Friday, December 18, 2020

December to Dismember: UNHOLY NIGHT (2019)

 I must have been really nice this year. Kind of hard not to be when you are locked in an apartment while a virulent plague and a virulent orange clown wreak havoc outside of your door for the entire fucking year. I guess you could be a dick on the internet, but nothing says that you are a utterly worthless moron than verbally assaulting people on social media. Nope this year, amazingly enough, after sticking my arm in a virtual grab bag of cinematic bear-traps for a third time, I managed to fish out a low-budget, shot on digital, Christmas horror anthology that (gasp) actually makes the effort! And seriously, if you have read up on our Christmas suffering, there is really only one thing we ask Santa for every year: Effort. Ok, maybe not with the poster, but you can't have everything.

Set in a pre-modern era, a middle-class family of a father, mother and two young girls, sits around the unfancy Christmas table, discussing how many cookies they can appropriate from Santa's plate. After answering the door, one of the girls can be heard asking someone if they are an elf, then returning only to snatch a chef's knife off the kitchen counter and stab the sweet baby bejeezus out of dad. To be fair, he was trying to hog all the cookies.

After the opening credits, we meet Lilly (Jennifer Allanson), a nurse in an older, somewhat vacant hospital on Christmas eve. Not only is it extremely slow, but obnoxious nurse Amanda (Emily Shanley) has decided to boss the few people on staff around, pushing Lilly to do menial tasks. Mainly getting the cranky Mr. Iblis (Jim McDonald) into a wheelchair and down to radiology. Lilly is the slowest wheelchair pusher in the history of nursing, but this gives Iblis a chance to show her his Christmas scrapbook which is made up of horrifying Christmas stories. Naturally Lilly thinks this is pretty great (it would be a short movie if she didn't) and Iblis tells a tale of Christmas horror...

[I should point out that if you plan on watching this movie, you really should wait to read the rest of this review. I'll exclude most of the spoilers, but this movie actually tries to keep you guessing through the stories and even minor spoilers should be avoided]

Young couple John (Marc Daniels) and Iris (Aileigh Karson) are going to do the family Christmas dinner and meet Iris' parents for the first time (John is, Iris has already met them). Worried about making a good impression, John thinks that Iris' idea to munch down on some shrooms before heading out, might be flawed. At this point you may be thinking that this strains the bonds of credibility, as it is just a downright stupid idea. But, like all incredibly stupid ideas, you know someone has tried it. There's a reason that the labels on bottles of bleach tell you not to drink it (regardless of what some street-corner lunatic in the White House says). Also, this is a horror-comedy, so they are going to get a pass on this plot point. While on the way to see the folks, they are pulled over by cop who happens to be Iris' ex, who pretends to be serious, before acting cheery and when Iris isn't looking, makes some passive-aggressive threats. Or is John just tripping? Once at the house things continue to get weirder with Iris' dad telling horror stories about 'Nam, only to turn on a dime and say that he was just joking and Aunt Marge telling John that she's hungry enough to eat a whole baby. "Just kidding," she says, "the bones would get stuck in my teeth." Meanwhile Iris' mom offers up "finger food" and before long John starts wondering if he is on the menu... or is he still tripping? 

Back at the hospital, Lilly has been tasked with taking out the trash and along the way spots the silhouette of what appears to be a tall elf in a dark hallway. She looks again and it is gone. After abandoning the trash in a janitor's closet, Lilly returns to Mr. Iblis for the tale of Drunk Dead Debbie...

A couple of modern, 30-ish ladies, Sarah (Candice Lidstone) and Katie (Julie Mainville), who live on cosmos and reality TV, head out to visit their friend Eva (Vanessa Bloomfield) for Christmas. Looking forward to a night of drunken debauchery (yes, just the three of them, and they're straight), they plan on making a video to be entered into a contest for a reality dating show. The video camera they bring along has a nightvision feature, so that they can do some "after dark confessions". I'm assuming this is a thing on those type of shows. I'm too busy scraping the bottoms of VOD barrels to watch that stuff. Anyway, once the three are together, drinks in gullet, they tell a story about Drunk Dead Debbie. The angry ghost of a woman who was encouraged by a trio of mean girls to drink to the point where she passes out and chokes to death on her vomit. Legend has it, if three women say her name and do a shot, scary Debs will appear. So naturally they do, prompting a power outage in which that nightvision video camera comes in handy.

Returning once again to the hospital, Iblis explains to Lilly how Christmas is just a Christian make-over of a pagan holiday, before Lilly breaks the news that she is going to head out to be with her mother on Christmas. After extracting herself from the realistically irritating Amanda's clutches, Lilly heads home to be with her mother, who turns out to be an abusive matron, belittling Lilly at every turn before locking her in a closet, as they do every year. "I do this for you, you ungrateful bitch!" Fortunately for Lilly, there is a mannequin dressed as an elf in the closet who tries to help her sort through this holiday drama. At one point he casually suggests that Lilly kill her mother, but Lilly demurs, saying "she's a piece of shit, but she's my mother." At this point the movie really kicks into gear tying up loose ends and providing the best laughs of the movie. But I can't in good conscience spoil them because I wouldn't do it justice (the humor is quirky and somewhat dry) and if you are down for low-budget SOV movies, you really should watch it and give these guys the hits they deserve.

Granted, watching this on a double bill after say KRAMPUS (2015) or SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT (1984), you might be setting yourself up for disappointment, but let me tell ya, after some of the back yard efforts we've been watching, it's pretty great. If you've been drinking formaldehyde, even blue-label whiskey tastes good. On the other hand, director Chris Chitaroni and writer Jimm Moir's opening story about the effects of psychedelics on Christmas dinner, in spite of a small budget and ridiculous premise, has some genuinely amusing moments and a nice sense of style, particularly when John loses it momentarily, wielding a screwdriver which they have mounted to the camera, giving the audience a screwdriver's POV of the paranoid proceedings.

While I thought that Randy Smith's middle story about Drunk Dead Debbie was not particularly funny or scary; the horror elements ape THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), CANDYMAN (1992) and THE RING (presumably 2002), but maybe I'm just the wrong demographic. If I was one of those girls that try to model their lives after the characters on SEX AND THE CITY (1998), maybe I'd have loved it, but then again, do those women watch movies called UNHOLY NIGHT after digging through an Amazon Prime Christmas horror search? I kind of don't think so. Also, when your big climactic set-piece is someone endlessly vomiting oatmeal on someone else's face, I feel like you are not really trying.

Fortunately, the final story, which is also an extension of the wrap-around, directed by Kristian Lariviere who co-wrote it with Jennifer Allanson (Lilly), sends us out on a high note. Good enough to stand on its own as a feature, this does so many things right I can't list them all here. Not only does Lariviere and Allanson write a nicely layered script, with dry, sardonic humor and believe-it-or-not at least one multidimensional character, but Lariviere's directorial skills are so far above the usual shot on digital dross that there were times where I was genuinely blown away.

For instance, when making a low-budget DTV movie, there is really no way you can afford crane or helicopter shots. That's for the majors, but while most of these movie makers leave it at that, Lariviere uses drone technology to give us some fantastic aerial shots, broadening the scope and setting the tone. It's such a simple and obvious solution, that I'm kind of amazed that not one of these other shot on digital movies has done it. Granted, most of them aren't going to be caught dead thinking outside the box and probably wouldn't spend the money on it anyway, but they should. Also, Lariviere's camera direction features some creative, professional-looking shots, prowling around corners of long hallways, peering over bannisters, and even leaving the camera static to allow some jokes to take place off-screen. Polished direction, great lighting, solid acting, deftly written, minimal, but excellently crafted make-up and digital effects, what the hell is going on around here? I don't have anything to bitch about! That's ok though, this Christmas miracle doesn't come around even once a year, so you can be sure I'll be punished for having such an enjoyable ride next time out.

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