by Steve Habrat
In November of 2012, Anchor Bay Films quietly snuck Steve C. Miller’s Silent Night, a loose remake of the 1984 Christmas slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night, into select theaters and then quickly released it on Blu-ray and DVD just a few short weeks later. Were us horror fans really that bad that we deserved a lump of coal like this?! Apparently yes, yes we were. From the get-go, it is obvious Silent Night is winking at the horror fans that will undoubtedly flock to it over the years. But too often, the film is awkward and amateurish, consistently confusing pulpy gore for honest scares to the point where it is almost maddening. To make it worse, this abysmal waste of time can’t seem to smoothly deliver anything resembling a good joke. It’s so bad, folks, that even a beloved genre star like Malcolm McDowell can’t even sell it, and believe me when I tell you that he tries very, very hard to make this formulaic snoozefest work. The only positives that you will find in Silent Night are the homicidal Santa, who prefers to toast his victims with a flamethrower, and a scene in which one character gets their head chopped in half with an axe. That is where this turkey’s joys begin and end.
Silent Night picks up on Christmas Eve, where the citizens of a small Midwestern town are gearing up for a massive holiday celebration that invites hundreds of Santa Claus impersonators to get in on the fun. Among the citizens looking forward to the holiday activities are Aubrey Bradimore (played by Jamie King), a sheriff’s deputy still attempting to get over the loss of her husband. The celebration seems to be getting off to a smooth start, aside from one belligerent Santa (played by Donal Logue) who is making children cry in a local park, but things take a nasty turn when a small-time porn director and his star wind up brutally slaughtered at a local motel. Bradimore, fellow deputy Giles (played by Andrew Cecon), and the town Sheriff, Cooper (played by Malcolm McDowell), launch an investigation, but they realize that this massacre isn’t an isolated incident. After watching a videotape that was rolling during the murders at the motel, the officers discover that their suspect is dressed as a morbid Santa Claus, making it extremely difficult to track down the killer and bring him to justice. As the sun sets and the celebration kicks into high gear, several more citizens turn up dead, but the quest to track down the maniacal Santa gets personal when one murder strikes close to home for Aubrey.
Silent Night opens with a pitch-black opening credit sequence that suggests that what we are getting into is going to be a straight-shooting horror movie that wallows in shadowy suspense. Miller’s camera is trained on the killer as he makes his chilling Santa mask, suits up in that jolly red suit, and torments one victim with an axe before offing him in a totally unexpected manner. It’s a sturdy stage setter, that you cannot deny, but once Miller emerges from that dark cellar and lets his killer loose on the town streets, the film quickly plummets. Almost every death scene is completely wooden, shot with a jittery camera and strung together through fast edits that resemble something out of a heavy metal music video. These death scenes will undoubtedly please gore fans, as the blood sprays in every single direction, but they never rise above being gross. Now I’m certainly not one to complain about gross, but Miller never even considers injecting an ounce of terror into any of these scenes. They just flail around on the screen with sudden blasts of music, the same old lazy jump scares that we have all come to expect from uninspired horror exercises such as this. Furthermore, the “ick” moments seem to lack a punch of originality, especially a scene in which a wannabe porn star is crammed into a wood chipper. It’s nauseating enough, but it seems like more of an obnoxious cry for attention rather than a vicious little surprise.
In addition to the lack of solid scares, Miller can’t seem to get his actors to do much with Jayson Rothwell’s clunky script, which is bogged down with clichéd dialogue and leaden one-liners. McDowell taps into his fiery wit and bug-eyed smugness, but even he can’t make some of the jokes work. It’s almost painful watching him spit out lines like “what is this, Glee?” to one caroling officer. And to think that this is the same man who played the sadistic Alex De Large in A Clockwork Orange! King’s Aubrey fares no better, as she just sulks around and forces a brooding side to her one-dimensional heroine. Cecon’s Giles is also pretty painful, a dimwit only present to bite it in an idiotic death scene. The only two actors who seem to rise above the material are Logue, who gets to have a bit of fun as a cranky Saint Nick who rants and raves about the holiday season, and Ellen Wong, who shows up as the perky Brenda, the wisecracking secretary of the police station. Overall, while all of the bloody mayhem and tongue-in-cheek approach may sound tempting to horror fans, Miller’s Silent Night is a flat, clumsy, and scare-less affair that bores more than it thrills. Aside from it’s chilling killer, it is just another careless remake that should have remained shelved at the studio.
Silent Night is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
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.
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.
Silent Night, Bloody Night is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Despite what you may believe, Hammer Films didn’t only fiddle with gothic horror films about vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein monsters, and mummys. In the wake of Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological horror film Psycho, studios began rushing to capitalize on the formula Hitchcock used to such shocking effect in 1960. Hammer was certainly no different, and among the Psycho-inspired films that they sent down the assembly line was the claustrophobic Nightmare, a spine-tingling psychological horror movie presented in noir-like black and white. Without an undead fiend to terrorize Peter Cushing or a busty woman in a low cut dress, many might be quick to dismiss Nightmare as a bit of a disappointment, especially since some of Hammer’s finest moments have been with Frankenstein or Dracula, but under the direction of studio regular Freddie Francis, Nightmare is an arresting exercise in spectral spooks and slasher brutality. It also happens to be an extremely gorgeous looking horror movie, one that features undeniably pristine cinematography and expert lighting effects to give the film quite a bit more bite than it already has.
Nightmare introduces us to Janet (played by Jennie Linden), a young woman who suffers from terrible nightmares that send her from her bed screaming bloody murder every single night. As a young girl, Janet accidentally witnessed her deranged mother stabbing her father to death, laughing all the while she plunged the knife into his chest. Now all grown up, Janet is enrolled in a boarding school, but her nightmares have grown so severe that one of her teachers, Mrs. Lewis (played by Brenda Bruce), convinces the school to send her home to her guardian, attorney Henry Baxter (played by David Knight). Upon arriving home, Janet meets her new nurse, Grace Maddox (played by Moira Redmond), chauffeur John (played by George A. Cooper), and housekeeper Mrs. Gibbs (played by Irene Richmond), but shortly after settling in, her nightmares begin and it also appears that she is suffering from disturbing hallucinations. She constantly sees a corpse with a bloody knife protruding from its chest and she catches glimpses of a ghostly woman wandering the halls in a trance. Day after day, Janet is convinced that she has inherited her mother’s insanity, but after a brutal attack, she is shipped off to a hospital for serious treatment. Shortly after Janet is gone, certain members of the house begin to suspect that Janet may not have been suffering from terrible hallucinations after all.
In true Hammer fashion, Francis puts plenty of emphasis on the film’s setting and atmosphere. The film opens in a darkened sanitarium as a woman’s voice calls out to a terrified Janet, who is wandering these threatening halls unaccompanied. This journey culminates with Janet stepping into a padded cell and staring her unhinged mother right in the face. Francis quickly steps in and reminds us that it’s just a nightmare, but judging from the screams of the poor Janet, these dreams are pushing her fragile state to the breaking point. It should be noted that anytime anyone screams in Nightmare, the sound work on the shrieks will have you frozen in horror. The screams that the characters emit could shatter concrete. After we emerge from the sanitarium of terror, Francis gives us a small break before he drops us into another house of horror. Cramped with lavish furniture and engulfed by heavy shadows cast down hallways and in bedrooms just down the hall, there seems to be no escape for poor Janet. Every night before she settles in for bed, she hears a faint noise that lures her away from her bed. She bumps into a woman wearing a white gown and sporting a nasty scar on her cheek and she discovers a corpse that has been hacked and slashed to death. Each scare is executed with precision and the claustrophobic goth that wraps around us makes Nightmare unshakeable.
While Nightmare doesn’t enjoy the presence of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, or even Oliver Reed, Francis still manages to capture some rock-solid performances that are sure to keep you entertained. Linden is perfect as the young, sympathetic Janet who just wants her night terrors to cease. Her final push into violence is made all the more disturbing through the fact that she had so much innocence in her heart. Redmond puts on a kindly face as Janet’s new nurse, Grace, but as the horror progresses, we realize that there is a dark side lurking deep down within her just waiting to emerge. Knight is charismatic as Janet’s guardian, Henry Baxter, who perks the young girl up just by walking into her bedroom. Irene Richmond and George A. Cooper is in supporting roles as John and Mrs. Gibbs, but in the end, Francis and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster give them the opportunity to play hero to the violence and madness overtaking the mansion. Brenda Bruce is another warm and caring force as Mary Lewis, Janet’s concerned teacher who thinks it’s best if she spends some time at home. Probably the strongest performance in Nightmare Isla Cameron as Mother (that sounds very Psycho to me…), who smiles as she waves a knife around and seems to find enjoyment in her daughters horrified screams for help.
Considering that Nightmare was riding the wave of Psycho’s popularity, there are a few little similarities that the viewer just can’t turn a blind eye to. First is the twist that is pulled at the end, something that won’t be revealed here, but that is indeed strikingly similar to some parts of Hitchcock’s slasher. There is also the fact that our main character, Janet, disappears halfway through the movie, something that is glaringly similar to Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane (luckily, Hammer didn’t decide to stab her to death in a shower). This lift could have been disastrous, but luckily, Sangster writes up supporting characters that can carry the film when Janet steps out. Overall, if you have had your fill of watching Van Helsing drive stakes through the heart of Dracula, or you need to break from watching Victor Frankenstein reanimating lifeless flesh, Nightmare offers a nice change of pace for Hammer fans. It doesn’t push the limits of the horror of personality subgenre (Hitchcock still remains the master) and it has been unfairly overshadowed by the studio’s color monster movies, but it does give the psychological horror film a heavy gothic makeover, throws in some “ghosts,” and petrifies anyone who hates creepy old dolls. Bonus points for the rich use of black and white film.
Nightmare is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If you want a prime example of guerilla filmmaking at its most bizarre, then you need to get your hot little hands on a 1982 film called Basket Case. Shot on a shoestring budget (director Frank Henenlotter actually shows his film’s budget in one specific scene of the film) in the grimy streets of early 80s New York City (it appears that 42nd Street is shown in the opening of the film), Basket Case is a seriously wrapped exploitation horror comedy. There is plenty of blood, guts, gore, and ear splitting groaning and screaming from our deformed Siamese twin Belial, sleazy settings to make you want to shower after watching it, and the most outrageous rape/sex scene you are ever likely to see. There is also plenty of black humor to keep you snickering to yourself, especially when Belial goes on one of his noisy rampages. Yet even at a scant hour and a half, the weird comic charms begin to wear themselves out and Basket Case just settles down in just plain weird and seedy territory with a particularly dark climax. The film has quite the passionate cult following and many even consider it a horror classic, which I think is going a bit far, due to the film’s reluctance to fully commit itself fully to serious scares. Every tense moment is broken up by a wink when it should have played itself straight to really creep you out.
Basket Case introduces us to the socially awkward Duane Bradley (Played by Kevin Van Hentenryck), who arrives in New York City with a handful of cash, some clothing, and a wicker basket under his arm. Duane checks in to the seedy Hotel Broslin, where he locks himself away in one of the rooms and studies over a mysterious file of medical papers. It turns out that that Duane was born with a grotesque Simaese twin named Belial growing out of his. When Duane was just a boy, his father was repulsed by Belial and recruited a few doctors to remove and discard Belial. When Duane woke up from his operation, he rescued Belial and vowed revenge on the doctors that separated them. All grown up and out for blood, Duane unleashes Belial, a deformed monster with claws and fangs, from his wicker basket to tear the doctors limb from limb. Their plot hits a snag when Duane meets a pretty receptionist named Sharon (Played by Terri Susan Smith), who he begins falling in love with him. Naturally, Duane’s feelings for Sharon enrage Belial and begin tearing the brothers apart. Meanwhile, the nosy guests of Hotel Broslin begin to suspect there is something strange about Duane and his wicker basket and they begin snooping around.
Even though Basket Case was not made with much, there is still plenty of dedication from the tiny cast and crew. The film itself is about as grainy as they come, giving it an almost documentary-like sense of realism even if the subject matter is the epitome of silly. Some of the early scenes of New York City are pretty interesting; especially the opening sequence that finds Duane wandering one of the neon strips of grindhouses, adult video stores, rundown bars, and twitchy junkies. Even the hotel that Duane calls temporary home was a real hotel, but certainly not one you would ever want to stay in. Your skin crawls at the very thought of what pests might be crawling all over you when you turned off the lights. Then there is the nightmare sequence, which finds a nude Duane running through the seemingly deserted streets of a city that claims to never sleep. Even though the film was made in the late 70s/early 80s, you still get nervous for the cast and crew, fearing that a junkie or mugger may leap out of the shadows that are claiming the streets. This nightmare scene is probably the scariest moment of the entire film, the only one that doesn’t seem to be chuckling at itself.
Then we have the acting, both from the cast of unknowns and from the little puppet Belial. Van Hentenryck does a fine job at being both a clueless sweetheart and a deranged psychopath. He shares some great moments with Smith’s Sharon, who genuine falls for his oddball charms, and Josephine (Played by Dorothy Storngin), a prostitute with a heart of gold who picks him up when he is at his lowest. Smith isn’t really given too much to do as the love interest, but she gets a memorable moment at the end when she finally comes face to face with Belial in the most discomfited way possible. Storngin is great as Josephine, barely flinching when Duane shares his dark past with her. Another standout is Robert Vogel as Anthony, the sweaty, no-nonsense manager of Hotel Broslin who is constantly scratching his head over the strange noises that ring out from Duane’s room. Then we have Belial, the blob-like monster that crawls around and claws his victims to shreds. For a puppet, he has plenty of personality and he can sometimes be weirdly cute when he throws his temper tantrums or hides in the toilet. Even though he is the bloodthirsty monster, he may be the most likable and sympathetic character in the entire film. When his relationship with Duane becomes strained in the final stretch, you wouldn’t mind giving the little guy a hug even if he may bite your face off.
While there are plenty of moments in Basket Case that are a good deal of fun, there are some moments that the viewer is left wishing the film would stop winking at them and keep a straight face. It doesn’t completely ruin the film, but I felt that it was definitely holding the film back from reaching its full potential. You do have to give Henenlotter credit for the way he slowly builds up Belial’s reveal, giving us little hints at what may be in that wicker basket until finally springing him on us. Just wait for the hilarious opening scene where Duane feeds Belial a bag of hamburgers. For you gorehounds out there, Basket Case has plenty of the red stuff to keep you happy, but don’t expect anything too elaborate. Overall, Basket Case is another shining example of less-is-more horror, something that Hollywood and the mainstream just doesn’t seem to understand these days. It does stand head and shoulders above most of the horror films you see today and it is a great film to show to your friends simply to see their reactions. You also have to admire the touching and tragic relationship between the brothers at the core of the film. While I don’t consider it the classic some horror and exploitation fans do, Basket Case is still a solid midnight movie.
Basket Case is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
While Rob Zombie tried his damndest to put his own fresh spin on the Halloween series while also staying true to the original story in his 2007 remake, you could tell that Zombie was on a short leash. It felt like he was holding something back, whatever that something was. Initially, Zombie swore he would not make a sequel to his remake but after the studio threatened to make a sequel without him, he agreed to slip back into the director’s chair to prevent someone else from desecrating his vision. Personally, I felt his vision was complete and that it really didn’t need a sequel but you know how Hollywood is. Apparently, they wanted to ignore the period he placed on the end of his film. In 2009, Zombie unleashed the deranged funhouse Halloween II, a meaner, bloodier, and busier follow-up that has to rank as one of the most unusual slasher horror films I have ever seen. Even more hit or miss than his 2007 reboot, Zombie attempts to mix exploitation gore, surreal black and white horror, and Michael Myers together and the results are… interesting. Halloween II finds Zombie off his leash and fully embracing that something that he was holding back. That something, it turns out, is full on brutality and countless nods to the classic horror that inspires him.
Picking up just moments after the first film ended, Laurie Strode (Played by Scout Taylor-Compton) is found wandering the streets of Haddonfield with a gun in her hand. Badly injured and in severe shock, Laurie is taken to the emergency room where her wounds are cleaned and mended through ear splitting cries for her family and friends. A year passes and Laurie, now a punk rock rebel who suffers from horrific dreams, is under the care of Sheriff Lee Brackett (Played by Brad Dourif) and shacking up with fellow survivor Annie (Played by Danielle Harris). As Halloween approaches, Laurie’s dreams begin to hint that Michael Myers (Played by Tyler Mane) may not be dead at all. Fueling Laurie’s fears is the fact that the authorities never found a body. Meanwhile, Michael has been searching for his long, lost sister and finding encouragement from the apparition of his deceased mother (Played by Sheri Moon Zombie). To make matters worse, Dr. Samuel Loomis (Played by Malcolm McDowell), who is no longer the good doctor he once was, is capitalizing on the massacre that ripped the small town apart.
While Halloween II has been panned by critics and dismissed by fans as being one of the worst films in the Halloween series, I have to say that I actually found the film fairly entertaining even if it is gleefully repulsive and slightly unfocused. I will agree that the plotline of the film is a mess and that things don’t tie up like Zombie wants them to but the film has such a striking visual approach that it was easy for me to dismiss many of the flaws. I loved the gothic, dreamlike sequences that Zombie uses to cut up his grainy, foul-mouthed slasher exercise. I actually found them to be quite spooky and glaringly Zombie, something that was severely lacking in the 2007 remake. I also really liked the look of Michael in this film. Minus a pair of bloodstained coveralls and half a mask, Michael is filthy dirty and proud of it. Another new touch is Michael’s loud grunts as he brutally stabs to death countless more victims who bump into him. It certainly is a new take on the character and it does deviate from what we have become used to but that is why I like it. While I still prefer silent, coverall-clad Mikey, this one still makes my skin crawl in a good way.
As far as Scout Taylor-Compton goes, her Laurie has undergone a strange shift in character since we last saw her. No longer as buttoned up as she was in the remake, the dark side hinted at has been unleashed and boy, is she grungy. Her shift is unusual, there is no doubt about it, but I feel like Zombie could have found another way to convey that she has embraced more of a darker side after her encounter with Michael. She hangs out with a duo of punk rock chicks that work in a local record shop but these friends are left severely undeveloped and only there to meet the sharp end of Michael’s knife. If you think Laurie’s shift in character is out of left field, wait until you get a load of Loomis. Acting like an arrogant jerk, Loomis is a hot shot flirt who makes big money off of ugly tragedy and it is the complete opposite of what we saw in the first film. I hardly believe that Loomis would have such a drastic shift in his character after getting beaten up by Michael but I guess anything is possible. Dourif is still great as Sheriff Brackett and Danielle Harris works hard as the still-shaky fellow survivor Annie. Sheri Moon Zombie is also back as Michael’s ghostly mother, who encourages her son’s killing spree from the other side. It honestly feels like a way for Zombie to work his wife into the mix but her presence does give Halloween II the unique feel it possesses. Just like Halloween, Zombie throws in a number of B-horror fan favorites including Margot Kidder, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, and Richard Riehle.
Throughout Halloween II, Zombie also applies the psychological ‘White Horse’ theory, which he defines at the beginning of the film and then spends the next two hours cramming it down our throats. While I admire Zombie’s attempt to give the film a little psychological depth, he just goes overboard trying to convince us the film is smart. The film does have a seriously eerie opening sequence set in the quiet halls of a hospital while The Moody Blues moan in the background. It superbly pays tribute to the original Halloween II while also working double time to set itself apart from that film. The hospital sequence also features an awesome cameo from Octavia Spencer, who dies extra gruesomely. Steeped in bloody, tie-dyed visuals and unashamed to wear its inspiration on its sleeve, Halloween II comes out just ahead of its predecessor as far as I’m concerned. It feels more original and, dare I say, much more personal than the first film. I personally feel that this film solidifies Zombie’s place on the list of directors to pay close attention to. As he sharpens his skills as a filmmaker, I feel like he will really come up with something that is stunning visually and truly imaginative in the story department. All he needs to do is scale back on the repulsive dialogue and slow down. You can’t quite shake the feeling that Halloween II was rushed and that Zombie was under a lot of pressure to get this thing out. Overall, it certainly isn’t perfect but it is fun to see Zombie set himself apart from the formulaic pack.
Halloween II is available on Blu-ray and DVD.