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!

Monday, December 14, 2020

December to Dismember: CHRISTMAS WITH COOKIE (2016)

[by William S. Wilson]

The snowy landscape sure has changed since we started our Christmas horror reviews almost a decade ago. The biggest change we’ve seen has been the explosion of streaming services, which offer the indiest of independent filmmakers an avenue to millions of home and revenue streams in the tens of dollars (if they are lucky). We thought this year we might not have enough Yuletide samplings to cover a month of reviews. But then we typed “Christmas horror” into Amazon Prime and were suddenly greeted with a virtual advent calendar of things to choose. Titles for short films like SCARY LITTLE FOCKERS, HAUNTED CHRISTMAS and NIGHT OF THE KRAMPUS (how has Tom NOT reviewed that one already?). One that piqued my interest was a trilogy of films under the CHRISTMAS WITH COOKIE moniker. I like cookies, but this Cookie is an elf who tells horror stories. He’s like the Crypt Keeper with diabetes. Now, before I continue I should offer a warning: I am not on drugs and everything that follows really happened in this film. Well, except for one fake thing I’ll add. Gotta make this fun.

You know things are gonna get silly when the first onscreen credit you see is IT’S A FUCKING FIRST DRAFT PRODUCTIONS. The film opens in the year 3978 with Cookie the Elf (writer/co-director Alex Maxson) in his shack on the moon. Cookie is obsessed with cookies and this is conveyed by him being surrounded by yummy looking cookies. Cookie’s make-up is kind of a cross between Freddy Krueger, Michael Berryman and your weird, single uncle. He decides to tell us the story of the last Christmas ever...I think. This involves going back to 2016 where siblings Peter (Justin Armao) and Prudence Pole (Breeanna Judy) are unwrapping their Christmas presents. He is expecting that teenage tortoise costume and she wants a burpy doll. Instead, they received a DVD of BLOODSUCKA JONES (2013) and a bottle of anal lube, respectively. Jeez, I don’t know who is screwed worse! They are justifiably disappointed and Peter vows “revenge on that fat fuck” Santa Claus. Said retribution involves creating a potion that will enable them to get revenge at the most opportune time. It kills them. Oh, I wish I was so lucky.

Fast forward one thousand years (!) and Earth is a barren desert wasteland. The only two surviving people are Santa Claus (Maxson again) and Mrs. Claus (Dana Austen), both of whom wear masks because the sun has burned their skin. They just wander the desert over and over, which must mean this is an opportune time as Peter and Prudence pop up as skeletons. Before you get excited with Harryhausen dreams, know these are store bought plastic Halloween skeletons spray painted green and red. Obviously still pissed at Santa, the siblings attack the Claus clan and in the middle of their bloody battle (yes, the skeletons bleed buckets) Mrs. Claus is zapped up into a passing UFO. I swear to you that is not the part I’m making up. The aliens demand to be taken to the leader of Earth and Santa is the man thanks to him being the last man on Earth.

After dispatching the Prudence skeleton, Santa battles the aliens and Peter skeleton to save his wife. He succeeds and the Clauses decide to end their adversaries once and for all with a cartoon-looking bomb. They give it to the alien as a Xmas gift, but not before the alien gives them some cookies. Poisoned cookies! And they both keel over and die. Wow, the story is already over at 29 minutes...wait a sec, the run time on this sumbitch said it was 53 minutes. Yup, the filmmakers pull a swerve and things are about to get weirder. Yes, weirder. Santa and his wife are immortal beings and they just sleep long enough for another thousand years to pass. When they wake up, the Earth is fertile again. However, the natives aren’t friendly since Mrs. Claus gets a poisonous dart shot into her neck. A note on the dart mentions that Santa can find the antidote in the belly of the Abominable Snowman. What? You didn’t have a 50-foot Yeti on your plot prediction card? Santa gets swallowed by the monster and exits via his rectum. Somehow killing Pooky (yes, its name was Pooky) upsets the beast’s father (Evan Mack) and his sidekick Frrrrank (Kevin Lau). This results in the dad shrinking down in size and entering Santa’s body to do, uh, something? The duo then rip off Santa’s hands and feet. It all wraps up with some new aliens showing up and blowing up Earth.

Okay, who put the LSD in my eggnog? CHRISTMAS WITH COOKIE has all the ingredients (ha!) of a madcap comedy and you can’t accuse it of having a wafer (haha!) thin plot. The filmmakers certainly went above and beyond to deliver never-before-seen images. In fact, it is so over-the-top that I kind of wish it had more than the publicly acknowledged $1,000 budget. Despite the lack of funds, there are some elements I found genuinely funny like Mrs. Claus having a zhick German ack-scent and the filmmakers creating a desert landscape at one point with a cheap tarp tacked to a wall (see alien pic below). Everyone in the cast seems to get the spirit of what they are doing. If I had to single anyone out, it would be Evan Mack as the yeti’s vengeful father. His facial expressions killed me and his delivery was a comedic highlight, sounds like a deaf voodoo priest hopped up on speed. 

Cookie is probably the best character in the movie as he is the best realized in terms of make-up and performance. Trust me, you’ll be talking like him (imagine Cookie Monster with a six pack a day smoking habit) by the end. Oddly, he never interacts with the main cast. Which kind of makes me sad because Cookie was the selling point for me and is by far the most interesting character. With Cookie so isolated, one would think the filmmakers just acquired an unrelated horror short and shoehorned in their Cookie segments, but the same filmmakers made both the hosting bits and main feature. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case with the sequels as CHRISTMAS WITH COOKIE: LOCKED AWAY (2017) and CHRISTMAS WITH COOKIE: THE WATCHING (2018) have everyone’s favorite elf just introducing movies the group didn’t make. The best news? They aren’t centered around the holidays so I didn’t need to proceed any further for my review. Now this is the kind of Christmas miracle I can dig! As it stands, CHRISTMAS WITH COOKIE is the kind of thing any super-high Troma fan might dig. Sidenote: I’d love to think some kids discovered Cookie on Amazon Prime and pestered their parents relentlessly until they all sat down to watch it and then quickly had a family meeting. Oh, by the way, the one thing I made up in this review? Santa doesn’t exit the Abominable Snowman via his anus. Yes, somehow the filmmakers filled the film with juvenile potty humor but missed that gaping opportunity like they didn’t give a shit. Ah, boo yourself.

Friday, December 11, 2020

December to Dismember: MRS. CLAUS (2018)

 They say it's the most wonderful time of the year. They also say that suicide rates go up at Christmas. This is not true, it actually goes up in January when you realize that you spent the mortgage on a bunch of ungrateful jerks that you happen to share DNA with. For some reason, Christmas also seems to be the time when lazy VOD grifters entrap genre fans with terrible, no talent productions that serve only to make them want to buy SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT 2 action figures to remind themselves that even that shameless cashgrab is better than 99% of the new junk. Case in point, MRS. CLAUS.

Advertised as starring '80s low-budget horror favorite Brinke Stevens, the movie opens on a Christmas pledge night. In a very small Delta Sigma Sigma sorority house that only seems to have only three sisters, chubby pledge Angela (Mel Heflin) is being forced to dip her tongue into some murky toilet water. As if that wasn't bad enough, sorority super-bitch Amber (Kaylee Williams) hands her a black dildo (though it took a rewind to see it since it quickly flashes across the bottom corner of the camera) and says that they need to see her *ahem* use it. I don't understand why Angela doesn't smack the smug bitch in the face with it, but then again I've never understood the appeal of Greek life.

Nope, Angela wilts like a daisy under a blowtorch and makes little jerking motions out of view of the camera. The sorority bitches laugh and tell her that she's still not getting in! This causes Angela to run into a bedroom, crying, sobbing and screaming into a pillow. Apparently the pillow cut off the oxygen flow to her brain as she decides to go into Amber's room, in the middle of the night while she's asleep, stuff the dildo down her throat, straddle her and stab her about a billion times. If this were in a slasher movie in the '80s cocktail-party Freudians like Gene Siskel would have had a field day. Unfortunately it's 2020 and nobody gives a shit. About anything. After this rather excessive outburst, Angela decides to hang herself from the tree in the front yard. This may not seem like such a bad idea after another 80 minutes of this movie.

Cut to present day where the little, nervous sister of the evil Amanda, Danielle (Hailey Strader, who looks absolutely nothing like her alleged sister) is pledging that very same sorority where her sister was murdered. Why? Because it makes her feel closer to her or something. Not only is this plot convenience only vaguely explained, but this is also a cue for Danielle to release her inner  uber-drama queen and be so-very fragile and dramatic. How that po' chil' never suffers from an attack of the vapors, I'll never know.

After a long scene in which Danielle and, the most virginal sorority sister ever, Kala (Heather Bounds) discuss Christmas cookies and boys, Danielle gets an email from a "Mrs. Claus" which is an awkward threatening reworking of "The Night Before Christmas." Naturally, this freaks Danielle out, goes into drama queen mode and it's up to token Black sister Monica (Jantel Hope) to settle down the twitchy little white girl. So let me get this straight. A neurotic little girl deliberately moves into the house that her sister was murdered in, on the very anniversary of that murder, and she's losing her shit because stuff (and people) keep reminding her of this fact and is constantly playing up her reprehensible sister as a saint. Uhhh, am I supposed to like her? I mean, she's the protagonist, but damn, I'm rooting for the killer.

Also in the sorority is Sophie (Daiane Azura), who appears to be a 30-something stripper who is sleeping with annoying jock Grant (Ryan Poole). After smarmily telling her sisters that she's not going to be sticking around for their lame Christmas party (she's kind of a jerk, but she's right), she gets a threatening text on her phone in her SUV and is promptly garroted by someone in a wrinkly mask and a Santa outfit. This leads to Angela's mother, Mrs. Werner (Helene Udy), showing up at the house going all Karen-esque cray-cray on Danielle, claiming that her daughter was murdered by the sister who was murdered by her daughter. Got that? Yes, for some reason, the writer-director Troy Escamilla, decided to make the motivation for the distraught mother of stab-happy Angela, some sort of affected Trump supporter type who screams a whacko theory that her daughter was the murdered one. Why this would be, is never made clear. It almost seems like this is a set up for Danielle to start to realize that maybe her sister wasn't a saint after all. You know, like a character arc? Yeah, that's not the kind of movie that this is.

After everyone except slothful sister Madison goes to run errands in anticipation of this epic Christmas party, Madison gets some texts and finally gets off her ass to check out the tree. For some reason she finds some hair decorating the Christmas tree (yeah, I don't know either). Even worse, she turns around to catch a plastic sword in her gut, which amazingly causes her to gush blood in a reasonably decent effect. I say reasonably decent because I just watched KILLER CHRISTMAS (2017) which couldn't be bothered to do anything remotely like that. We also get a subplot about Tyler (Jace Greenwood), a gay podcaster who whines about the evils of sororities, yet still decides to go to the DSS party. Maybe he's just going because it is going to prove his theories about sororities being a waste of time. As it is, he pretty much just shows up so that Monica can put the moves on him only to find out the totally obvious fact that he's gay. Why? I don't know! Monica takes off, leaving him outside to be murdered by our Santa slasher by having a large candy cane shoved down his throat. C'mon man, no punchline here. Too easy.

We also get an annoying hipster guy Jake (Drew Shotwell) who is desperately trying to be the coolest dude in the room. Which is really not that hard. Amusingly at one point he heads into the garage with the girl he came with to smoke some pot and sit on a mattress, but for some reason, he spurns her advances with the old "that was just a one-time thing" and "we're just friends" lines. What the hell is with the weird anti-relationships in this movie? Is this Escamilla working through some sort of rejection catharsis? After long bits of what is supposed to be stoner comedy, the two embrace only to get a Christmas garden sign stabbed through their throats ala BAY OF BLOOD (1971), sorry, I mean FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 (1981). Nobody who made this movie has ever heard of Mario Bava.

Hey, you know something. Wasn't there a big name in this movie? Oh yeah, Brinke Stevens! Brinke has been cast as Campus PD Officer Cornell, who stops by to question the kids about the disappearance of Sophie. So yeah, there you go. 

Meanwhile in the alleged party, Grant has decided that they should tell the worst Christmas stories they've ever had. Touchy-feely boyfriend of Danielle, Kyle (Billy Brannigan), tells a long winded tale of his great grandfather having "really, really bad diarrhea," then it's Danielle's turn! Wait, they all forgot, damn, how could they ask her such a thing?! Danielle gently nails herself to a cross and decides to talk about how the death of her sister made her feel: "I felt like I deserved to be haunted by what happened to her." What? Why? Will someone please kill her already?

While the cast is whittled down in some surprisingly unspectacular ways (Monica's beheading is literally done with what appears to be a pink mannequin), and we suffer through over-long attempts at, presumably ad-libbed, dialogue and humor (Grant decides to try to do some clumsy white-boy twerking in the girls' faces). Finally we get down to the final two and [SPOILERS] we discover that it is Mrs. Werner (Angela's mom) running around killing peeps to get revenge for her daughter. Which everybody watching this guessed literally when she made her one, and up until this point, only appearance. The twist comes when we discover that Officer Cornell is actually her sister and she is helping with the killings as a Christmas present to her sister, before she smashes a machete in her sister's head! Wait, what? Yeah, fuck if I know. We also get an epilogue set a year later, on Christmas, in which Danielle and Kyle get another threatening message from Mrs. Claus. The end. [/SPOILERS]

In pro-wrestling there are a subsection of fans who call themselves "smart marks". Essentially this means that they believe they understand how pro-wrestling works. The heels and the faces, wearing the red mask, shoot interviews, they know their shit and wrestling promoters can't fool them. Until they do. In some ways there is a subset of genre movie fans who have no self-congratulatory title, but think they know genre movies. Promoters can't fool them with hyped remakes, spiffy box-art, and clever, high-concept titles. Until they do. Ironically these people can be reeled in sometimes easier than your average schmoe (hi, my name is Thomas...). We want to jump on your bandwagon. We want to say "holy shit, I found this under-the-radar movie that shouldn't be good, but it is!" And as the saying goes, you can want in one hand and crap in the other and see which gets full first.

Brought to us by the marketing tricksters Wild Eye Releasing, who specialize in no-budget digital shot amateur horror with slick box art and catchy retitles (not Uncork'd, but their identical twin), MRS. CLAUS stays true to form. Originally titled STIRRING, as you may have guessed, this has precisely zero to do with Mrs. Claus other than it being a woman in a Santa outfit with a wrinkly old-person mask who uses the name when emailing and texting her victims. It would have been a pretty nifty idea to have the real Mrs. Claus go off her meds and decide that she had enough of this cheery Christmas horseshit and turn into an American equivalent of Krampus, bringing terrible gifts to those who deserve it during the Holidays. But of course, Escamilla really doesn't want to think too hard and just tries to feebly ape his favorite slashers which he, of course, has one of his characters shout about. "Have you guys seen SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT? About the killer Santa who hacks the shit out of the naughty peeps".

You'd think with the hanging in the beginning we'd get some sort of CONJURING (2013) haunted hanging tree goofballery, but no, nobody cares. Hell, it's not even a sorority house, it's just a condo with a very small living room. Of course I can't bitch too much since Will just sat through another one of those "everything takes place in a storage unit" movies.

There are occasional moments where it seems like it could be get on track to be entertaining in spite of it's lack of budget, actors and locations. We get a few decent gore effects in the beginning of the movie (hey, with movies like this, stab and garotte wounds qualify as decent), but then they start resorting to cutting away, or zooming in to crop off areas, so that they don't have to be bothered to do any effects. Grant gets his head stabbed through with something, maybe a wire attached to a tree topper, but with a jiggling camera, jump edits and a close-up of his face makes it so you can't even really tell. And don't get me started on the mannequin, that shit is unforgivable. At least make up the mannequin to look like there is a bloody stump and maybe, I dunno, use a Black mannequin for a Black actor. I know, crazy talk. Unfortunately, most of the movie is pretty much the lamest party (sorority or otherwise) ever with a handful of people sitting in a living room being bored. This takes on a new MC Escher meets Evard Munch level of discomfort when you the audience are sitting in a living room being bored watching people sitting in a living room being bored. Thank god I wasn't tripping on acid. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

December to Dismember: UGLY SWEATER PARTY (2018)

[by William S. Wilson]

Remember as a kid when you asked for a Big Wheel for Christmas? Each day was excruciatingly long as you pined for the tricycle of the 1970s Gods. When the day finally arrived, you were excited to find that Big Wheel box under the Christmas tree, but continued to feel that agonizing wait as your dad had to put this plastic pedal transportation together. With each intense minute that passed, the dreams in your head of hopping on the seat and taking off down the street at 50 miles-per-hour grew bigger and bigger. Finally, after hours of anticipation, you are able to jump on, put your feet on the pedals, summon all of your 5-year-old energy...and slowly drag out of your driveway at a snail’s pace. The point of this story? UGLY SWEATER PARTY is the movie equivalent of that disappointing Big Wheel experience.

The film opens with Detective Brolin (Brad Potts) interrogating serial killer Declan Rains (Sean Whalen) at a black site. The cheapo nature of the production is showcased right away as it is clearly a bedroom with some sheets and fake cobwebs thrown on the walls. You couldn’t find a dingy basement? As Brolin tells his partner, Rains is a real sicko who “chopped up four families on Christmas Eve” and the cackling killer reveals Satan gives him all of his power. If you think the Lord works in mysterious ways, wait until you find out that Satan possessed Rains via a ugly Christmas sweater with a glowing pentagram in the chest. The cops eventually wrap his noggin in Christmas paper before blowing his head up. The blood splatter spells “Merry Fuckin’ Christmas” on the wall.

Cut to our lead characters Cliff (Charles Chudabala) and Jody (Hunter Johnson) as they prepare to head out to a holiday party. To let you know the kind of film this is, Jody’s intro has him shaving his pubic hair and catching one of his balls in the clippers. Yeah, it’s that kind of film. The duo are heading out to a campground at the invitation of fraternal twins Susan (Tiffani Fest) and Samantha (Emily “Don’t Givea” Dahm), a pair of wild party animals they encountered during spring break. What Jody didn’t tell Cliff is that this was an ugly sweater party and, for some odd reason, showing up without one really angers Cliff. Turns out they are in luck though as they encounter a disheveled and disoriented Brolin stumbling on the road on the way up there and buy the demonic ugly sweater off him. Problem solved but new problem gained as Cliff is quickly possessed by the spirit of Declan Rains. Naturally, this causes him to have bloody visions and sweat.

Our boys soon arrive at their destination of Camp Mandix (say it outloud). As if the scrotum slicing mentioned earlier was indication enough, we then get beaten to death with Mandix jokes. The film gushes with throbbing Mandix jokes. The owners are Mr. Mandix (Marv Blauvelt) and Mrs. Mandix (Felissa Rose), who are the parents of Susan and Samantha. And it is here that horny Cliff and Jody get hit with the biggest case of Christmas blue balls as they find out this is a Christian camp and their love interests have been born again (“Oh, sweet! You got your vags tightened?” says Jody; uh, yeah). The boys get introduced to various reborn sinner types around the camp and there are some funny lines here (“Alan used to be addicted to European porn.”). Unfortunately, the ugly Christmas sweater is slowly starting to take over Cliff and makes him kill random people so he can drink their blood. The more blood, the more the sweater’s power grows. Not only that, but the sweater has an inexplicable power to make people forget the horrors they have witnessed. So it is up to Jody to save his demon friend and the day as he teams up with psychic goth girl Hanna (Lara Jean Mummert) to bring an end to this yarn. Ah, boo yourself.

As I mentioned in the intro, UGLY SWEATER PARTY is a disappointment and now I’ll try to articulate why without offending the director. Damn, this is gonna be tough. No doubt about it, the film contains an absolutely killer premise. Since the rise of ugly sweater parties in the early 2000s, it has been fertile ground for a horror movie. And then you get a synopsis like this: “An ugly sweater party turns into a bloodbath when an evil Christmas sweater possesses one of the partygoers.” An evil Christmas sweater that possesses someone? Good GAWD! My mind is ablaze with crazy ideas like the sweater weaving itself into the flesh and sinew of its host. Unfortunately, there is a wide divide between idea and execution. Look, I’m not going to hide anything from you in our relationship so let’s be blunt: The sweater in this film isn’t even a sweater. It is a yellow hooded sweatshirt. How do you screw up the thing you build your entire premise around? I guess UGLY SWEATSHIRT PARTY just didn’t have that ring to it?

Muddled execution seems to be the MO for writer-director Aaron Mento as visually this film is a total mess. It is garishly color corrected and edited like a seizure. I swear Mento (the freshmaker), who also edited the film, downloaded a video filter package and wondered which one he should use before screaming in his best Gary Oldman, “Every onnnnnnne!” No joke, in the opening scene we get a black-and-white filter, grainy film filter, grindhouse “damaged film” filter, and negative film image filter, sometimes in back to back shots. There is no rhyme or reason behind these. They are just splattered all over the image. Hell, in some scenes the same shot will be color corrected differently. Here is a perfect example.

How this scene starts:

How it looks a minute later:

I honestly can’t tell if this is intentional or not, especially since Mento’s company is called Ocular Migraine Productions. “So yeah, mission accomplished!” says Tom.

This special kind of chaos lends itself to the scripting as well. The whole thing is chaotic and unfocused and I suspect Mento was going for an over-the-top Troma feel. For example, a big thing in the finale is how the leads get ahold of a laser gun to free the possessed Cliff by blasting him in the balls (again, it’s that kinda film). So how does this weapon get there? In the most un-organic way possible as Mento includes a disgruntled groundskeeper who builds it to get his revenge and drive miles to the camp. Oh, did I forget to mention this allows for a building montage where he constructs the device while the ghosts of a death metal band (the deliciously named Omicida) play in the background. You couldn’t work this character and plot device into the camp area and instead went for a “screech my film to a halt” approach? And how on God’s green Earth do you have a scene where Felissa Rose of SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983) fame is flashed a penis and she doesn’t crack a joke? Like they should have had that shot and then cut to a close up of her saying, "Man, I haven't seen one like that since I was at sleepaway camp as a kid." How do you miss a dick joke that is so...ahem...firmly in your grasp?

As I said, the reason all of this hurts is because there is the germ of a fantastic film in here. In addition, several of the cast members are good. Charles Chudabala has some great comedic timing as lead Cliff, Lara Jean Mummert is good as the sardonic goth chick, and Marv Blauvelt is amusing as the more-than-bi-curious Mr. Mandix. There are even some genuinely funny lines in there, like when Cliff shows up covered in blood after killing Mrs. Mandix and her husband screams, “Oh, dear God! Is that my wife’s blood?” But all of the good stuff is essentially lost in a sea of sloppy filmmaking and juvenile overflowing dick jokes. Haha, he said overflowing dick jokes.

Friday, December 4, 2020

December to Dismember: KILLER CHRISTMAS (2017)

 Christmas means different things to different people. Even if they don't celebrate Christmas for whatever reason, there is still some sort of celebratory event in their lives, even if that consists of a bottle of vodka and a pack of razor blades. Here at the virtual VJHQ, this traditional event is an endurance test. As if 2020 hasn't been enough of one, we push the limits of cinematic suffering with a buffet of rotten Christmas horror movies. To be sure, we are really more gullible than Tiny Tim, thinking that maybe, possibly, perhaps, this year we will will get a Christmas goose, but usually end up with a goose egg. No more is this apparent than this year's second entry, which isn't so much a goose egg, as at least with a goose egg, you can make breakfast. This sloppy, careless, brainless, utter waste of time does nothing but kick the crutches out from under our crippled legs.

The suffering the viewer is about to endure is telegraphed by the unnecessarily padded opening sequence in which we find a waitress taking orders in a cafe. After standing around talking to the guy who appears to be the manager or owner for a while (because, fuck the customers), we discover she is excited about Christmas and is taking a six week vacation to be with her family. Raise your hand if you've fantasized about spending six weeks of your adult life with your parents and siblings during the holidays. Yeah, nobody's that crazy. All of this leads up to a lengthy jogging sequence (yes, after waiting on tables all day, she decides to go running at night), during which some random dude that we can't see, flashes a knife, chases her for a bit, grabs her and makes a stabbing motion and drags her off. To somewhere. For some reason.

Cut to a Christmas tree farm that is located next to an abandoned hotel. A group of uber-douchey 20-somethings arrive and like typical douchebags, they stand around yelling "fuck" as loud as possible, so that people will notice how cool they are. Actual line: "Let's go chop down some fuckin' trees! Yeaaaaah! Woooo!" I would accept it as the best Christmas gift ever if these idiots were just killed right now and I was spared another 80 minutes of this cheese-grater garbage.

The tree sales guy (co-writer/co-director/co-producer, PeterPaul Shaker) isn't really a Crazy Ralph, so much as a Cranky Ralph, warns these morons not to go to the abandoned hotel. Why? Just because. Strangely he looks just like one of the chuckleheads in the group, Robbie who is played by the other co-writer/co-director/co-producer, Tony Shaker. No mention is made of this similarity in appearance and it doesn't factor into the movie at all. Two separate characters who just happen to look like they share 90% of their genetic material. This is confusing at first, but once you realize that the movie has absolutely nothing to offer, you'll get over it.

The Brah Crew goes to great lengths to tell the audience that they like to play head games and sex games and this is initiated by one of them yelling "game on!" While they made a decision to totally go check out the creepy hotel, they are going to pair off and "play a game" first. Basically they shout "frolic" and disappear from camera, only to come back looking exactly the same as they did before and imply that they just had sex. And they have to spend some time talking trash, smoking weed (which does nothing to them except make them cough) and drinking from a flask that never seems to run out. Weren't we supposed to be doing something here? Oh yeah, padding the movie out by 12 minutes.

After finally cutting down some trees, with more whoops than an underground rave, (we are now 20 minutes in) they finally start talking about "what sort of fucked up shit's in there". Yes, we may actually get to the main point of the movie. Maybe. It literally takes them 8 minutes and 8 seconds of walking around the building shouting "fuck!" and "it's creeeepy!" and "there could be hobos in there!" and "eeeww!" One of the girls, Margo (Freya Lund), speculates on how cool it would be to get two "hobos" to fight each other and livestream it. Hell man, if someone doesn't start bumping these over-privileged ass-nuggets off sharpish, I'll kill the little fuckers myself.

Once inside, we get a shout of "game on bitches!" and they decide to play hide and seek. Could this possibly get any more boring? Oh yes. Yes, it could, and will. It could and will also be more irritating with Margo opening her brainless yap and giving us lines that would make Tom Stoppard weep, like "it looks like homeless people shit all over here!" Of course the other nimrods aren't any more eloquent; self-proclaimed leader and alpha dog Cutler (Matt Maretz) shouts "I wonder if people fucked in these rooms?" This is accompanied by more shots of these jabbering dillholes wandering around, admiring the spray-painted graffiti (Margo is particularly excited about a crudely drawn ejaculating penis) and various characters shouting "game on!" after which nothing happens.

Finally after 45 minutes of pointless bullshit, we Cutler (I swear that's not a typo) and his incessantly bitchy girlfriend Bella (Kourtney Kelly), stumble across a room that has "this is the death room" badly spray painted on one of the walls, which causes Bella to shriek "this is creepy!" At the same time, Kate (Natalie Pavelek) finds a couple of cans with spoons in them (gasp!), and Margo finds a room with a girl chained to a bed, who has her vocal cords cut (though it takes some dialogue from later in the movie to realize this). This girl just happens to be... our waitress from the opening sequence! And here I thought they were just padding things out. I got the Shaker brothers all wrong. Margo's reaction to this is to free the waitress from her restraints and... oh, sorry, no, Margo just dances in place, screaming for a while. Long enough, in fact, for everyone in the hotel to hear her. Except for the Santa-masked killer, who finally makes his entrance to CGI stab Cutler with what I think is a machete. Low-light video photography and lousy camera work make it difficult to even tell. Bella screams and screams again, but for some reason, no one can hear her (presumably due to the dark power of The Death Room). Kate, still grappling with the horrors that she has witnessed, tells token Black dude Art (Malcolm Xavier), "there's definitely someone living here, I saw open cans of fresh food in the kitchen!" to which Art replies, "that's fucked!" Is it? Ok, if you say so. Also, aren't canned foods, by definition, not fresh?

At this point it is literally an orgy of wandering aimlessly, screaming over nothing, and running (while screaming) from something. At one point, the girls hide in a room. Our Santa killer, always the gentleman, instead of smashing the door in and wasting these entitled asshats, stands outside banging on the door like a drunk who lost his keys to his girlfriend's apartment. He stands there, banging away, for so long that the other relentless yobs actually follow the sound only to get to the room and find that Santa gave up and left.

[Spoilers ahead - not that you should care] After much more running and screaming, the Santa killer manages to kill off the group in mostly bloodless ways. When we do get a tiny bit of blood, the few times we see anything, it appears to have been done in MS paint. This is literally the most expensive part of this movie, outside of the $25 Santa mask. Earlier we had seen Art get killed by simply disappearing in a doorway and screaming. There is a lot of screaming in this movie. Screaming is cheap. If your brain hasn't been completely pounded into Christmas pudding by now, you may start thinking it's odd that we don't see Art's death, then again you may also think it's just the Shaker brothers being cheap. You'd be right on both counts. As it turns out, after many overt "hints" that are about as subtle as the freaking Hindenberg, Art is revealed to be the killer. Why? Because "I told you [Bella] I loved you and you threw it back in my face!" I think it's pretty obvious that this movie didn't need to feel encumbered by a script. But who chained that waitress to the bed? The tree salesman, of course! Yep, he shows up to kill Art and drag Bella off to be chained up in a bed in the same way. The end. [End spoilers]

The hotel that these suburban subhumans are allegedly exploring is the famous Adler Hotel and Spa in Sharon Springs, New York. The hotel itself has a long illustrious history until it was abandoned in 2004. Since this movie's budget extends about as far as buying a mask and a few cans of spray paint, only the exterior is briefly used in almost complete darkness. In the hands of real filmmakers, the pre-modern interior of the hotel would be a sublimely creepy setting for something along the lines of THE SHINING (1980) and THE SENTINEL (1977), but even though we can't expect anything remotely close to that from an amateur VOD effort, what we get appears to be a dorm that has been graffitied by people who were not majoring in art.

If you thought the title lacked creativity, wait till you see the movie. Not even the smallest effort is made to craft anything with any sort of substance, skill or thought. And why should they bother? It's not like they are paying for filmstock. It's not like they have to sell it to distributors. You can put anything on VOD and reel in suckers for an easy buck. On top of that, when everyone writes scathing one star reviews on Amazon, you can just get your friends to make dummy accounts and give yourself some five star reviews and say things like "Kourtey Kelly is a rising star." It must be her mom, I don't think even her boyfriend could lie that hard.

This is quite possibly the worst excuse for a Christmas horror movie I've seen yet, and if you have seen the other movies we've talked about over the years, that really is an amazing achievement. Shot with what appears to be a hand-held iPhone, with almost zero production values, what appears to be adlibbed dialogue, no real plot, non-actors who cannot even be bothered to act inebriated, absolutely insufferable "characters" and a literally non-stop soundtrack of whispered Christmas carols, this feckless, anemic, half-assed excuse for a movie makes THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) look like SUSPIRIA (1977).  There is a reason it's only available on VOD, nobody is going to waste physical media for a production run.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

December to Dismember: AXEMAS (2017) / AXEMAS 2: BLOOD SLAY (2018)

[by William S. Wilson]

Deck the video aisles with films of folly 
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la 'Tis the season to be… 

Oh man, it definitely ain’t the season to be jolly. I’m sure we can all agree that 2020 has been an absolutely brutal year. And what better way to continue the suffering than to do our 8th year of coverage of bad Christmas horror movies? Turns out the world may have ground to a halt, but terrible Xmas films will keep on acomin’ to our TV sets. Seriously, if you are reading this, we hope you and those close to you are doing well. And we hope that our tiny series of self flagellations offer a small respite from the horrors of the real world. And what better way to start than a film series called AXEMAS? The two-film series actually came onto our radar last year, but we had commitment issues with buying them. Things changed this year thanks to the tubular power of TubiTV and we decided to get our AXEMAS on. 

The first film opens with a burglar cutting his way into a unit at Chapman Storage. He hears a sound and immediately says, “It’s my spot tonight. Come back later.” Damn, I had no idea thieves had such a strong code of work ethics. Unfortunately for him, this isn’t a fellow thief but an axe-wielding guy in a Santa Claus suit. He gets butchered (offscreen, naturally). Cut to David (Dillon Weishuhn, gesundheit!) as he wraps up his shift at the storage facility. Imbued with the holiday spirit, he has invited five friends to come party with him in the locked-down facility from 11pm until 5am. Yes, nothing says fun like hanging out in a cold building with metal walls and concrete floors. Showing up for the festivities are David’s girlfriend Sarah (Ashley Campbell), Chuck (Nathan Scott) and Liz (Lindsey Cruz), and Lee (Mikey O’Brien) and Linnea (Kamiko Kawada). You know these guys are serious partiers as they brought beer and sleeping bags. When they get into the building, Liz comments how it is “not very Christmas-y.” You sure her name isn’t Karen? 

Unfortunately for them, the deranged Santa (John Seymore) is holed up in his storage unit that is overflowing with Christmas decorations and he doesn’t take kindly to strangers. Wait...why is this dude here? Believe it or not, we’ll have an answer to that in a bit. Per horror movie law, the first to go are the black couple Chuck and Liz as he gets an axe to the head (Santa: “I forgot to say head’s up!”) and she gets smashed with a big rock used for holding doors open (Santa: “Wanna get stoned?”). The others hear the commotion and assume it is wild sex. Naturally, Lee and Linnea go to investigate and simultaneously get run through with a pipe (Santa: “Welcome to the North Pole.”). Now I am not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure those puns are a crime against humanity and punishable by death. This leaves David and Sarah and she soon finds out why this killer Kris Kringle is prancing about. SPOILERS FOR AXEMAS TWIST Turns out this guy is named Nick and is David’s brother. Apparently the Christmas-obsessed brothers do this every year. END SPOILERS Sarah is now our final girl as she runs through the maze-like storage facility. At one point she stops to scream, “Why? Why are you doing this?” Weird, I asked myself the same thing. It all wraps up very quickly as Nick kills David in a fit of jealous rage and then Sarah decapitates Nick and says, “Merry fuckin’ axemas!” The end! Now we move on to...

Like all good horror sequels, AXEMAS 2 picks up a year later. Unlike most sequels, it opens with an angry dad throwing away a Christmas tree in a rage. He gets grabbed by a new killer Santa and we get perhaps my favorite dialogue I’ve heard in 2020. 

Man: “What the fuck? Get the fuck off me, mutherfucker!” 
Santa: “Every kid deserves Christmas!” 
Man: “Not my kids. They’re little shits.” 
Santa: “And whose fault is that?” 
Man: “Ask my ex-wife!” 

I seriously love how this guy went from “get the fuck off me” to bashing his ex in like three seconds. Dude has more issues than a magazine stand. Anyway, for his trouble he gets impaled on the very Christmas tree he was throwing away while Santa mutters a line about him getting the point. Yup, this is an AXEMAS film alright. 

We pick up the film proper with Sarah suffering PTSD (Post Traumatic Santa Disorder) from the aftermath of the massacre. Turns out the bodies of David and Nick went missing and the cops considered Sarah the main suspect but didn’t charge her due to lack of evidence. To make matters worse, Sarah is having visions of a ghost David from time to time. She confides this in her friend Laura (Donna Hamblin), who offers some sage advice on how to get her life back together. Medication? Therapy? Nope! Re-entering the dating scene. Even Sarah realizes how silly this is by saying, “I really don’t want to meet another psycho.” Psychos in the dating scene? Pshaw! Understandably, she is afraid of the same thing happening again and uses the DIE HARD film series as proof. Seriously! She relents to Laura’s wishes and opts to go meet a nice guy in a bookstore. Now here is a moment where I legit died because they cut to this shot… 

I'm pretty sure the only guy she is going to run into there is Tom looking for cheap Guy N. Smith novels. HA! She literally runs into Eric (Ben Stobber) and despite the huge red flag of him buying A Christmas Carol, she agrees to go out to dinner with him. Talking about the chance encounter later with Laura, Sarah says, “It feels like I’ve known him forever.” At dinner Eric reveals he recognized her from news reports and that she is a strong woman. This sentiment is powerful enough for her to request to go back to his place. WAITER, CHECK PLEASE! Man, I’m starting to think the scariest thing about these films is Sarah’s choices regarding the men in her life. As Eric mixes some cocktails, Sarah flips through a family photo album and spots David and Nick (dressed in his bloody Santa get up, no less!). Yup, turns out Sarah putting her toe back in the dating pool was a bad idea as Eric is the middle brother. 

Eric knocks Sarah out and drives her to - where else? - the storage facility. There he meets up with the new deranged Santa, who is his uncle Kris (Drew Marvick). “Really,” Sarah says sacastically. While Kris goes to retrieve some gasoline, Eric delights in telling Sarah how he is going to kill her for his brothers but suddenly gets a crowbar to the brain from a random girl. This results in my favorite line of the series as Sarah says, “Thank you. Who are you?” Turns out she is homeless Tara (Tommie Vegas) and she is living in a unit with her boyfriend James (Nicholas Jackman). Kris discovers his dead nephew and, like everyone else in his bloodline, goes into a revenge rage. He quickly kills James and Tara, leaving Sarah to once again run through the maze-like storage facility. “How can the same thing happen to the same girl twice?” cries Sarah in a nod to DIE HARD 2 (1990). Funny, I was thinking the same thing about myself watching these back-to-back. Now a grizzled vet in final girl status, Sarah gets her axemas on to confront Kris in a fiery conclusion. The end (again)! 

Video Junkie insider info: Originally I was planning to review the recent remake BLACK CHRISTMAS (2019), but I actually quit it before hitting the half hour mark due to its mix of pretentiousness and tediousness. So these super low budget shorts might have received a boost by not being terrible sacks of Christmas coal. Honestly, I had fun with the AXEMAS films, but I should caution this enjoyment manifests only after eight years of watching Christmas junk (and I’m a professional by now). The fact that they combined come in under an hour probably helped too. Running 25 and 33 minutes respectively, AXEMAS and AXEMAS 2 are the brainchild of writer-director John Ward and filmed in the wilds of Las Vegas. The first film is the rougher of the two, feeling more like a film a group of friends might make on the weekend. That said, Ward uses the storage unit location well and even attempts to establish some Christmas red-and-green color schemes. However, it is the sequel where things really started to come together for me. In the second go-around, Ward ups the self awareness factor. The aforementioned DIE HARD references establish that early on and the back-and-forth banter between characters is genuinely funny at points. He also ups the production values several notches. Like all low budget horror films, it is a mixed bag acting-wise. Ashley Campbell is good as the lead and really seems to get into the role by the second film. In terms of killer Santas, I liked both John Seymore and Drew Marvick in their respective roles. But I’d have to give the nod to Marvick as he has some great delivery, like when he tells Eric he forgot the gasoline because he wanted to make a dramatic entrance. Also, the man has a killer beard and some of the most enviable hair. Right before he goes up in smoke his character says, “There might be a third.” True enough, Ward and his team are currently crowdfunding for AXEMAS 3 and AXEMAS 4. I have a sneaking suspicion where they will go with part 3’s twist (hint: watch for a certain book in part 2). Hell, if they get made they might have a full movie by the end of it. I’m guessing Ward will keep going until he has used every last Christmas pun imaginable. Here’s one for free: You sleigh me!