Ho Ho Horror!

As we have learned from Dickens (and every holiday movie ever), Christmas brings out the worst and best in us. It does make sense that because we are straining to create the best, most-magical memories we are also creating the potential for the most disastrous and traumatic.

Christmas horror used to be a rare (and deadly) bird, but over the past decade it has come merrily out from the shadows to defy those Hallmark movies with mirthful mayhem. There are a lot of them these days – many straight-to-streaming – and Krampus is becoming an unofficial franchise himself. I have a long, but not exhaustive, list here:  https://letterboxd.com/dawnofthedead/list/christmas-horror/

Below I am sharing some of my personal favorites:

Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)

While the current re-make-for-the-#MeToo-era is receiving mixed reviews (I haven’t seen it yet), I still stand by the original. It was made in Canada by the same director who gave us A Christmas Story — coincidence? I think not! And it also has the distinction of being the first, the prototype, for the 70s-80s slasher film: stylish killer-point-of-view cinematography, younger generation disbelieved, killer is calling from within the house, an array of young lovelies (it’s set in a sorority house). But whereas later films feel — or reveal in being — cliched, this pre-cliche film is able to pull off a surprising amount of sincerity. It’s low budget, yes, but all these fresh faces, early in their careers brought their A-game. There are certainly gags, but not of the har-har-wink-wink variety. Need I say more? OK: Olivia Hussey, Heir Dullea, Margot Kidder and John Saxon.

Pooka! (Vigalondo, 2018)

I’m cheating a little because this one is not a theatrical release, but as the distinctions continue to blur and I am not a purest, I want to mention this one because it is the most startling one I’ve seen this year. It’s from Hulu’s terrific Into the Dark series with super-high production values and stellar performances. It feels a little like a Black Mirror episode due to its non-linear narrative and hallucinatory sequences all of which keep us working at the puzzle of the reality behind this tale of an aspiring actor who takes a job promoting a seasonal must-have toy in a giant, furry suit. While yes, it is funny to see a big, soft, “Pooka” acting evily, there’s actually a serious story here. It also reminded me a bit of Joker in that it’s a character study, except where Joker fetishizes mental illness, this film is doing exactly the opposite with heart-wrending results. It leaves you going back over the whole thing in your mind and truly pondering the darkest corners of the human heart. I highly recommend it, but it is definitely the least escapist film on this list.

Silent Night, Deadly Night (Sellier, 1984)

I suppose Christmas Evil (1980) was the first Santa-as-slasher film, and it has its fans. I prefer the less crass and more deeply twisted is Silent Night, Deadly Night. This film manages to be seriously horrific and absurdly comic in turns. It begins with a creepy-but-comic visit to grandpa in the old folks home. On the drive home the family is accosted by a man dressed as Santa who kills the father, sexually assaults and kills the mother, and leaves the two young boys traumatized in the back seat. Trigger Warning: you’ll be traumatized too. It’s not only graphic but the inclusion of the helpless children in this scene is more than even Gaspar Noe would dare today. Nonetheless, there is something about this film that calls attention to and underscores the slasher genre’s objectification of women and their slaughter. So while you may not agree with this strategy, I believe this early scene is intentionally brutal for that reason and the children, of course, remind us of the very real consequences of violence against women.

As if they haven’t had enough trauma, they wind up in a Catholic orphanage. So naturally the older boy, Billy, grows up to conflate Santa with capital punishment for sinners. Everything would probably still have been fine if it hadn’t been for that office Christmas party during which his coworkers ask him to don the red suit. This film has an extremely black sense of humor, and it has a grand old time contrasting all the tackiness and hypocrisy of the season with the earnestness of young Billy-the-killer-Santa. I’ve never seen the sequels and turned off the remake. I stand by the original.

Gremlins (Dante, 1984)

Does Christmas brutality get any more fun or more 80s than Gremlins? You know you’re an old-timer when you wax nostalgic for practical effects and puppetry. We just don’t make ’em like that anymore. You know the premise? They’re cute and fluffy, unless you get them wet.

Jack Frost (Conney, 1997)

Do not confuse this with the “heartwarming” (ick) fantasy starring Michael Keaton. That would be a truly memorable family movie night because this Jack is a murderous mutated-criminal snowman, and look out for that carrot! This is one of those horror comedies that makes you laugh out loud and hate yourself for it.

Rare Exports (Jalmari Helander, 2010)

(I previously included this in my “Not-Quite-Of-This-World-Christmas-Movies” post, but repeat it here as it’s a horror film too).One of my all-time favorites — I am giggling just thinking about this movie. On Christmas Eve in Lapland, something has been unearthed in an archaeological dig. Herds of reindeer are slaughtered, then children start disappearing. A group of reindeer ranchers set out to capture whatever is wreaking this devastation… I can say no more. Tee hee hee. Beautifully shot, dead-pan acting, wry humor – a winner!

Krampus (Doherty, 2015)

This one has grown on me with subsequent viewings. I do love Doherty’s ability to meld 80s-family-sensibilities, childlike wonder, and a perverse sense of humor. Revisiting this film in the Trump era, the Holiday clash between the rural, right-wing of the family and the upper-middle-class lefties is now the scariest aspect of this movie. Give me a possessed gingerbread man and a cloven demon-thing any day.

A Christmas Horror Story (2015)

Another Canadian entry, this anthology films is perhaps a tad uneven, but rollicking fun nonetheless. William Shatner – in a nod to James Cameron’s The Fog – is the local radio D.J. in the center of it all, imbibing a bit too much holiday cheer. Zombie elves, secrets in the high school basement, Krampus — a little something for all.

A Nasty Piece of Work (Hood, 2019)

Another from Hulu’s awesome Into the Dark series, this film is not as thematically ambitious as Pooka! but it is a hoot to watch while wrapping presents or sipping nog.  We begin with two extremely ambitious coporate underlings who work for the biggest jerk since Scrooge (Julian Sands) competing for a big promotion. They are invited to a Christmas-time dinner at the boss’s mansion where his predictably boozy (and handsy) wife gets the party going. The plot twists  are thicker than the plush carpet. There are all manner of familiar elements candied and steamed into this fruitcake movie. The ones that sprung to my mind were: The Most Dangerous Game, The Twilight Zone, Sleuth, and Deathtrap. But the movie knows it’s stuff, evoking Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf outright, and if it’s not deeply meaningful, it is a lot of mean fun. You really can’t ask more than that this time of year.

There are so many more. I can’t wait to see In Fabric and I still haven’t watched Anna and the Apocalypse or Elves…

Summer Read: The Lady from the Black Lagoon

I’m completely enamored of Mallory O’Meara’s biography of Milicent Patrick, the illustrator-designer-model-actress who designed Universal’s original Creature aka Gill Man, even more than I’d imagined I would.

Patrick’s tale is quintessentially Californian. She grew up in the shadow of Hearst Castle where her father was superintendent of construction. When she broke away, she fled to the Chouinard Art Institute which in turn led her to become one of the first female animators at the Walt Disney Company, where she contributed to Fantasia. After being laid off, she transitioned to working as a model and an and did extra work (as in “background actor”).

Her penchant for sketching while on set she landed her a gig in Bud Westmore’s make-up design department at Universal Studios. There she designed the aliens for It Came From Outer Space (1953) and This Island Earth (1955), and her coup de grace, the gill man better known as The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).

I won’t be spoiling much if I tell you jealous Bud Westmore got her axed, and that was the end of her monster design career. There is SO much more to Milicent’s tale, and O’Meara turns her tale into a fierce and joyful cry of feminist solidarity and inspiration.

What I particularly loved was that this book is “meta.” O’Meara is honest about her unabashed fandom. (She has a tattoo of Patrick and the Creature wrapped about her arm.) She alternates chapters about Milicent with chapters about how she, somewhat blusteringly, researched the very book you are reading. (As an archival historian, her account of her experience at the USC Special Collections library is a riot.) There are also passages that simply rant against the plight of women in the entertainment industry of today. If you chose the audiobook, as I did, O’Meara reads it herself, making it feel all the more personal, urgent, and immediate.

If you’re interested in women in Hollywood, women in horror, Universal Monsters, or even just Hollywood of the 40s-50s, I highly recommend this read!


Adieu Doris Day

What can one say about Doris Day? Plucky, perky, and somehow always cheerfully defiant – there never was or will be another star quite like her. As a girl, I loved her because she was undeniably beautiful but constantly defied what it meant to be “a beautiful woman.” She wasn’t afraid to be corny, touchable, or bumpkinish. She seemed to enjoy a good pratfall.

Send Me No Flowers (Jewish, 1954)

Of course, I adore her opposite Rock Hudson, but I also love her in her few more serious roles: In Love Me or Leave Me (Vidor, 1955) she’s jazz singer Ruth Etting whose gangster boyfriend (James Cagney) poisons her life and career. She’s an imperiled wife in Midnight Lace (Miller, 1960), a Gaslight-like thriller co-starring Rex Harrison, Myrna Loy, Roddy McDowell, and Herbert Mashall.

And then there’s the sometimes-clunky but irresistible Young At Heart (Douglas, 1955), a family melodrama in which she falls for angry-young-man-singer-songwriter Frank Sinatra. If only Douglas Sirk had directed this one! They sing separately during most of the film — some of their best songs — then finally, the very end, this duet briefly and incredibly entertwines two of the most stunning voices of the twentieth century…

Another guilty pleasure for me is the pair of period-piece musicals she did with Gordon MacRae, On Moonlight Bay (Del Ruth, 1951) and By the Light of the Silvery Moon (Butler, 1952). They are based on works by Booth Tarkington – imagine The Magnificent Ambersons meets Meet Me in St. Louis with a dash of screwball shenanigans tossed in. (Note that she does her own skating! But I suspect Leon Ames has a voice double.)

Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is in a class of its own as a Doris Day film. Hitch ingenuously weaves Day’s singing into the thriller’s very plot. Early on we see Day’s character, a professional singer, happily singing a duet of “Que Sera Sera” with her son. Soon after, the boy is kidnapped, and she is, at first, numbed by grief. As she and husband (James Stewart) delve deeper and deeper into the espionage plot, they wind up at the embassy where they suspect their son is held. She performs the song for the guests but this time in stoic anguish. Hitchcock, who loved torturing his audiences as much as his stars, lets her go through the whole song as the scene plays out. Day never misses a note but via the strain and desperation in her voice, she makes you really feel what it means for a mother to have her child taken from her. It’s almost unbearable and is surely her most powerful cinematic moment. [Spoiler alert, don’t watch this if you haven’t seen the film.]

It never occurred to me until just now that both Tippi Hedren and Doris Day left Hollywood to devote their lives to animal rescue. Hmmm…

Day was never a celebrity with whom I personally “connected” (past age ten or so), but today I happened upon this quote:

“I love people and animals—though not necessarily in that order. I’ve never met an animal I didn’t like, and I can’t say the same thing about people.”

Doris Day

I can definitely relate to that. And on that note, I am going fire up my Doris Day playlist and celebrate her immortal voice. Godspeed, Ms. Day.