Saturday, December 31, 2016

Holiday Horror: Gremlins

A down on his luck father stumbles upon a delightful creature called a mogwai while perusing an antique store in Chinatown. He doesn't take no for answer when the owner says it's not for sale and convinces the man's grandson to sell it to him under the table for his son Billy. Billy loves the mogwai and names him Gizmo, but doesn't follow the three very simple rules. He ends up with 6 mogwais and then blunders even further when they turn monstrous after feeding them after midnight. They turn hideous and cruel, wreaking havoc across the sleepy town of Kingston Falls. Can Billy contain or destroy the gremlins before they wreck the town and move on to somewhere else?

Gremlins is a film I haven't seen since childhood. Pretty much the only thing I remembered was adorable Gizmo and creepy Stripe. It's an odd film that has some flaws, but I can see why it's become a classic. The film highlights problems in the United States using the microcosm of Kingston Falls. At the beginning, we enjoy a short scene of idyllic bliss in the small town that's shattered by greed. A police man asks a Christmas tree salesman for a donated tree for the police station, but he refuses even though he will have lots of trees left over. This is not an isolated incident as eldery and rich Mrs. Deagle and the bank refuse to give a woman and her hungry children more time to pay their bills. She also threatens to kill Billy's dog for breaking something of hers and "attacking" her. Kingston Falls is supposed to be the epitome of wholesome America, but it's full of greedy people only concerned for themselves willing to let their neighbors down.

The real Kingston Falls ties into the lie of the American dream. Everyone in the film is trying to make money to survive, but most aren't successful or are unhappy. The ones who are successful, like Mrs. Deagle and her bank toadies, don't do anything to help their community. Billy is a talented artist, but put aside his passion and happiness to work in a bank and be more financially successful. Billy's father Rand constantly tries to invent something that will make him rich. Occasionally he cons people into buying his stuff, but his inventions mostly don't work or are not needed. He spends the majority of his time away from home, essentially leaving Billy without a father, to provide for them. When he finds the mogwai, he doesn't understand the concept that someone wouldn't want money for it. When he finds how easy it is for the mogwai to reproduce, all he thinks of is how to sell it. Nothing means anything to him if it doesn't have to do with economics. This attitude creates the gremlin problem.

Gizmo is adorable, but he has some creepiness in his face around the eyes and mouth that disappear in the second film. He talks, sings, watches movies, and shows he is quite intelligent. This whole film is pretty hard on him as it all stems from Billy's inability to follow three simples rules: don't get him wet, don't feed him after midnight, and don't expose him to sunlight. Billy and his family don't seem equipped to take care of their dog, never mind a delicate creatures like Gizmo. His pain and terror when he was wet or exposed to bright lights was suprisingly sad and his caretakers never really take notice. Billy even get him wet to show a scientist, never mind that he was told not to do that and it seems to torture Gizmo.

The gremlins start off as cute mogwais, but always bullied Gizmo and cliqued up with Stripe as their leader. Once they get wet, they turn into reptilian, disgusting creatures bent on wrecking the whole town. They will attack people, but focus on doing what they love. This includes drinking, smoking, and eating to excess, breaking things, generally getting into trouble, listening to music, and dancing. Their scenes are hilarious even while they can be dangerous. I love the meta moment when the gremlins watched a movie in the theater and Stripe is only saved because he wants more snacks, The greed this town is built on has led to the destruction of the city.

Gremlins is a Christmas horror comedy that highlights the consequences of focusing on monetary wealth rather than family and community. This issue is exacerbated by Christmas, where we feel pressure to buy the best gifts to show people we love them as Billy's father did. The film does have its odd moments like Billy seeming like he should be much younger, especially with an 8 year old as a best friend. This classic family friendly movie has some surprisingly frightening scenes that I completely forgot about. I highly recommend this silly movie and it makes me want to rewatch the sequel.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Friday, December 30, 2016

Holiday Horror: The Children

Elaine, Jonah, and their children visit Elaine's sister Chloe and her family in their secluded home for Christmas. At first, everything seems normal. The children play and the parents drink. Casey, Elaine's eldest, pouts and sulks that she can't spend her time at parties with her friends. Paulie, Elaine's son, gets seemingly carsick on the way there and some of the children misbehave a bit. Nothing seems out of the ordinary, just normal family conflicts. Then, more of the children become sick, showing the same symptoms as Paulie. The children as a group begin to misbehave more and more until Robbie, Elaine's husband, is killed in what looks like a horrible accident. Casey realizes that the children have turned violent, but the parents refuse to believe it. Can Casey convince the adults before the children kill every adult?

I have a weakness for killer kid movies especially when they are merged with cheery holidays. The film starts out like a typical family gathering for Christmas with the same squabbles and drama that any family has. The two families couldn't be more different. Chloe and her husband Robbie live in a luxurious house and are the most overprotective people ever. Their children are homeschooled and they don't believe in vaccinations or modern medicine. Chloe gets worked up over any little thing like Elaine daring to bring a sick child and blows things out of proportion. This couple is everything I hate about parents. Elaine and Jonah, on the other hand, are pretty sensible and laid back. I found them much more relatable.

Despite their differences, both parents have many of the same problems later in the film. First, there are little to no consequences or even responses when the children start becoming more aggressive and violent. Second, as the violence escalates, they refuse to acknowledge that their children are at fault in any way, even when that violence is directed at them. I consider this to be a judgment of parenting where everyone else is at fault for children's failings or bad behavior. These parents automatically look to someone else to blame despite the proof right in front of their faces. When Elaine finally realizes what's really happening, she can't harm her child or any of the other children even though they are dangerous. This is much more understandable to me because killing or attacking their child is against pretty much the parent's entire life up to this point. It's incredibly difficult to kill this evil thing because it still wears the face of their child.

The children chosen for the film are just about the cutest you could find with giant eyes and cherubic faces. We don't see much of them acting normally, but they seem like normal children who play and occasionally get into trouble. Once under the effects of the disease, these children have the creepiest stares and manipulate the parents beautifully. The first death of an adult came as a shock accompanied with a surprising amount of blood. The children still act like children, but with deranged and dangerous tendancies. For instance, they still seem to have fun and hold curiosity for things. Instead of conventional childish interests, they have fun stealing splints off an adults broken leg while they scream in agony and are curious what a baby doll sounds like stuffed in the cut open stomach of an adult. For the adult deaths, the camera will often cut away, but the children's deaths are shown in all their bloody gory. If you are squeamish at all at children dying in film, stay well away from The Children.

My favorite character in this entire film is Casey, Elaine's pouty teenage daughter. At first, she's pretty insufferable in full teenage rebellion mode with heavy makeup, a hidden tattoo, inappropriate clothing for the very cold weather, and a plan to ditch the family reunion to party with her friends. By the midpoint, she completely changes her attitude by ditching her friends when she realizes something is wrong. Casey is the only character who will kill these feral children without hesitation because she's tried everything to stop them. As the only character who isn't a parent or infected by the disease, she isn't blinded by parental love and is able to see where the danger truly lies.

The Children is a well crafted film that sets the stage of a loving family and then completely tears it apart. The film is suspenseful and frustrating at the same time because the vicious children are unpredictable and most of the parents don't realize their children are murderers until it's too late. It's the juxtoposition of opposites that makes the story shine like the beautiful white snow next to huge amounts of blood, the cherubic children alongside their gruesome murdering, and the Hallmark picture family at the beginning compared to what remains at the end. The only flaw is in an unnecessary subplot that I feel detracts from the story. If you are into gruesome, suspenseful horror films where both children and adults meet horrible ends, this is the film for you.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Holiday Horror: Saint

* spoilers *

Saint Nicholas is known in Amsterdam to be a benevolent figure that gives presents, but he is actually a corrupt bishop killed in 1492 for terrorizing and killing the native people with his gang. In modern day, Saint Nicholas Day falls on a full moon, causing an undead Saint Nick to return and kill as many people as he can. It's up to a random idiot teen named Frank and a cop named Goert whose whole family was killed by Saint Nick during the last instance on the full moon in that day. Can they save Amsterdam from being torn apart by this undead Saint? Can he even be stopped?

Saint is a dark comedy that puts our idyllic view of Saint Nicholas into question. Instead of a jolly old man giving presents or even the Saint Nicholas who resurrected the dead and performed other miracles that the Catholic Church has revered. This version of him has little to do with the others as a charred zombie with a disfigured face. When he's actually present, his feast is a bloodbath instead of a feast for exchanging gifts or poems and rewarding virtue. He has followers known in mythology as Black Peter, a troubling dark skinned version of Krampus that punishes the sinners as a foil to Saint Nicholas. The portrayal is definitely racist and it was jarring to see people in black face dressed up as this figure. The horror version of this is in a large gang of charred people who followed him in life. The smell of their burnt flesh follows them everywhere and acts as the only warning to their attacks.

The film has two heroes: seasoned cop Goert and teenage Frank. Goert's family was killed by Saint Nicholas and he's been compiling evidence of his regular attacks ever since. It's his mission to expose the saint and the holiday for what they are instead of what the Catholic church and the city officials try to feed the public in the name of peace and control. I liked his straight forward attitude, but his decision making was pretty suspect in the end of the film. Saint Nicholas's boat is full of the children of the town that he kidnapped and Goert's solution to the problem was to destroy his boat with the children on it. He's obviously supernatural, so that may not work in the first place plus he actively murdered many innocent children.

Frank is the most unlikeable of the heroes. He is a typical teenage guy (who looks at least 25 like all the teens in the movie) who cheats on his (also cheating) girlfriend Sophie and is spectacularly dumped in front of his class. In a very telling scene, he approaches the girl he was cheating with named Lisa for sex and she rejects him. He pathetically tries to guilt her into it by saying he came such a long way and insults her when she says no. I don't want this guy succeeding at anything. He's a grade A douche that I would rather see torn apart by Saint Nick than having super awkward sex with the same girl he pressured then insulted at the end of the film. Earlier in the film, he's arrested for killing Sophie, but the police harrass Lisa and imply that Frank is justified being angry after being dumped. I do not like the misogynistic element of the film that blame the women for everything and a guy like Frank comes out successful in the end instead of gutted like the worm he is.

Saint is an overall fun film that takes the slasher formula and adds a very different version of Saint Nicholas than we are used to. The beginning of the film and many of the kills bring to mind such other slasher films as Halloween. I had a few problems with the film, namely in Frank, the supposed protagonist. None of the characters except Goert are truly likeable and even he allows who knows how many children to perish on Saint Nicholas's boat. The kills are innovative and fun to watch, but I didn't really care when most of the people died. The best parts of the film are the zombified Saint Nick and the Amsterdam landscape.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Holiday Horror: A Christmas Horror Story

A Christmas Horror Story is an anthology film that has 4 interlocking stories all taking place on Christmas Eve. To tie all the stories together, Dangerous Dan, a drunken radio DJ played by William Shatner, reports from the Bailey Downs radio station on his annual double shift. Fun fact, Bailey Downs is the fictional rural Canadian city where Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald lived in one of my favorite horror films Ginger Snaps. Anyway, Dangerous Dan is irreverent and fun while he plays music, keeps the Christmas spirit with heavily spiked eggnog, and tries to figure out what happened to his weatherman. He and the town tie all the stories together so it feels cohesive.

The first story has three high school journalists breaking into their school to report on an unsolved murder that occurred the year before. Two students their age were ritualistically murdered in the school's basement and they want to report from there directly. At first, everything is going fine. They find some remnants of the crime scene like a biblical line written on the wall in blood washed away but still visible. After being trapped in this basement, a supernatural being makes itself known. This murder is connected to a girl's death in the past when the school was a convent. While this segment was atmospheric, the story wasn't as developed as the others.

The second story focuses on the family of a police officer who went on leave after investigating the modern murder from the previous segment. He takes his family to illegally cut down a tree from someone else's land. His son was lost for a few minutes, but he returns unharmed. When they return home, his demeanor is entirely different as he refuses to speak, sneaks around the house, and lashes out violently. The changeling concept is a cool one that isn't seen very much. The kid was extremely creepy and this segment had a lot of suspense and a few very uncomfortable scenes. I liked the balance of reality and fantasy. This segment is better than the first, but had a small flaw in some unreasonable reactions.

The third story involves a family that's lost the Christmas spirit. A man, his wife, and their two children (one who is friends with the teens in the first segment) travel a long way to meet their estranged and rich grandmother. The entire way, everyone bickers and snipes at each other. The reason for visiting isn't reconnecting with family like the father said, but to try to get money from her. After being stranded in the snow, they realize they are being stalked by Krampus, who is portrayed much differently here than usual. His skin is snow white and he has an extremely buff human torso with an animal-like face topped with horns. Krampus traditionally carries chains, but this one uses them to attack those he punishes. This segment was the most fun thanks to the wonderful practical effects of the creature and the memorable changes to the tradition folklore.

The last story has Santa fighting against zombified elves in the North Pole. This isn't the bowlful of jelly Santa, but more like wrestler or a very aged Thor. He uses his super strength and golden shepherd's crook (just like St. Nick) to decapitate and maim the elf zombies. Elves shouldn't be able to die at all, but they all suddenly become infected with this zombie disease. The concept seems to be Santa fighting against the death of the Christmas spirit at first which I thought is a cool and delightfully cheesy way to portray it. At first, I enjoyed the segment, but it doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the stories. The ending of this segment completely ties everything into a cohesive whole and solidified my love for the movie.

Each story has its own flavor, but feels like the direction and look are all the same even though it was made by 3 different directors. Not all of these stories are the best, but the film is overall fun to watch. The last story is my favorite by a long shot for its use of zombies and the hardhitting ending. I especially liked that the segments are cycled through many times instead of doing each segment individually to mix things up and move things along. I would definitely watch this every year along with the rest of my Christmas horror films.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Holiday Horror: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Pietari and his father live in Lapland, Finland where they slaughter reindeer to feed themselves and sell to survive on. A big corporation is drilling on top of Korvatunturi, a fell nearby, and ruining their business. The herd of reindeer that usually provides them for their whole year's income is found rotting, obviously killed by mad wolves. Pietari sees some evidence of it being done by people and knows that Santa is behind it all. He knows that Santa isn't the benelovent giver of gifts everyone thinks he is. No one listens to him because he is young, but he will fights as hard as he can to protect his family and the life they have built together.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is a dark fairy tale featuring the most adorable child, Pietari. He is often mocked by others and is seen as a weakling. His only semblance of a friend is Juuso, who is a couple of years older and cruel to him. His mother is absent and his father is emotionally distant. Whatever happened seems to have been recent and his father still hurts, but reacts to this by separating himself from Pietari rather than sharing their feelings. This isolated boy tries his best, but usually acts as a hinderance to those around him. This all changes when Juuso tells him there is no Santa Claus. Pietari goes into Buffy-esque research mode with a bunch of books he just happens to have around the house. He discovers that Santa is a sham and he beats children in addition to other unspeakable things. The illustrations in these books are amazing and morbid, featuring a more Krampus-like figure beating children and Santa on top of a pile of children's skulls.

When things start going bad, Pietari is the only one to look at the evidence. He, Juuso, and the other children cut a hole in a fence to spy on the Korvatunturi drilling operation, so he blames himself for basically destroying their future. Then he sees bare human footprints around the carcasses and knows it was Santa Claus. He sets out to fight as best he can, preparing by wearing protective hockey gear, carrying around his father's rifle, and taping cardboard to his bottom. Pietari completely changes from a boy frightened by his father's slaughtering business to one brave enough to confront powerful creatures and even when all seems lost. His relationship with his distant father completely flips as Pietari becomes the protector of and fighter for his father.

The creatures in the film are not what Pietari or anyone else expected. The old nude men seen around are not Santa; they are more like his elves, doing his bidding by kidnapping the local children and stealing anything that emits heat. They are pretty much indestructable, surviving a tiger trap, beatings, torture, and other abuse. Santa is trapped in a giant block of ice. Only his giant horns are seen and everything else is hidden beneath the ice. Even though it's is never mentioned by name, this Santa seems more like Krampus, the dark punishing side of Santa. The crew working around the ice block received new safety instructions that included no drinking, cursing, swearing, or smoking, all things that could incur Santa's wrath and disturb his slumber.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Story is a more whimsical story that undermines the view we typically have of Santa Claus. The overall tone of the film is more positive and hopeful than most films like it. The core of the film is the relationship between Pietari and his father which is strengthened over the course of the story. The ending is awesome and unexpected (although it is more disturbing if you think about it too much). The whole story is elevated by the beautiful visuals of the icy Finnish countryside. This is one of the few feel good Christmas horror films and it's highly recommended.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Monday, December 26, 2016

Holiday Horror: Tales From the Crypt's And All Through the House 1972 vs 1989

Today, I'm comparing the original depiction of Tales from the Crypt's And All Through the House in the 1972 film to the more modern version from the second episode of the TV series in 1989. Both stories depict a woman murdering her husband on the night before Christmas and trying to cover it up, but an unexpected threat comes from an insane man dressed as Santa Claus.

* 1972

I love a lot about this short film. Everything is subtle and well crafted. The film doesn't have to narrate that the old man loves his family, but instead has an establishing shot of this man lovingly putting presents under the tree. The first indication that something is wrong is an amazing shot of blood splashing on the newpaper the older man is reading when he is killed. The woman, portrayed by Joan Collins, calmly goes straight for the safe to check his life insurance, showing that her main motivation is money. The chilling aspect of this part lies in the happy child upstairs waiting for Santa, unaware of the carnage downstairs, and the peaceful choral Christmas music that contrast with the violence.

Much of the film has no dialogue because the woman is trying to clean up the murder while her daughter sleeps upstairs. So much of Joan Collins' performance is in her eyes and her facial expressions. When the psychotic Santa reveals himself, she reaches for the phone and you know by her glance at the body and her defeated facial expression that she knows she can't call the police until she cleans up. She works tirelessly cleaning up the blood, dragging her husbands body to the basement, and planting blood to make it seems like he fell. In addition to this, she has to secure the house by locking all the doors and latching all the windows before Santa comes inside. As she works, her face becomes drenched with sweat and she's visibly drained.

Unfortunately, all her hard work is for nothing because her innocent daughter let Santa in the house after she's been waiting for him all night. Overall, this film has everything I want in a Christmas horror film: murder, suspense, good performances, and a concise story told in just over 12 minutes. The only downsides are the dated decor and not very scary Santa. This classic Tales from the Crypt story combines elements of wholesome Christmas traditions with murder and mayhem and ending with the evil being punished.

My rating: 4.5/5

* 1989

As with all Tales from the Crypt episodes, the Crypt Keeper appears with his morbid puns and cheery personality to introduce the story. This creature dressed as Santa in a Santa mask with his eyes and teeth showing through is the stuff of nightmares and much scarier than the actual episode. He recites the beginning of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas to lead into the story.

This house is much more homey and welcoming than the house in the original segment. Nat King Cole sings the Christmas Song while we see their beautiful decorations, cookies set out for Santa, large Christmas tree, and presents under it. Instead of a loving father, this father is alive long enough to scorn the ending of Dickens' A Christmas Carol before he is comically murdered by his wife. While the original is subtle and serious, this version is practically a parody. Everything is explicitly stated and over the top. The poker gets stuck in his head and cartoonish sounds accompany her attempts to free it. She immediately calls her sleazy boyfriend and says she did it and they have the money.

The only moment of real tension is when the girl comes downstairs to see what's happening and the dad's corpse is sitting conveniently hiding his head wound. Will the body fall when the girl can see? The mom doesn't even seem to care that the child sees her dead father (who has the silliest expression every and ruines the scene) and takes her up to bed. Unlike Joan Collins, this woman talks to herself constantly while trying to clean up the murder, take the body outside, and dump it in the conveniently placed well that I hope no one uses. The body comes back alive after having a plastic bag over its head for an extremely long time and attacks her. It's so nonsensical and unnecessary. While she's doing all this, she missed the announcement about the escaped mental patient dressed as Santa, but she sees him instead.

The psychotic Santa looks much more imposing and acts more dangerously. However, the woman makes the most stupid decisions on the face of the planet. Just a few include not making sure he's dead after axing him, stopping and investigating every time she's hears a noise (AFTER she knows the killer Santa out there) and getting trapped in the closet. In the closet, she completely freezes and sees him going up a ladder just outside the closet window. Why does a closet even have a window? Anyway, instead of getting the gun and shooting hiim through the window, she just watches him mouth agape and screams. Do something! I had some respect for Joan Collins because she acted so intelligently, but I couldn't wait for this woman to die.

The ending is exactly the same even though they try to fool you by thinking he will enter the window left open upstairs. Overall, this version is way too silly and cartoonish and doesn't add anything to the story by almost doubling the length of the original. I didn't feel scared through any of it and the only moment of suspense was ruined.

My rating: 1.5/5

The verdict:

The original 1972 version keeps the suspense and horror of the situation despite its dated trappings. The more modern one feels more familiar and has a creepier Santa, but its tone is way too comedic and obvious.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Holiday Horror: Black Christmas (1974)

Christmas break is coming up at a university and a certain sorority house has an unwelcome visitor. The young women are busy with their Christmas parties and packing up to visit family. Their festivities are interrupted by the disappearance of one of the sorority sisters named Clare and numerous anonymous obscene phone calls. The women try to go to the police, but no one listens to them. When a young girl is found murdered near the school, the police finally take them seriously and consider that the events are all related. Is it too late to save the rest of the sorority sisters?

Black Christmas is credited as the first American slasher film, a full four years before Halloween that is usually seen as the first. Black Christmas has many aspects in common with slasher films, but some with a different spin than usual like the victims, the killer, and the resolution. The group of women being stalked are older than the usual high school students. These women are more self assured, more intelligent, and much less naive. The stereotypical final girl is virginal, sweet, and does almost nothing wrong. Clare would be the final girl in any other slasher with her virginal innocence, but she's the first to die. The other women can be quite crass, sexually active, and unapologetic about their decisions, which is a refreshing change from the usual ditzy high schoolers. They all are genuine friends which is shown in quiet moments of caring between the women. It was nice to see women I could cheer for instead of ones I cheered the slasher for murdering.

My two favorite characters are Barbara and Jess. Barbara, portrayed by Margot Kidder, has a spiky exterior. She tells things like it is and isn't afraid to clap back at people with sarcasm or cruelty. I love her interaction with the dismissive police officer that offered some much needed comic relief. Her life is much more painful than she lets on, shown in a phone conversation where her mother doesn't want to spend the holidays with her. Barbara is flawed, but strong. Jess is just as strong with a lot more tact. She takes care of her friends but also stands firm in the face of oppostion. She recently found out she was pregnant by her boyfriend Peter and already firmly decided to have an abortion. When her boyfriend goes from incredulous to angry, her decision stands firm because she has her own hopes and dreams that she doesn't want to give up no matter how many times her pleads or threatens. Even now, this portrayal of Jess's unapologetic decision to abort is a rarity that should be seen much more often after 40 years. Both women are flawed but strong individuals that I hoped would survive the film.

The men in the film treat the sorority sisters with disdain and dismissiveness. Peter is the worse offender as he tries to pressure Jess into keeping her baby and marrying him. His behavior is disgusting and abusive. He threatens her, insults her, pleads with her, and then decides they should get married. He tells her he is leaving the conservatory and they will get married. No asking, just telling. This occurs after he destroys a beautiful piano belonging to the school. The police are slightly better, but that's not saying much. They don't take a missing girl or obscene phone calls seriously even though it might be tied to another local girl missing. The only decent man in the film is Lt. Kenneth Fuller who sees the connection between all the suspicious events and calls on Jess to help catch the killer.

The killer in this film is interesting. He is never seen clearly. An eye is shown through a crack in the door, his shadow and hands are seen, and his voice is heard. Most of his action are shown through a first person camera from his perspective, allowing us to see through his eyes. He's a disturbing figure for a number of reasons. Not only is he a murderer, but the way he rocks and sings to Clare's body is incredibly disturbing. His ravings and different voices (possibly suggesting multiple personalities) are chilling to listen to as he shouts, squeals, tantrums, and sings. He stays inside the house right from the first scene of the film and the girls have no idea. He stores bodies in the attic and they are never discovered despite not bothering to hide them. There's no logical reason for him to be targeting these women like in other slashers. It's a completely random series of crimes that could happen to anyone which conceptually is more frightening than the reasons for other slashers.

While Halloween stays firm on the top of my list of favorite films, Black Christmas proves itself to be a hidden gem that goes largely unrecognized for its merits. I find it interesting that even before conventions were in place for this genre, this film went in the opposite direction. The main characters are older, more established women. The killer isn't an iconic figure, but someone hidden and raving. The ending is incredibly bleak that makes this film all the more chilling. My only issues with the film are some bad decisions made by Jess and the police that were uncharacteristic near the end and the lackluster music. Black Christmas will definitely be in my rotation of yearly Christmas films because of the incredible characters, insanely scary villain, and unexpected ending.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Holiday Horror 2016

Merry Christmas, Krampusnacht, Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, Saturnalia, or whatever celebration you observe! Here on Fishmuffins of Doom, this is the start of the Twelve Days of Holiday Horror. Follow me on a journey of wonder to films that merge the wonderful aspects of this season like snow, Santa, and family with murder, mayhem, and gore. If you'd like to see any specific film covered, please leave a comment below and I will try to cover it either this year or next year. Other than that, enjoy my Twelve Days of Holiday Horror.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Horror Movie Mini-Reviews: They're Watching and Phantasm

* They're Watching

A show very much like House Hunters International follows a couple choosing a house to buy in a rural part of Moldova. It seems odd at the outset for a couple of reasons. First, the couple is an odd pair. Becky is always happy and sees the silver lining in everything. She has simple tastes and loves creating pottery. Her boyfriend Goran is a famous soccer player and always angry or moody. He looks like a typical rich douche with his sunglasses, leather jackets, and monochromatic clothes. They barely interact and don't seem to share a lot of interests. The next strange thing is the house they decide to buy which is basically in ruins. If you've ever seen House Hunters, this part is hilarious because of how bad this house is. The interior hasn't been seen in about a hundred years and looks more like it should be demolished than renovated. The exterior is just as rough, but Becky is delighted at the possibilities.

The TV crew returns to the couple and their house six months later, expecting nothing to have been done. The crew consists of newbie Sarah, practically interchangeable Alex and Greg, and finally their abusive boss Kate. The only interesting character in the whole film is Vladimir, the realtor. He acts as the bridge to the locals and gets them out of a lot of trouble. Even though they are awful, trample on local customs, and anger the locals, he's there for them every step of the way with his friendly personality and affable nature. Sarah constantly talks over footage they try to film even though she went to film school. They find Becky has shockingly turned her ruin into a cozy home, but other things mar their filming. The local people seem more and more menacing as time goes on, eventually surrounding the house and destroying their vehicle. The ending had some definite flaws, but its unpredictable nature and humor makes me overlook the bad. It's definitely worth your time and fun spin on the found footage genre through the lens of a reality show.

My rating: 3.5/5

* Phantasm

After his parents' died, Jody takes care of his little brother Mike in a small Oregon town that is reeling from a rash of unexplained deaths. Mike suspects that the local moritician he dubs the Tall Man has something to do with these murders. This film is about two young men trying to make sense of death. In this story, death is a mortician alien who steals bodies to turn into servants for another world. These two boys along with another friend are the only people aware of this threat and work together to stop him. The Tall Man portrayed by Angus Scrimm is a memorable character. The tools he uses and the way he operates are unique to this series of films like the dangerous silver spheres. I didn't expect this film to be about aliens at all, but it's integrated well into solid horror territory. I can see why many people love this film.

While I enjoyed the film, Phantasm is much more relatable for men and boys. Women in the film are not fleshed out characters and feel completely separate from the three main characters. Beautiful women are objects of lust or damsels in distress to be saved for the main characters. The femme fatale minion of the Tall Man (who I think is really him in another form) is a flat villain who barely speaks and uses her body to kill men. A fortune teller's granddaughter (who doesn't even have a name!!!) acts as Mike's supernatural aide and tells him "don't fear," which carries him throughout the film. This is truly a film for men where women are treated as wholly different and outside of their world. Phantasm has interesting concepts and a memorable villain, but the isolated view of the film puts me off.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Monday, December 19, 2016

Horror Movie Mini-Reviews: Beyond the Gates and Sun Choke

* Beyond the Gates

Estranged brothers Gordon and John reunite to pack up their father's store after his disappearance. The reunion is awkward and they don't see eye to eye on a lot of things. They really couldn't be more different as Gordon is a straight laced business man and John is a slob always in between jobs. They find a VCR board game called Beyond the Gates and it has much higher stakes than they expected.

Beyond the Gates is a love letter to VHS horror and it's a fun film to watch. The game operates like a horror version of Jumanji where their tasks in the game have very real (and often extremely and delightfully gory) consequences. Gordon, his girlfriend Margot, and John have to finish the game to save Gordon and John's father's soul or have their own souls trapped within the game for eternity. They have to find four keys to travel beyond the gates and then return safely. Barbara Crampton is equal parts creepy and magnetic as the host of the show Evelyn who eerily follows their movements from the TV and responds only when they've done what she has asked of them. Everything she says has gravitas, but is over the top as well like any good horror host.

Gordon and John get to know each other better through the course of this game despite traumatic events. Gordon's back story is particularly interesting because he's decided to tamp down all his flaws and appear perfect because of his own shortcomings. It comes out that he hurt Margot when he was drunk and then he decided to become the uptight, repressed person we see at the beginning of the film. I found his character the most interesting because of his need to appear perfect. John was incredibly annoying and was just a slacker with horrible friends. Their journey through the game was nostalgic and fun, but not without legitimate danger. Overall, Beyond the Gates is a fun throwback film.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

* Sun Choke

Something is wrong with Janie. She is under constant surveillance by her caretaker Irma and barraged by a constant stream of psychological tests, yoga, pills, and calm but firm directions. When Janie can leave the house, she stalks Savannah, a beautiful woman. Sun Choke is an interesting film that doesn't give a lot of firm answers. At first, it's unclear why Janie, as an adult, is being imprisoned and controlled so harshly. Over the course of the film, Janie exhibits obsessive traits and seizure-like symptoms. On one hand, I felt for her because of Irma's oppressive craziness, but she shows some pretty serious signs that would justify her being imprisoned.

Sarah Hagan's performance as Janie is amazing. Despite some of her behavior, she stays a sympathetic character for most of the film. She seems to be just as in the dark as the audience. Irmia implies the cycle of behavior we see in the film from obediant and child-like to violent and rebellious has happened before, who knows how many times. Barbara Crampton is equally magnetic as manipulative Irma. She seems to be caring and calm, but her streak of cruelty runs deep. Janie has no privacy and follows a rigid routine every day, whether she likes it or not. Many of her methods, espcially when Janie misbehaves, are torturous and painful. I don't need everything spelled out for me, but I have a ton of questions about this whole situation that will never be answer. Janie and Irma's relationship is the most interesting thing about the film, but the story gets distracted by a subplot.

During Janie's rebellious actions, she becomes obsessed with a woman named Savannah, following her everywhere, entering her home, and wanting to be her. While it supports the first plot because Janie wants more independence and apparently would rather be someone else, this plot takes over too much by the end. While the ending is tense, it borders more on torture porn than the psychological film it was leading up to it. Sun Choke is an interesting film, but the ending doesn't match the rest of the film. I'm more interested in character studies of Janie and Irma as well as the toxic nature of their relationship.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Horror Podcast: The Last Podcast on the Left and Killer POV

* The Last Podcast on the Left

I've heard a huge amount of good things about The Last Podcast on the Left from a lot of people whose opinion I trust. Ben Kissel, Henry Zebrowski, and Marcus Parks discuss the real and imagined horrors of life with their own comedic flair. I listened to the first 4 episodes of the podcast that include serial killers, cults, demonology in film, and introducing themselves. They have interesting, rambling discussions about the topics and are knowledgeable about a surprising number of things. My favorite of the discussions is when one of the hosts discusses his experience watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in rural Texas near the city where these fictional murders take place. He has a healthy fear of hitchhikers in the first place and the film starts out with a creepy hitchhiker. His account of watching it in pitch darkness, all by himself, in the middle of nowhere is awesome.

The reason I didn't continue the podcast after 4 episodes is their type of humor. I love dark jokes and even sick jokes about death, but their humor borders and ventures into misogyny quite a bit. One of the first jokes of the entire show has one of the men referring to his girlfriend as a hole. During the serial killer episode, vulvas in a box were a huge point of humor for them. It rubs me the wrong way and seems to be a bit of a staple with this group. It's not a bad show, but it just isn't for me. Many people enjoy the show, but the bro-y energy of the show puts me off.

My rating: 2.5/5

* Killer POV

Rebekah McKendry, Rob G, and Elric Kane discuss horror films and interview guests. I loved the first episode where each of the hosts introduces themselves and talks about their taste in horror films in addition to how they got into the genre. I had only heard of Rebekah as she was a writer for Fangoria and a current writer for Blumhouse, but it was cool to hear more from her. I enhoyed getting to know the hosts and their backgrounds. The second episode has the hosts interviewing actors who play Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees making their own film. I wasn't super interested in it and I wanted to skip it, but the podcast is focused on interviewing people in the horror genre about their work and about other films. I'm not into interviews being a big part of a podcast. I'm more interested in the discussion between the hosts about films or analyzing films. Another one that wasn't bad, but not for me.

My rating: 3/5

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Horror Movie Mini-Reviews: 31 and Perfect Host

* 31

A group of carnies is kidnapped and forced to fight for their lives for 12 hours on Halloween for the amusement of deranged people. 31 is a typical Rob Zombie movie with all of his favorite things: extreme violence, his wife Sheri Moon Zombie, gratuitous nudity, 70's era sleaze, and completely unlikeable characters all around. The violence doesn't really bother me as it's always a part of his movies, but it's everything else that makes the film a chore to watch. Sheri Moon Zombie does a better job here than in Lords of Salem because her performance doesn't completely depend on the success of the film. I liked her character for a little bit when she decided to emphatically fight back and kill in order to survive, but she could have been replaced with a mannequin in the end. It's a disappointing end for a promising character.

Zombie seems to love the 70's and especially the worst, most despicable white trash characters. I didn't like any of the characters at all. Even the carnies are just terrible despite the fact that the audience needs to be emotionally invested in them for the film to be effective. They are the worst bunch of sleazy, crude, misogynistic low-lifes. The most interesting villains are Doom Head, Father Napoleon, Sister Dragon, and Sister Serpent. Doom Head is a killer hired to murder those in the 31 game. He has the best dialogue in the entire film and his soliloquies, deranged expressions, and unpredictable demeanor make him even more memorable. Father Napoleon and the two Sisters intrigue me because we don't see any of what they do outside of this demented event. Plus I always like Malcolm MacDowell. The other "Head" characters are paper thin caricatures of villains, just as disposable and Zombie's worst attempt at shock value. Overall, 31 has a couple of interesting moments, but the concept and constant violence get old fast.

My rating: 1.5/5

* Perfect Host

John Taylor robs a bank and struggles to find a safe haven when his face is plastered all over the news. He finds a rich man named Warwick who lives alone, weasels his way into the house with lies and then stays with aggression. Warwick is so much more than John expected as the tables turn. John is drugged and tied up, forced to be part of Warwick's imaginary world of parties and murder.

Perfect Host is a completely unexpected movie. It has elements of horror but also of pitch black comedy and whimsy. David Hyde Pierce as Warwick is simply amazing. He lives in his own fantasy world where he is the life of the party with countless friends when in reality, he's just home alone. His favorite friends that include Roman, Chelsea, Rupert, and Monica are all different people in his mind that speak to him and give him advice. It's kind of like a very disturbing version of Heart and Souls. We get a glimpse of him in his life outside and his demeanor and even his way of speaking is completely different than when he's in his fantasy world. The entire dinner and after party scenes are filled with tension. Unpredictable Warwick could engage in polite conversation or drug him or bet him or anything in between.

John Taylor knows he's in way over his head when Warwick introduces his friends and shows John his murder dinner scrapbook. Based on this information, I had a firm idea of where the film would go, but time after time I was proven wrong. John is our entryway into Warwick's world and he fades into the background over time. He was the main character, but Warwick was infinitely more interesting. John robs a bank to help someone he loves, but this storyline has been seen time and time again. He couldn't even keep up the facade of knowing one of Warwick's friends up for very long because of his temper and his lack of commitment. No wonder his heist didn't work. His story line is the most boring, but Warwick definitely makes up for it. The ending leaves the story open for a sequel that I hope happens because it will be infinitely more sinister. I would only watch if David Hyde Pearce returned, obviously.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins