Monday, December 4, 2017

Holiday TV Classics revisited

Here's another look back at a Weird Movie Village Post of old. This is from 2010 — seven years ago! It's amazing that there haven't been any new Christmas TV specials since then, just the wretched Hallmark TV movies that start in October and continue to collapse people's brains through January. But let's look back on the Christmas gold...

The first holiday special I remember seeing was a repeat broadcast of the Mary Martin 1960 Peter Pan. Although not technically a Christmas show, it's performed annually in England to raise funds for the Great Ormonds Children's Hospital, an institution to which J.M. Barrie contributed all the rights to his play.

Watching the show now really takes me back to my childhood. Video was so blurry then, and the production values were cheap and cheerful. But it was in color! I remember going to my grandparents' house (they were the only ones in the family with a color television) to watch it and, in the spring, The Wizard of Oz in saturated, fuzzy, unnatural color.

I've never been a big fan of musicals, so Peter Pan never did anything for me in particular. And as a kid, I thought, "Why are they calling that lady a boy?"

Yes, I admit it. I am old enough to have seen the very first showing of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the holidays  really begin for me when it's aired. It's still charming 45 years later, with the hilariously precocious lines delivered by the Peanuts gang and Vince Guaraldi's too-hip jazz improv score. I love Linus' soliloquy about the true meaning of Christmas and poor Charlie Brown's miserable little tree.

Sure, it's made with limited animation and there are some continuity errors. You can also tell that the sound editors had to piece together the young actors' performances, sometimes word by word. But none of that spoils the show for me.  

A Charlie Brown Christmas never fails to take me back to a time when Christmas meant sparkling, snowy Indiana nights, snow-covered nighttime bushes twinkling with lights, a shimmering tree in the living room and surprises around every corner. Sentimental, ain't I?

1964's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is another favorite, even though its cheese factor is high. Maybe I like it because its cheese factor is so high—this is Weird Movie Village, after all.

I don't recall having seen stop-motion animation before Rudolph, and the living, breathing "puppets" transfixed me. And the Abominable Snowman scared (and thrilled) me when I was small. But I still hate the ending when he's been neutered and all his teeth have been pulled out by Herbie, the dentist elf. The songs are hilarious and rather obnoxious, but that's what makes it even more fun.

 One of my very favorite holiday specials is How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), and it's easy to understand why. It's the most "horror film" of all the shows, with its creepy green anti-hero and the Frankenstein monster himself—Boris Karloff—doing the narration!

He won a Grammy for the recorded version of the story, and I just love it. But the Whos are sure as hell a bunch of hyperactive little buggers, particularly the kids after they receive their bizarre Christmas loot. As I get older, I can appreciate more and more the Grinch's desire to spoil the holiday for that town full of noisy, endlessly grinning morons.

I have never seen—and will never see—Ron Howard's film version. The idea of watching that overpaid buffoon Jim Carrey hamming his way through a story I hold dear makes my flesh crawl.

Though it was originally shown in 1966, I somehow didn't discover A Christmas Memory until the mid-80s when it aired on a local PBS station. How could I have missed a Truman Capote-written story starring Geraldine Page for so long? Thanks to home video, it became a holiday tradition every year afterward.

 It's the bittersweet story of the author and his last Christmas with his beloved Sookie, the elderly cousin with whom he lives (along with a couple of really mean aunts). Every year Buddy (as she calls him) and Sookie bake a slew of fruitcakes to distribute to friends; not necessarily neighbor friends, but people who strike their fancy, including the Roosevelts.

The hour-long special follows the unlikely pair as they acquire ingredients for their fruitcakes, including the hard-to-get whiskey, which they must purchase from Mr. Ha-ha Jones, owner of a fish fry and dancing cafe. Here's a clip of Sookie and Buddy heading for Ha-ha's:

The film was made by Frank Perry (Katy's uncle, but don't hold it against him) of Mommie Dearest fame, and you can tell that editor Ralph Rosenblum literally had to piece it together—but it still works. Really well. Page was only 41 or 42 when she played the elderly Sookie, and she looks startlingly young, but such was her talent that you completely believe her character. The actor who played Ha-ha, Josip Elic, also had a diverse career. He was in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, the perennial kiddie matinee mess, and he also played Bancini, one of the inmates in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest!

At one point in the 90s there was a viewer revolt over the treatment the classic holiday specials were receiving. In order to shove in more and more commercials, they were shown digitally speeded up and heavily edited. It got so ridiculous that A Charlie Brown Christmas became a continuous onslaught of Dolly Madison commercials with a few scenes from the show thrown in. The networks didn't take into consideration that these were beloved treasures whose millions of viewers knew virtually every frame.

Since they were all available unedited and at the correct speed on home video, viewers went there instead, and ratings plummeted. Realizing the error of their ways, the networks began advertising "complete, restored editions"—sometimes with special (and often lame) features. Even Rudolph aired in hi-def this year! Recently, before A&E went over to the darkside to became a ridiculous reality trash network, it broadcast a "restored, color-corrected" A Christmas Memory, but that was also speeded up, edited and jammed with commercials.

Holiday specials are still being made right and left, but I don't think of them are going to be considered classics even ten years from now. I mean—Shrek the Halls? New holidays classics are like new classical music. They just don't work. The closest they've come in recent years was with the funny and sweet 1991 Opus and Bill special A Wish for Wings That Work, but even that show only aired a couple of times before being consigned to the discount video pile.

Sigh. Season's Greetings, all.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Horrors for Christmas!

This is republishing of a post I originally wrote for Blogcritics in 2011. I updated some references, considering the changing of the times, but I still consider this a solid list of offbeat holiday fun.

There are horror films available for almost every holiday—Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Halloween (of course)—even Independence Day (William Lustig's Uncle Sam). With Christmas just around the corner, it got me thinking about Yuletide-themed movies, and I came to the conclusion that most of them are pretty lame, but some are worth the visit. Here's a select list...

1. Don't Open Till Christmas (1984). Actor Edmund Purdom took the directorial reins for this sleazy English slasher. Yeah, I know you're saying "Edmund Purdom...who?" Well, he was in the original 1953 Titanic, some sword and sandal epics and sleaze like Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks and Pieces, so he knew his way around exploitation.

Here he plays a police inspector on the hunt for a masked killer preying on men dressed as Santa Claus. You just know it's going to turn out that he was traumatized by someone dressed as Saint Nick as a young boy.

Man, is it so cheap. Some of the sets are so small it looks like the actors are crouching to fit into the frame. And despite its '80s vintage, it has a distinctly sleazy '70s vibe, especially in its depiction of the Piccadilly Circus/nightclub milieu. Even cult vixen Caroline (Maniac) Munro, no stranger to sleaze herself, shows up to chirp a Eurotrash disco song.

And instead of being horrified by the murders, the obviously underdirected extras react with expressions of nausea or vague disappointment. It's probably the best of the bad Christmas horror films, because it delivers the gore with a thick slice of cheese.

Father Christmases are offed in a variety of amusing ways—burning, bludgeoning—even exsanguination via castration. Of course none of it is convincing, but that only adds to the fun. You have to wonder what Purdom was thinking as he was performing double duty here. "At last! An opportunity to stretch my talent" or "God, I need the money"? And the VHS sleeve (pictured here) was classic. How could you resist renting it with packaging like this?

2. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). Three years ago, I had the opportunity to see this trash classic in 35mm with my nephew and brother-in-law at the Alamo Drafthouse, and we laughed and laughed.

Silent Night is about a kid who watched his parents being butchered by a deranged guy in a Santa Claus costume, so he grows up to become a deranged guy in a Santa Claus costume who is determined to slaughter everyone who commits transgressions during the holiday season. This being the anything-goes 1980s, when office parties could easily slip into alcohol-fueled orgies, how could you keep track of all the sinning going on around you?

Anyhow, the tormented teen goes on a killing spree because he was abused by a nasty nun at an orphanage. Holiday cheer, decorations and those nonstop carols make him snap, and he just can't stop chopping with that axe. "Punish!"

When grim trailers for the film started playing during the 1984 holiday season, all sorts of angry mothers' groups got up in arms and demanded that the film be banned for all time, creating even greater publicity for the picture.

Silent Night spawned an outrageous number of direct-to-video sequels that diverted from the original story (psycho Santa, of course). Mickey Rooney showed up for number five as a looney toymaker named Joe Petto (insert groan here), even though he'd written a letter to the producers of the original complaining about the film back in '84! Guess he couldn't resist that check for $2.95 the filmmakers were waving in front of his nose.

3. The "And All Through the House" segment from Tales from the Crypt (1972). Joan Collins! Need I say more? Chloe Franks (Whoever Slew Auntie Roo, The House That Dripped Blood)! Sicko Santa! The first adaptation of the classic 1950s comic book series is by far the best.

I remember seeing it at the State Theater in South Bend, Indiana, on a double bill with another Amicus anthology, From Beyond the Grave. I didn't dig Grave so much (insert second groan here) but Tales was great. It's amazing that it got a PG rating back in the day, because it's quite intense and bloody (even though the blood is pink).
Joan was in the horror/trash phase of her career at this point. She'd already done Inn of the Frightened People, and I Don't Want to Be Born, a film in which she gives birth to a baby possessed by a circus dwarf—I'm not kidding—still lay ahead.

Here, she plays a wife who decides to snuff her husband on Christmas Eve while her daughter is asleep upstairs. Bashing his brains in with a fireplace poker, she throws his body down the basement steps to make it look as if he'd fallen. Unfortunately, a news report interrupts the nonstop Christmas music on the wireless to warn citizens to be on the lookout for a deranged Santa who had just escaped from the mental hospital.

What follows is a lot of suspenseful fun as Joan runs around making sure all of the windows and doors are secure as the psycho Father Christmas peeps in. It's all for naught, however—daughter is too excited to stay asleep and sneaks downstairs, announcing: "Santa's here, Mummy! I let him in!"

Joan rushes to the fireplace, presumably to grab her old reliable poker, but Santa has his hands wrapped around her throat. Oliver MacGreevy, who plays the jolly old elf, should've won some sort of award for his performance. He effectively projected a perverted insanity that really creeped out my 13-year-old self and still does today. I mean, after he killed Mommy, what do you think he did with the kid?

The story was redone for the HBO series of the same name, and although it ups the ante in the gore department, the original is still tops in my book. The 1970s English decor is painful, and the Pepto-Bismol colored blood is a hoot.

4. Christmas Evil (1980). John Waters is among the fans of this killer holiday flick, which stars Tony nominee Brandon Maggart as a schmuck who sees Santa performing an intimate act on his mother as a child. Instead of loathing the guy, he becomes his number one fan, keeping his apartment decorated year-round and sleeping in a Santa robe. But when too many people diss Christmas, he snaps and decides to become Kris Kringle himself—well, a murderous Kris Kringle.

All of this takes a lo-o-o-ong time. With apologies to Mr. Waters, I found this this to be a really boring movie. At 100 minutes, it moves at a snail's pace and the killings don't start until the final 40 minutes. And there's weird, senseless stuff, too. He goes to the home of a bad boy who'd been looking at dirty magazines, but instead of killing him, he just covers his hands and face in mud and leaves impressions on the side of the house. Huh? And just when you think the killings are going to start in earnest (beginning with a pretty good eye impalement), the action stops dead again for an office party dance sequence.

5. Black Christmas (1974). Long before he made the perennial charmer, 1982's A Christmas Story, the late director Bob Clark plumbed darker Yuletide depths with this Canadian-lensed stalker. A group of sorority girls staying at school over the holidays receive obscene phone calls at Christmastime.

When one of them, Barb (Superman's Margot Kidder), provokes the caller, he threatens to kill her. He follows through with his threat, and soon most of the co-eds are snuffed and stashed in the attic or basement.

The cast is interesting. Along with the aforementioned Kidder, who's fun as the drunk, chain-smoking Barb, there's also Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet), Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Andrea Martin (SCTV).

Although the killings aren't really splattery, it does anticipate the slasher film boom of the 1980s, and the notion that the killer has been in the house the entire time dramatized a popular urban legend and gave birth to at least another film's plot (When a Stranger Calls). It's also very grim and nasty, with the killer's phone calls being particularly graphic and obscenity-laden.

6. Silent Night, Bloody Night (1974). This is one of those movies you just want to be a whole lot better, since it's practically a Factory production. Directed by Theodore (Sugar Cookies) Gershuny, it stars Mary Woronov, his spouse at the time, and horror vet John Carradine, with appearances by Warhol superstars Candy Darling and Ondine.

With a cast like this, one really hopes it will take off into Morrissey/Warhol territory, but it's awkward, dark and slow-moving. It has its enthusiastic adherents, but to me it just seems like a horror film made by experimental filmmakers with no affinity for the genre—and that's why I especially wanted them to just gone ahead and made it really strange.

7. TV Christmas Episodes. Okay, they're not horror films, but there are a few Christmas-themed TV episodes worth mentioning. Oftentimes, Christmas has to be shoehorned into the plot of shows that don't naturally lend themselves to holiday whimsy. I'm reminded of the Yuletide-themed Dragnet in which Gannon and Friday work to find a Baby Jesus statue and return it to its creche in a Mexican-American church in time for Christmas mass. Wanted: Dead or Alive, starring Steve McQueen, had a cheesy episode in which a kid gives him eight cents to find Santa Claus.

Far more successful were the comedies. Who could forget the Mary Tyler Moore episode in which Mary is scheduled to work alone at the news desk on Christmas Eve, thinks there's an intruder in the building, and is surprised by her coworkers with an impromptu party?

Married with Children did Christmas Bundy style with a plot that featured a skydiving Santa plummeting to his death in their backyard. Like Silent Night, Deadly Night, it caused parents' groups to get carried away, banning the episode from syndicated reruns until a compromise was reached. Even today, it's prefaced with a "this is a work of fiction and none of this really happened" blah blah blah card.

Frankly, I think today's kids are so tough and cynical that they'd look at it and say, "You mean there was a time when kids actually believed in Santa?" And they've already heard Justin Bieber's duet with Mariah Carey on "All I Want for Christmas Is You," so they're scarred for life anyhow.

Well, as I said at the outset, most Christmas-themed horror films are pretty lousy, and that's not even counting the biggest horror of them all, the 1978 Star Wars holiday special. I recommend the nonpareil 1951 version of A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim, which is...after all...a horror story.

And to all a goodnight!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Andy Muschietti's stylish, scary 'It'

Based on Stephen King’s monolithic 1986 novel first adapted for television in 1990, the new big-screen production of It is a sensational film that blends supernatural horror with the real-life horrors of childhood.

The film opens with stuttering Bill (Midnight Special‘s Jaeden Lieberher) making a paper boat for his little brother Charlie (Jackson Robert Scott). Since Bill is sick, he stays home in bed while Charlie goes out to play in the rain. When the boat slips down a sewer drain, the child frantically tries to retrieve it, only to discover Pennywise (Hemlock Grove‘s Bill Skarsgård) lurking in the storm drain.
It’s a cracker of an opening scene. Pennywise, with his macabre clown make-up and preternaturally glowing eyes, alternately delights and frightens Charlie. And when those eyes change color and his jaws open to reveal row after row of terrifyingly sharp teeth, we know we’re going to be in for quite a ride.

Bill is heartbroken – and guilt-stricken – over his brother’s disappearance. Though his rather heartless father bluntly insists that Charlie is dead and that Bill should give up trying to find him, the determined teenager obsessively studies maps of the town’s sewer systems in the hopes of locating the boy. Gradually, he becomes part of a group of misfits who dub themselves “The Losers’ Club,” since they’re all ridiculed by the popular kids at their school.

Though these characters are initially sketched out in simplistic shorthand (the fat one, the promiscuous one, the germophobe, the black one, the Jewish one), the actors who inhabit them bring them to recognizable life. Aided by the snappy and surprisingly humorous script by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman, and Cary Fukunaga, their stories are as compelling as that of Pennywise and his assault on their town of Derry, Maine – and frequently more so.

The kids’ summer vacation is anything but carefree as they confront not only the otherworldly horror of the demonic clown but also real-life assaults at the hands of some terrible parents and the sadistic town bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton).

Set in 1989 instead of the book’s 1958, It shares thematic elements with the Netflix series Stranger Things, as well as one of the show’s actors, Finn Wolfhard. He plays Richie, the motormouth who can’t stop boasting about his obviously nonexistent sexual conquests. Among the others, Sophia Lillis is a real find as Beverly, who’d wrongly been branded the town slut by the mean girls at school. Her real-life horror is the sexual abuse by her awful father, something we’re spared a graphic depiction of.

Jeremy Ray Taylor is also striking as Ben, the chubby new kid who’d been doing research on the town and has started to uncover the secret of Pennywise. Jack Dylan Grazer brings welcome humor as the sickly Eddie, who has the ability to rattle off statistics about any kind of plague, virus, or disease at a moment’s notice. Chosen Jacobs’ Mike and Wyatt Oleff’s Stanley are also good as the “outsiders” — the black kid and the Jew living in the ever-so-white, Protestant Derry.

Skårsgard is a wonderfully perverse Pennywise. Comparisons to Tim Curry’s 1990 version will inevitably be drawn, but Skårsgard’s character has more of a cruel streak and insatiable bloodlust. His transformations, as well as the hellish lair he inhabits, are also more vividly drawn in this production. His performance is also enhanced by some well-chosen CGI.

Director Andy Muschietti (Mama) and director of photography Chung-Hoon Chung capture the small-town atmosphere with a richness and warmth that ironically betray the terrors that dwell within. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score matches the visuals, contrasting soaring, Spielberg-style orchestral cues with loud, deep bass blasts during the horrific scenes.

The film concludes with the hopeful closing title It: Chapter One, leading viewers to believe that the filmmakers intend to add the part that takes place 27 years later, when the Losers reunite as adults to do battle with Pennywise once more. If It‘s box office delivers on industry estimates, the sequel will surely be money in the bank.


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