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Mini Review: Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)

Silent Night, Bloody Night #1

by Steve Habrat

In 1974, director Bob Clark forever tainted the holiday season with his chilling slasher flick Black Christmas, which is credited as being the first holiday-themed slasher horror movie that sliced and diced up teen protagonists. (Contrary to popular belief, John Carpenter’s Halloween wasn’t the first teen slasher film. However, due to its massive success, it is responsible for sparking the teen slasher craze that dominated 1980s.) Two years before Clark’s Black Christmas, director Theodore Gershuny also used the Christmas season as the backdrop for blood-curdling murder and mayhem. While not quite as frightening as Black Christmas, Silent Night, Bloody Night boasts one hell of a B-movie cast (Hey there, John Carradine!), and it packs plenty of gloomy atmosphere, ferocious violence, and (believe it or not), spine-chilling phone calls that will leave you hesitant to ever answer a ringing telephone again. It truly is difficult to believe this brooding little drive-in gem has flown under the radar for so long, especially considering the fact that it is floating around out there in the public domain.

Silent Night, Bloody Night begins with a flashback to Christmas, 1950, with Wilfred Butler storming out of his magnificent mansion in flames and dying out in the snow. On New Year’s Day, Butler was laid to rest, and his home was left to his son, Jeffrey Butler (played by James Patterson). Several years later, the Butler home lies vacant, and Jeffrey is looking to sell the property. Soon, a New York City lawyer named John Carter (played by Patrick O’Neal) and his girlfriend, Ingrid (played by Astrid Heeren), arrive to purchase the home. John begins negotiating with Mayor Adams (played by Walter Abel) and several other prominent town officials, but they all seem a bit scared of something. Meanwhile, a serial killer has escaped from a local insane asylum and has taken shelter in the empty Butler house. As it turns out, this madman is no stranger to the small town, and as he begins claiming lives, he threatens to reveal a horrific secret about the Butler home that town officials believed was buried with Wilfred Butler’s body. With the town on edge and several mysterious disappearances reported, Jeffrey arrives back in town to meet with John and Ingrid, but he is unable to locate them. With the help of Mayor Adams’ daughter, Diane (played by Mary Woronov), the two attempt to get to the bottom of what is going on.

Silent Night, Bloody Night #2

With a title like Silent Night, Bloody Night, you may be under the impression that this impressive little horror movie uses graphic violence and gore to get at its audience. That couldn’t be further from the truth, as Gershuny goes to great lengths to give the film an ominous feel that never wears off. He enjoys giving us outside glimpses of the Butler house, standing silently and almost proudly out in the snow, only to cut to the darkened interior where horrible secrets wander the shadows. The filmmakers muster plenty of atmosphere and they divide it evenly throughout the film’s runtime, but the film isn’t bashful about its bloodletting. Gershuny borrows a page out of Psycho’s playbook and decides to hack up two characters that we have been led to believe would be the film’s protagonists. In a surprise twist, Gershuny unleashes his cold-blooded killer in an intimate moment, bumrushing the viewer with a string of brutal images that are dripping with blood. It’s a terrifying scene that acts as more of a nod to Hitchcock rather than a cheap imitation. Another nifty sequence comes near the end, with a grainy sepia flashback that looks like a hellish permutation of Night of the Living Dead and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It’s best not to reveal too much about the scene, but be warned that it is a visual stunner that is cramped with death and insanity.

Considering that Silent Night, Bloody Night has been cast into obscurity, you might be surprised to learn that there are several well-known actors and actresses attached to the picture. Among the familiar faces are Andy Warhol favorite and Roger Corman star Mary Woronov as the mayor’s pistol packing daughter, legendary horror actor John Carradine as a mute newspaper publisher, and veteran performer Walter Abel as the town’s doomed mayor. In addition to these solid cult players, Patrick O’Neal is strong in his brief run as the kindly lawyer John Carter, James Patterson is seedy and suspicious as Jeffrey Butler, and Fran Stevens is spooked and skittish as town phone operator Tess Howard. Overall, while time hasn’t exactly been kind to it, Silent Night, Bloody Night remains an eerie mystery thriller that wedges its way under your skin with a gruesome slasher spin. It’s acted with plenty of intensity, accompanied by a menacing score, and brought home with a twist climax that is about as bleak as they come. This is a holiday horror movie that is best suited for a snowy midnight hour.

Grade: B

Silent Night, Bloody Night is available on DVD.

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The Devil’s Rejects (2005)

The Devil's Rejects

by Steve Habrat

After Rob Zombie’s cluttered and distracted 2003 horror debut, House of 1000 Corpses, failed to make an impression on critics and (most) audiences, the pressure was on the horror-loving Renaissance man to really step his game up as a filmmaker. In 2005, Zombie followed up the tie-dyed House of 1000 Corpses with The Devil’s Rejects, a grimy, snarling, and absolutely humorless decent into Hell. While many have labeled The Devil’s Rejects a horror film, I really hesitate to slap that label on it, as it never really even attempts to scare the viewer. Instead, it takes a page from the exploitation playbook and just continuously crosses the line and gets right in the viewers face just to watch them recoil in disgust. This film just flat out refuses to play nice, but then again, would you expect anything less from Rob Zombie? As if this tale of murder and revenge wasn’t intense enough, Zombie makes the wise decision to force us to root for the bad guys. That’s right, this time we don’t root for some group of brain dead teenagers or even the revenge driven police officer on a mission from God to prevail over this trio of death. Nope, we are rooting for that vile and downright rotten Firefly clan to blast and stab their way across the dusty Texas plains. It almost becomes a western, with the last of the true outlaws making their final stand in the face of annihilation. It is nearly a stroke of brilliance.

The Devil’s Rejects picks up in May of 1978, a year after the events of House of 1000 Corpses, with Sherriff John Quincy Wydell (Played by William Forsythe), brother of Firefly family victim Lieutenant George Wydell, leading a group of heavily armed police officers right to the Firefly’s front door. After a nasty shootout between the police and the Firefly family, Baby (Played by Sheri Moon Zombie) and Otis Driftwood (Played by Bill Moseley) manage to escape capture, but Mother Firefly (Played this time by Leslie Easterbrook) isn’t so lucky. Baby and Otis quickly get in touch with their father, Captain Spaulding (Played by Sid Haig), who agrees to meet up with his children so that they can plot their next move. While waiting, Baby and Otis find shelter at a rickety roadside motel and to amuse themselves, they immediately take a traveling band hostage. Spaulding suggests that they flee to a local brothel called Charlie’s Frontier Town, which is overseen by smooth-talking pimp Charlie Altamont (Played by Ken Foree) and his simple assistant Clevon (Played by Michael Berryman), both of which are friendly with Spaulding. Meanwhile, the relentlessly brutal Sherriff Wydell is hot on the group’s trail and he plots a trap that will bring down the rest of the Firefly family once and for all.

There is no doubt that the best part of The Devil’s Rejects is the opening fifteen minutes of the film. Zombie starts things off with a gritty early morning shootout and let me tell you, that shootout is just plain awesome. It is cleanly shot, in your face, and suspenseful from the first shot fired. It certainly proves that Zombie could do all-out action if he really wanted to. After wasting one character and capturing another, Zombie launches into an equally cool opening credit sequence set to The Allman Brothers Band “Midnight Rider” all while the picture keeps freezing to announce cast and crew members. It looks like it was ripped out of the coolest exploitation film from the 70s that you never saw. This opening sequence shows us that Zombie really means business this time around and that he is abandoning the psychedelic approach of House of 1000 Corpses in the Texas sun. From here on out, the film is relentlessly intense, but it never really ever becomes scary. There are sequences of gruesome torture, both mental and physical, but they don’t ever fill us with terror. Instead, they just make us massively uncomfortable, but that is exactly what Zombie wants to do.

The Devil's Rejects #2

Much like House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects is overflowing with colorful creeps to make your skin crawl. Moon Zombie is much better this time around as the giggling Baby, who can be all smiles as she seduces her victims one minute, only to snap into a demon-eyed banshee the next. Moseley is busy channeling Charles Manson as the stringy haired hippie killer Otis Driftwood. He is absolutely fantastic and wildly memorable as the grizzled outlaw who enjoys stuffing his gun barrel down the underwear of one poor woman and carving the face off one of another male victim. Then there is Haig’s Captain Spaulding, who once again manages to steal the entire movie. The first time around, we only saw a few glimpses of how sinister Captain Spaulding could be but here, he is 100% evil. He can be darkly hilarious as he terrifies a small child and he can be surprisingly soft as he howls along with Baby for some tutti fruity ice cream. We also have cult legends Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead) and Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) as Charlie and Clevon, two shifty pieces of work who enjoy snorting cocaine and bickering about having sex with chickens. Last but certainly not least is William Forsythe as Sheriff Wydell, a stone-cold man of God who may actually be worse than the Firefly clan. He will stop at nothing to trap his victims and when he finally is staring them down, he resorts to some of the nastiest torture out there.

What ultimately turns The Devil’s Rejects into a winner is that Zombie doesn’t appear to be preoccupied with trying to overstuff the film with references to other horror or exploitation films. He is much more subtle this time around with his tips of the cowboy hat. Most of the references here come in the form of cult actors Foree, Berryman, Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000) and even P.J. Soles (Halloween), all of which will have seasoned horror and grindhouse buffs chucking to themselves but never overly distracted. One of my only complaints about the film is the fact that Zombie trimmed the Dr. Satan sequence from the film, something I never thought I’d be complaining about. If you have a copy of the DVD, it is worth checking out this particular deleted scene because it actually grounds the whole Dr. Satan thing in the real world, at least in my humble opinion. Overall, as a tribute to old exploitation thrillers and grindhouse revenge flicks, The Devil’s Rejects is a homerun. It is a twisted and erratic western that can be unbelievably brutal, but never very scary. This is a modern day exploitation classic and a masterpiece for Rob Zombie.

Grade: A-

The Devil’s Rejects is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Death Race 2000 (1975)

Death Race 2000 1

by Steve Habrat

One of the better cult films to be produced by legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman would have to be the 1975 dystopian satire Death Race 2000, an ever colorful grindhouse thriller that appears to have no shortage of eye-grabbing characters, gory death scenes, and black humor. Amazingly well spoken for this type of sleazy genre pic, Death Race 2000 is clearly a drive-in cheapie fueled by razor sharp satire, but it also gets by on the spirited lead performances from David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, both who seem to be having the time of their lives as the rival racers. Maybe the charms come from the DIY approach that hovers over the entire project, from the cars that look like they had painted styrofoam additions super glued on to them, to the red candle wax blood that erupts from heads mowed over by smoking tires, to the hilarious backdrops that look like giant billboards painted up to look like a futuristic city. It all feels like it was made in a week and if you’re familiar with how Corman liked to work, you probably wouldn’t doubt it. Under director Paul Bartel, the cheap production design is never allowed to overshadow the white-knuckle action, thrills, and wit that rocket at you at about 150 miles-per-hour. However, the film does a tailspin in the final five minutes, with a blowout ending that just doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the movie. It has been said that the filmmakers weren’t sure how to conclude the film and it sure is obvious once you see how they warp everything up.

In the year 2000, the United States has been destroyed by a financial collapse and is ruled over by a Bipartisan Party, which has unified church and state. It has become the United Provinces; a fascist police state ruled over by the mysterious “Mr. President” (Played by Sandy McCallum). The public is kept entertained by the brutal Transcontinental Road Race, a gladiatorial battle that finds five colorful racers battling to score points by running down innocent civilians with their spruced-up race cars. The star of this show is the fan-favorite Frankenstein (Played by David Carradine), the government’s champion that is part man and part machine due to the horrific wrecks from past races. As the nation gears up for the 20th race, Frankenstein finds himself stuck with a new navigator, Annie Smith (Played by Simone Griffeth), who he is immediately suspicious of. As the three-day race commences, Frankenstein finds himself pitted against his jealous rival, “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Played by Sylvester Stallone), who will do whatever it takes to beat the fan favorite. In addition to competing against “Machine Gun” Joe, three other racers, Ray “Nero the Hero” Lonagan (Played by Martin Kove), Matilda the Hun (Played by Roberta Collins), and “Calamity” Jane Kelly (Played by Mary Woronov), are all out to dethrone Frankenstein. As the race gets underway, the five racers find themselves attacked by a mysterious rebel group led by Thomasina Paine (Played by Harriet Medin), who are determined to put an end to the savage race once and for all.

Death Race 2000 begins with a montage of jingoism, as marching bands and fans clad in red, white, and blue congregate for the massive race set to The Star Spangled Banner. It seems harmless enough until Bartel slips in an image of a man waving a swastika flag in support of Matilda the Hun. From there on out, Death Race 2000 is a rubber-burning satire on America’s fixation with violent entertainment and the media that enthusiastically sells it. The announcers happily explain the point system directly to the viewer; smiling as they explain how many points a rundown infant is worth compared to a pancaked man or woman. Things get even more twisted as the widow of the first victim of the race is brought onto live television, simultaneously sobbing and laughing as she is rewarded with a lavish vacation, all because her husband was the first to be gruesomely rundown in the street. It is not hard to see that Death Race 2000 is skewering the media’s love of all things blood and guts, all as Frankenstein reminds us that it is all about giving the fans what they want. Bartel does lighten the mood with a few scenes of black humor, mostly coming from Stallone’s “Machine Gun” Joe and his constant frustration with both Frankenstein and his busty navigator Myra (Played by Louisa Moritz). The highlight scene comes when an innocent fan (who is minding his own business) mistakes the cocky “Machine Gun” Joe for Frankenstein. Joe retaliates by chasing the man down a river and flattening him. Now THAT is some black humor.

Death Race 2000 #2

While the action and satire are both finely tuned, Death Race 2000 achieves its cult classic status through must-see (and when I say must-see, I mean it) performances from Carradine and Stallone. Carradine rocks as the partly mechanical man Frankenstein, who dons a leather mask and zooms from coast to coast in an alligator race car complete with massive fangs. You can tell that Carradine is having an absolutely blast strutting around in his black leather outfit that is complete with a cape that he enjoys twirling around. He is the ultimate man of mystery, at least to his die-hard fans. You’ll thrill as he is always one step ahead of his plotting rival “Machine Gun” Joe, a mush-mouthed brute bitter over living in Frankenstein’s shadow. Outside of Rocky, this is probably the best Stallone has ever been (Okay, he was decent in Rambo). He just looks so outrageous speeding down a winding country road in a car with two tommy guns and a giant knife mounted on the front. He nabs most of the black laughs while bickering with his bombshell navigator Myra, who acts like a giant space cadet. As far as Frankenstein’s navigator Annie Smith is concerned, she is mostly there to get naked and seduce him behind closed doors, but wait for a surprising twist with her character near the end of the film. Another stand out is the deliciously evil Matilda the Hun, who is absolutely wicked as she shouts about the master race while tormenting her fellow racers. And I can’t forget Don Steele as the massively annoying announcer Junior Brace, who just beams over carnage of the race, and Joyce Jameson as the obsequious television personality Grace Pander.

Death Race 2000 may toss around a few heavy ideas, but it never fails to remember its audience. Being an exploitation movie, Death Race 2000 provides tons of gratuitous nudity and violence, which is interesting because the film appears to be wagging its finger at violence for entertainment. There are plenty of gruesome deaths, which are all accompanied by the trademark 70s candle wax blood. In between these nasty moments, there are plenty of adrenaline pumping chases, fistfights, and even a nifty sequence that finds Carradine’s Frankenstein trying to outrun a rebel fighter plane unleashing bullets and bombs. Death Race 2000 also can’t resist stripping almost all the ladies of their clothing, especially Moritz and Griffeth, which will please most of the male viewers. Overall, Death Race 2000 could have been a victim of its own cut-rate production, but the less-is-more approach really allows the film to come alive. It may botch it in the final moments with an unlikely and frankly unsatisfying climax, but it is something you will ultimately forgive because the other seventy-five minutes are just so cool. Come for the nonstop action and stay for the seriously awesome performances from Carradine and Stallone.

Grade: B+

Death Race 2000 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The House of the Devil (2009)

by Steve Habrat

Director Ti West’s The House of the Devil, a fussy tribute to 1980’s horror films, would have seemed right at home in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse. Perhaps Grindhouse was supposed to be a triple feature and this is a long lost entry?! From the retro opening credits to the coarse camerawork, all the film needed was some digital scratches added in and this could have been a long lost film from the 1980s. For a good majority of its runtime, The House of the Devil is all superb build up. West mounts tension like a pro and leaves the viewer wondering where the film is going to go. Those who have no prior knowledge about the film are in for a shock when the finale roars onto the screen. The climax is both a blessing and a curse for The House of the Devil, satisfying the monster movie crowd while also driving the film into excessively bloody territory. It is the go-for-broke finale that also makes the film seem like it was the forgotten addition to Grindhouse.

Levelheaded college student named Samantha (Played by Jocelin Donahue) is desperate to get out of her dorm where she shacks up with her messy and inconsiderate roommate. Samantha finds the perfect apartment but she is unable to afford the pricey security deposit. The sympathetic landlady agrees to let her have the apartment for just the first month’s rent, which is still slightly a problem for Samantha because she has very little money in her checking account. Samantha soon discovers an odd babysitting job for the vague Mr. Ulman (Played by Tom Noonan), which promises to pay a large sum of money for one night of work. Much to the protests of her best friend Megan (Played by Greta Gerwig), Samantha agrees to take the job, even though the description is slightly suspicious. The babysitting job also happens to line up with a rare lunar eclipse, which has the whole college town buzzing. As the night goes on, Samantha begins to suspect that there is more to the babysitting job than she has been lead to believe.

Director West refuses to hold our hand through much of The House of the Devil, leaving us stranded alone with the protagonist Samantha. West understands that by limiting the amount of characters, it ups the horror ante. We aren’t given the reassurance that multiple characters bring to the table, allowing us to take shelter in the thought that at least a few of these people will make it through the horror. Oh no, Samantha endures a night of terror alone with basically no hope for help, a touch that I really loved. It harkened back to the first time I watched Evil Dead, and the agonizing experience of watching Ash fight to see the morning all by himself. But West also refuses to spoon feed the many plot points to the audience, an approach that both aids in the horror of The House of the Devil but also hurts the payoff. One character’s identity is largely unknown to the audience (although you should be able to pinpoint who he is rather quickly if you are pay attention) and the bloody ending is a bit incoherent and left up for debate with what was actually happening. The incoherent ending does have a plus side, mostly because our lack of information at the end does add to the spookiness of the events that we witness.

West also deserves credit for what he does with set direction and accomplishing the task of transporting us back to the eighties with just a few costumes, a car, an old television set, and a dated pizza shop. It’s obvious that the budget was tight on The House of the Devil, something that always is beneficial because when horror gets a lot of money, valid scares and atmosphere are replaced with CGI monsters. Yet with some high-rise jeans, a Walkman, some clever song usage, and the actual appliance of make-up of the climax’s monster, West achieves a lot with very little. It genuinely feels like it is from the heyday of horror, when things were a lot more restrained and we were a much more patient audience. West allows the style to almost work as a third character, allowing it to grow on screen as the film moves along. I was almost anxious to see what little touch he would throw in next. It culminated in a horror movie special on the local channel that plays George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Very cool, West! I call the style in The House of the Devil a character because it is something that older viewers who lived through and clearly remember this era can relate to, have fun with, and reminisce over. West clearly isn’t doing it just because he thinks its hip.

The acting in The House of the Devil is also top notch, always serious and never hammy. The credit falls on the shoulders of Donahue, who does much of her acting alone. She’s a bit geeky but in a cute way. She is studious, driven, and organized, aspects of her personality that we gather both visually (from her dorm room) and verbally (she is kind of a worrywart). I found myself genuinely fearing for because I found her to be such a sweet girl. I also loved her interaction with her pal Megan. Gerwig gives Megan a feisty side, laying on the opposites attract device rather thick. It’s all in a friendship way in this film. Megan seems more interested in going out and having a good time where Samantha seems like more of a shut in. Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman is heavily suspicious from his first appearance, playing a tense and faintly sympathetic bad guy. Mary Woronov shows up briefly as Mrs. Ulman, who seems like more of a threat than Mr. Ulman. AJ Bowen shows up as a mysterious bearded man who stalks the home that Samantha is watching.

The House of the Devil is for the diehard fans of the horror genre. Those seeking a fast paced thrill ride will be severely disappointed with what West serves up. The resourcefulness is focused and regimented and the build up is the work of someone who knows how to generate dread in anticipation, something largely missing in mainstream gorefests. When researching the film, I found out that the film was released in VHS form for the promotional side of the film, something that adds to the character of the style and adding to the forgotten gem from the early eighties feel. West did a great job making me feel like I found the movie on the dusty shelves of a run down video store. I wish that West had tweaked the final twenty minutes of the film and toned down some of the absurdity of it. The House of the Devil is scary; that I promise you (one scene near the end really freaked me out and all that you see is a hand coming out of a cracked door) and it is perfect to watch late at night with all the lights out (which I did). Despite its flaws, it’s the perfect sleepover movie or midnight flick for those who long for a time when horror actually had some balls.

Grade: B+

The House of the Devil is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.