Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, December 10, 2018

NO ENCORES: Don't Open Till Christmas (1984)


1. Don't Open Till Christmas (1984)
Director: Edmund Purdom

Another reason Christmas horror movies are so common is that the holiday, perhaps more than any other American celebration, is loaded with well known iconography. Not only does subverting these images make for easy shock value but it never hurts to have a globally recognized symbol you can stick on your movie poster. In other words, there are a bunch of killer Santa Claus movies. Even by the early eighties, it had been done before. Which may be why Dick Randall, producer of sleazy weirdness like “Pieces” and “Slaughter High,” thought flipping the script might be a worthy idea. “Don't Open Till Christmas” is a film where Santa Claus is not the killer but the victim. It is also the sole directorial credit of star Edmund Purdom, a character actor who appeared in dozens of European genre films.

It's a week before Christmas and creatures are stirring on the streets of London. Some scrooge is murdering Santa Clauses. At a Christmas party, Kate and her friend Cliff witness her dad – dressed as Father Christmas – get speared through the head. Inspector Harris from Scotland Yard is on the case. Harris himself receives a gift, instructing him not to open it until Christmas, which is linked to mysteries in his own past. Kate and Cliff investigate the case themselves. Yet will any of them be able to stop the yuletide massacre? Will Santas ever be safe again?

I've heard mostly negative things about “Don't Open till Christmas,” so I was surprised to find the film establishing an eerie tone from its opening minutes. The opening credits are presented against the image of a melting Santa candle, which establishes the unwholesome mood. That first scene – a necking couple in a car being murdered by a point-of-view killer – is stock-parts slasher movie. Yet the throbbing synth music, darkly lit street, and heavy breathing killer makes for a spooky combination. The film is also focused just as much on chase scenes as gory murder sequences. A really weird scene has a Santa being chased through a wax museum house of horror, the creepy location being excellently utilized. Later, another Santa is chased by the billhook-wielding killer through the backstage of a theater. The scene is rather impressively edited to Caroline Munro, as herself, singing on-stage. While never exactly scary, the film does understand the basic building blocks of generating on-screen tension.

With its focus on police detectives and a largely unseen killer wielding a straight razor, it's almost a giallo. The sleazy atmosphere, which includes a nude woman being threatened and peep show being a plot point, certainly feels similar to one of the groddier Italian thrillers. Yet its slasher elements are clear. The killer also wears a mask, a translucent plastic face that creepily accentuates his eyes and smile. The murder scenes, meanwhile, are frequent and gory. Santa-related violence includes gut stabbings, throat slashings, eye gougings, impalements, and face bashing. The killer employs numerous bladed instruments, a spear, a gun, brass knuckles, and even a hot grill to off his red-suited victims. The most disturbing death involves a portly Santa being castrated at an urinal, blood spurting onto the porcelain. There's a definite in-your-face intensity to the deaths. 

As a mystery, “Don't Open till Christmas” works less consistently. The film presents a number of red herrings: A sleazy tabloid reporter, a nudie photographer. Even the homicide detectives themselves come off as somewhat suspicious. The viewer does wonder which one of these could be the killer but mostly because the actual investigating is fairly uninteresting. What sleuthing that does occur is primarily delivered through expository dialogue. Yet when the reveal of the killer's identity comes, it's paired with a genuinely surprising event. “Don't Open till Christmas” ends on a very grim note.

As the killings continue, one of the detectives note that Santa Claus is practically a religious figure, especially to kids. “Don't Open till Christmas” seems relish in the disconnect between Santa as the ultimate wholesome figure and the very flawed men who play him. Most of the murdered Santas commit some sin before being offed. They are drunk and disorderly, fuck their girlfriends, oogle women, visit peep shows, flick the bird, deal drugs, swear and smoke. Most of this is relatively normal, if somewhat sleazy, behavior. Yet it's not the kind of stuff Santa Claus is supposed to do. Of course, the origin of the killer's psychosis is tied directly in with this idea. It's an interesting concept “Don't Open till Christmas” forgets about for long stretches of its run time and doesn't do nearly enough with.

The film's cast is all over the place. Purdom does a decent job as a detective who has been left cynical by all the horrors he's seen on the job. Belinda Mayne is mildly interesting as Kate, the closest thing the film has to a proper protagonist. As her quasi-boyfriend, Gerry Sundquist is somewhat annoying. Alan Lake, who committed suicide before the film was released, has a sweaty uneasiness that suits his role. Kelly Baker rather randomly assumes the role of final girl near the end but proves likable enough. The most amusing thing about the credits is the number of Santa variants listed there. Where else will you see characters named “Dungeon Santa” or “Drunken Santa?”

It's not hard to figure out why Edmund Purdom never directed another movie. He only agreed to appear in the film if he could direct it. Production, however, was hectic. Purdom quit before production ended. Sexploitation veteran Derek Ford took over for two days before editor Ray Selfe was brought in. (Ford's involvement certainly explains the gratuitous nudity.) Purdom, ultimately, returned to finish the film. Constantly changing hands caused production to roll on for two years, the movie being almost entirely re-shot. Considering this, it's amazing that “Don't Open till Christmas” works nearly as well as it does, even with a messy last act. Ultimately, I found the film fairly effective. The combination of grisly violence, gritty atmosphere, and twisted holiday glee makes for a decently entertaining time. [7/10]

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Christms 2018: December 9th


Christmas in July (1940)

I have always assumed Christmas in July to be a purely cynical event, an invention by gift card companies who needed to sell any leftover Christmas stock from the previous year. The term apparently is older than that. It dates back to at least 1892, in the French opera “Werther.” The idea would resurface in 1935, seemingly being celebrated by the Girl Scouts. The idea of having a second Christmas in the heat of summer was further popularized by Preston Sturges' 1940 film “Christmas in July.” This was only Sturges' second film but he was already an Oscar winner, having won the first Award for Best Original Screenplay for his first film, “The Great McGinty.” This film would further establish Sturges' reputation as Golden Hollywood's master of screwball comedy.

Jimmy MacDonald is a humble office worker for a coffee company. He lives with his loving girlfriend Betty and his mom in a crowded apartment complex. He dreams of becoming rich and constantly enters contest. His latest entry is into a contest to write a new tagline for Maxwell, a rival coffee corporation. The judges for the contest are struggling to name a winner, despite Mr. Maxwell's insistence they pick one. At that time, Jimmy receives what appears to be a letter declaring him the winner. Believing himself newly rich, Jimmy goes about buying a number of pricey gifts. Such as an diamond engagement ring for Betty, new furniture for his mom, and toys for every kid in the orphanage. Not everything is as it appears to be though.

Sturges would adapt “Christmas in July” from his own stage play, “A Cup of Coffee.” Supposedly a lot of dialogue was changed, save for the opening exchange between Jimmy and Betty. That fast paced conversation, based around how truly awful his idea for a tagline is, is fast paced and funny. That kind of humor, people bickering in adorable ways, characterizes much of “Christmas in July.” Mr. Maxwell's frustrated interactions with his contest judges are a source of frequent comedy. So is Jimmy's uptight boss reacting to the news of his win. There's other personable bits of comedy, such as the couple nosily navigating the rooftops of their home. Or the broad interactions Jimmy has with his mom and her various neighbors.

Despite the title, “Christmas in July” doesn't actually have anything to do with Christmas specifically. (It is set in July.) However, themes of charity and giving echo throughout the entire movie. It's notable that Jimmy, after learning he's supposedly rich, does not buy anything for himself. The closest he comes is marrying his girlfriend but that's something she desperately wanted. He uses his wealth to make other people happy, buying his mom a fancy sleeper-sofa, getting gifts for disadvantaged kids. “Christmas in July” seems to suggest that this is what any upright person would do if they suddenly came into a lot of money. And what could be more Christmas-y than charity motivated strictly out of kindness? The joy that giving a gift can provide?

That sweetness is really what drives “Christmas in July,” even more than its comedy. This becomes most apparent at the end. After Jimmy learns that he didn't win a bunch of money, he has to break the news to his boss, who gave him a promotion strictly due to the contest. At that point, Betty launches into a monologue about people deserving a chance to prove themselves. Once again, that absolute sincerity is what makes the film truly special. That extends to the cast as well. Dick Powell is hilarious as someone committed to his ridiculous ideas, no matter how often their oddness is pointed out. (Watching him try to explain his bizarre tagline is a comedic highlight of the film.) The pure effervescent sweetness of Ellen Drew is also essential to the film being as believable as it is.

In other words, “Christmas in July” is a perfect refutation of the cynical, market-driven attitudes behind most Christmas in July celebrations. It's a film about kindness and hopes. It's also fairly funny with two extremely likable lead performances. The film is rather short too, only running seven minutes over an hour. I definitely need to check out more of Preston Sturges' films now. He's a bit of a blind spot for me. Though its connected to the holiday is tenuous, “Christmas in July” still makes a good addition to anyone's December marathon. [8/10]



Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers: I'm Dreaming of a White Ranger

During the second season, which was also the peak of “Power Rangers” popularity, Saban produced a quickly thrown together Christmas special called “Alpha's Magical Christmas.” It sucked. The kiddie karate/kaiju/robot pop culture phenomenon wouldn't get a proper Christmas special until season three. The perfectly entitled “I'm Dreaming of a White Ranger” begins with Angel Grove's favorite team of multicultural teenagers throwing a holiday functions for local kids. At the same time, lunar supervillain Lord Zedd thinks of a new scheme. He'll brainwash all the world's children with a hypnotic toy. He'll accomplish this by taking over Santa's workshop and forcing him to make the toys. Zordon immediately deploys the Rangers to save the day but, due to the interference of holiday magic, the teens have to fight without their powers.

As far as action goes, “I'm Dreaming of a White Ranger” is definitely among the lamest “Power Rangers” episodes. There's no morphing sequences, as the Rangers never put on their super suits. The MegaZord never puts in an appearance, as there's no city-destroying giant monster to fight. There are some fight scenes but don't get your hopes up. Rito, Lord Zedd's idiotic brother-in-law who is also a commando-print skeleton for some reason, captures Santa's workshop. Goldar and an army of Tengu Warriors – bird ninjas – are sent to assist. The Rangers and Santa elves do not defeat the baddies through high-kicks and gymnastics though. Instead, they clobber their enemies with the power of slapstick comedy.

Shit like this reminds you that “Power Rangers” was a show for the five-to-seven crowd. However, “I'm Dreaming of a White Ranger” does have some unintentionally comedic value. Zedd's mind-control toys are pretty clearly electric dreidels. Keep in mind that Zedd also danced to “Hava Negila” at his wedding. So is revenge on the gentile world as much Zedd's motivation as world domination? As if you ward off any accusations of antisemitism, the Angel Grove holiday celebration also includes a Star of David and “The Hanukkah Song.” (Series producer Haim Saban is, of course, extremely Jewish.) The sappiness of the community center subplot, involving a little girl who misses her dad and Kimberly missing her mom, bleeds into overwrought melodramatics very quickly. Which might make you chuckle, if you have a black and dried-up heart like me.

It must be said that Amy Jo Johnson and Jason David Frank – our Pink and White Rangers, respectively – are appealing young performers, nicely capturing the pure wholesomeness of their heroic characters. Watching them flirt with each other inside Ernie's Juice Bar is pretty cute. Otherwise, “I'm Dreaming of a White Ranger” is unlikely to be among any one's favorite episode of this nostalgic series. [4/10]


Saturday, December 8, 2018

Christmas 2018: December 8th


Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever (2014)

In September of 2012, a picture of a cat with a weird face was posted to Reddit. People thought this was hilarious and “Grumpy Cat,” a calico mix with dwarfism named Tartar Sauce, quickly became an internet phenomenon. It was a more innocent time. At first, it was pretty friggin' cute. Tartar Sauce's perpetual frown and withering glare, when paired with sardonic or grouchy phrases, made for an honest chuckle or two. The meme had the typical lifespan of these things, burning itself out in about a year. Grumpy Cat's guardians, however, cashed in as hard as they possibly could. In-between comics, TV appearances, commercials, and a crap ton of merchandise, Grumpy Cat was quickly earning its owners a six figure sum. The climax of this unquenchable avarice was “Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever,” a holiday movie that premiered on Lifetime in December 2014.

For a movie about a cat with a weird face, “Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever” has a surprisingly contrived plot. The eponymous feline resides in the mall's pet store. It's Christmas time but the shop is about to shut down. That is unless the owner can sell Jojo, a rare dog worth a million dollars. Meanwhile, twelve year old Chrystal deals with her loneliness by spending too much time at the mall. After a weird Santa gives her a magic coin, Chrystal wishes for a friend. This allows her to hear Grumpy Cat's grumpy thoughts, allowing them to communicate. That night, while attending an ugly Christmas sweater party with her recently divorced mom, Chrystal sneaks off to the mall to spend more time with the cantankerous kitty. That's when she stumbles upon a plot to dog-nap Jojo. Instead of just calling the cops, which she can't do for various dumb reasons, Chrystal and Grumpy Cat decide to foil the thieves themselves. Got all that?

Despite being a movie all about a cute critter, a blackened heart beats within “Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever.” This is a movie where a mall Santa audibly talks about how much he hates his life. Grumpy Cat frequently breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly. More than once, she refers to the movie as terrible, mocking the viewer for watching it. The film's cynical motivations are revealed half-way through when Grumpy Cat interrupts the story to shill the avalanche of bullshit with her face on it. There's also an extended, and weirdly graphic, fantasy scene that ends with the cuddly star of the show being euthanized. Despite basically being a kid's movie, there's also a joke about a little girl being molested.

Perhaps if “Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever” committed to this mean-spirited and hateful tone, becoming an anti-Christmas movie along the lines of “Bad Santa” or “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” this might've been excusable. Of course, a Lifetime movie inspired by an internet meme does not do that. In fact, the movie's tone is weirdly pulled between Grumpy Cat's bitterness and the sappiness you expect of a made-for-TV holiday movie. Chrystal's mom being divorced is treated as the biggest tragedy in her daughter's life. The film's B-plot revolves around Mom being romanced by a store elf. Grumpy Cat breaks character late in the film to tell Chrystal that she is loved, that she does have friends. Her evidence is not compelling, which isn't a joke. Naturally, the film has a faux-touching ending where the bad guys are punished, Chrystal adopts Grumpy, and Chrystal's mom gets a new boyfriend.

Director Tim Hill has made mostly theatrical film – several of which are also about small, annoying, talking animals – but this is exactly as flat looking as cable Christmas movies usually are. (Even the “Action League Now!” shorts Hill made looked better than this.) The film doesn't even have enough story to fill out its brief 90 minute run time. There are numerous fantasy sequences, recaps, and digressions that do nothing to advance the story. A dumb plot twist is the sole attempt to mix stuff up. The cast expends as much effort as everyone else did. Evan Todd and Isaac Haig give the worst performances as the annoying metalhead thieves. The film's sole ace-up-its-sleeve is Aubrey Plaza as the voice of Grumpy Cat. The sardonically voiced actress should've been perfect. Yet her delivery is apathetic. She does perhaps too good of a job of playing Grumpy Cat, as she sounds extremely bored. But who can blame her, with a script of this quality?

Plaza does get credit for the film's few laughs, when she tosses off some bizarre non-sequiturs. I hope they cut her a good sized check. I'm sure Tartar Sauce is a perfectly good cat. If you ever felt weird about her owner's exploiting her so much for commercial gain, “Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever” will make you feel even worst. About half of the movie is composed of the feline being raised up to the camera and wiggled around. (Stunt cats and crude puppets are employed for anything more complex than that.) Throughout the film, Grumpy Cat makes repeated references to sequels and further films. Instead of revitalizing the flatlining meme, “Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever” was the official sign that this shit was done for good. Watching the film is an exercise in tedium and irritation. [4/10]



A Trap for Santa Claus (1909)

Cinematic depictions of Santa Claus are almost as old as cinema itself. The first film about Santa was a 1897 short with the descriptive title of “Santa Claus Filling Stockings.” Over a dozen Kris Kringle-themed films followed in the early silent era. An notable example is 1909’s “A Trap for Santa Claus,” a one-reeler directed by cinematic pioneer D.W. Griffith. It follows the Rogers family. When father Arthur is laid off, he abandons his wife and two children. Shortly afterwards, Helen inherits a fortune from a dead aunt. On Christmas night, the kids set a trap for Santa. Instead, they capture their dad, who has returned to burglar their home.

The first half of this fifteen minute short is among the most miserablist Christmas movies I’ve ever seen. The family’s lot is described as “misery and want.” The mom cries a lot, the one kid has a broken arm, and the dad is a pathetic drunk. And that’s before he walks out on them. There are long scenes showing their slum-like home. The tonal transition in the second half, after the mom and kids become rich, could not be more jarring. How do we go from destitute ragamuffins and a deadbeat dad to youngsters whimsically preparing for Santa’s visit? If you’re D.W. Griffith in 1909, you just skip over anything between those extremes.

Though the second half has its own dissonance. “The Trap for Santa Claus” ends on a note that’s totally baffling from a modern perspective and was probably seen as unlikely even in the 1900s. After Arthur breaks into his wife’s home, for nothing but selfish reasons, Helen takes him back! The short ends with Dad dressed as Santa and everyone celebrating. Pretty sure, in real life, this story would’ve ended in the jailhouse. There is some decent Christmas ambiance in the second half, I’ll give the short that much. By the way, the copy I watched on YouTube is totally silent. Put in some Low and see what you can get out of this dreary bit of vintage cinema. [5/10]


Friday, December 7, 2018

Christmas 2018: December 7th


The Christmas Chronicles (2018)

Every December – and, more often than not, November too – brings a ton of new Christmas movies. Most of these are not high profile releases. Instead, they fill out cable channels, DVD dump bins, and the obscure corners of various streaming sites. Yet, as the way we watch movies has evolved, going straight-to-Netflix is not necessarily a sign a film is cheap or bad. “The Christmas Chronicles” starred a fairly big actor, in the form of Kurt Russell. Netflix even doled out enough cash to get balloons promoting the film into the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Netflix clearly threw their hat into the holiday movie ring with this one.

Since their dad died, siblings Teddy and Kate do nothing but fight. Things get especially tense as the holidays approach, Kate still believing in Santa Claus and Teddy falling in with a bad crowd. That's when Kate, rewatching an old family home movie, seems to discover irrefutable proof of Santa's existence. They set up alarms up and, indeed, discover the mythical figure in the flesh. After sneaking into his sled, they accidentally collapse the red sleigh and loose the magical bags of gifts. Now the brother and sister must team up with Santa Claus as they go about gathering what the jolly old elf needs to save Christmas.

“The Christmas Chronicles” obviously had some money behind it. Aside from Russell's presence, and the Elvis song on the soundtrack, there's some elaborate special effects in the film. Santa's sleigh leaps through magical green portals before crashing in a big set piece. There's a big chase scene involving flying reindeer. Aside from the pricey special effects and a story that's slightly larger in scope, there's very little separating “The Christmas Chronicles” from your typical Hallmark holiday movie. From the minute he appears in the opening montage, you know the Dad is going to die. The story of the siblings learning to overcome their differences is highly sappy, that maudlin quality peaking during the resolution. Santa's magic seems to include the ability to mend broken relationships, as he also helps a cop get back together with his ex-wife.

So the script is unspectacular. That doesn't stop Kurt Russell from doing his damnedest to elevate the material. By applying his trademark wink and coolness to the part, he creates probably the hippest version of Santa to ever grace the screen. He constantly complains about the way pop culture depicts him as fat, even though he's lost weight, or saying “Ho ho ho,” which he doesn't actually do. After his sleigh goes down, he quips about “fake news.” Russell's Santa remembers every kid he's ever visited and even what they wanted, an incredibly charming attribute. This peaks during a funny sequence in a restaurant. Undoubtedly the highlight of the film is when Santa pulls together a rock band while in a jail cell, leading to a rousing rendition of “Santa's Back in Town.”

Kurt's charm goes a long way. However, it's ultimately not enough. “The Christmas Chronicles” peak early, during a scene where Kate falls into Santa's magical bag. It's a moment of genuine whimsy and visual inventiveness. It's also the last grasp of true creativity in the movie. After that, Santa's elves are introduced. Fluffy and squeaky creatures, they are brought to life with cutesy CGI that recalls both kittens and teddy bears. They remind me a lot of the damnable Minions, by speaking in gibberish and committing anarchic acts. This desperate insertion is the sign that “The Christmas Chronicles” is totally out of ideas. The energy in the last half-hour is peaked, as the film moves in every expected way towards its conclusion.

Really, it would've been easy to make the movie more interesting than it ended up being. Just forget about the kids and their totally cliched storyline. Make Kurt's Santa the main character, devoting the adventure to him entirely. Ditch the fluffy elves too. Instead, we get an otherwise typical holiday distraction with a likable central performance and some slight visual zest. Oh, and a pretty cute post-credits scene. Netflix will never tell us how often their original programming is viewed but it sounds like “The Christmas Chronicles” did just fine for them. However, it's pretty clearly not going to become a new holiday classic. [5/10]



The Angry Video Game Nerd: Bible Games 2

Two years after reviewing a bunch of shitty religious games, the Angry Video Game Nerd was back at it for another Christmas episode. The episode focuses on another collection of mostly unlicensed Nintendo games, primarily developed by the sketchy Wisdom Tree company. The Nerd grapples with monotonous puzzle game “Exodus,” an irritating group of simple religious games for the CD-I, the decent but baffling “Noah’s Ark” by Konami, before spending most of the episode on “Sunday Funday.”

The main appeal of AVGN is usually seeing the Nerd swear creatively while loosing his shit at frustrating video games. There’s certainly plenty of that here, such as the Nerd’s growing frustration at the shitty level design and mechanics of “Sunday Funday.” My favorite line of dialogue here is when he describes the voice acting in the CD-I games as the “fuckest bologna shit” ever. I also like the way the repetitive and obnoxious sound effects in the same games quickly drive him up the wall.

Yet the main appeal of this particular episode is just getting a look at these super cheap, weird games. “Noah’s Ark” has Noah fighting Indians and giant spiders, as well as turning into a fish. “Sunday Funday,” meanwhile, is just an identical remake of a violent beat-em-up called “Menace Beach.” The partial nudity is replaced by Bible verses but the exploding bodies and fist fights are maintained. The Nerd’s bafflement at the game, assuming the enemies are “raging atheist,” is what made me laugh the most. Mostly, this episode - amusing enough but not an all-timer - makes me feel sorry for kids with hyper-devout parents. Instead of playing real games, they got cheap bullshit that exploited their faiths for dollars. [7/10]



Thursday, December 6, 2018

Christmas 2018: December 6th


Await Further Instructions (2018)

One of my favorite things about the independent horror scene is the element of surprise. Movies made for small budgets, with few expectations, can be sprung on the viewer with little prior information. Because of the circumstances of their production, you hardly hear anything about them until they're finished. When “Await Further Instructions” first started hitting the festival circuit earlier in the year, I was immediately hooked by its premise. Shortly afterwards, the trailer dropped and I discovered it was a Christmas-set horror picture. So it immediately found a place on my December watch list. I love it when films can catch me off-guard like that.

Nick has not visited home in a while, due to tense relationships with his dad and sister, Tony and Kate. However, his new girlfriend Angie has talked into going back for Christmas. Problems arise almost immediately, thanks to Nick's xenophobic grandfather, his bitchy (and pregnant) sister, and her jock-headed husband. After an unpleasant Christmas Eve, they awaken the next morning to discover something very strange. The entire house has been sealed shot by what appears to be black cables. Soon afterwards, a message – “Stay inside and Await Further Instructions” – appears on the television. As stranger commands are delivered, the family splinters into different groups. Nick and Angie are skeptical of the messages while Tony and everyone else believes they should follow them. Soon enough, blood is shed.

The message behind “Await Further Instructions” is obvious. This is a film about mindlessly following authority. Tony is still kowtowed by his bully of a father. After granddad is killed, Tony assumes control. Yet he's still largely impotent, simply doing whatever the TV instructs him to do. That these messages come from a television isn't a mistake. Earlier, the racist grandpa repeats messages about violent foreigners he hears on the news. Nick is ostracized from the family because he's independent. Yet “Await Further Instructions” is as much about family drama, showing a toxically masculine attitude that has been passed from generation to generation. Raised by an abusive father, Gary then raised two kids who respond in different ways to authority. Nick runs away, Kate submits. This dilemma is what the family drama grows out of. And seeing a film put a horror riff on that everyday tension is always nice to see.

After the strange events begin happening, the characters in the film presents different theories. They wonder if its a terrorist attack, if they're on some sort of sick reality show, or if the government has quarantined them for some reason. “Await Further Instructions” plays with that mysteriousness. As the film goes on, the very odd details of the scenario is revealed more and more. This bends in gory ways, when a vaginal opening in the wall of cables snap off fingers. Or when a black cloud causes a head to explode. The exact nature of the invasion in the film is never exactly revealed. However, the glimpses we get suggest a unique type of insidious force. As the film goes on, the invasion gets weirder and nastier, continuing to surprise the audience.

There aren't any big name stars in “Await Further Instructions.” The most recognizable face is David Bradley, who is perfectly disgusting as the racist old grandfather. Otherwise, the film relies on relative newcomers and character actors. Sam Gittins and Neerja Naik have fine chemistry as Nick and Angie. Both do a good job of cutting reasonable figures in a largely unreasonable situation. In act, the film does a good job of keeping the characters likable, never falling into contrived in-fighting or obnoxious bickering. Holly Weston and Kris Saddler obviously play Kate and Scott largely for comic relief. Grant Masters, meanwhile, as Tony is clearly someone terrified but what's happening and just doing what he can to keep order as he sees it. Overall, the strong cast is why I think “Await Further Instructions” ends up working as well as it does.

While “Await Further Instructions” is not really a Christmas horror movie, in the sense that it's not truly about the holiday or any of its facets, it certainly features enough December atmosphere to count. The Christmas tree and lights lurk in the background throughout the whole film, casting a gloomy glow on things. The entire film exploits the tension of family reunions, before another sort of tension arises. There's even a rather twisted religious echo in the last act. All in all, I had a fun time with this one, a creative horror picture that keeps the audience on its toes and creates some gory thrills. [7/10]



The Cricket on the Hearth (1967)

As I’ve said before, it’s just not Christmas without the Rankin/Bass holiday specials. “The Cricket on the Hearth” was only the company’s second Christmas special, produced three years after “Rudolph.” The story is inspired by a Charles Dickens novella that was hugely popular in the 1840s but has been largely forgotten today. It concerns a lucky cricket who befriends Caleb Plummer, a toy maker, who lives alone with his daughter Bertha. When news arrives that Bertha’s fiancĂ© has been lost at sea, she goes blind. Caleb spends all their money on her medical bills, forcing him to work for cruel miser Mr. Tackleton. As the situation grows more dire, the cricket does what he can to put everything right by Christmas morning.

I’ve never read Dickens’ book and, by all accounts, this is an extremely loose adaptation. However, Rankin/Bass retained the contrived Dickensian melodrama. Such as a young man disguising himself as an old beggar. Or a miserly capitalist having his heart melted by the power of Christmas. Bertha suddenly falling blind doesn’t originate in Dickens’ text but certainly fits right in. To this, Rankin/Bass adds an increasingly bizarre plot. The cricket talks and no one thinks this is strange. This proceeds an extremely weird sequence set in a bar populated by anthromorphized dogs and mice. (A sexy cat lounge singer serenades them.) The evil monkey, recruited by the villain’s sidekick to kidnap the cricket, is then suddenly murdered by another minor villain off-screen! Right after that, there’s a moment where Plummer’s toys are brought to life during a Christmas midnight. None of this stuff, by the way, is mentioned again after it appears. In summary: What the fuck?

Going deeper into the company’s catalog really gives you an idea of how obscure, weird, and cheap these things got. The animation here is pretty paltry and not even as good as the studio’s seventies output. The characters designs are decent but they move stiffly, especially during the dialogue scenes. The animation only really come to life during the musical numbers. Bertha’s song about tears of joys features impressionistic figures moving through a psychedelic background, for one example. It’s a shame the songs are all fairly lame. The number about the first Christmas is deeply overblown while every other song varies from overly saccharine to totally forgettable.

It was expected for Rankin/Bass’ holiday specials to have narrators. For some reason, “The Cricket on the Hearth” has two. Coffee table enthusiast Danny Thomas, who also voices Plummer, appears in live-action wrap-around sequences. (Thomas’ daughter, Marlo, voices Bertha.) Once the animation stars, Roddy McDowell as the Cricket narrates the proceedings in flashback. McDowell’s whimsical vocals, even when disguised behind a goofy Cockney accent, is the only intentionally entertaining thing about the special. Paul Frees, of course, voices most of the supporting characters.

Mostly, “The Cricket on the Hearth” is most worth seeking out for the very odd directions its story goes in. Otherwise, the animation is cheap, the music is bad, and all fifty minutes of it drags terribly. Of the eighteen Christmas specials Rankin/Bass made back in the day, this is definitely among the weakest I’ve seen. It did not fill me with the Christmas spirit. [5/10]


Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Christmas 2018: December 5th


Babes in Toyland (1934)

In 2015, I reviewed the 1986 version of “Babes in Toyland,” which I watched constantly as a kid despite it being awful. The next year, I went back further in time and watched the Disney-produced 1961 version of the story. That was less awful but fairly mediocre in its own way. This December, I decide to go even further into the past and watch the 1934 version of “Babes in Toyland.” This particular adaptation of Victor Herbert's operetta was conceived as a vehicle for Laurel and Hardy. Stan and Ollie had been at this since 1927 and would continue to perform together into the 1950s. Though I am a fan of classic comedy teams, you may be surprised to learn this is the first Laurel and Hardy movie I've ever seen.

As in every version of Herbert's children's tale, the setting in the mythical Toyland. There, characters from fairy tales and nursery rhymes live. This version focuses in on Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, an idiot man-child and his grumpy caretaker, who co-habitat with the Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe. Also living with them is Bo Peep, who is in love with Tom-Tom the Piper's Son. This union is threatened by Mr. Barnaby, a predatory credit lender. He threatens to evict the Old Woman if Bo Peep doesn't marry him. When this doesn't work, he frames Tom-Tom for trying to turn a Little Pig into sausage. That gets the boy exiled to Boogeyland, the caves populated with monsters. Once Barnaby turns the beasts on the village, it's up to Stan and Ollie – and the army of wooden soldiers they accidentally ordered for the Toymaker – to save the day.

As I said, I have no familiarity with Laurel and Hardy as a comedy team. I certainly recognize the iconography of the bowler hats and pencil mustaches. But when it comes to skinny guy/fat guy comedy teams, I guess I'm more of an Abbott and Costello guy. Having said that, I get the impression “Babes in Toyland” is not Stan and Ollie's best work. The slapstick is fairly pedestrian, such as when a rogue wooden solider brings a shelf down. I think the only times I laughed were small gags, like Stan getting whacked suddenly with a stick or a botched attempt to sneak into Barnaby's house. Otherwise, the antics seem to revolve around Laurel acting like an idiot and people screaming. A scene where Hardy is almost drowned is especially obnoxious.

Despite being made in the sound era, “Babes in Toyland” still partially feels like a silent movie. The actors are obviously wearing floury make-up common in earlier features. I'm not quite sure what to make of the film's production design in general. The sets are quite nice. The costumes, however, are frequently quite creepy. The Three Little Pigs wear inexpressive rubber masks. The Cat with the Fiddle is played by an actor in a vintage fursuit, which is about as unnerving as it sounds. The Cat is always accompanied by a monkey dressed as Mickey Mouse, which is at least a clever effect. (The producer was friends with Walt Disney, so this is an official Mickey sighting.) The somewhat creepy costumes ultimately work in the film's favors, when the Krampus-like boogeymen lay siege to the town at the end. Even then, the relentless wooden soldiers, who stomp on faces and march around headless, are a little scarier.

I imagine kids in 1934 were probably more forgiving of the stage show-like special effects. Kids were pretty clearly the target audience for the film. In that regard, “Babes in Toyland” is acceptable enough. It's neat seeing all these nursery rhyme characters together and I imagine 1934's little ones got a thrill out of that too. I'm not too sure those youngsters enjoyed the musical numbers though. A song devoted to finding Bo Peep's sheep goes on for far too long and doesn't advance the story. The film features an incredibly maudlin performance of “Castle in Spain.” “Go to Sleep” is similarly slow, stopping the show in the worst way. 

“Babes in Toyland” is also barely a Christmas movie. Santa shows up for one scene and there's some gift-giving but the story's actually set in July, apparently. When the film was reissued in the fifties as “March of the Wooden Soldiers,” it wasn't properly copyrighted, causing that cut to fall into the public domain. So the film is easily found, both online and in cheap DVDs. I hate to say it but I think the one with Drew Berrymore and Keanu Reeves is still my favorite version of “Babes in Toyland.” A cartoon was produced in 1997. I guess I'll watch that one next December? [5/10]



The Simpsons: Miracle on Evergreen Terrace

While “The Simpsons” have done a Halloween episode during every one of its thirty seasons, the iconic TV shows have touched on the Christmas season considerably less. (Though still nineteen times of this writing.) Of course, the show began with a Christmas special, meaning it will always have an association of sorts with the holiday. “Miracle on Evergreen Terrace” aired in the ninth season, near the end of the show's Golden Age. It concerns Bart sneaking down before everyone else on Christmas morning to open his gifts early. What he ends up doing instead is setting the plastic tree ablaze, burning all of the family's presents to ashes. Instead of owing up to his crimes, he fabricates a story about a burglar sneaking into the house and stealing everything. Springfield soon takes pity on the Simpsons, gifting them with tons of money, causing Bart's guilt over his actions to grow.

The Christmas season provides the perfect material for “The Simpsons” to skewer. “Miracle on Evergreen Terrace” takes aim at the callous consumerism of the holiday. At one point, after all, Bart announces that the “birth of Santa” is what they're celebrating. It begins with Homer parking in three handicap spots and basically stealing from customers at a toy store. Bart and everyone else shows an obsession with the presents under the trees. If the family's indifference to the true meaning of the season wasn't obvious, there's a scene where Bart runs over a miniature Nativity with his remote control firetruck. Even the secular signs of the celebration, such as the yule log, outdoor decorations, natural trees, or Christmas parties are mocked and deconstructed. While the residents attempt to show charity, by giving the Simpsons donations, their heart is ultimately in a selfish place. This is shown after the truth comes out, when they appear to steal possessions from the family as repatriation.

You can see examples of these callousness all throughout the episode. In the way Kent Brockman focuses on the individual gifts that were lost, such as “little Homer's Cajun sausage.” Or the salesman that sells Homer a car at a mark-up, Mr. Burns attempting to donate a button, Moe offering up the March of Dimes canister as a contribution, a pair of sickly orphans being scared away from a TV store, or Grandpa Simpson spending the holiday high on meds. Yet “Miracle on Evergreen Terrace” is also mocking sappy morals about family being the true meaning for the season. The family ignores Grandpa Simpsons when he appears in the cold. The conclusion, where they bond over a wash cloth, similarly goes wrong. Lisa points out that they family “would've had each other anyway,” even if they got the gifts. The episode points out that the heart of the modern Christmas celebration is pretty rotten, no matter the circumstances.

Aside from this, “Miracle on Evergreen Terrace” is full of wonderfully absurd gags. Such as Marge transforming Christmas cookies into bloody spearheads just for Bart. In order to wake up early, Bart drinks twelve glasses of water before bed, causing his full bladder to give him a surreally damp dream. Homer's childish and bereaved reaction to the missing gifts is hilarious. So is the family's attempt to impress the Flanders, who are naturally having an ideal Christmas. Further highlights include Marge's attempt to win money on “Jeopardy,” which ends on an especially caustic note. Or a surprising deployment of a pineapple. Once again, the Christmas traditions provide plenty of grist for comedy. Such as Homer's inability to sing “Here Comes Santa Claus” or a pitch-perfect spoof on an infamous moment from “It's a Wonderful Life.”

While not as funny as “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” or poignant as “Marge Be Not Proud,” “Miracle on Evergreen Terrace” is a pretty good Christmas edition of “The Simpsons.” There's lots of sharp one-liners, funny gags, and a decent commentary on how shitty the intentions behind the holiday actually are. [7/10]



Tuesday, December 4, 2018

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas (1997)


I grew up as a Disney Kid. My mom loved the animated features put out by the studio and passed that love onto me. In the mid-nineties, when the studio started to crank out direct-to-video sequels to its theatrically released animated classics, my Mom was more than happy to scoop them up. I guess we were both pretty naive, assuming these follow-ups would always be up to the quality of the originals. We learned after a few years and stopped buying them by the time “Hunchback of Notre Dame II” came out. Eventually, Disney itself realized that the cheapie sequels deluded the reputation of the originals and quit making them. Nevertheless, I can recall buying “Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas” as a kid and happily watching it. It was only the fourth DTV sequel the studio made and the concept still had some novelty. But I'm a grown-up now, ostensibly. So why do I continue to own this film?

The ending to “Beauty and the Beast” made a sequel difficult, as the prince is no longer a beast by the end. Though Disney briefly considered having Gaston's brother turn the prince back into a beast, the solution they ultimately arrived at was more concise. “The Enchanted Christmas” is neither a prequel nor a sequel but takes place in the middle of the original's story. Still locked in the castle, Belle decides an extravagant Christmas party will ease the Beast's pain. In fact, he hates Christmas, as that was the night he was transformed. Belle, with encouragement from the castle staff, decides to go ahead with the celebration anyway. Forte, the evil pipe organ that wants everything to stay the way it is, attempts to interfere.

“The Enchanted Christmas'” status as a interquel creates a big problem. In the second half, there's a scene where the Beast feels Belle betrayed him, locking her in the dungeon again. Later, during Forte's final rampage, the magical rose central to the Beast's curse is nearly crushed. If you're watching this movie, odds are good you've seen the first one. So you already know that the Beast will forgive Belle, that the rose will be fine. By setting this follow-up before the first one's end, Disney ripped away any suspense the story might've had. Beyond that, “The Enchanted Christmas” is quite repetitive of the original. Both feature a scene of Belle going into the woods, being endangered. This time by thin ice on a lake, instead of wolves. Both revolve around Belle charming the Beast, melting his heart. Both feature the couple dressed in evening wear while dancing in the ball room. Disney sure was determined to replicate the things people liked about the last one.

Surprisingly, Disney talked all the primarily players from the first movie into returning for this sequel. Even Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts and Jerry Orbach as Lumiere return. That certainly goes a long way to making this sequel seem more legitimate. Naturally, the sequel also introduces quite a few new characters. The quality of these new additions vary. Tim Curry, naturally, hams it up to wonderful levels as Forte, the evil pipe organ. Bernadette Peters puts on a convincing French accent as Angelique, the castle decorator/tree topper. Less endearing is Paul Reubens as Fife, the clarinet that is Forte's sidekick. Fife's antics are aggressively wacky and shouted. Jeff Bennet also shows up as a talking axe, who speaks with an exaggerated Jewish accent. Which is certainly, well, an interesting decision.

Curry, as you'd expect, is a highlight of the movie. His big musical number, “Don't Fall in Love”  involves hypnotizing the Beast with pulsating musical notes. It's the sole song that makes an impression. Otherwise, the songs are drippy. Both “Stories” and “As Long as There's Christmas” feature overwrought melodies. Both songs pile on the bombast, attempting to grab a molecule of the emotion that made the first one so good. “A Cut Above the Rest,” a number for Lumiere and Cogsworth, is forgettable and does nothing to advance the plot. The animation, at the very least, looks alright. It's not theatrical quality but does look better than the animated TV shows Disney was also producing at the time. Aside from the decision to create Forte solely through primitive CGI. That was probably a mistake.

Why Do I Own This?: As I mentioned above, my Mom definitely bought the VHS of this film when it was new. I can only recall watching it once but it, nevertheless, resided in our Disney collection. When we made the leap from VHS to DVD, she felt the need to upgrade this one anyway. And when I moved out, it somehow ended up in the box of DVDs that went to my place. So, the answer to why I own this is simply “inertia.” “The Enchanted Christmas” is, truthfully, among the better direct-to-video spin-offs Disney pushed out in the nineties. This means its still a totally mediocre affair that stands up poorly to the original. It is pretty heavy on the Christmas atmosphere and only becomes unbearably saccharine once or twice. Do you think I can get away with wrapping this up and gifting it to Ma on the 25th? [5/10]