After Dark HorrorFest Recaps, Part I: Lake Mungo, Nightmare Man, Dying Breed, Frontière(s)

In celebration of After Dark’s annual HorrorFest and their 8 Films to Die For, we’re pounding out a couple of shortie omnibus reviews of eight releases from HorrorFests past.

still waters

Lake Mungo

Alice, a pretty but increasingly despondent 16 year-old, cannot breathe under water.  Sadly, this means she’s likely dead when she disappears during a family trip to a reservoir where she and her brother were swimming.  After driving home backwards (their car was acting screwy and would only go in reverse) and daughterless (while the authorities searched for Alice–or what was left of her,) the Palmer family wait for any word about their girl.  She does turn up but, as I mentioned previously, she makes a very poor fish and her father is forced to identify her body.  Before they are even able to begin the grieving process, the walls of the Palmer house begin to bleed and long dead corpses surface in their pool.  No, I’m kidding, but strange things do happen.  Alice is sensed, even seen, and cameras begin to pick up strange, eerie images that may or may not be proof of something supernatural.  With media attention focused on them and a psychic attempting to help, they begin learning some of the secrets that haunted Alice, and why Alice may be haunting them.

Part of Horr0rfest 2010, Lake Mungo is an Aussie mockumentary that tells the story of Alice and the Palmer family through interviews with the family, friends, assorted individuals involved with them, and the recordings and pictures they capture.  It’s kind of like Paranormal Activity if Ken Burns had made it, only way better than that sounds.

Fisty: This wasn’t quite what I expected, which was a pretty straightforward ghost story mockumentary. A lot of horror films these days rely upon a final twist to add depth and interest to what are often otherwise staid genre stories, and Lake Mungo has its share of twists, but Joel Anderson has crafted a thoughtful and sometimes beautiful meditation on grief and loss from the various turns the Palmer family’s story takes. Alice had secrets, but they’re not all what might be expected. As the documentary progresses, our skepticism ebbs and flows from the evidence that comes in, sometimes seemingly proving Alice’s existence beyond death, and sometimes disproving it entirely. By the very end, I was left with a feeling of profound sadness–and the worst case of chickenskin yet from a movie. It literally gave me chills.

Bill: Spine-tingling! That’s not hype either. Really. There was a few moments in Lake Mungo where I was so creeped out that I felt what was almost like an electric current run through me. Not from any jump scare either. There is only one real jump scare in the movie that I can recall. This intensity comes from pure, palpable dread. Anderson will let you know through the interviews that you’re going to see … something … but it’s never quite as easy to spot as you’d think, so they have to  slowly zoom in, your eyes searching all the time, until you land on the part of the image that just shouldn’t be there, and you feel the goosebumps spread up your arms. Everyone feels so real, their sorrow so genuine, that they raise the sense of reality of the whole affair, so that the things, the manifestations, if that’s what they are, that appear in the photos and videos seem like so more than just a fiction. This may be the only mockumentary I’ve ever seen where my suspension of disbelief was absolute. The movie made me afraid to use cameras. It’s sad and it’s frightening. Just watch it.

And a quick aside: There have been a lot of really good movies coming out of Australialand the past few years. Keep it up, Aussies. It’s great.

dude looks like a lady

Nightmare Man

Ellen believes a demon-thing called the Nightmare Man that resembles an African fertility mask she bought to help her conceive with her lousy Latin lover is haunting her. Everyone else thinks she’s schizophrenic. Bad news, Ellen: If you think a tacky mask will help you get pregnant, you are indeed mental. While husband William is driving her to an institution conveniently located in the woods miles from anywhere, they run out of gas. Doting husband leaves Ellen alone in the car in the woods to go fetch some, and that’s when shit gets real. Well, the Nightmare Man appears to. Suddenly, Ellen’s paranoia coalesces into a hideous mask-faced assassin who chases her through the woods with a knife, and is vulnerable to a good nards kneeing. In a nearby vacation house, former college chums (and lovers) Mia and Trinity are rusticating with their current beaux, drinking wine and playing Truth or Dare, until Ellen shows up with the Nightmare Man in hot pursuit. When Mia’s boytoy Ed bites it, she busts out a crossbow and then a rifle, and is prepared to defend herself and her friends from the demon outside. Unfortunately, Ellen soon reveals a much worse horror inside …

Directed by schlock jock, Rolfe Kanefsky, and starring the greatest ass working in current B-horror, Tiffany Shepis, Nightmare Man was selected as one of the 8 Films to Die For in Horrorfest 2007.

Fisty: I was so pissed at Nightmare Man by two minutes in, and my mood did not significantly improve until people started actually dying. I thought it was an interesting idea poorly executed. And by “poorly executed,” I mean it was damn awful. The straight-to-video, shot on camcorder look emphasized just how cheap the whole thing was, and the acting and story were dreadful. The pseudo-sexy non-tension between Mia and Trinity (gag) was lame, as was the clumsy, hamfisted use of Mia as a sexual object; there are myriad ways to convey sexiness without having a woman dress and pose like a crappy stripper working the third stage for dollar bills. That first half seemed more like a Skinemax feature than a horror movie, as it created no sense of either anticipation or dread–except the anticipation of it finally ending and dread that there was so much left to get through. But, I will say that at the very end, past all the logical improbabilities and lame duck attempts at naughty humor, it did get kinda funny in a very over the top manner. If Kanefsky had just stuck with that ludicrous style through the whole film, it would have fared better.

Bill: Fisty is right on with all of her criticisms, but I’m going to be way more forgiving, because none of it stopped me from enjoying Nightmare Man. It never really hits me that there is someone in the world named Rolfe until I see the name pop up in one of the guy’s movies. It makes me lol.  So, for me, this flick was bringing the lulz from the very start. It’s an abominably stupid film with dialog so bad, coupled with acting so terrible, that a lot of it seems as if the actors are reading their lines stiffly from the  poorly translated subtitles on a Chinese bootleg DVD of the movie they are actually acting in. It’s also full of dumb little errors and idiotic behavior, like when Mia, armed with a rifle, sees the Nightmare Man and runs back into the house without taking a shot at him with the loaded rifle that she went out specifically to get for the very purpose of shooting him. All of this sends me into a lollering tizzy. I even lmao‘d at a few of the intended laughs, maybe because I have the mentality of a 15 year-old. Speaking of … Tiffany Shepis.  Hominahominahomina! I actually became a fan of her after seeing her in (and out) of a silver jumpsuit in another of Kanesky’s movies that I like, The Hazing. She was the best thing in the movie, though Bull from Night Court was pretty awesome as well. Nightmare Man is Z-grade schlock, at about the same level as softcore com-porns like Genie in a String Bikini and The Bare Wench Project, only with less sex and a little more horror.  Not as good as The Hazing, but I was still rolfemao.  See what I did there?

having pie and eating it too

Dying Breed

Eight years after her sister, Ruth, drowned while searching for the supposedly extinct Tasmanian tiger, Nina returns to the island to continue her dead sister’s work, taking along three friends: boyfriend Matt, his childhood friend Jack, and Jack’s girlfriend Rebecca.  The farther into the wilds of Tasmania they go, the more like Deliverance their trip becomes, encountering (and stupidly getting into trouble with) the increasingly strange and sinister locals.  As they hunt for the tiger, an even more dangerous carnivore begins hunting them, the twisted, inbred descendant of Tasmania’s  legendary cannibal convict, Alexander Pierce.

An Aussie box office flop, Dying Breed was given a second chance as part of the third year of the After Dark Horrorfest in 2009.

Bill: There’s a scene in Silver Bullet that shows the drunken, white trash father of little Marty Coslaw’s future potential girlfriend sitting down to watch some good old pro wrasslin’.  As he’s taking his seat, on TV, one wrassler catches a mighty blow to the dangly bits and Daddy DrunkTrash grabs his junk and calls out, “Oh! Ohhh, that hurts mah parts!”  No one’s balls get pummeled in Dying Breed, but there are a few great gags that got a similar visceral response out of me.  I “oooh”-ed, “ow”e-d, “oh”-ed and “ugh”-ed at nasty flesh rippings, naked butchered corpses, heads in bear traps, arrows through faces, and an awesome slithery eel-thing popping out of a dead chick’s mouth. Nothing I haven’t seen before, sure, but it’s done here with a minimum of digital effects.  No bit-&-byte splatter or slow-mo to detract from it’s effectiveness.  That’s pretty much Dying Breed in a nutshell:  Standard backwoods hicksploitation cannibal story, but done damn well, the way it ought to be. There are a few nice surprises and twists, however, and some familiar faces for horror fans. Leigh Whannell from the Saw series is in here, as is Nathan Phillips from Snakes on a Plane and Wolf Creek.  Tying the story of the movie into the real legend of Alexander Pierce and the search for the Tasmanian tiger was a great move.  It just makes it that much better for folklore and cryptozoology nuts like myself.  Dying Breed may just be the last in a long line of movies about city slickers going where they don’t belong, but it sure does got a purty mouth. Squeeeeeal!

Fisty: I love Tasmanian tigers, and pretty much my favorite thing about Dying Breed was the chance to see my favorite cryptids prancing about–even though I then got all drunkenly teary-eyed about them being (likely) extinct. Assholes! That’s not to say that’s the only thing I liked about it, however. Jody Dwyer handles genre conventions aptly, pounding out a reliable little tale of City and Country Mice meeting … and eating one another. It’s a very slick, professional-looking movie, with a gorgeous setting that’s used beautifully. Two caveats: I object to Dwyer’s having some of the cannibals just leap right into chomping on a live or barely dead person’s face. Cannibals usually butcher and cook their meat, just like anyone else, because they’re people–whether they be pescetarians, or chomping on Tofurkey. It’s a cheap way to emphasize the bestiality of character that actually displays itself easily through most of the other actions taken by the cannibals. So fuck that. Also, the very end–one of the aforementioned twist endings–is just silly. Dwyer tried to cram like, fifteen different endings into one, and the movie as a whole suffers. I was really digging it until then. I’d still recommend it.

nothing very exciting

Frontier(s)

Panic on the streets of London Paris!  Cars are burning, people are being hosed, violent protesters are throwing rocks and being beaten by fascist riot squads, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!  Or at least that’s what we see in the stock footage of riots that kicks off the movie.  Taking advantage of the chaos, the pregnant Yasmine, her brother Semi, and three other guys that you won’t care about, being a bunch of  opportunistic thieves, have stolen some cash or something.  I don’t know.  They have a bag of money and cops are shooting at them, so I guess that’s what it was.  On the run, with Semi shot and bleeding all over the place, they split up and make plans to meet up at a hostel off in the countryside, on their way out of the country.  How were they supposed to know that they were running right into the French version of Motel Hell, run by a family of cannibal Nazis?

Frontière(s) was supposed to have been one of the 8 Films to Die For in the 2007 Horrorfest, but it didn’t make the main eight due to it’s NC-17 rating, but was still released on DVD under the After Dark banner.

Bill: I’d heard this was supposed to be some hardcore, ultraviolent, cringe-worthy stuff, but I was more than a little let down.  With the exception of the oven scene, where one poor fella gets roasted alive (pretty awesome,) there was nothing in Frontier(s) that I hadn’t already seen done better or taken further in the movies it seemed to be trying to crib from, namely Hostel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, House of 1000 Corpses, The Hills Have Eyes, The Descent … even House of Wax … pretty much every mid-2000s horror flick with a bit of a mean streak.  There are even elements in the film that I would swear were taken from Inside and [rec], even though both of those were released in the same year, even months after Frontier(s).  It played like a Best of 2003-2007 montage, only without really using the best bits.  Still, I could forgive the movie for just giving me more of the same, so long as there was something else to like about it, but it isn’t cleverly written, has no real twists, no real nudity to speak of  (a crime when it has a two-couple sex scene, one topless girl, and a hosing down sequence,) is completely devoid of humor or beauty, and doesn’t have a single interesting character in the film.  Even the Nazi cannibals were forgettable and plain.  How is that even possible?!  And the action was near impossible to follow because of all the extreme use of quick cuts and shaky cam.  It’s bloody and it’s violent, but not outrageously, shockingly, disturbingly, creatively, memorably or even entertainingly so.  A solid, “Meh,” though I was slightly amused by the last half hour of the movie, because of Karina Testa’s use of a spot on impersonation of a post-Parkinson’s Michael J. Fox.

Fisty: It’s starts so promisingly and then gets so … not. And uninteresting. It really did seem to me like three different movies mishmashed together, and spiced up with bits appropriated from a thousand other movies. There’s the crime thriller with racial commentary at the beginning, the city dwellers run afoul of country folk torture porn of the middle, and then toward the end we see splashes of a really interesting horror movie built on warped family dynamics. The sibling rivalry between brothers Goetz, Karl, and Hans, as well as the sisters Gilberte and Klaudia (and seriously? Estelle Lefébure’s Gilberte was a strung out hag. Amélie Daure was way more interesting and attractive; we needed more of her), is mostly great, very well done–but not enough of it!–and the moments between Eva and Yasmine are the only ones of beauty in the entire film. I would have enjoyed that movie way more. I did like Karina Testa’s Yasmine, however, and thought she nicely portrayed the effects of shock and constant terror in a way that neatly revisited Marilyn Burns’ Sally. Only for completists.

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Splice

worst poster yet

 Splice
aka Nouvelle espèce
Director:
Vincenzo Natali
Released: 2009
Starring: Sarah Polley, Adrien Brody, Delphine Chanéac
Running time: 104 minutes
Genre: horror, science-fiction, thriller

Neonatal-i stylee: Splice delivers, literally, as it opens and we experience birth from the perspective of a newborn critter being brought into life by the rockstar scientist couple of Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley).  The critter turns out to be one of two maple leaf-tongued (they’re Canadian!) chimeric horrors named Fred and Ginger, seemingly spliced together from the DNA of a loogie and that creepy limbless guy from Tod Browning’s Freaks. When introduced, the pair (male and female they created them) bond touchingly, and it seems that Clive and Elsa’s latest project is destined for success.

High on pure scientific discovery with visions of human hybrids and miracle cures dancing in their heads, Clive and Elsa walk into a meeting with the financial and operational heads of Nucleic Exchange Research and Development (yes, N.E.R.D.,) who proceed to kill their buzz with a harsh dose of capitalist reality.  Playing God is très expensive, they’re in the private sector, and so they need to start bringing in the big bucks. So, from now on, discovery is put on the back burner until they can start synthesizing  the new proteins and compounds that Fred and Ginger make possible to make everyone rich and fund further research.  Besides, the bosses point out, at this early stage the outrage at using human DNA would be pretty extreme.

Too young, idealistic, and in love (and being such big know-it-alls) to postpone for anything silly like moral or financial reasons the couple plunge into human splicing in secret, just to see if they can do it. (Just the tip?) Of course, things go further than planned and before they’re anywhere near ready, they find themselves ankle deep in amniotic fluid and over their heads in parental drama.  Their creation, Dren, grows rapidly, forcing everything else in their lives into the background.  Previously an almost perfect couple, Clive and Elsa now find themselves at odds over how to deal with Dren, who is becoming more difficult, unpredictable, and deadly with each passing day.

fred, meet clive & elsa

Stylish and smart, Splice features Cronenbergian-levels of squick, as well as fascinating meditations on the meanings of marriage, pregnancy, abortion, childbirth, and parenting. Natali establishes tension early on in all aspects of the film, but it sadly peters out by the silly finale. Perhaps too varied for hardcore horror and sci-fi fans, and too intense for mainstream audiences, Splice was a box office stillbirth, but celebrated by most critics.

Fisty: A bit disingenuous, aren’t we, with that synopsis? Let’s be blunt: Elsa is the dynamo in this relationship–at least until Dren comes along–and the whole project rests largely on her shoulders. She’s the one who pressures Clive into experimenting with human DNA, and she’s the one who refuses at every opportunity to give the project up. Splice begins with the premise that while Clive wants to progress in their relationship and plans on children one day, Elsa doesn’t want kids–not outside of a laboratory. She frightened, in part because of her rocky past with a possibly crazy, abusive mother, and in part because, well, having kids is a pretty big and intimidating undertaking. At least, it ought to be. There’s a lot of awesome mystery involved in the organic process of pregnancy and childbirth, not to mention parenting forever after. And Splice nicely explores all of the terrors a modern, liberated woman might have about it.

sexting

Bill: I’d really like to stand up for Clive, but I can’t.  He’s a bit of a pushover. Only once in the movie does he really show any kind of initiative to act decisively on his own.  He basically lets Elsa run him, only ever offering fairly weak resistance to whatever she wants, which his younger brother calls him out on at one point.  He can’t get the work done at the lab, leaving Elsa to go save their jobs (though, she did have fresher tissue samples.)  He can’t even be the sexual aggressor.  He just strokes Elsa’s leg until she takes over.  And he isn’t just that way with Elsa either.  He can’t handle Dren.  He can’t handle her when she’s a baby.  He ends up holding his ears and letting Elsa take care of her.  He can’t handle her when she’s a child, instead forcing Elsa to be the disciplinarian.  He has a brief moment during what I would guess to be an early pubescent stage of Dren’s development, while teaching her to dance, that he uses this obviously adoring and uncertain tween-thing to be “The Man,” something he can’t do with Elsa, trying to explain to Dren that the man should always lead.  As soon as she gains some confidence and enters adolescence, however, he becomes a doormat for her, too.

It isn’t just Clive.  Males, in general, in Splice are all either completely incompetent, weak-willed or both, as well as constantly out-classed by and subservient to their female superiors.  The only exceptions are the few times when being male instantly makes them violent, territorial murderers and rapists.

geek chic

Fisty: Odd, I seem to recall someone babbling that all males in Splice were depicted just as violent, murdering rapists. But here you’re saying they’re violent wimps? Interesting. I think you’re projecting again, Bill. This is not King of Queens or According to Jim.  (Bill: So I get a little annoyed with the PR war on masculinity.  Sue me. Fisty: NO SUCH THING.)  It’s a metaphor for starting a family. But if it makes you feel better, you could just as easily say that all the women in Splice (what few there were, even considering the small cast) were castrating bitches. And violent, murderous ones, too, who placed reproduction above the needs or concerns of their partners–or just about anyone, really. Unbunch your nuts already. And neither would I call Gavin or Barlow incompetent, weak-willed, or subservient. You’re grossly generalizing.

Bill: Oh, come on.  They are such buffoons.  Gavin is completely reliant on his brother for his job and can’t even tell the difference between a boy and a girl and Barlow is scared shitless of Chorot and is completely dismissed by Elsa.  “When the REAL scientists show up, ” she says to him.  But, you’re right that the women don’t fare any better, often shown behaving like selfish tyrants.  Perhaps, if the characters are a family, then the movie is a home, and it’s still the case in our society, at least at the moment, that the woman is the central figure in the home and the man has a lesser role (not to trivialize dudes.)  And, yeah, the chicks can be pretty violent in this, too.

oh, SHI–!

Fisty: It wouldn’t have bothered you AT ALL if Gavin’s role were female instead–and lest we forget, EVERYONE in the lab relies on Clive and Elsa keeping their shit together and the project going, or they are out of a job … and plush scienterrific jobs are probably not so easy to find–or if Clive had said that to Barlow. Like I said, you are totally projecting. Elsa IS a real scientist, so why shouldn’t she scorn a bureaucrat mucking about in her lab? I LIKE that Elsa is aggressive and sometimes unpleasant. It’s a relief that she isn’t relegated to just demonstrating maternal instincts, or being the great moralizer; too many women in horror and sci-fi are left to fulfill that Victorian notion that women are inherently moral–or at least, more moral than the men around. Instead, from the very start, Elsa chivvies Clive along persuading him into ever further transgressions, until she hasn’t a leg to stand on when she makes a volta face and accuses him of being the great transgressor. Just by continuing their experiments and creating Dren, Elsa takes them into a place without rules, where they’re left to create their own. Unfortunately, neither of them is really capable of doing so. Like a lot of adults lingering in a twilight world of post-adolescence, Elsa and Clive are … clueless.

Bill: They are and because they are, they both make some severe mistakes in how they deal with Dren.  They both crack up at various points.  They screw up.  Still, they aren’t bad people.  They aren’t unlikable.  They both care and they both show compassion.  These aren’t one-note characters.  Even when they’re at their most despicable, they aren’t evil, just angry, stressed or mixed up.

a mommy & me moment

Fisty: Elsa herself isn’t self-aware enough to realize what she is doing when she creates Dren. Though she categorically refuses to have children with Clive, she leaps into creating a human-animal hybrid using her own DNA, creating a surrogate child in the controlled environment of her lab. For someone who is supposed to be so smart, she sure is stupid about her motives for the experiment. Elsa, because of her past with a crazy mother, seeks control–and she cannot control pregnancy or childbirth and rearing unless it’s in the guise of an experiment, with a specimen. After all, then she can have a family and a career, but in one package instead of juggling the two! (One could even choose to interpret this as a danger of the scientific world in which Elsa and Clive live, that she/they fear anything outside of certain rigid parameters, but that just seems silly.)

It’s not so unusual to fear pregnancy and childbirth, and to have to cope with the idea of certain things being out of your control–they will happen regardless. MY GOD, Dren’s birth scene is an absolute nightmare of hospital birth trauma. Now, Eli and I are planning on reproducing sometime soon, and I am frankly terrified, so I get the idea. It is normal and rational to be anxious and afraid of reproduction, but Elsa’s reaction is pathological. Not to mention that she drags Clive into it in a neat reversal of the usual “tricked into pregnancy” coup de grace administered when one partner (*cough*THE MAN*cough*) is reluctant to breed. That was pretty funny.

shoulda gone for hypnobabies at the birthing center

Bill: I want to talk about Dren.  First, a few props to Delphine Chanéac for making her more than just a standard movie monster, giving us a creature with personality and pathos.  That’s essential to a good Frankenstein story.  Also…  OMG, so cute!  I want one!  She’s like a little fleshy mouser from TMNT.  NO!  She’s Mew.  She’s an adorable little live action Mew.  Then, when she grows up…  total genetic lolita hotness.  She’s like Mewtwo if Mewtwo were a porn starlet.  Kind of alien looking, sure, and slightly androgynous, yes, but she has a tail.  Man, I dig chicks with tails.  She’s the sexiest only vaguely human character in a movie since Helena Bonham Carter in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes.   When she grabs that rail with her foot and does that thing with her hips…  OMG!  I want one!  Then, when those wing things pop out, kind of like Shuna Sassi’s quills in Nightbreed…  Fuck yeah!

Fisty:

She kind of grossed me out, actually, and I like aye-ayes and naked mole rats. She’s got an uncanny valley kind of thing going on, but um, alive. At least in the face. For me, she was cutest when she was newborn–and least human (and more like a bunny head).

the train goes in the tunnel

Speaking of gross, Natali went all out with the squick. Suitably for a movie taking place in a lab with human hybrids and featuring a crazy reproductive psychosexual subtext, there’s a lot of … fluids. And goo. Fred and Ginger are basically goo balls that sprout tentacles. Dren’s “birth” scene, the delivery from the host uterus tank thing, is especially nasty. There’s broken glass and amniotic fluid EVERYWHERE, and meconium and placenta, and just nasty nasty nasty. With all the screaming and trauma, it’s a perfect commentary on the nightmare of a hospital birth gone awry.

Bill: Don’t forget the splatterthon in front of a live studio audience.  Those poor people should’ve had a Gallagher tarp.  Maybe that scene was meant to be like going to your kid’s school play and watching him walk out with his shoe untied, trip, then vomit on stage.  I have to wonder if Fred and Ging were acting out because Mommy and Daddy were giving all of their attention to the baby.  One good thing about Splice, while the main themes and metaphors are obvious, maybe even obnoxiously so, there’s a lot of room to play with various interpretations of everything else in the movie.  It’s a movie that deals with themes that beg to be OVER-analyzed.  It’s fun think about and discuss.

That starts to break down, though, towards the end, when things get a little too Freudian.  If you ain’t down with Freud, the last act won’t really work for you.  It didn’t for me.

cam2cam ne1?

Fisty: Neither I. And I think that may be what upset so many of the fan people, they were unwilling to deal with the masses of Freudian associations thrown at them by Natali: transference, incest, Oedipus, Elektra, the genital stage, phallocentrism, etc. Especially at the end, when the nice, tense thriller devolves into a silly, clichéd action chase, culminating in an ultimate transference. And of course that’s when Dren mutates–like how Fred and Ginger switched sex because of … well, why? Stress? A coping mechanism? Did they ever really explain that?

Bill: Not that I saw.  The sudden biological and behavioral changes just happen with no real cause other than it being the end of the movie and an excuse for some action.  It was said previously in the film that Dren’s accelerated life would be very short anyway.  We didn’t need a big confrontation or a sudden body count.  Natali has said that his films always end implying that there may be another story.  I think he might of rushed to get to that point with Splice and lost what could’ve been a much more emotional ending that would’ve been more in line with the rest of the movie.

Fisty: Yeah. The crap climax–combined with already touchy subject matter–took a thoughtful and genuinely creepy sci-fi thriller cum horror into a Hollywood-typical action chase sequence, and ultimately alienated well, pretty much everyone. Except critics. For the most part. I hope that Natali keeps it up though, because horror needs more intelligent voices.

totally adorable!

Eli: Shouldn’t have had sex with her after midnight, dude.

Black Christmas

all is calm, all is dead

Black Christmas
aka Silent Night, Evil Night
aka Stranger in the House
aka Noël tragique
aka Un Natale rosso sangue
Director: Bob Clark
Released: 1974
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, John Saxon
Running time: 98 minutes
Genre: horror, slasher

Co-eds dying near an open fire: It’s time for Christmas break, and none too soon. The sisters of the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority are celebrating with a post-finals and pre-break party, all unawares of the mumbling creep climbing a trellis into their attic. While they cozily guzzle cocktails and discuss plans for a Christmas charity event the next day, the mysterious stranger stumbles through an attic filled with childhood debris and makes his way into the house proper.

Downstairs, Jess answers a prank call from The Moaner and calls most of the ladies over to listen.  The caller says a lot of filthy things and, after some verbal pwnage from Barb, ends his call with a dead serious, “I’m going to kill you.”  Professional virgin Clare, upset by Barb’s constant razzing and cavalier attitude toward the rape of a local girl, and provocation of the nasty caller (and unaware of the nutter hiding upstairs,) breaks off from the rest of the girls and heads to her room to finish packing.  The rest of the sorority, making merry and bestowing gifts on the housemother, Mrs MacHenry, don’t hear a thing as the attic mumbler Laura Palmer-izes Clare and carries her corpse into the attic.

Clare’s disappearance is discovered the next day when her father looks for her at the sorority house after she fails to show up when he was supposed to meet her.  They head to the police station for help, where Barb mocks a lunkheaded cop with sexual innuendos while some townie woman reports her 13 year-old daughter missing.  Their efforts aren’t taken seriously until the tween’s body is found in a nearby park, and the capable Lieutenant Fuller takes over. With more prank calls coming in, a rape, a missing girl, and one dead body already found, the police connect the dots and tap the sorority house phones. It’s beginning to look a lot like Jess’ intense pianist boyfriend, Peter, might be unhinged and violently upset after she reveals to him that she’s pregnant and wants to get an abortion.  In the midst of all this and unknown to everyone, the murderer is already in the house and he’s going to kill every single one of the Pi Kappa Sigmas.

all bobby wants for christmas is agnes

Extremely influential, with some interesting characters and subplots, loaded with booze and wicked laughs,  a healthy mean streak and enough suspense to make Bumble piss himself, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas holds up well even today and is still a disturbing little package of holiday fear for any of us weirdos from The Island of Misfit Horror Hounds.

Bill: Black Christmas was a landmark in the development of the Slasher subgenre.  Without it, there would be no Halloween, no Friday the 13th or The Burning.  Now, I could explain the why and how of that, and Fisty and I will likely do so in a minute or two, but first, I’d like to talk about dirty words.  Filthy, nasty, deliciously perverted words.

“ho, ho, FUCK”

Sometimes, when I’ve got a few movies lined up that I’ve never seen, I’ll glance at the parental advisory notes on imdb to help me decide what I want to watch.  I’ll compare the amount of nudity, violence, gore, rape, alcohol and drug references and watch whatever has the most (or the most creative,) because I love all that stuff.  I know, however, that no matter how nude the nakedness and how bushy the bush and how bloody the bodies and violent the violence, it won’t be anything that I haven’t seen before in, like, over 9000 other flicks.  However, movies that are willing to go all out with their language are a little more uncommon.  I’m not talking about shit and fuck.  That’s nothing.   No, fuck is boring.  I’m talking about real raunch.  It may be common in certain areas of the internet, among your friends, sometimes (if you’re lucky) in the bedroom (though, even there you occasionally have problems with blushing, downward glances and mumbling,) and on Deadwood, but non-pornographic, cinematic raunch talk is a little more rare.  That’s probably why it still packs a bit of a punch and can be so memorable, maybe even more so now, than it would’ve been, since the P.C. Armies have sterilized the entire country.  Think of Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant demanding, “Show me how you suck a guy’s cock,” or Clarice explaining to Dr. Lector that Miggs said, “I can smell your cunt,” in Silence of the Lambs, or little possessed Regan in The Exorcist saying, “Your mother sucks cocks in Hell, Karras.”  It can be jarring for the audience as well as the characters in a movie.  It even works in comedies, like Clerks, with Randall’s video ordering scene.  So it’s great when The Moaner busts out a few phrases that even make the girls in the ribald Pi Kappa Sigma house think he’s a creep.  This guy isn’t just breathing heavy or asking if they have Prince Albert in a can, he’s saying things like, “I’ll stick my tongue up your pretty pussy!”  Fuck yeah!  Even if Black Christmas weren’t the suspenseful, influential shocker that it is, I’d still have to give thanks to Bob Clark for giving us a horror movie that uses the line, “Let me lick your pretty piggy cunt!”  That’s good stuff.

“you fucking CREEP!”

Fisty: Speaking of cunts, lets talk characters. Barb is going to get a lot of attention for being a Grade A cunt at least for the line, “Darling, you can’t rape a townie,” but she’s really not that bad. Sure, she’s outrageous, but thanks to her convo with her skank mother, we know she’s just acting out because she feels unloved and alone, hence her forlorn bid for company in inviting her sorority sisters to go skiing with her. Though she seems to be alienating First Girl Clare with her vulgarity, Barb also invites her along skiing because she’s desperate for affection; she’s a classic Poor Little Rich Girl. Notice the dichotomy between Barb’s room and Clare’s: Barb’s is almost a little girl’s room, abundant in flounces, purple, and crystal animals, while Clare’s features rock posters, alcohol, and sexual permissiveness–all the things her daddy dreads about college and growing up. Who is really the professional virgin here? Despite Clare’s shyness about some things, Barb appears emotionally stunted in contrast, a bratty little girl drunkenly spewing profanity at the dinner table, but a sad and pathetic one, too.

twelve ladies of pi sigma kappa

Bill: I liked Barb quite a bit.  She’s probably the deepest character in the movie and Kidder absolutely gives the best performance.  She’s a hoot, too.  I’d totally hang out with Barb.  She and Future Barb, aka Mrs. Mac, who is my second favorite alcoholic in the film, both kind of reminded me of Fisty.  Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic, but I was secretly hoping that Mrs. M and Clare’s father would get it on.

Fisty: I am SO flattered.

Notwithstanding Barb’s barbs at Clare (haHA!), something I dig about the Pi Kappa Sigmas is how they really do have a sororal feeling. Too often a slasher set in a sorority house or other all-female environment is an excuse for boobs n’ butts, and a showcase for the worst possible catty female behavior. But Barb’s an equal opportunity needler, digging in on anyone within range, and she does harbor some affection for Claire. All the other sisters still in the house seem to genuinely like one another, and don’t sink into a mire of bitchery when the going gets tough.

Maybe because it’s an ur-slasher, Black Christmas features a pretty wide range of developed characters, 3D all the way (no glasses required). Outside the world of Black Christmas, they could be in other movies, other stories–shit, they could be real. The sole exception to that, though, is our Final Girl, Olivia Hussey’s Jess. Is it Hussey’s odd lock-jawed, Gloria Upson-esque delivery? Or her expressionless face? Is it just that Jess is kind of a bore, other than the abortion subplot? I just don’t know.

“and she STEPPED on the BALL”

Bill: Oh god, The Abortion!  As any American fan of Degrassi knows, Canadians aren’t afraid to address the abortion issue in entertainment the way Americans are.  When it’s mentioned that Debbie is pregnant in Friday the 13th Part 3, rather that explore that and find out more about it, whether she wants the baby or not, flesh out the character, and turn it into the highly dramatic subplot it deserves to be, they instead completely dropped anything else about it from the rest of the movie, because that is way too potentially offensive of a topic to deal with in a movie that is ABOUT BRUTAL SPREE MURDERS!  Ugh.  Thankfully, even though it came six years earlier, Black Christmas doesn’t do the same.

Fisty: No, Clark dives right in, but without sensationalizing it. Let us recall that Roe v. Wade was hardly a year old when Clark started work on Black Christmas, yet he resists the urge to make Jess’ pregnancy a moralizing force in the movie. Her pregnancy has no bearing on whether she lives or dies, and only she and Crazy Peter give a shit about it. It’s refreshing to see abortion not take over the entire film (perhaps Steve Miner was taking notes, Bill?).

i’m crazy sensitive, and i will MAKE you love me

Bill: Nah, he was just pussying out.

Fisty: You’re probably right; I mean, it came up like, zero times after it was mentioned. What the hey?

Now, I debated with myself whether the abortion thing might be some of why I don’t like Jess, and I don’t feel that it is. After all, who am I to judge; I did the same myself at her age. She comes across as cold not because she knows she doesn’t have her shit together enough to bring a baby into the world, or because she dismisses Peter’s frankly hysterical and unbalanced reaction, but because she’s a total snore of a person and Olivia Hussey was replaced by a mannequin for this role.

However, Jess’ plight is actually important to the movie. It’s symbolic of that of all the killer’s victims: They are young women venturing out into the great wide world for the first time, and they have a great deal to overcome. Second-wave feminism and women’s lib had young women not simply translating themselves from their parents’ home to that of their husbands, but making their own ways. Instead of the working on their Mrs, the girls of Pi Kappa Sigma have plans for careers–one of the reasons Jess refuses to give in to Peter’s demands (and my god, it is a relief to not see some “trapping a man with pregnancy” thing come up). But because they’re out in the world, in the public sphere, they are also endangered, and that’s the crux of Black Christmas. It juxtaposes the coziness of a family- and hearth-oriented holiday like Christmas with the cold, unreasoning brutality of the Killer. Notice how in virtually every scene there is a nod to the season: crackling fires, candles, wreaths, snow, twinkling lights and decor. The domestic sphere is where he strikes the Pi Kappa Sigmas, and that is where they’ll die; they aren’t hothouse flowers too delicate to survive  outside, but rather a leggy species that thrives on neglect and withers under too much attention. At Christmastime, when other families cozy up and love one another, the Pi Sigma Kappas die in their home, together.

death by unicorn

Where are the Pis (heh heh) threatened and killed? In their home. What is central to the Christmas holiday? Being home. It’s not because they’re out in the world that these girls die; it’s not that they’re being strong, adventurous, or sexually liberated that kills them. They die because we all can die, anywhere and at any time. That’s just how the world is, my friend.

Bill: The Pis manage to die pretty well.  Plastic bags (with the vacuum-sealed corpse placed by an attic window for creepy effect), metal hooks to the face, crystal unicorn stabbings…  It’s creative stuff.  They tend to stick with the Texas Chainsaw model of onscreen murder, using very little blood and gore (or nudity *pout*), instead letting the twisted nature of the killings creep you out rather than gross you out.  In a lesser movie, this might disappoint me, since I love the red stuff, but BC is a solid flick, suspenseful, and works just the way it is.   I’d have loved to have seen Margot’s tatas though …  Sigh.

I want to talk a bit about the end of the movie, so, for those that haven’t seen it or hate spoilers:

LOOK AWAY NOW!  SPOILERS! SPOILERS FOLLOW HERE!

Bill: They use Peter as the big red herring of the movie, but, in fact, he just ends up another victim.  The identity of the real killer, Billy, if what he says can be believed, is never revealed.  You never see his face.  You never learn his motives or what he’s talking about when he mentions Agnes or what he and Agnes did.    It’s never even clear if the rape of the townie or the murder of the tween in the park are even related to him at all.  Billy, maybe even more so than The Shape from my lord and savior’s Halloween, is the perfect faceless bogeyman.  He’s crazy and he kills and he’s still out there and that is all there is to it, no spoon-fed explanatory (or even worse, justifying) backstory about flesh-eating bacteria on his face or a vulgar stripper mama.  In the real world, crazy doesn’t always have a reason, killing doesn’t always have a purpose and survivors don’t always get closure.  That, to me, is way scarier than an over-explained, cliche revenge motive.

Fisty: When I first saw Black Christmas back in high school, I wasn’t terribly impressed. In fact, I was infuriated and found it aggravating, in large part due to the ending. It seemed totally ridiculous to me that everyone would just wander off and leave Jess like that–and with The Killer still in the house! I must have been mental, though, because as an adult, it makes perfect sense and that ambiguity works for me. It works HARD. After all, Lt Fuller and the rest of The Authorities have every reason to believe there are no further threats; Peter was evidently the killer, and he’s dead. The doctor states that he’ll stay with Jess until her parents arrive (and presumably Chris, too–there always seems to be a little more going on there than is ever stated), but Mr Harrison’s sudden collapse necessitates his being borne away by the doc and Chris for medical attention. As the camera pans out on the now silent and peaceful house–inhabited by only an unconscious Jess and a Killer–we see a lone police officer standing guard on a Christmas light-festooned porch. The Authorities are doing their job, see? That phone ringing? (He must have made a phone call after each murder.) Nothing to worry about … all is calm, all is bright.

away in a sorority house

Watching that final shot now, as the credits start to roll, I get chickenskin every time. Every. Time.

OK, YOU CAN LOOK NOW!  NO MORE SPOILERS!  LOOK NOW!

Bill: Oh, we were supposed to talk about all of that early slasher groundbreaking stuff that everyone else has already said, huh?

Fisty: Pioneering killer POVs, discordant slasher soundtracks, undiscriminating and incomprehensible killers, Black Christmas deserves its reputation as one of the ur-slashers, and makes a delightful seasonal entertainment. It’s smart, cunningly photographed, and genuinely disturbing, and with some of the most iconic images and tropes in American horror, etc etc etc.

Bill: Wow.  You’re good at that.

Fisty: I’m hoping if I get better, I’ll get to bone John Saxon.

sergeant nash, lieutenant fuller, and officer chuckles

Happy Christmas and Merry New Year, everyone!