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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.

Christmas Evil (1980)

Christmas Evil (1980)

by Steve Habrat

Well folks, it’s Christmas time again. It’s that special time to trim your tree, line your house with lights, hang stockings from the mantle, sip eggnog, and toss on the usual classic Christmas movies like A Christmas Story and Christmas Vacation. If you’ve had your fill of those cheery comedies and are in the mood for something dark, twisted, weird, and completely under the radar, look no further than the 1980 slasher flick Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out). Made before the more popular Holiday slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night, which also featured a nut job dressing up like dear old St. Nick and hacking up a few naughty boys and girls, Christmas Evil is one seriously bizarre movie that feels like an authentic glimpse into the disturbed mind of a psychopath. Sure, there are more than a few moments where you may tense up but those moments are thrown off by a number of sequences that are so unbelievably peculiar, you may never know if they were meant to be taken seriously or if director Lewis Jackson was aiming for a couple of laughs. Over the years, Christmas Evil has remained relatively unknown but has been steadily gathering a cult following and even enjoys having legendary filmmaker John Waters as a fan. It’s easy to see why the Christmas Evil wins over those who see it, as it features one hell of a creepy performance from Brandon Maggart as the main lunatic, Harry.

Christmas Evil begins on Christmas Eve night in 1947, with a young Harry Stadling catching his mother and father, who is dressed as Santa Claus, getting a little naughty by the Christmas tree. Distraught, Harry dashes upstairs and accidentally knocks over a snow globe, which he then proceeds to cut his hand on. Many years pass and the now adult Harry (Played by Maggart) lives a lonely life obsessing over the Christmas season. His apartment is cluttered with Christmas decorations and he hovers by the windows to monitor the behavior of the neighborhood children. It turns out that Harry keeps two books, one that he fills with names of children who are good all year long and those who indulge in naughty behavior. When he isn’t pouring over his decorations and books, Harry works at the local toy factory, where other employees constantly take him advantage of him. One evening, Harry covers a shift for a fellow employee, only to bump into the employee at a local bar on the way home laughing over how he suckered Harry into covering the shift. Furious, Harry storms home and makes a Santa Claus outfit, arms himself with an axe and a bag of toys, and sets out to deliver presents to the good boys and girls and kill the people who have wronged him.

While Christmas Evil gets far with the way it tracks Harry’s decent into all out madness, the film has a number of awkward moments that never add up. It is hard to believe that Harry would go bonkers over simply seeing his parents get frisky on Christmas Eve but that is the case here. There is also a flashback scene where Harry, his brother, Phil, and their mother sit up and watch Santa (their father) come down the chimney and leave presents under the tree. This particular sequence is basked in strange lighting and finds all three characters watching with eerie smiles on their faces. It seems dream-like, vaguely comedic, and completely out of place when the film veers into gritty, fly-on-the-wall territory. Christmas Evil sheds some of the unintentional giggles when it begins to document Harry’s mental collapse, which is basically in full swing when we meet him. It does make your skin crawl the way he watches the local children but there is a huge sigh of relief when we realize that he really means the children no harm. He does, however, stalk out one little boy named Moss Garcia (Played by Peter Neuman), who he deems very naughty and then proceeds to mark his house with mud and scare him. Once again, the scene is basically pointless and completely out of place. It makes no sense in the grand scheme of things, especially since we know he adores children and wouldn’t hurt one.

Christmas Evil (1980)

Christmas Evil would ultimately be disposable if it wasn’t for Maggart’s terrifying performance. Even when things get really silly, Maggart manages to keep Christmas Evil believable and chugging along. There is a sequence that finds Harry, dressed in his Santa getup, arriving at the Willowy Springs State Hospital and dropping off a slew of toys for the handicapped children that are staying there. It is a sweet moment in a truly ugly film and it weirdly distorts the evil that has been awoken in Harry. The camera lingers on him as he waits outside the hospital in a snowy night, yelling “Merry Christmas!” in different tones of voice. It was a small moment that actually allowed me to have some sympathy for the devil before he bumps into some children and creepily warns them to be good little boys and girls. For the blood and guts crowd and the ones who want to see Harry hack up a few enemies, there is an immensely shocking sequence with Harry arriving at a church, finding a few coworkers, and splitting their heads with an axe. Half appalled by what he has done and half giddy, he jumps into his van, which has a sleigh painted on the side, and zooms off into the night to claim another victim. The film also has an appearance from Jeffrey DeMunn (Dale from The Walking Dead) as Harry’s increasingly concerned brother, Phil, who may be partially responsible for Harry mental collapse. Dianne Hull also shows up as Jackie, Phil’s wife who has very little to do except scream.

As this (basically) one man show speeds towards its climax, which features a roaring mob with torches prowling the streets for the terrified Harry, Christmas Evil begins to fall apart. It is clearly a nod to Frankenstein (villagers hunting a misunderstood monster) but it just seems so random that New Yorkers would be picking up torches and prowling the streets in 1980. I guess that torches are more dramatic than flashlights. The film ends on a goofy hallucinatory image that has not aged well since its release. Honestly, we got that Harry was out of his mind and we didn’t really need this image to drive the point home. At ninety-five minutes, Christmas Evil does begin to drag its sack of goodies and you will find yourself getting a wee bit antsy. The film is clearly meant to be a character study, but do we really need an extended sequence of Harry trying to squeeze down a chimney? Apparently, director Jackson thought we did. It should also be noted that the film is extremely poor in the editing department and the synthesizer score is irritatingly distracting. Still, there are enough eerie surprises to make Christmas Evil worthwhile for those looking to see a Holiday horror movie that isn’t Black Christmas or Silent Night, Deadly Night. It may also make you a bit leery of a guy in a Santa suit.

Grade: B-

Christmas Evil is available on DVD.

Christmas on Mars (2008)

by Corinne Rizzo

Wayne Coyne is one of those people that will strike you in one of two ways. Our first variable is the one that says “My god, what have I been doing with my life?” While the other will have you running in the opposite direction saying “Thank god I am doing something with my life!”

Does that make sense? Well, at first glance, neither will Christmas on Mars. But on second and third glance, a viewer will find themselves interpreting the film in ways a student would. In ways a culture seeking, culture loving, hunter of meaning would. This sci-fi essay in hope and perseverance lends to understanding. A viewer can’t help but find the clues and meaning left by Mr. Coyne and even has one asking, “Why haven’t I considered this idea before?”

So, for anyone who’s ever thought “I want to see a fantastical freak out film about Santa Clause and the colonization of Mars,” Christmas On Mars is the film to satiate that curiosity.

Our scene is set in the not so distant future (nowadays) with Steven Drozd (multi-instrumentalist for The Flaming Lips and Coyne’s best friend) as Major Syrtis. The major is undoubtedly the most balanced person on the Mars compound and sees the discrepancies in the colonization though doesn’t know how to interpret them. He seeks the help of his comrades to help him make sense of things, but it seems as though they are all a little panicked. Irrational even.

It is Syrtis’ first Christmas on Mars as he is the latest recruit to the compound. And no Christmas would be complete without a Santa Claus, so somewhere in the time before the film takes place, Syrtis found someone to play Santa for the Christmas celebration on Mars. Then, somewhere between choosing this Santa and about a half hour into the film, the chosen man beelines out of a main hatch and into the frozen red horizon of Mars.

In an attempt to discover why his Santa did this, Syrtis finds that his fellow crewman was suffering from the worst kind of hallucinations. Even worse, Syrtis discovers, than his own. The escape and subsequent death of his Santa was a desperate attempt to stop the hallucination.

Upon discovering the late Santa frozen still in the Martian tundra, a crewmember also meets a quiet and patient, albeit green with antennae, creature played by Wayne Coyne himself. A Martian, Coyne’s disguise is not too close to fooling anyone and after a series of investigations by the captain of the Mars colony and repetitive complaints by Syrtis that he is without a Santa, he is lumped on to Syrtis as the new Santa.

Not something he takes lightly, Syrtis tries to do the best he can to help the Martian understand the importance of Santa to people on earth.

At this point the viewer could be baffled by how Coyne sneaks the idea of the hope and generosity associated with Santa Claus and get real proud and say things like how cheesy things are becoming, but any fan of The Flaming Lips would open themselves up to that lesson. And anyone with no idea who The Flaming Lips are, will see their friends, family or whoever a little bit differently for being a fan.

The film’s Martian compound drama coincides with the birth of the first baby born on the colony since its origin. Christmas on Mars parallels the hallucinations and the desperation of these men and sets them up along the idea that there is this woman, trapped in a bubble and performing rituals and routines that seems scientific in  order to ensure the successful birth of her child.

In a way it is the Martian Nativity. Joy to the red planet.

With a set made entirely out of garbage in Coyne’s backyard, the film was a seven year long labor of love for The Flaming Lips. Finally released in 2008, there was no wide release, though you could catch it in movie houses every here and there. It seemed like anyone with a copy that had the space to accommodate was interested in showing the film. Special features on the DVD will show you the lengths the band went through to complete the film and a subsequent documentary about The Flaming Lips called Fearless Freaks shows the internal struggle of individual band members (the effect of Drozd’s heroin addiction on Coyne).

The film gets really loud and really bright and really graphic, so if you have issues with anxiety or seizures, it may be best to adjust your television sets accordingly (Coyne often gives this announcement at the beginning of a show because The Flaming Lips perform in the same manner). It is boring and interesting and shocking at moments, but worth the watch for anyone who can wrap their brains around something less than conventional.

It is no Miracle on 34th Street, but that might be even more incentive to watch.

Grade: A- (Watch it more than once , though, and not in the same day.)

Top Five Reasons to See Christmas on Mars:

1) There is no Christmas music.

2) Vagina marching bands.

3) The entire set is made of junkyard crap and filmed in Coyne’s backyard in Oklahoma City.

4) It may turn you on to The Flaming Lips (which you will never regret).

5) Adam Goldberg plays a psychologist.

A Very Anti-Film School Christmas

Hey readers,

We are happy to announce that throughout the month of December, we will be posting a whole slew of Holiday themed reviews of popular movies that everyone watches while wrapping gifts, sipping eggnog, guzzling Christmas ale, and trimming the tree. You can expect everything from Christmas Vacation, It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, all the way to Black Christmas (Hey–this is Anti-Film School so it should surprise no one!). Given that this time of the year is also heavy with major film releases, this will not be quite like our Halloween special, in which there was a new Holiday themed review daily. There are plenty of big blockbusters all the way to the smaller award hopefuls heading to theaters, so we will have our hands full with those. You can also look forward to a Best of the Year list, which should be available in January. However, do show up for some Christmas madness, and we shall deliver. We hope you show up wearing your ugliest Christmas sweaters. Happy Holidays!

-Anti-Film School