Friday, December 25, 2020

December to Dismember: DEATHCEMBER (2019)

 Love advent calendars? Love horror anthologies? Have absolutely no ability to pay attention past the two minute mark without being distracted by something shiny? Well, have I got the movie for you! At some point in the past couple of decades, after folks seemed to give up on found-footage movies, for some reason the Uber-ADD Horror Anthology became a thing. Now, not only was a three story anthology with a wrap-around laboriously a patience-straining endurance test, but severely limited the amount of stories you could stuff in. Why not have people make, or rather salvage, very short films and cram them all together with minimal to non-existent framing devices? "Genius!" said the public, who promptly ran off to watch an Asylum movie. And the modern horror anthology was born.

Taking their cue from the ABCS OF DEATH (2012), which the producers thank in the credits, DEATHCEMBER gives us a whopping 26 short films, two of which are used to break up the 20 minute credit sequence. If you do the math, that give us about 5 minutes per short, with some being even shorter to allow others to be a little longer. That is not much time to pack a story, dialogue and characters into a movie, but who needs all that crap anyway, get on with it!

Because we do not have time to waste on a wrap-around segment, after the opening credits that blatantly rip-off Danny Elfman's TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1989) theme, instead we get a PS3-level CGI rendering of a room in a mansion that has a lot of random stuff laying around. 24 pieces of random stuff, to be precise. A pair of shoes, a kitchen knife, a gas mask, a stuffed deer head, etc, all linked to a story. The camera zooms in on the item and then a number pops up and an advent door opens to zoom in on the opening of the story. So frantically ADD is this that I'm surprised anyone had the patience to sit through the advent door openings and they weren't scrapped all together.

Starting out with a German short, titled A DOOR TOO FAR, about a teenaged boy (Fynn Kempf) who is obsessed with tearing open advent calendars and stuffing his face with chocolate. After demolishing the one at home, he heads to a bodega (this is Germany, I guess you can buy those at any corner market) and starts tearing through the ones on the shelves. An older man (Heinz Harth) admonishes him and he hurls an insult and storms out. As he leaves, he is cursed by the old man to become an advent chocolate which is eaten by a little girl (as evidenced by his screams in a voice-over). The end. Oh man, they have to get better right? I can sense Rod Serling rolling over in his grave. What am I saying? Writer-director Dominic Saxl is more likely borrowing inspiration from a NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sequel.

We also get ALL SALES FATAL with Tiffany Shepis as an enraged "Karen" trying to return something to a snotty store clerk (Ryan Fisher) even though she doesn't have a receipt. This devolves into a profane, bloody fight that (spoiler!) ends with both bleeding out on the floor and Shepis' character finding the receipt (end spoiler). I'm not sure why cheap horror movies always portray people who work retail as being catty and obnoxious. It's like the filmmakers feel like they are superior to not only the entitled customers, but also the lowly retail worker. I've worked with the public and most retail and restaurant workers have to smile through so much shit from rude customers and horrible bosses that it would make your average pussweeb hipster videomaker curl up in a fetal position after 10 minutes. Err, but I digress...

At least these first stories are somewhat Christmas related, as we delve deeper into the sack of film-school projects, we get items that are vaguely seasonal or just not even close except for a line of dialogue indicating the holiday in question. X-MAS ON FIRE has a non-chronologically told, RESERVOIR DOGS inspired (CITY ON FIRE inspired), story of a jewelry store heist gone violently wrong. The Christmas connection here is that the criminals are all wearing Santa suits "to blend in" (an intentional joke in the short). This vague connection is actually closer to a Christmas story than many of the others. JOY TO THE GIRLS tells of three beautiful young girls (Haydée Lysander, Claudia Bouza, Laura Ballester) who send a Christmas party invitation at a hotel room to a young man (Jose Corpas). Upon arriving, they drug him, tie him up, stab him in the throat and drink his blood. There aren't even any Christmas decorations in sight.

In the completely opaque, but rather enjoyable, AURORA segment, we are given strange science fiction outing about a lone woman (Nabi Tang) on a distant planet in the year 2389, where her job is to oversee some large, mechanical vents that hang over the ocean. Some sort of contamination occurs and eventually kills her. Oh yeah, this happens on December 25th. If this description sounds vague, it's because the movie is. Serbian director Lazar Bodroža, creates a weird little slice of Philip K. Dick inspired science fiction that I actually enjoyed, but that is more of a mood-piece than anything else and really doesn't even qualify as Christmas horror in any way.

Also missing the Christmas boat is Lucky McKee's THEY ONCE HAD HORSES, which is a black and white western in which two cowboys (Sean Bridgers, Justin Stone) sit around a campfire after being attacked by something that was definitely not a bear. Both are wounded and waiting for the thing to find them and kill them. Yep, that's it. To be fair, one of the cowboy's gives a harmonica to the other and says "Merry Christmas". So there is your Christmas connection.

Leave it to the Germans to say "fuckit, let's disco!" Andreas Marschall's PIG is about a group of women who have been traumatized by men and form a group that abuse each other in training to go out and torture and kill the men who have betrayed them. They find one (Detlef Bothe) in a disco and after putting a pig mask over his head, drugging and restraining him, stab him in the crotch with a hair pin. Finally when when his ex (Julita Witt) makes a big entrance to finish the job with a sharpened tape measure (?!), she realizes (spoiler) that they got the wrong man. They kill him anyway. The end. Hooray Christmas horror! Or not.

That is not to say that everything is wide of the mark. With a 26 super-shorts, something is going to have to score some points.

One of my two favorites in this exhausting milieu is Juergen Kling's claymation short titled CRAPPY CHRISTMAS: OPERATION CHRISTMAS CHILD. A Gumby-esque kid, who lives alone, finds a Christmas present in the snow outside of his home. Unfortunately for him, this is merely a lure to bring him out of his home so that the evil monk from the church over the hill, can snatch him up and throw him in a dungeon cell with the skeleton of another child. Sound nasty? Just wait. After being brought out of his cell, he finds that his purpose is to be repeatedly sodomized by a viagra-popping bishop and a sadistic priest while staring at Christian idolatry. (Spoilers ahead) Fortunately he is visited by Krampus, who leaves him a grab bag of stuff to help him escape (some not so useful, like walnuts), which he does in a spectacularly bloody way. Not only is this filled with bright and colorful Christmas cheer that quickly becomes extremely subversive, but the quality of the production is top-notch. Granted it's not old-school Aardman (they would have stop-motion animated a hundred individual snowflakes falling to the ground and melting), but aside from that unfair comparison, this is real, traditional, painstaking work, the likes of which, I honestly never thought we'd see in these modern times of CGI stop-motion.

My other favorite is the FALLOUT-esque CRACKER, from John Cook Lynch. Set on the moon colony Lunar Falls in what appears to be the 1950s, a very nervous and unhappy family sit around the Christmas dinner table. The father has a box of Christmas crackers (British pull-apart party favors that contain a joke) which he is trying to convince his 20-something daughters will be fun. The intent is fun, but it is played out with edgy suspense and high-drama while the news report plays on the TV in the background. (Major spoiler) One after another they pull the crackers and read the jokes until they get to mother, who pulls the cracker and her head explodes like a ripe melon. The newscaster announces that since the colony has been cut off from earth for so long, they have had to mandate an annual culling of the population, as done with the official Lunar Falls Christmas crackers. (End Spoilers) From the acting and music, to the simple, yet effective set and special effects, this short is slick, well written, and is tonally pitch perfect. It also has digital cinematography that emulates the three-strip technicolor process of the '50s to tie it all together. I hope, as soon as we return to normal times, this will lead Lynch to a feature project.

I should probably mention that among the indy entries there are some high profile names. Ruggero Deodato, who has been primarily been working in Italian TV over the past 30 years (including WE ARE ANGELS [1997]), shows up with a short that is well directed, but looks rather bland and color leeched. The story of a Christmas prank gone seriously wrong shows a little of his streak of almost Spanish-esque cruelty, but is a little disappointing coming from one of the old masters of Italian exploitation cinema.

Beloved genre favorite Barbara Crampton shows up in another not-really-Christmas story (it's just in the title, THE CHRISTMAS MIRACLE) about a woman (Clarke Wolfe) who has lost her baby. Set in a fairytale period setting, a woman in black (Crampton) asks if she would do anything to have her baby brought back from the dead. (Spoiler) The woman digs up the baby's coffin and cries with joy to find her baby alive. The woman in black takes the baby and we see the mother is dead. (/Spoiler) It's nicely shot and played, and I guess it's a nice diversion from some of the less atmospheric entries, but if you are in it because you are excited to see Crampton, it's like getting a chocolate Santa only to find out that it's hollow on the inside. It's kind of tasty, but it leaves you wanting more.

This is kind of an apt metaphor for the entire movie. Stuff moves by so fast that even if it is good, it's easy to forget that it even existed when you get 15 deep, much less 26 deep. There is fun to be had here, but it's such an big sack of random ADD stuff that unless you are really into super-shallow, disposable cinema, it's a bit unsatisfying.

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