations about all things horror. Here’s to another year!