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Black Christmas (2006)

Black Christmas (2006)

by Steve Habrat

Bob Clark’s original Black Christmas is a freaky, freaky movie. Seriously, watch it all by yourself and try not to get creeped out as a slew of sorority sisters are stalked and murdered by an unseen killer all while ethereal Christmas carols play faintly in the background. It is no surprise that Hollywood would get the idea that the film was in desperate need of a redo and then proceed to screw it up royally. Enter director Glen Morgan’s cheap and tasteless 2006 pulp explosion that completely misses what made the original Black Christmas such a spooky little title. Sure, the original Black Christmas contained a little gore here and there, but it relied on atmosphere, getting under our skin with the idea that evil could be lurking anywhere and strike at any moment. Plus, it also featured some pretty good acting (Margot Kidder!), which was another positive. Black Christmas 2006 opts for outrageous shocks, glaringly fake gore, and some truly awful acting (Seriously, what the hell is Mary Elizabeth Winstead doing here?!). Morgan’s monstrosity should really be viewed as an insult considering that Clark’s Black Christmas predated John Carpenter’s legendary 1978 slasher Halloween and deserves credit for shaping the slasher subgenre. These kids just don’t get it!

On a snowy Christmas Eve night, the girls of the Alpha Kappa Gamma sorority house are all preparing themselves for Christmas day. Apparently, most of them don’t have any family to go home to. It turns out that the Alpha Kappa Gamma house used to be the home of Billy Lenz (Played by Robert Mann), a boy who suffered from a liver disorder that caused his skin to be yellow. Billy was loved by his father but despised by his mother and one night, Billy catches his mother and her boyfriend killing his loving father. If this wasn’t traumatizing enough, they then lock Billy away in the attic and his mother proceeds to sexually abuse him. She ends up getting pregnant and giving birth to a girl, Agnes (Played by Dean Friss), who is the apple of her eye. One day, Billy snaps and finds a way to get out of the attic. He then proceeds to murder his mother and eat her. In present day, Billy executes a daring escape from the mental institution he is locked away in and he returns to his childhood home to massacre the sorority sisters staying there. As the girls mysteriously disappear and perverted phone calls terrorize the girls, it is up to Kelli (Played by Katie Cassidy), her suspicious local boyfriend Kyle (Played by Oliver Hudson), and Leigh (Played by Kristen Cloke), the half-sister of one of the missing girls, to get the bottom of the mysterious disappearances and gruesome murders.

With subtly and the sinister slow build long gone, Black Christmas 2006 dives head first into a comic book aesthetic that is bathed in flashing multicolored lights and relentless self-aware violence. Morgan is all about being gross and graphic without ever paying tribute to the restraint of the original film. About the only thing he gets right is the plastic bag used to suffocate the victims but even that gets worn out about twenty minutes in. If suffocating his victims wasn’t enough, he then has his yellow skinned Billy, who looks like he belongs in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, chop off the heads of his victims and remove their eyeballs, which he then uses as ornaments on his Christmas tree. And we can’t forget the cannibalism that has been worked into just to make things more sick and twisted. There are only a few moments where Morgan applies the voyeuristic camera work that Clark used but when Morgan does it, it seems like it is just a laughable excuse to show one of his pretty actresses nude. He also can’t seem to leave the gratuitous sex scenes alone and he shoves one after another on us. One character watches a porn video on her computer while a flashback sequence shows Billy’s hideous mother and her boyfriend going to town on each other only to follow that up with her molesting Billy moments after. After a while, I just wanted it all to stop.

Black Christmas (2006)

Then we have the atrocious acting, which unsurprisingly never rises about very average. Cassidy’s Kelli is absolutely awful as the main heroine, mostly because there is very little development with her character, which makes it very hard to root for her. She is just suddenly being terrorized and that is all there is to it. Hudson is a joke as Kyle, the meathead boyfriend of Kelli who walks around with an ominous smile plastered across his face for most of the movie. It’s like he is begging to be a suspect even though we know he isn’t the killer (He has yellow skin, you morons!). Cloke’s Leigh arrives late to this stabbathon looking for her half-sister, who bites the dust earlier in the film. She teams up with Kelli but both just run around screaming and making one stupid decision after another. The rest of the girls all blend in to the background, cliché characters designed to be hacked up in the most brutal ways possible. The only one that really stands out is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Heather. She’s the only scream queen here who really knows what she is doing and even she seems a little embarassed. As far as Mann’s Billy is concerned, he just darts around in the shadows and stares bug-eyed at his victims. He certainly doesn’t anything new or exciting with his character.

At a skimpy eighty minutes, Black Christmas 2006 feels entirely too long and too short at the same time. It seems to be dragging its feet in places, especially when the girls sit around and complain about Christmas or listen horrified at the story of Billy Lenz. Then there are the flashbacks that build Billy’s backstory, which are more interested in being repulsive than providing a good scare. There is a last act twist that we can see coming a mile away and when it hits, it seems to make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Probably the only thing that one can like in the film is the nifty little nod to Clark’s other holiday classic A Christmas Story. In one scene, we can clearly see the Old Man’s leg lamp glowing proudly in the darkness. Overall, Black Christmas 2006 is another throwaway remake for the MTV generation; the ones who just can’t seem to sit patiently and enjoy a good, clever scare. It has to be a strobe light of senseless gore, loud fake-out scares, and pretty faces to keep them occupied. I hope Santa delivers a lump of coal to Morgan for this rotten remake.

Grade: F

Black Christmas 2006 is available of Blu-ray and DVD.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)

by Steve Habrat

In the past few years, many critics and horror fans have complained about the sorry state of the vampire genre, which has embraced soap opera melodrama, bloodless confrontations, and abstinence. To me, vampires are not overly emotional, glittery-skinned models who drive their supped-up cars around like they belong in The Fast and the Furious. So, you can understand my frustration with all the negative reviews of director Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a vampire film that re-imagines the greatest president of all time as an axe-swinging bloodsucker slayer. Also present in the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter credits is Tim “Dark Shadows” Burton, taking the role of producer here, who recently seems hell-bent on restoring some honor to the vampire genre. You have to hand it to Burton and Bekmambetov as they dream up a moving graphic novel that isn’t afraid to bare its fangs and put its 3D effects to work. They also don’t forget to add a small bit of self-aware fun to all of the limb severing brutality.

After he sees his mother attacked by a bloodsucker, the young Abraham Lincoln (Played by Benjamin Walker) seeks out the help of a mysterious vampire hunter named Henry Sturgess (Played by Dominic Cooper), who reluctantly begins training Lincoln in the art of hacking up vamps. After ten years of training, Lincoln moves to Springfield, Illinois, where he begins snooping out vampires for Sturgess. He shacks up with a local shopkeeper named Joshua Speed (Played by Jimmi Simpson), who gives Lincoln a money making job to fill his time in between swinging around an axe and reading law books. Lincoln soon gets the pleasure of meeting Mary Todd (Played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who he quickly falls for despite warnings from Sturgess that he have “no friends or family.” Eager to find the vampire who killed his mother, Lincoln finally gets the order to confront and kill the man responsible, but he also catches the attention of Adam (Played by Rufus Sewell), an extremely deadly vampire who owns a plantation in New Orleans. Along with his sister Vadoma (Played by Erin Wasson), Adam sets out to find and kill Lincoln at any cost.

Throughout much of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film had been cropped down and condensed into a brief hour and forty-five minute runtime. It seems like Bekmambetov and Burton didn’t want the film to overstay its welcome but I honestly never grew tired of it. It felt like Bekmambetov took the Cliff Notes version of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and made a film out of those rather than the actual book. I’d be curious to see what they left on the cutting room floor. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter moves at a breakneck pace and it springs the action on us almost instantly. Before you know it, our 16th president is prowling the misty landscapes searching for demons to hack into bloody chunks. The film has been accused of not stopping to laugh at itself and that it takes the action too seriously. While it does keep a somber tone firmly in place, Bekmambetov and Burton know that you have already laughed at the premise before the trailers have ended so why continue to harp on the joke. It would only run it into the group and then people would be complaining that the film falls back on its B-movie premise rather than getting serious.

While it is not as heavy on the horror, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter turns up the action and delivers some seriously bloody battle scenes that will hold your attention. When Lincoln isn’t chopping down a tree with one swing of an axe, he is out spinning the axe around his hands like an airplane propeller and finding new ways to stylishly chop off a vamp’s limb. While Bekmambetov provides countless slow motion shots of bodies twirling through the air, he showers the audience is streams of blood erupting from slit throats and decapitations. The highlight showdown is a smack down on train that has Lincoln and his best friend William Johnson (Played by Anthony Mackie) teaming up against a swarm of roaring killers. They toss the silver laced axe back and forth to each other while Lincoln uses his bare fists and William wields dual pistols with silver bullets. There is also a nifty scene on a Civil War battlefield that has Confederate vampires charging into battle against terrified Union soldiers, who are massacred by the undead terrors in the blink of an eye.

Surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is filled with above avergae acting from its cast. It takes Walker a few minutes to really stand firmly in Lincoln’s shoes but once he does, he disappears into the role. Later in the film, Bekmambetov hides Walker behind the silliest fake beard ever captured on film. Dominic Cooper gets to have flamboyant fun as a vampire hunter with a secret. Sturgess always seems to be in the right place at the right time, always yanking Lincoln out of a tight spot. B-movie princess Winstead shows up as Lincoln’s first lady Mary Todd, who late in the game gets to play hardened griever whose eyes show the signs of a woman loosing faith in her husband. The only two characters that I felt there should have been more from were Simpson’s Speed and Mackie’s William, both who are likeable enough characters, but a tad embryonic, especially Speed. Rufus Sewell is fairly drab as the undead plantation owner Adam, especially when we see him next to smirking creep Jack Barts (Played by Marton Csokas), the man who killed Lincoln’s mother.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter does have a few slip-ups in the production department. At times, we can clearly see the make-up smeared all over the faces of the characters and the contacts stuck in the eyes of Mary Todd. Bekmambetov uses a combination of CGI and authentic make-up applied to the undead antagonists, which makes them look pretty ferocious, especially when they erupt into shrieks that reveal rows of razor sharp fangs. There is also a far-fetched action sequence set in the middle of a thundering stampede of frightened horses. Yet Smith, who serves as the screenwriter here, doesn’t forget to add the clever little touch of the vampires being the ones supporting slavery, literally sucking the life out of helpless and innocent men, women, and children. It might be slightly obvious but at least they found an intriguing way of working the supernatural into historical events. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is by no means a perfect piece of filmmaking but in an age where Edward Cullen is a more prolific bloodsucker than Dracula, the B-movie thrills and gory winks found here are enough to make us forget about the sensitive skinny jean vamps with sparkly skin.

Grade: B-

The Thing (2011)

by Steve Habrat

Another month, another horror remake coughed up from lazy Hollywood and this time it’s the prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 chiller The Thing. August saw the remake of another 80’s horror flick, Fright Night, which was playful, spry, and hip. The Thing 2011 fits nicely along with the original 1982 classic, but after establishing no mood, it becomes a showcase for the latest special effects Hollywood has to offer and to be perfectly honest, they are not much to write home about. The creature effects are what made the Carpenter original such a standout. They were appallingly real where here they seem rubbery and computerized. In fact, they are only a notch above direct to DVD effects. The Thing 2011 is also the furthest thing from hip, seeming appropriately old school but never really utilizing the effect (the film begins with the classic Universal Studios logo). It’s drenched in fakery when it could have benefitted from a real scare. It’s also certainly not playful, never elaborating on the original story but rather simply resorting to rehashing the original plot with different actors. It only adds B-movie princess Mary Elizabeth Winstead gripping a flamethrower and a big, laughable UFO at the end.

Remember in the Carpenter original when MacReady (Krut Russell) and the resident doctor ventured into the charred ruins of the Norwegian camp at the beginning of The Thing 1982? The place looked like hell had rained down upon it. It was also especially creepy because our mind filled in what happened to these people. Well, Hollywood found it necessary to show us what happened and it doesn’t look that much different from what happened in the American camp. After a group of Norwegian scientists stumble upon a UFO and a crablike alien buried in the snow of the Arctic, American paleontologist Kate (Played by Winstead) and her partner Adam (Played by Eric Christian Olsen) are recruited by a Norwegian scientist named Dr. Sander Halvorson (Played by Ulrich Thomsen) to come to the site and help them remove the alien from the snow. She takes on the job and upon her arrival, she meets a pair of American pilots Carter and Jameson (Played by Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Once the scientists remove the alien from the ice and bring it back to the camp, it soon wakes up and breaks from its icy confines. It begins attacking the scientists one by one and duplicating the helpless saps. Paranoia rips through the group and soon the alien begins rearing it’s fangs and tentacles all over the place, ripping out from heads, arms, stomachs, etc. As the group awaits help to arrive, they desperately search for a way to figure out who is normal and how to quarantine the alien from spreading outside the camp.

This Thing isn’t a terrible movie and it actually has a bit of potential buried beneath the snow and ice. Winstead is a talented actress and her toughness is believable, but she’s not the reluctant hero the MacReady was. Edgerton also attempts to fit ol’ Kurt’s boots but he doesn’t fair any better. The film segues nicely into the ‘82 original and I will pat it on the back for that, but other than that it really seems to have no reason to exist. Furthermore, it’s empty headed and without commentary. The Cold War paranoia was part of what makes the original a classic to this day. It’s a frosted over mirror of paranoia, dread, fear, and suspicion. It comes as no surprise to me because the trailer boasted that the same people who gave George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead a CGI makeover produced this film too. The 2004 Dawn of the Dead was much more fun than The Thing 2011 and that is mostly because it wasn’t afraid to stray a bit from the original concept.

So what exactly is the potential here? For one, the characters could have been a bit more interesting. None of them grabbed me and when one of them crumpled into alien bits, I wasn’t filled empathy. I never really cared. The film could have also had some more memorable moments in the alien department. The original film works because it has moments of pure exhibition. Who will ever forget the severed head sprouting legs and trying to walk off? Or how about a dead man’s chest caving in and revealing a set of teeth, which proceed to bite off another man’s arms? There is nothing like that here and all we get is a computerized dog-like human that crawls around and has two heads. And how about the alien itself? Well, it would have been better left charred and on an autopsy table rather than actually seeing it scamper about the camp. It was creepy never truly knowing what it looked like. I could have also done without the end, which finds several of the characters chasing the alien around its massive UFO. The film climaxes with another perfect grenade toss, unfortunately missing a one liner as good as “Yeah! Well fuck you too!” And how about the blood test in the original? Here, there is nothing that suspenseful and instead we get a tooth-filling test. It never comes close to the unbearable intensity of the original scene.

The Thing 2011 pulls the same stunt as Dawn of the Dead 2004, making the audience sit through the end credits and watch brief flashes of the set up for the original film. Over these scenes, the original Ennio Morricone score slithers over the footage. I kept crossing my fingers for a cameo from MacReady but don’t get your hopes up too high. The Thing 2011 needed to discover it’s own identity and it never does. I never minded sitting through the film and spotting the references to the original, but it became tedious after a while. It never offers up any new information on the alien, just a few minor hints at how it duplicates its prey. None of the explanations are riveting and they slowly suck the terror out of the film. Much like the gooey, roaring antagonist, The Thing 2011 is just a duplication of the 1982 film. And just like any duplication or copy, there are a few imperfections that eventually give it away. And what does The Thing 2011 give away? It slowly reveals that the filmmakers had absolutely no idea how to build upon this story. Grade: C+

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