Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

December to Dismember: CHRISTMAS SLAY (2015)

Tom recently dipped his toe across the pond with THE 12 DEATHS OF CHRISTMAS (2017), so I guess I have to be brave enough. Not to be confused with SANTA’S SLAY (2005) - which is easily the best killer Santa movie starring Bill Goldberg - CHRISTMAS SLAY is another in the long line of “homicidal maniac in a Santa suit” slashers with the only difference from our other cinematic tortures is the ineptness comes at us with charming British accents. Cheerio, old chap!

The film opens with a family (father, mother, young daughter) celebrating on Christmas Eve. When they hit the hay, a deranged killer (Frank Jakeman) in a Santa suit breaks in. How do we know he is deranged? He sits down and slices himself a piece of their cake! Have you ever seen such madness? He then heads upstairs and kills mom and dad (dad is violently stabbed while mom just sleeps through it; yeah, it is one of those kind of movies). The cops arrive thanks to a silent alarm (always the best kind of alarm for a vulnerable family in the middle of nowhere) and quickly blast the killer to hell. Hahaha, just kidding. This is England where they are still civilized and politely-yet-sternly tell him “get down on the floor now.” After a bit of a scuffle (that would have made him extra dead in the U.S.), he is taken into custody. Just think, the slay from the next 80 minutes could never have happened if some good ol’ American cops got to the scene first.

Cut to a year later and three girlfriends - Emma (Jessica Ann Bonner), Beccy (Dani Thompson), and Sarah (Lydia Kay) - are heading to Scotland for some winter fun. Things are tough for Emma as she found her boyfriend Ryan in bed with her best friend. He says they were just pissed (drunk for you non-Brits), but she ain’t having it and the three ladies decide it is girls’ weekend as they get dropped off at an isolated cabin. On the way back the van driver hears on the radio about a breakout over several patients at the Moorview mental institution the day previous. Wait...what breakout? In his infinite wisdom, writer-director Steve Davis decides to show the breakout AFTER it is mentioned. We meet nurse Chloe (Laura Ellen Wilson), who runs into our killer, Simon Carter, in the hallway of this psych ward. You see, in Europe if you slaughter an entire family you only get the nut house. Over here in the U.S. you get a fanclub and Wikipedia page. Simon proves he still isn’t on the level when he stabs a fellow patient in the head with a bunch of pens and steals his Santa suit before escaping. No need to guess where he is going as the director has already told us.

Back at the bungalow, the girls are preparing to get wild by decorating a Christmas tree and roasting marshmallows. Whoa, calm down, girls, just calm down. Trouble arrives in a slight form as Chloe shows up. You see, she was the best friend that Emma’s boyfriend was in bed with. Drama! Trouble also arrives in a slightly bigger form as boyfriends John and Paul also show up (Ringo and George apparently not invited). Trouble then arrives in its biggest form as Simon eventually shows up with an axe. We just have to assume he followed Chloe here, but obviously it doesn’t matter (to both the director and the audience). Chloe is the first to get killed when she goes out to get some firewood. One of the boys goes out to find her and he also gets slayed. This gives Simon his first chance to show his holiday horror decorating flair as he sneaks into the house and puts Chloe’s severed head in the toilet. Let’s just say master horror planners like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees aren’t impressed. Hell, Billy from SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984) mounted Linnea Quigley on a deer rack on his first killing spree. Simon, you ain’t no Billy. Not that you would care as all this action happens offscreen. Why? Because we need to have the amazing 5 minutes long scene where John fills his tiny joint and ponders the wonders of marijuana. Naturally, when John finally makes it to the john and sees the severed head, he freaks out and pounds his palms against his forehead while mumbling. The girls decide the best course of action is to get to higher ground for some good cell phone reception. Not to call the cops, they just want to chance their Facebook status to “It’s complicated.”

The tagline on the DVD cover for this is “You better watch out. You better not cry.” Guess what? I
didn’t watch out and as a result I cried a lot. Now I’m not blaming the film outright, but after I saw it I was very sick for three days and felt like I was gonna puke (“That was probably the new STAR WARS that made you sick,” said Tom). You have to wonder what writer-director Steve Davis has going on in that (egg)noggin of his. Stalk-and-slash movies don’t require the highest level of brain function, but some basic logic does apply. For example, let’s look at the scene where the women decide to leave the house to head to higher ground. They were settling in for the night so the characters were in t-shirts, bras and short shorts. Price has them all leave the house to go out into the cold dressed like this. Now, mind you, they are not being chased at all at this point and they are inside a house (insert Donald Moffat in THE THING voice) FILLED WITH THEIR FUCKING WARM CLOTHES! Now I’ve seen characters do some dumb stuff in horror movies, but I’ve never seen them choose to avoid weather conditions by choice. Weird.

The end is even more bizarre as Emma becomes the final girl and chops Simon to death with his axe. Ryan, the boyfriend savior, shows up the next morning and does what anyone would do and immediately takes her to the hospital and calls the police. Hahahaha, just kidding. He takes her to her apartment so she can have a bath. The police show up and arrest her because of all the dead bodies back at the cabin. Wait, I thought she killed Simon. Well, his body is gone and they just assume she was the escaped looney. No, I’m not kidding. This is an actual dialogue exchange in the film:

Constable: “They picked up that escaped patient from Moorview a few hours ago. The one that killed all those students up in the highlands.”
Sergeant: “That is good news. Where’d they find him?”
Constable: “It wasn’t a him, it was a her.”
Sergeant: “A her? You sure about that?”
Constable: “Yeah, positive. They found her prints everywhere.”

I can’t even begin to unpack all the dumb in those five lines. Now I’ve heard about British folks being bumbling, but this might take the crumpet. Hmmm, did a hulking killer escape or was it a tiny girl? Eh, same thing. Can’t tell ‘em apart, guv’ner. Jeez, remind me never to get caught up in a mass murder in England. It is boneheaded directorial decision one after the next. Viewers might wonder what makes Simon tick. You could infer he has a Christmas tragedy in his past by the way he freaks out in the asylum when he sees a fellow patient in a Santa get up. Nope. Working such simple exposition in some throwaway dialogue is just too damn demanding for Price. A shame as Jakeman is an imposing actor and seems to have some range to maybe pull it off. Of course Simon lives and the door is left open for CHRISTMAS SLAY 2. Thankfully, no one has entered that yet.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

December to Dismember: CHRISTMAS WITH THE DEAD (2012)

Christ, I am so over zombies. If you went back in time and told my teenage self that in the future zombies would become so mainstream that I'd be sick to fucking death of them, I'd kick your ass right through the doors of the funny farm. Having thoroughly braced myself for the worst in Christmas horrors and oh, jeezus, a zombie one no less, it feels more than a little weird to end up with something that is really not all that bad. Even, I might say, enjoyable! I know! What the hell is going on here?

On Christmas Eve slacker husband and father Calvin (Damian Maffei) has procrastinated on putting up the outside Christmas decorations until literally the last minute. His well-meaning, but pestering wife Ella (Kasey Lansdale), all gussied up in what appears to be a sexy mall-Santa's helper outfit, is upset that the decorations aren't up and wants Calvin to go out right now to go buy them. She doesn't indicate where exactly Calvin should buy them, at night, on Christmas Eve, but that's not her problem! Her problem is that their five year old daughter Tina (Madeline Brassell) is being cheated out of having the perfect Christmas, like ever! Am I supposed to sympathize with either of these bums? Fiiiiine, I'll try.

While Calvin is trying to nap on the sofa (at night, on Christmas Eve), his girls witness some colored flashing lights in the sky. When he wakes up he finds that his wife and daughter are sprawled out on the floor dead. With the phones not working (we seem to be in an era that only has land-lines), he steps outside and what to his wondering eyes should appear? His entire neighborhood is littered with corpses. Yep, the apocalypse happened and lazy-ass Calvin missed the whole damn thing. So what's a man in the middle of the apocalypse do? He cries, of course. Jeezus guy, butch up, have a beer, blow something up, do donuts in the police station parking lot, something!

When his neighbor Ray (Adam Coats) stops by, covered in blood (and a ludicrous Christmas costume), he swears that Tina bit him, just to prove him right, Ella takes this cue to pop up all zombized (zombieized?) and sinks her choppers into Ray as well, causing him to shout "goddammit, your whole family bit me!" Wait, did I blink and suddenly find myself watching a very special episode of STAN AGAINST EVIL?

All of a sudden CHRISTMAS WITH THE DEAD (ahem) comes to life with some snappy dialogue and a crafty sense of humor. This shouldn't be much of a surprise as legendary scribe Joe R. Lansdale wrote the short story of the same name. Adapted for the (small) screen by his own spawn Keith Landsale, we finally have a shot-on-video, amateur acted, low-renter that is actually well written, through no fault of its own. Are we in opposite land? I mean, I go to the local multiplex and see movies with good acting and lousy scripts and now I'm all turned around. Ok, who spiked my egg nog? This is not how it's supposed to go.

Joe's other spawn, Kasey, her character fortunately dies almost immediately so we don't have to suffer through her savage attempts at acting. Well, sort of. Calvin, unable to bring himself to shoot her in the head, decides to keep her chained up on the porch and feeds her dog food out of a dog bowl, because... he, uhhh, loves her so much? Amazingly, Kasey can't even really handle the chores of being a zombie and kind of acts like a dog. Sort of a zombie dog. Or a sorority chick who really can't handle her magic mushrooms. This would be fine except this movie being about as neopotismal as the White House, Kasey is also allowed to perform several saccharine pop-country tunes that blare over the soundtrack once in a while and pretty much made me want to slam candy canes in my ear drums to make it stop. Fortunately for me and my ear drums, I have a mute button. Use as necessary.

After deciding to light up his place of work and play constant Christmas music over the radio, Calvin also babbles messages to anyone who is listening. Being a man, he is assuming that there are hot girls somewhere who will hear his blubbering self-pity and come running to give him some sloppy holiday cheer in the middle of August. Instead he gets George (Brad Maule). A beer-bellied ex-garbage man who wears a uniform with a name tag that reads "Kathy". They become friends, because they really don't have any options, and eventually get mixed up with a cult of zombie worshipers run by the Reverend Mac (Chet Williamson) who has escaped from the local loony bin and set up a "church" in a rodeo arena with the rest of the inmates as his "flock".

I am genuinely amazed, and a bit saddened, that this couldn't get a decent budget and better actors. This could have easily played in the cinemas of the past if it had been shot on film with a better cast. It's not a tent-pole franchise starter, so there's no way it could happen today, but if anyone in Hollywood had any sense (they don't), they could have turned this into a minor hit. Fer chrissakes, we still have THE WALKING DEAD as popular as ever and we even got a good Krampus movie in theaters a couple years back. This, with a little cash, could have easily been another BUBBA HO-TEP (2002), at the very least.

Lansdale's characteristic humor is channeled through George, and while the lines are still funny, there are some hiccups that apparently did not deserve another take. George says of the zombies, that music "holds their attention like a naked lady in church". Not the greatest line ever written as it rips-off classic Southern witticisms like "sweating like a whore in church", but in the context of a SOV beater, it's definitely chuckle worthy. Too bad veteran TV actor Brad Maule stumbles over the line, wrecking the delivery, and director T.L. Lankford said "fuckit, we'll just leave it in." Of course, Lankford is probably best known for writing and co-producing a few Fred Olen Ray and Rick Sloane movies, so yeah, mystery solved.

On the acting front, most are unknowns, possibly friends of the Lansdale family, though Damian Maffei has appeared in a few things including a bit part in Andreas Schnass' NICOS THE IMPALER (2003) and the lead in Jay Woelfel's CLOSED FOR THE SEASON (2010), however it's first timer Chet Williamson's Reverend Mac who easily steals the show with his boisterous Texas wing-nut preacher shtick. This character also proves that this is a Lansdale flick. I mean, Lansdale is the guy who managed to squeeze a Western-themed episode (complete with Jonah Hexx) into BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (1995). I can trust Lansdale to figure out how to stuff a Western-theme into The Little Mermaid on Ice, if given half the chance.

As disconcerting as it is to see good writing go hand in severed hand with stiff acting and digital video, you could do a lot worse this Christmas. I know I have.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

December to Dismember: TALES FROM THE GRAVE 2: HAPPY HOLIDAYS (2005)

While compiling our preliminary list of Christmas horror titles, we knew things were going to be grim. After all, we’ve covered the “normal” staples in the past (the SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT sequels) and reviewing classics like BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) or CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980) would offer little insight. We knew we would have to dig deep and, let’s be honest, it was going to be brutal. Looking over our selections, one called out to me. It beckoned my bleak soul. Yes, it was the crappiest looking one. You see, I was immediately drawn to a shot-on-video anthology as I’ve loved anthologies since I was a kid and first saw CREEPSHOW (1982). Who cares if it is shot-on-video? An anthology is usually good for a at least one cool segment, right? A seven dollar eBay purchase later, I was good to go and worked TALES FROM THE GRAVE 2: HAPPY HOLIDAYS into my life. Goddammit!

I should have known I was in trouble the moment the video opens with a wannabe HBO TALES FROM THE CRYPT opening as the camera dashes around a graveyard (in daylight!) toward vault door. Those poor folks buried under the tombstones are about to find out death wasn’t their last indignity. Inside the tomb is a Crypt Keeper-wannabe (labeled the “Old Crone” in the end credits) who conjures up tales from her crystal ball. Full disclosure: My DVD has part one on it, but I figured I could swing part two without watching that; so I’m not sure this character is returning. Anyway, the backlit-to-hell host offers us five stories where “each victim is the creator of their own demise.” Oh, so it is like Since it carries the subtitle HAPPY HOLIDAYS, it is safe to tell you all of the stories centered around a holiday.

Now due to bravery (or stupidity) I made sure to watch the first four segments and not just skip to the Christmas themed one. After all, I need to get into the film’s groove. So I’ll give you a quick rundown of the other four entries: “Love Bites” centers on Valentine’s Day and a nerdy guy who thinks he is a vampire; “Luck of the Irish” is about St. Patrick’s Day and a guy in Ireland hoping to catch a leprechaun; “Trick or Treat” focuses on some teens who resurrect a mummy on Halloween; and “Meat the Family” is a Thanksgiving set story about a guy going to meet his girlfriend’s family. This all leads to “Angel,” the fifth and final story set on Christmas Eve.

The story begins with Angel (Shana Bempechat) and Sean (Amir Navison) driving to her parent’s house for the Christmas holiday. As cinematic law dictates, anyone driving to relatives on the holidays has to be arguing and these two do that a lot. Sean feels he doesn’t measure up to her dad’s standards because he doesn’t have money and is nothing but a “lousy teacher.” Hey, if you are a bad teacher, I’d hold it against you too. Haha. After they argue for five minutes straight, they make up and then get into a car crash (which means the crew shakes the camera). A certified Chicago city folk, our lovebirds are completely helpless out here in the wild go looking for a house. They stumble upon a brightly lit up abode and knock on the door. Grandma Patton (Eugenia Care) answers and lets them in to meet Grandpa Patton (Dan Henderson) and mentally challenged Leroy (Paul Howard). B-movie logic dictates they don’t have a phone, but Grandpa offers to drive them into town in the morning. Naturally, something is amiss in this scenario and I’m not talking about the filmmakers insistence that the leads never ask to clean their wounds. Yup, this family is suspect because they have a big Christmas tree. “Now why would anyone want a tree that fucking big,” muses Sean. Sitting down to a big family dinner, our leads can’t help but wonder why Leroy is so anxious to decorate the tree and later Sean spots a phone on the wall. Something is wrong with this family for sure. Well, I’ll spoil it for you: Yes, the old folks are killers and decorate their big ass tree with the severed limbs of their victims. They kill Sean and Angel and then put her head on the top of the tree. Get it? She’s the angel at the top of the tree. I got nothing.

Now we’ve reviewed a lot of crap these past two weeks, but this is a whole new level of bad. TALES FROM THE GRAVE 2 is a terrible film tornado, storming onto our blog and blowing those other movies to bits. I never knew how good we had it until this film assaulted my DVD player. SANTA CLAUS VS. THE ZOMBIES? THE ELF? Come back! I didn’t mean all those terrible things I said about you. I know I’ve used this before in my writing, but this is beyond terrible. You know bottom of the barrel? Pick up that barrel, dig deep into the ground for about ten days and that is where you will unearth TALES FROM THE GRAVE 2. Believe it or not, I am actually familiar with director/co-writer/producer Stephanie Beaton. You see she was Detective Lutz in three of the legendary WITCHCRAFT sequels. Those acting turns were obviously her best work, which should let you know how freakin’ terrible TALES FROM THE GRAVE 2 is.

I honestly don’t know how someone can pool their resources together to make a movie (not an easy feat) and yet make something so shockingly mundane. Every scenario is so by the numbers that it almost feels wrong not posting this on National Mathematics Day (all credit to Tom for that line). I mean, the Thanksgiving segment is called “Meat the Family” and has a girl taking her boyfriend to meet her family for the first time. Can you guess the twist? Each segment is the equivalent of sitting 10-15 minutes while your uncle tells you a joke you know the punchline to the second he starts. Who sits around and conjures up such stories thinking they are going to surprise anyone? This was Beaton’s fourth (and last) film. She debuted with the first TALES FROM THE GRAVE (2003) and co-starred in her first three films, but isn’t in this one. Think about that - she opted not to be in front of the camera this go-around, so she had more time to focus on the filmmaking. I can’t. I just can’t. A holiday themed anthology is a fantastic idea. A holiday themed anthology from one of the co-stars of three WITCHCRAFT sequels is a terrible one. The only enjoyment you can possibly derive from this “film” is that I suffered through it. Avoid as much as a Christmas fruitcake.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

December to Dismember: THE 12 DEATHS OF CHRISTMAS (2017)

As the multiple title cards tell us, in almost, in 1921 Belgrade, 12 days prior to Christmas, several children went missing in the local woods. One was found, but was a complete fruitcake who screamed "the witch!" before shuffling off the mortal coil. In 1992 it happened again, except the children were found with their throats cut. Now, it's happening again. Or maybe not as the actually plot of the film seems to contradict this narrative. Hoo boy! Why does Christmas have to be so painful? Not for the kids with the slit throats, but for us, your humble, underappreciated movie jerks.

The movie starts out promisingly enough with a bored 7 year old boy noticing that there is a line of candy leading through the church aisle right up to the front door. Unfortunately for him a black robed figure quickly snatches him through the door as soon as he has amassed a small nuclear arsenal of sweets. Now that's just mean.

Now, let's forget all that for a moment. Or two. Or really quite a very long time. Suddenly single mom Vanessa (Claire-Maria Fox) and her rather sullen 11 year old daughter Amy (Faye Goodwin) head out to spend Christmas with Amy's Grampa Alfie (Tony Manders). It seems that Amy's dad Wildon (Tom Bowen), who appears to be about 23 years old, has just taken off to go be with his even younger girlfriend Debbie (Dottie James). Naturally this leads to a plethora of earnest, heart-to-heart conversations that get more and more dramatic as the movie goes on (and on, and on).

Apparently the church swiping incident is not the only kid to disappear in the past couple of days and something must be done about it! When there are things that must be done about, humans will invariably create and join some sort of group of like-minded, sweaty, eye-rollers who do little more than bitch and fight with each other. Art imitates life here, with the group getting together and setting up a murder wall in the local church. Clearly you couldn't set it up at Starbucks. Seemingly headed up by Leslie (Michelle Archer), Grampa Alifie's estranged wife, Leslie and Alfie seem to have some dark secret in their past which leads us once again to teary, impassioned pleas from Vanessa to get Gramps to open up. Trust me, these scenes of emo excess go on forever.

Maybe your are starting to see what I'm getting at here. It it seems like writer/director/etc James Klass' goal in life is to make Lifetime-style family dramas with plenty of tear-stained emotional scenes of people speaking from the heart. Actually I probably am doing a disservice to Lifetime as we get some incredibly cliched moments when Dad suddenly shows up at the house with new squeeze for Christmas. This leads us to scenes with lines like "you traded me in for a newer model!" Ugh. Bet you're wondering what the hell happened to that hooded figure? Me too!

Actually the "witch", or Frau Perchta as the legends name her, pops up every now and then to quickly snatch some kid or just be seen kind of hanging out in the distance. To be fair, in the middle of the movie, she does attack the daughter of one of her killers and turns her into a crucified, internally-lit Christmas display. There is also some sort of subplot about a strange symbol that Amy draws in class that is somehow related to the witch. Unfortunately even though it is posted on the church board and is explicitly pointed out, we never find out what it has to do with anything. There's a lot of potential here, but the script definitely needs another polish. Or two. Or twelve.

It's not till the end of the movie where things suddenly get... odd. Up til now, we've had a competently shot-on-video family drama, that while completely tedious for someone who expected something in the realm of horror from something whose title starts out with "12 deaths", is at least in focus. Once into the final streach, the Witch (Tara MacGowran) does some horrible things like peeking in windows and painting "12" on Gramps' door for no explicable reason. Outside of the title, there are no twelve deaths to be found in this movie. She also tries to tempt Amy to come outside the house with a cat. You know the Witch is evil because the cat is hairless. Maybe it should have been called "ONE MIIIIIIILION DEATHS OF CHRISTMAS".

Deceptively marketed as MOTHER KRAMPUS here in the US, with the same cover artist and similar tag line, to tie in with Jason Hull's abysmal KRAMPUS movies, this has absolutely nothing to do with Krampus and actually has more in common with Freddy Kruger. Apparently the Witch was lynched by a mob of villagers who accused her of killing all the kids back in '92 (although the villagers clearly are the same age and have the same hair styles in the flashbacks). *Spoiler Alert* Of course the Witch was innocent of the crimes and was falsely accused by the real killer and has now returned to fulfill her curse on the killer and everyone who strung her up, back in ye olden days of Nirvana and princes who were apparently unaged in the land of Bel-Air. What does that have to do with 1921 Belgrave? Not a friggin' thing, as far as I can tell.

"Wait!" I hear you say "that's not much like Freddy Kruger!" Even if she does have a messed up face and campily licks an axe? What if she cuts off pieces of someone's skin using a gingerbread man cookie cutter? Not enough? What about if one of the people she kills, she decides to dress up like a giant Christmas turkey? No, seriously, that happens. Actually prior to that, the Witch stabs the girl in the neck with a candy cane, but after a little lie down, she's fine. No really, she's ok after having her artery punched through and losing about a quart of blood. This being a British movie, I'm surprised she wasn't cured by a cup of tea. Is there anything that a nice cuppa can't fix? In addition to the very few and very goofy deaths, Klass has the nerve to do a play on the tediously classic line from ALIENS (1986) and have Vanessa yell at the Witch before delivering the coup de grace, "get away from her, you witch!" Oh, it hurts! It hurts!

At first it seemed like we would be getting a well made, if low budget, Christmas horror story, but after quickly sliding into a morass of emo drama and throwing in some starkly contrasting cheeseball horror with very little of it thought through, it ends up being both annoying and unsatisfying. I'm not sure what Klass was thinking except maybe it was a way to sell some DVDs and get his foot in the door of the entertainment industry so that he could follow his passion for family drama. Nice box art though, even if it looks suspiciously like the art for Shout Factory's much anticipated SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT (1984) blu-ray.

Friday, December 8, 2017

December to Dismember: THE ELF (2017)

First off, I want everyone reading this review to look to the left and take in that amazing artwork. Kudos to the graphic designer who made that. It is colorful and vibrant. Most of all, it caught my eye when I stopped at a Redbox outside a grocery store. You did your job, mystery designer, and you did it incredibly well. Feeling the sense of adventure I had in my video store youth (and also feeling a tinge of guilt that Tom was suffering through all these modern Xmas horrors), I clicked the “rent” button, swiped my credit card, and soon had the disc in my hand. Damn you, mystery designer, damn you!

THE ELF opens with a short prologue of an old toymaker seemingly making his latest toy. But there is a twist as it is revealed he is actually sewing up the lips of a dead child. He has a naughty list on his table and something enters his home. Whatever it is, it scares him to death and his list is snatched by something with a monster hand. If you are hoping this is explained later, sorry. Cut to the present day where Nick (Gabriel Miller) and Victoria (Natassia Halabi) are checking out a antique toy store he has inherited. And by checking out, I mean cheeeeeeeeeeeeecking out. Lots of long shots of them looking at stuff. Victoria finds a photo album filled with photos of people holding the same toy (we never get a close up of the pics as apparently that was too much work) and a inventory book that is empty. Nick wanders into the back and finds a trunk that has inscribed on it “Whoever accepts this gift will be the soul of its contents.” Shit, better open that right away. Inside he finds an evil looking elf doll holding a knife and a naughty list.

Also inside are instructions that the owner can remove one name from the naughty list and Nick gets a occult seal magically burned into his left arm. Probably enough red flags to get Nick to leave the little figure behind.

Driving home we learn that our lead couple has issues. Victoria asks Nick if he wants to marry her (just like real life) and this results in an argument (just like real life!) that she has never met anyone from his family. Along the way home Nick stops for a one car accident and the driver (a dead ringer for Burt Young) is acting all weird. The logic of this movie dictates Nick just leaves and Victoria says, “What was that? Let’s not talk about it.” Sounds about right. The couple arrive at their newly inherited home (17 minutes in and it still hasn’t been establish who bequeathed all this stuff) and Nick is freaked out when he sees the elf on the shelf. And by freaks out I mean he stares wide-eyed at it for a long time. You see, Nick has an issue with Christmas. Victoria settles this by stuffing the thing in the trash. Nick goes to a take a shower and promptly freaks out when he has a flashback. Seems when he was a kid something really bad went down at a Christmas party at his house. Got to give the filmmakers credit here, the flashback is well done and the best part of the movie thanks to some surreal imagery (like a white Xmas tree in the middle of a lake at night) and staging (everyone at the part stands still as a young Nick walks through them).

With our lead struggling mentally, it is probably not best that Victoria has secretly invited her entire extended family to surprise Nick, offering the elf six new victims. Even worse it is Christmas Eve and a big storm is coming so everyone is stuck. First to get offed are grandpa and grandma after good ol’ granddad gets a hankering for some good ol’ USA liquor and not of that “Greenland shit.” The elf catches them in their car and kills them. Nick and Jeremiah (Joseph Daniel Ellis), Victoria’s brother, head out into the storm to find them. We actually get an interesting twist here as Jeremiah beats up Nick and tells him to call off his relationship with the sister. You see, the family doesn’t approve of Nick (for reasons I’ll explain in a sec). Of course, before Jeremiah can finish his pummeling, he is killed by the elf. Yay, elf? Back at the house, Victoria’s dad John (Lassiter Holmes) tells her he did some research on Nick and it turns out he is a survivor of the “Christmas Eve Massacre” from a few decades back. Turns out a bunch of party guests and Nick’s dad were killed and only Nick and his mother, who is now in a mental institution, survived. Just as dad finishes his plea, Nick pops back in rambling about a killer elf doll. And here we go!

Damn, did I already curse the poster designer? Okay, guess it is time to pile onto writer-director Justin Price. The script he has provided THE ELF has such a wrong headed logic that it is baffling. Very early on I knew something was off when I realized he hadn’t even established such basic tenants as character relations. Even funnier are muddled moments like the idea that a family that knows about Nick’s psychotic past would all show up for a surprise party all smiles. Later, when they reveal the truth to Victoria, her mother says, “We just didn’t know how to tell you all this.” Apparently neither did Price. To compound the shoddy screenplay problems even more, there is actually an interesting scenario that could be exploited within Price’s work that is totally avoided. Nick’s mental state could have the stock victims wondering if he was really the killer. Or, even better, maybe it could be his now crazy mother? You know, keep the audience guessing. Nope, the only sense of mystery you will get from this script is how did it get made. I’d excuse it as a novice filmmaker misstep, but according to the IMDb this is Price’s twelfth directorial effort. Goddamn, dude.

The script’s unsteadiness extends to Price’s direction as well. Hey, at least he is consistent. As an example, we’ll showcase the scene where Victoria’s mother is attacked by the elf. No joke, she enters a room and the elf slices her achilles tendon. She collapses to the floor and starts crawling around and looking for what did this to her. What is the one thing she doesn’t do? SCREAM! You know, shout something like, “Help me! I’m being attacked!” seeing as she is in a house with other people. Nope, getting attacked requires complete complicity from the victim. This might be the most egregious victim reaction I’ve ever seen in a horror film. Hell, maybe her vocal chords are in her ankle? Even worse, she finds Victoria’s cell phone when her friend Sky calls. She whispers that they are being attacked by someone and Sky’s first reaction isn’t to say, “Let me call the police right now.” Nope, she answers with the much more important, “Okay...what does he look like?” Sweet Jesus! Then again, I shouldn’t expect much from a filmmaker who has a scene where Christmas carolers show up, the dad opens the door as they are singing, and they cut to an establishing shot of the house where they aren’t there (to compound this error, when the elf attacks the group, he does make sure to have a shot of them outside standing there). Of course, we’re easy folks here so some bad ass elf attacks would put Price’s piece on our “Nice” list. Nope. Just choppily shot action scenes with minimal blood. Is there anything positive to say about THE ELF? Well, it was shot in Texas but Price didn’t use that excuse to be lazy and not show a winter storm. Yes, he actually makes an effort to create a snowy landscape. Also, the design of the elf is kind of cool (not as cool as the poster though, dammit!). If only it had been featured in a better movie. In closing, we suggest leaving THE ELF on the shelf (or in the Redbox machine).

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

December to Dismember: KRAMPUS UNLEASHED (2016)

It seems like only yesterday when the old-world legends of the anti-Santa, Krampus, were almost completely unknown to Americans. If ever there was a great idea for a horror movie, it's a big, horned beast that punishes people for being bad, or in the case of the movies, just being alive, during the Christmas holiday. If this sudden burst of interest had happened 30 years ago we would have had movies crammed into the newly minted multiplexes by major studios and indy production companies with some reasonably big low budgets. Now, in the days of studio domination, the tent-pole obsession, and reports of $100,000,000 in weekend box office receipts being deemed a "flop", all we get is some schmuck who talked some townies into throwing in some cash on his shot-on-video, direct to DVD, horror flick that desperately tries to be a drama with some horror thrown in, or desperately tries to be a nod-and-wink movie that attempts to cover up their incompetence by making an intentionally "stupid" movie. Grim days indeed.

A couple years ago we covered a couple of Krampus "films" and shockingly one of them, KRAMPUS (2015), actually made it into American cinemas, the others, not so much (for a rundown of the history of Krampus, check out our review of KRAMPUS: THE CHRISTMAS DEVIL [2015]). One of the movies that didn't make the cut was KRAMPUS: THE RECKONING (2015). It was so awful that I couldn't even bring myself to talk about it. Not only was it just gruelingly dull, but it was lazy, with the title creature rendered in clunky, cheap CGI. Written, produced, directed, etc., by Philly native Robert Conway, who has been plugging away at poverty-stricken SOV horror films since 2004. You'd think after 11 years he would have got something right. Knowing this, I put on my game face and steeled myself for his latest effort, KRAMPUS UNLEASHED.

Opening in 1898 (we know it's the wild west because everybody has a Texas accent), a group of surprisingly well groomed cowboy types are on the hunt for the legendary outlaw Erik Klaus' cursed treasure stash. Apparently they have narrowed their search to the top of a hill and after digging a hole they find a very small box containing a rather large black stone. Unfortunately for them, the stone has something to do with summoning Krampus and everyone is quickly dispatched by a large, shambling - hey, wait, is that practical effects I see?! While I'm not sure why Krampus has a blue face and the box art blatantly lies like a dog, Conway immediately garners my good will by not only offering a real dude in a rubber Krampus suit, but disemboweling and a few other assorted acts of mayhem in legit latex and kayro glory! See? I'm not so hard to please.

Cut to present day, in the middle of the Arizona highway, after credits that include an astonishingly awful rendition of "Let it Snow", that I'm pretty sure was done by the same kind of guy who thinks he's pretty awesome whistling "Jingle Bells" in the freezer section of the local supermarket. On the road, we have a family of annoying people, headed up by dad Will (Tim Sauer), who talk about how much they don't like their relatives driving out to a ranch house in the middle of nowhere for Christmas dinner. Great, so already we know that this is going to get irritating really quick. Also on the road is an even more annoying family, headed up by David (Daniel Link), who stop for gas and run into a couple of local yokels who are on the hunt for Bigfoot. This is much to the amusement of David's obnoxious son Troy (Taylor Buckley), who records them with his cell phone and exclaims that it's going to "go viral". Oh man, not even 19 minutes in and already I can feel my good-will fading fast.

Once everybody gathers at the ranch house, we get a bunch of annoying people, being annoying during Christmas. Seriously, one of the reasons I watch movies during the holidays is so that I don't have to think about annoying family get-togethers. One of the exciting things they decide to do is go panning for gold in the local creek, as one is want to do over the holidays, and Will's son Tommy (Bryson Holl) finds no gold, but does find a large black rock - the Krampus stone! Meanwhile local cop Dan (Dujhan Brown) is checking up on ex-girlfriend Bonnie (Amelia Brantley) and generally being a creep in the nicest possible way. Oh, and Troy leaves a cigarette next to the Krampus stone, so that apparently summons him. Well, not like he appears right next to the rock, but sort of within several miles of the general vicinity. Ok, we are 30 minutes in and I've lost all of my tidings of joy.

I think the subplot involving the rednecks hunting Bigfoot is supposed to be the comic relief with lines like "Darwin was like a thousand years ago!" and an exchange that I still don't understand in which one says "I guess you are right" and the other replies "no man, I am right!" Uhhh, what? Fortunately for everyone involved, Krampus shows up out of nowhere and kills them.

Not content with just the yokels, Krampus then stops by Bonnie's place and literally tears her boyfriend in half, leaving both halves of the body on the ground loosely connected by random bits of entrails. My interest is suddenly revived. Bonnie unloads a shotgun into Krampus and seeing it has no effect, runs over to the ranch house where she tells everyone that her boyfriend has been attacked and killed! To which Grandma Henderson says "Bonnie, why are you dressed in your bathrobe?" Ah, a relic of the old days, back when you were expected to dress respectably before running over to the neighbor's house to report the grisly murder of your significant other.

With IQs like this swimming in the family gene pool, it's no wonder that the men folk decide that upon hearing this news, they should... do what? Bolt all the doors and windows to keep the families safe? Nope! They decide the best plan of action on hearing that there is a bestial killer on the loose is to "go out and take a look"! Naturally they find what they are looking for and Krampus tears them limb from limb with blood and body parts flying everywhere. David manages to run back to the house and tell everyone that Will and Dale are dead but with the same gene pool in effect, Nana and Will's pregnant wife Alice (Linda Cushma) decide to take 11 year old Tommy out to go look for the guys! "Hey, everyone has been ripped apart! Ok, grab the kid, let's take a look." Makes perfect sense. Of course this leads to Nana and Alice being slaughtered by Krampus while Tommy runs back to the house in a state of high perturbedness.

The remaining family decide to take it to the road and run into a grey-haired retiree named Coop (Kerry Keepers), who just so happens to be one of the men in the prologue. A (20-something year old) man who according to the movie was about 15, which would make him about 134 years old! C'mon people, it's fucking basic math! But I digress. Of course, ol' Coop knows everything about Krampus and comes up with a way to kill it. As expected, since we are in hillbilly country, this involves dynamite.

While I haven't seen Robert Conway's other movies leading up to this, aside from KRAMPUS: THE RECKONING, I expect this is probably the pinnacle of his career. I can't really say that this is a movie worth watching, but after KRAMPUS: THE RECKONING and both KRAMPUS: THE CHRISTMAS DEVIL movies, I will say that you could definitely do worse. Sure, the directing is flat, the acting is on the level of a community playhouse and the plot is sloppy and unfocused after a promising, if budget starved, opening, but it does deliver genuine latex splatter the likes of which I haven't seen in a low-rent DTV flick in a long time. This is something that the aforementioned movies couldn't be bothered to do, and I guess that's as much of recommendation as you are going to get.