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!

Thursday, December 31, 2020

December to Dismember: SCARY LITTLE FUCKERS (2015), NIGHT OF THE KRAMPUS (2013), SUGARPLUM (2017)

 Hey, remember when you were a kid and about a week after Christmas your mom would throw a present in front of you and say, “I just found this.” This is the cyber-version of that. We can’t tell you the number of times we clicked on a cool looking poster on Amazon Prime, only to be disappointed the attached film is a two-minute short. Yes, we're looking at you CHRISTMAS PRESENCE (2017) and STIRRING (2018). However, to prove we are not total micro-phobes, we end the year looking at some Christmas horror shorts.


Clearly drawing its inspiration from GREMLINS (1984), SCARY LITTLE FUCKERS opens with a drunk father stumbling into a curiosity shop looking for a gift for his 15-year-old son. “I have some kites in the back,” says the zit-marked owner, to which the dad replies, “I didn't say he was retarded. I said he was fifteen.” Ha! Okay, so it’s going to be one of those kinds of films. Instead of a tethered treat, the dad focuses on a pair of unseen creatures held in cages. The owner says they are rare creatures called Fookahs and relents on giving them to the father but with the warning they can never be put in the same cage together. At home his son Kyle (Josh Fontaine) is still despondent over his mother’s suicide last year, but invites over Peggy (Anna Rizzo) to see the Fookahs. Naturally, she immediately demands to see what happens when you put them together and soon scary little Fookahs are running amok in the house.

Running a scant 23-minutes, this short by Nathan Suher declares its maturity level in the opening crawl with the credit “...and Monica Saviolakis as Lesbian Dr. Anne.” Why on Earth would I care if she was Haha. This horror-comedy moves at a pretty fast clip and keeps the goofy jokes coming fast and furious. I liked Fontaine as the obviously-not-fifteen son and Rich Tretheway is funny as the lascivious drunk dad. One gag even got a genuine laugh out of me as the father and son head into a fallout shelter and it is the exact same living room we saw earlier. “I wanted it to feel like home,” says the dad. Clever bit and clever filmmaking cheat. The Fookahs are goofy little creatures, looking kind of like Krites from the CRITTERS films crossed with that hairy monster sidekick from THE DARK CRYSTAL. The production values are pretty solid and the flick actually ends right when things get interesting as dad and son emerge from the shelter with plenty of guns to take on the beasts. I actually kind of wish the filmmakers had expanded this into a feature film. The end credits promise the Fookahs will return, but as of Christmas 2020 these mutherfooking Fookahs have laid dormant. - William Wilson


Like so many other things in cinematic life, if you love it, then somebody else loves it and like as not, that someone else is a hamfisted idiot. If you enjoy science fiction, J.J. Abrams has repeatedly crushed your insignificant little soul. At the other end of the spectrum, if you like Krampus, there are so many hacks willing to destroy your dark Christmas dreams. Or at least completely use the character as a marketing tool, relegated to a throw-away role while the videomakers focus on what they consider to be the more interesting elements.

Rue Morgan (Khristian Fulmer) is an undead 1930's guy (I'm guessing based on his outfit), who has been cursed to be a graveyard caretaker for all eternity to keep an eye out for supernatural occurrences (other than his own, I'm assuming). Aside from the (I presume) general manager and romantic interest, Claire Renfield (Erin Lilley), not to be confused with Claire Redfield, Rue's BFF is a skeleton torso with attached skull by the name of Herbie West who wears hats and cracks wise while strapped to Rue's back. This is an awful lot of set-up and an awful lot of surmise on the viewer's part, because as it turns out this is actually a sequel to a short from writer-director Thomas Smith, titled THE NIGHT SHIFT (2009), which was in 2011 expanded to a longer short with the same title. I am also assuming that "Thomas Smith" is his government issued witness relocation name, so that nobody in Hollywood will ever be able to find him.

This time out, our supernatural guardians are investigating the disappearance of neighborhood children who have all gone missing on Christmas. Never mind that Krampus Night is December 5th. After poking around houses and interviewing a little girl who was not at all perturbed about witnessing Krampus coming down the chimney and shoving her brother Bobby into a sack, they realize that there is a Swedish Krampus worshiping cult (well, one dude) in the neighborhood who is summoning Krampus with a ritual "Alpine summoning goblet" (a Spirit store skull bowl). This all leads to Rue brawling with a hoodie-wearing cultist, who couldn't afford a robe, I guess, who summons Krampus (in Swedish!) which leads to Rue brawling with Krampus. Uhh, you guys know that the Alps are not in Sweden, right?

I have to say, there is a lot to nitpick here, with stuff like getting the legends a little wrong, not informing audiences that this is a sequel, the real villain being some random dude, and a sharp decline in jokes during the last act. That said I kind of enjoyed the first 10 minutes or so when the jokes were rolling in at a steady pace and Herbie, our semi-skeleton, was cracking wise. Unfortunately as soon as our duo leave Herbie in the car and start wandering around (err, I mean, searching for clues), and subsequently freeing kids, getting into fights, the 30 minute short starts feeling like a half-baked amateur production. I mean, it is - it was an Indiegogo campaign that only made 16% of it's goal, but still, a little bit more effort would have paid off.

Even with the flaws, I fell into its groove in the first third, before getting kicked out with what seems to be a real lack of interest in the titular subject. Sure they didn't have the money for a Michael Dougherty Krampus costume, but even so, the modified gorilla suit with what looks like a '60s housecoat, is pretty underwhelming, particularly if you've ever seen pics of real Krampus holiday costumes from the Alpine regions. Adding insult to injury, Krampus is just a stooge that gets his ass kicked by a NEWSIES extra and is basically a servant of a suburban hoodie guy. Not very threatening. Honestly, if it had been about Satanists, who actually wore hooded robes, numbered in the multiples (instead of one), and maybe were setting up a human sacrifice or something, even though that would have been more cliched, it would have been more fun and they could have made jokes about the genre. To paraphrase Willie Nelson; Momma's, don't let your babies grow up to be Krampus fans. - Thomas Sueyres


Remember that saying about saving the best for last? Well, this is 2020 and that means we are living in Opposite Land. Getting hoodwinked right off the bat, this 47-minute movie is actually an anthology of five different chapters, although three chapters are just the same segment broken up. Yeah, it’s that kind of film. “A Curious Gift” is the first chapter and focuses on Harry (Josiah Liciaga) and Marv (Samuel David Sosa) spending Christmas Eve with their wives, the sisters Claire and Ali. Doing some last minute shopping, Harry and Marv head into an occult store to get something for Harry’s mom (“My mom’s into this type of shit,” he later says). They meet Madame Zena and she offers Harry a burlap sack with the following super realistic dialogue.

Zena: “Have a look. But be warned, what you see is real and what it cautions against should be respected.”
Harry: “Who the hell are you?”
Zena: “Madame Zena.”
Harry: “I’ll take it!”

Once at home, the guys open the bag to find a tiny skeletal Sugar Plum Fairy statue. It comes to life after Harry gets blood on it and kills Ali and Claire. The second chapter “Dark Creations” inexplicably jumps to 1988 as we see Buford, his sister Maggie and her boyfriend James around a campfire. Buford tells the story of the origin of the Sugar Plum Fairies, which took place a long time ago in the European town of Olden located in an “elusive region called the North” (actual line). He tells of how Krampus attacked the village and St. Nicholas showed up to save them. He is described as follows: “a Viking-like man stood at the edge of the village, garbed in a lavishly dark set of armor and draped with the hides and furs of some ancient and unknown beast. The man’s face was hidden behind the oversized cloak and all that could be seen was a long, ashy beard pouring out from beneath the hood.” Okay, mental exercise time: Close your eyes and imagine what that bad ass would look like and then come back to this review. You’re back? Okay, now prepare yourself how they presented this in the film. Ready? Have a look: 

(insert THE PRICE AS RIGHT loser horn here) Yup, that is bad ass Ol’ Saint Nick according to this film and he gets into a totally non-epic battle with Krampus that ends with the horned beast creating the demonic Sugar Plum Fairy totems. Jeez, shouldn’t this story have been first? Anyway, chapter three is “Dead Before Christmas” and returns us to Harry’s house where he and Marv are killed by the Sugar Plum Fairy, which is now a chick with horns and big teeth. The fourth story is “Not the Loon Squad” and is the shortest. No joke, it is just three rednecks in the woods talking about how they are hunting a fairy. They read a scroll that says they have to kill it before dawn. One guy says, "Let’s just not let her get the drop on us." That is legit the whole story. Oh, it is also randomly set in December 2001. WTF??? The film returns to Harry’s house for the final chapter “Milk & Cookies” as the Sugar Plum Fairy walks through the house before she is stabbed by Santa Claus. The four dead folks wake up at the table and have a drink with Santa.THE END!

MY GAWD!? Where do I even start with this film? I hate to bash an indie filmmaker for actually making something and I feel bad being the first IMDb review, but good lord this was brutal. I guess calling it a film is being generous. Writer-director-editor-producer Brandon Tobatto jokes in the opening credits that the film was “chopped” (aka edited) by him. A more apt term could not be found. SUGARPLUM is a total mess both in terms of editing and storytelling. Why in the hell is the origin story of the fairies the second segment? Why is it set in 1988? Why did you break up one solid segment? Why does the animated Krampus/St. Nick story look like it was drawn by a 5-year-old? Why are Harry and Marv constantly talking about the former house owner having an Easter fetish? Actually, I know the answer for that as, according to the IMDb, Tobatto apparently weaves several of his films together in something called the Looniverse. I’m sure the Marvel Cinematic Universe is shaking in its boots. Matching the scattershot storytelling are the bad acting and out-of-focus shots that make this an all out attack on all five senses. Yes, even touch because you will be slapping yourself for watching this. It is easily the worst thing I’ve seen this year. If you know my viewing habits, that says a lot. If 2020 is the year that threw the entire world a swift and hard kick to the nutsack, ending with this nutcracker as my final viewing is pretty appropriate. - William Wilson

Monday, December 28, 2020

December to Dismember: THE NIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS (2019)

[by William S. Wilson] 

As we close out our Christmas 2020 reviews, I’m actually coming to a film I was looking forward to. THE NIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS is a sequel to ONCE UPON A TIME AT CHRISTMAS (2017), which I reviewed a few years back. The story of a sadistic Santa Claus and his missus terrorizing a small town, the original was a combination of naughty and nice. I praised director Paul Tanter for his direction and lead Simon Phillips for his scarred Santa. Unfortunately, it was a slick film built around a script dumber than a stocking full of coal. The sequel - originally announced with the title TWICE UPON A TIME AT CHRISTMAS - arrives a couple years later and guess what? It is twice as good technically and twice as dumb storywise. Hold on to yer Santa hats, this is gonna be a good one.

The film opens with a “four years ago” card as we see the killer Santa/Nicholas Conway (Phillips) and Mrs. Claus/Michelle Weaver (Sayla de Goede) pull off their fiery escape from a mental hospital referenced in the first film. Cut to present day New York City where one of the survivors of the first film, Courtney (Keegan Chambers), has spent the last year hanging out in the city. Her father Jim Beaudin (Michael Coughlan) shows up and begs for her to come back home. On his way back to Woodridge, Jim gets distracted by a malfunctioning radio just as Santa stands in the middle of the road with his axe. Damn, psycho Santa has great timing! Naturally, Jim crashes his car and gets stalked in the woods. Before Santa offs Jim, he states that nothing brings a family back together more than a funeral. Ah, so Santa plans to flush out his estranged daughter Jennifer by killing those sorta-close to her. Genius? Cut to the next day as local law enforcement are examining the scene. They figure it was a drunk driving accident, but that changes when FBI agent Natalie Parker (Kate Schroder) arrives on the scene. She feels it is the work of Santa/Conway and gets her suspicions confirmed when she finds the word “naughty” written in the snow in blood. Somehow every other cop on the scene managed to miss this despite obvious footprints leading to this area.

We now catch up with the sullen Jennifer (Shannon Cotter), who is in witness protection. Her mom breaks the news to her that her best friend’s dad died via this howler: “Jim Beaudin was killed in a car accident. You know what the roads are like around here and he did like to drink.” Jennifer rightly refuses to attend a funeral related to her hometown Christmas massacre, so her mother guilt shames her by saying, “When your stepfather died the same day as Courtney’s boyfriend, Courtney still showed up to Frank’s funeral. Maybe this isn’t about what you want or what you can do?” Yes, your psychotic ex is still on the loose, so let’s attend a very public event. Thanks, mom. Meanwhile, Santa and Mrs. Claus visit Dr. Monica Mudd (Jennifer Willis), the psychiatrist who treated them in the asylum. During their torture of Dr. Mudd, she screams that her daughter Becky (Anne-Carolyne Binette) will be home soon. The film immediately cuts to Becky walking into a bedroom and having a flashlight blind her. Since this film doesn’t take place in a world where humans act normal, her response to this is immediately start a striptease. What!? After getting topless (yay!) she sees her boyfriend dead and Santa bites her throat after demanding she use the safe word “bite me.” Uh, yeah.

So Jennifer and her mom are leaving for the funeral. However, their plan of paying respect gets sidelined by the FBI when agent Jack Zimmerman (Marc Gammal) shows up to warn about Santa showing up and we get the following amazing exchange.

Jack: “Lucy McCay?”
Mom: “Who are you?”
Jack: “I’m Agent Jack Zimmerman, FBI.”
Mom: “How the hell did you get in here?”
Jack: “We have access. It’s a safe house.”

Yep, pretty sure FBI protocol involves surprising people in witness protection with agents they never met and not calling them in advance or anything. The FBI was right as Mrs. Claus shows up at the funeral where she is caught and the agents begin a multi-car chase as Santa pulls away in a Mustang after being spotted. Just kidding, they send one car after him. When the car is finally stopped, they find out it is Dr. Mudd at the wheel with “nice” carved in her head. Damn, hoodwinked by Santa! This results in my favorite exchange of the film, which I like to imagine is how it would sound if I met the filmmakers.

Zimmerman/me: “It doesn’t make sense.”
Parker/filmmakers: “Yes, it does!”

Meanwhile, back at the church, it is completely empty and Santa kills the priest because we see a flashback of him molesting Mrs. Claus at the hospital. Whoa, whoa, whoa...hold on now. I can accept all this random craziness and overly complex plotting. But a priest who is into sexually molesting grown women? C’mon, Tanter, I can only suspend my disbelief so far.

Back at the local FBI headquarters, Parker decides to interrogate Mrs. Claus. This results in another moment that had me howling as Mrs. Claus is shown in her cell still in her Christmas outfit. Yes, in a cell wearing a leather choker, studded leather belt, and laced up stiletto heel boots. **sigh** 

She reveals that “daddy has a new plan” and he’s making a list. Parker begins her investigation and she first visits Sheriff Mitchell (Barry Kennedy). Yes, the sheriff from the first film who couldn’t properly identify a pear. I love this dude. He’s retired now to spend more time drinking, but Parker thinks he might have some insight into Santa’s current spree. She also visits the burned asylum, where a former orderly who now guards the place mentions he used to work with Jim Beaudin there and they used to beat the patients. Because, you know, that is what people reveal when you first meet them. Just like the first film, viewers will have guessed the motivation of the killers long before the lead characters do. Meanwhile, Santa stays busy by visiting Sheriff Mitchell (he poisoned his alcohol five minutes before showing up) and busts Mrs. Claus out of a FBI caravan (more on that in a bit). Oh, hey, remember Jennifer and Courtney? The filmmakers apparently did at this point as they are reintroduced and make a plan to catch Jennifer’s killer Santa father in a trap worthy of his own design. You know, super complicated and relying on random things coming together all at once.

Like I mentioned in my intro, I was actually looking forward to this one. I was intrigued to see where they took the characters and how the talented production team responded to criticism  thrown at the first film. I guess they didn’t read them. You know when you haven’t seen an old friend in a while and when you catch up you realize they haven’t changed at all? That is what it is like returning to the Tanter universe. I’ll be honest - these films drive me crazy. The entire production team busts their ass to make a good looking movie and I’ll admit it looks great with Tanter knowing when to effectively use slo-mo, drone shots and some clever transitions. But all of that is brought down by a screenplay so dumb that you start to question your sanity. Now the first film was overly complex and relied on too many coincidences, but it worked it with its own weird logic. This script, credited to Tanter and Phillips, presents scenarios that barely seem like human actions. For example, early on Parker mentions that our villains have rocketed on to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. First, it is hilarious to me these two have been trotting around for a year in the same outfits in the general area and not been spotted. Second, there is a scene that had me dying in regard to this. The FBI is transporting Mrs. Claus to a hospital as she claimed she swallowed some razor blades (don’t ask). On the way Santa has created a roadblock with a stalled car. When he emerges from the vehicle with his signature outfit and burned visage with metal teeth, the FBI agent in the first car radios to Parker, “Dispatch, we’ve got a pedestrian in the road.” WHAT!? You don’t recognize a serial killer Santa responsible for thirty murders on your top ten list? Wait, it gets better. When asked to describe the pedestrian, the FBI agent responds, “Describe?” WHAT!?!? Oh man, I am dying.

The whole film is filled with scenarios nuttier than a fruitcake. Another example: toward the end our evil duo end up attacking the executive board at Biocorp Security (spoiler: Their list of naughty and nice victims consists of people who worked at the asylum). No joke, the bloody killer Santa wielding an axe shows up at the meeting and throws the severed penis of a victim on the table. The CEO gags and then says, "This is a private meeting” and “I’m going to have to ask you to leave” before calling for security. This is not a comedy and is supposed to be serious. How do scenarios like this happen? Did the producers ask to read the script and Tanter and Phillips are like, “Nah, nah. We got this.” To make matters even more confusing, they recast the heroic female leads and don’t make any overt connection that this is a follow up by giving it an even more awkward title. I actually had a friend who had no idea this was a sequel, which probably left him even more confused. You have to really know the Tanter-verse to keep it all straight, which is great for me as I now know the third film is coming soon. In keeping with the throat-choking title tradition, it is currently titled (takes deep breath) ONE CHRISTMAS NIGHT IN A TOY STORE. I look forward to experiencing its beautiful sheen and boundless stupidity.

Friday, December 25, 2020

December to Dismember: DEATHCEMBER (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

December to Dismember: LETTERS TO SATAN CLAUS (2020)

[by William S. Wilson]

The television Christmas movie industry is blowing up bigger than Santa Claus after he eats all the cookies left for him. The hands down champ is the Christmas movie factory that is the Hallmark Channel. In the year 2000, Hallmark debuted its first holiday original with THE CHRISTMAS SECRET (2000) starring Richard Thomas and Beau Bridges. Who knew that film was a pioneer? In the year 2020, Hallmark is debuting...I kid you not...forty brand new original Christmas movies. FORTY! It created a schedule so overloaded that they started airing them in late October. OCTOBER! Yes, they’ve turned into the television equivalent of your local pharmacy chain putting the Xmas stuff out early. With such a plethora of products, it is surprising that we haven’t yet seen a spoof of these formulaic “grumpy person discovers love via Christmas” scenarios. It is also surprising no one has not done a horror version of them yet. Well, both bases have now been covered with the SyFy channel original LETTERS TO SATAN CLAUS (2020) and, in the most surprising news of all, it is entertaining as hell.

The film opens in the Christmas-loving town of Ornaments as the Winters family is at a “Letters to Santa Claus” event. Young Holly demands her parents buy her, Darby Dream Car for Christmas, but they can’t because dad lost his job at the tree factory and mom can’t do ice sculpture due to a broken arm. HA! Bratty Holly heads off in a huff and writes Santa the following letter: “Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is for my parents to go away. Can you make that happen? Love, Holly” Glad she added that love part in there to show she is the warm type when asking for her parents to disappear. Unfortunately, this simple act created something terrifying for her family. Cut to 22 years later and the grown up Holly Winters is a changed woman because she now goes by Holly Frost (Karen Knox) and is an investigative reporter for a TV station. With visions of lead anchor dancing in her head, Holly accepts a Christmas assignment from her demanding boss. The bad news? It involves returning to her hometown of Ornaments to cover the 75th anniversary of their Festival of Christmas Wonder.

With her hunky cameraman Sam (Franco Lo Presti) in tow, Holly makes the trek back home. In Hallmark tradition, she runs into in quick succession: her old gay bestie, the lone black family, her old rival who is now mayor (named Danica, which is hilarious if you know Hallmark), and her old flame Chris Pringle (Joseph Cannata). Per Hallmark Christmas Resolution 420, Holly finds out Chris is recently single after the death of his wife. This fact is relayed in the following hilarious dialogue:

Danica: "Chris has gone through a lot recently. He just lost his wife."
Holly: "Hopefully not to...cancer."
Danica: "Hot air balloon."
Holly: "Like it caught on fire?"
Danica (incredulous): "No, one fell on her."

Unable to secure a hotel room in town, Holly resorts to the worst case scenario and opts to stay with her sister Cookie (Perrie Voss). This is tough for Holly outside of the normal holiday family strains because of the tragedy in this house all those years ago. As the audience soon finds out, when Holly wrote that letter to Santa, she accidentally misspelled his name and addressed it to Satan. Always a fan of written correspondence, Satan made Holly’s wish come true and delivered presents that Christmas morning containing the severed body parts of her parents. Yikes! And you thought getting underwear was the ultimate Xmas morning betrayal. Naturally, such a traumatic experience has shaped Holly into the sarcastic, drunk Christmas-hating ice queen she is. Imbued with more than Christmas spirits, Holly decides at the “Letters to Santa” event to write Satan a new letter telling him to screw off. Bad move as Satan gets it and decides to return to Ornaments to get his revenge.

Remember on Christmas morning when you got that unexpected present and were like, “Whoa! I didn’t know that I wanted this but it is very cool.” That is how I felt watching this. I’ve had an odd relationship with SyFy abusive one. I’ve never seen a SHARKNADO flick and it seems like 90% of the ones I’ve seen follow that “haha, we dumb” cookie cutter pattern. In the same breath, I’ve seen SANTA JAWS (2018). So I had some trepidation going into this one. However, the real key here to enjoying this movie has less to do with SyFy and more to with the Hallmark Channel. If you have seen any of their Christmas films (confession: I’ve seen about a dozen), you will probably delight at how Michael Zara’s script pokes fun at all of the cliches. From the “busy city girl returns to small town” scenario to the “she finds love in her cold heart” ending, it hits every mark. Even the character names are in jokes as we have the aforementioned Danica, Aunt Becky, Candace, and Cameron. The filmmakers paid super close attention to the template, resulting in some genuine laughs. For example, there was one bit at the end involving the gay friend and his prospective partner that had me dying at just how Hallmark-y it was. There are even some non-Hallmark moments that made me laugh, like a running joke about “teenage vaping hooligans” and the bit where Holly declares her love for Christmas and says, “I believe in snowmen, snowwomen, snowTHEYS!” My personal favorite was toward the end where the Sheriff arrests Holly on the suspicion of her being the killer. Right after she says she wants a lawyer, Chris enters the scene triumphantly and says, “You’ve got one! (pauses for dramatic music) Passed the bar last fall.” It feels like a moment right out a AIRPLANE or NAKED GUN film.

Intrinsic to making this work is a cast that is totally game. Everyone is on the same wavelength for what they are doing. The standout is the lead Karen Knox as the cynical Holly Winters/Frost. Not only does she have great delivery of her lines, but she is gifted with her comedic mannerisms and facial expressions. She totally Knox it out of the park. Ah, boo yourself! There is actually a scene about 20 minutes into the film where she writes her second letter to Satan and licks the envelope in the most awkward way while staring at the random guy next to her. It is a total throwaway gag, but actually sold me on the film’s comedic tone. Yes, when it comes to comedy I’m all about pushing the envelope licking skills. Also responsible for the film’s success is director Emma Jean Sutherland. She worked as a First AD on several Christmas TV movies and you can clearly see she paid attention. The mise-en-scene is positively overflowing with Christmas stuff as every frame bursts with decorations and lights and the music is pitch perfect. If I had any gripe, it might be that the production didn’t really have the necessary funds to do the big showdown it deserved. Instead, Satan - which is a very cool design by The Butcher Shop FX Studio - just kinda shows up on stage and gets blow’d up by CGI effects. A minor quibble that didn’t keep me from enjoying the film. If you have a Hallmark-loving heart but dig the occasional severed limb, LETTERS TO SATAN CLAUS might just be the perfect gift to find under your tree this year. Spiked eggnog is optional. 

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.