The Twelve Slays of Christmas 2013
For the eleventh Slay of Christmas, this genre gave to me, sleigh-vans-a-flying, ten vids-a-streaming, Santa’s assassin, crazy dancing eyebrows, Santa vs. Zombies, the anti-Santa Nackles, BILL GOLDBERG!, four creepy songs, Tales from the Crypt, Santa’s demon Krampus, and a scream queen hanging free!
Welcome back to the holiday horror list that I’ve been checking twice. Today’s pick is 1980’s Christmas Evil starring Brandon Maggart (note the misspelling in the print ad above) as the quintessential disturbed man in love with Christmas. Harry Stralding is a man with a fragile psyche. He’s been that way ever since Christmas Eve 1947 when he walked in on his mom and Santa Claus in the midst of some uncharacteristically festive activities. Although the film has established that Santa is just their father in costume (Harry disbelieves this when told by his younger brother Philip, later played by Jeffrey DeMunn), Harry’s glimpse of this encounter causes him to snap. He breaks a snowglobe and in a fit of rage uses it to cut a gash into his hand.
Years later, Harry is still a man with a rather fragile psyche. He works as a middle-manager of a toy factory, but feels dismayed when his coworkers don’t share his same admiration for the Christmas Spirit. Harry lives and breathes Santa Claus — his apartment is packed with red-and-white memorabilia, and he playfully gives himself a white shaving cream beard before shaving in the morning. This is all well and good, but his obsession has a much more sinister manifestation: he’s been spying on the children in his neighborhood. He’s been taking notes in his books of nice and naughty little boys and girls. Harry is pleased to see one boy taking out the garbage for his family, but another perusing a Penthouse magazine only takes Harry one step closer to the edge.
Where will his murderous rampage take him when he finally breaks and decides it is time to punish the bad people of the world? You’ll have to check out my guest appearance on The Phantom Erik‘s 100 Years of Horror podcast to find out!
The 100 Years of Horror is one of the finest horror film podcasts out their as Erik always thoroughly researches his films and covers each picture’s place in the history of the horror genre. Listen in as we discuss, not just the plot of Christmas Evil, but also how it relates to the battle between consumerism vs. traditionalism, what it says about the role of family and mental health issues, and where this film falls in the ranks of other holiday horrors such as Silent Night, Deadly Night, Santa’s Slay, and Santa vs. the Zombies (bleeeh . . .). We also manage to compare it to It’s a Wonderful Life, Psycho, and Maniac! Please have a listen to this excellent podcast by clicking HERE.
Christmas Evil, directed by Lewis Jackson, unfairly gets lumped into the slasher flick pantheon of the 1980s. Truthfully though, this is a character study of a man brought to (and past) his breaking point. This ain’t a body-count film, but it is a well-crafted picture portraying one man’s mental breakdown. Or, a closer inspection may reveal that Harry Stradling, vehemently clinging to the lovely essence of Christmas, is sane, while all of us, disregarding peace on earth and good will towards men, are the crazy ones.
Merry Christmas Eve! I’ll be back tomorrow for one last goodie, but until then, feast your eyes on these posters.
The Twelve Slays of Christmas 2013
For the eighth slay of Christmas, this genre gave to me, crazy dancing eyebrows, Santa vs. Zombies, the anti-Santa Nackles, BILL GOLDBERG!, four creepy songs, Tales from the Crypt, Santa’s demon Krampus, and a scream queen hanging free!
After taking a day to recover from the seventh slay of Christmas — the horror that was Santa vs. The Zombies, bourbon, and an open mic — the list has returned with the Yuletide Schlock Classic that is Silent Night, Deadly Night 2!
If you haven’t seen the first Silent Night, Deadly Night film, don’t fret, because the first 40 minutes of this sequel recaps the entire previous movie. All of the kills. Both psycho Santas. The gratuitous sexy bits. All of the gore and none of the goodness! It really is quite amazing how they were able to include just about everything of importance from the first movie — minus the crazy grandpa and the working-at-a-toy-store montage. Then there is another 40 minutes or so of new stuff that is less rushed, less focused, and more crazy than everything from the previous film. (There is an excellent write-up on FEARnet that tells how the producers actually just wanted the editor/director Lee Harry to recut the first movie into something entirely new and different, but fortunately for us fans of terrible cinema, they were able to add some new stuff into the mix.
I won’t go into everything that Psycho Billy did in SNDN1, but I will say that Psycho Ricky tops anything his brother did in his night of mayhem, simply due to actor Eric Freeman’s outrageous portrayal. The story is like this: Ricky has followed in the genetic footsteps of his brother, and like his grandfather, has ended up in some sort of mental hospital for the criminally insane. On Christmas Eve, he is visited by a psychiatrist to be interviewed about his past transgressions. After retelling Billy’s story, Ricky gets into it about how he was adopted by a nice Jewish couple — from a Catholic orphanage — who seemingly shielded him from the horrors of Santa during his childhood. This doesn’t last too long however, as a chance encounter with two nuns and a thick red cloth set off all of his old memories. From this time forward, he gets set off whenever he encounters a tense situation along with the color red.
His first kill is to a would-be rapist, who he runs over with a red Jeep. Later, after growing up a bit, he kills an extortionist in a back-alley (with an umbrella through the belly) because he had a red handkerchief and needed to be punished. He kills an annoying guy wearing a red shirt in the world’s most brightly lit movie theater. He kills his girlfriend’s ex with a car battery jumper cable to the tongue. You guessed it — the car was red. Unfortunately, this is the tipping point for young Ricky, because he then proceeds to kill everyone else in the nearby vicinity. His girlfriend gets it, because she freaked out about her ex’s death and also needed to be punished. This probably wasn’t the reaction Ricky was expecting since the woman whose attempted raper he killed thanked Ricky.
He then kills Barney Fife whose firearm lets Ricky continue his shooting spree, killing a football player, a poor soul casually taking out his garbage (despite gunshots in the neighborhood), and an explosion-prone red car. However, he does not kill the little girl with a red bow in her hair riding her tricycle around an urban warzone. She wasn’t naughty enough. The most senseless of these kills — the man acting out a simple garbage day routine — has since been immortalized in this oft seen clip:
The viewer get a bit of Eric Freeman’s dancing eyebrows in that clip as well!
Eventually the cops — better armed and less idiotic than before — catch up to Ricky, but they are more concerned about him foolishly throwing his life away with the revolver at his temple than trying to put down this spree killer. Afterwards Ricky ends up behind bars where doctor #13 has just finished with his interview. He’s finished also finished with his life, as Ricky has claimed another victim by strangling the doctor with his own audio tape. After making an off-screen escape through the orderlies, Ricky finds and kills a Santa Claus, relieving the poor guy of his suit, and makes after Old Mother Superior.
Ricky sets off to finish what his older brother couldn’t accomplish. While Ricky goes after the old wicked nun, the nun accompanying the police, Sister Mary, informs them that Mother Superior has retired, lives alone, and has had a stroke. Judging by her face, she must have had that stroke next to an open fireplace. Ricky easily finds her, and the cat-and-mouse games begin between the Psycho Santa Brother and the world’s strongest nun confined to a wheelchair.
I don’t want to spoil things if you haven’t already seen it, but suffice it to say, you’ll hear some great lines before the closing credits start. Here are some of my other favorites from Silent Night, Deadly Night 2:
I DON’T SLEEP! — Ricky, when asked if he has nightmares
You’re good Doc, but I know all the moves. I could squash you like a bug. — Ricky to the Doc
Fuck this! I’m getting a beer. But I’ll be back! — Attempted Rapist to woman after being kicked in the balls
Red car! Good point! — Ricky to the Doc after he writes this in his girly handwritten notebook
Sounded like some squirrel getting his nuts squeezed. — Ricky about a man being harassed by an extortionist
I’m really MAD now! — Ricky, after getting his axe stuck in Mother Superior’s wheelchair
Overall, Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 is not as good as the first one, but most slasher sequels aren’t. This film was less serious than the original, and much more fun overall. It is oozing with camp, and the first 40 minute recap can be pretty boring if you’ve recently watched part one. In terms of my list so far, this movie is miles ahead of Santa vs. the Zombies, but not quite as enjoyable as Santa’s Slay. Technically though, it is a fine film as the editing and music are both strong. Sadly, the atrocious acting (and those damn dancing eyebrows) puts this out of the realm of scary. This film is like that hideously designed, itchy sweater your great aunt made you that your mom makes you wear to the extended family X-mas get-together.
Until tomorrow, keep squirming in that sweater, and keep those eyebrows dancing!
The Twelve Slays of Christmas 2013
Ho ho ho! Hope you’re in the holiday spirit, I sure know that I am! Today I am getting at the root of the Killer Santa with the original 1972 Amicus anthology Tales from the Crypt, directed by Freddie Francis. As far as I can ascertain (from a perfunctory Google search) this film is the first to feature a murderous madman clad in the red and white-trimmed suit. If that is incorrect, and you know of an earlier film with a killer from the North Pole, please let me know by leaving a comment below.
Tonight’s treat is stocking-stuffed full of revenge tales and evil-doers getting their just desserts — a common thread through all of my X-mas picks this season thus far! Tales from the Crypt sees five strangers united on a tour of some old English catacombs. We, the viewer don’t know why they’re here, and they themselves don’t either. The central five are quickly separated from the rest of the group and joined by a mysterious cloaked figure — The Crypt Keeper. Now, honestly, Ralph Richardson isn’t The Crypt Keeper that I grew up with — he has much more flesh on his bones and much less cheesy jokes than HBO’s early 90s incarnation. But, as a very dry, slightly sardonic purveyor of eternal condemnation, he works in this role. Plus, he was knighted, so you know that means he’s one of the queen’s own actors. Indeed, the acting is very strong through-out this entire picture, but I also get a sense that they are all playing very familiar roles. With the exception of Peter Cushing, who plays a down-on-his-luck trash collector, the main actors are all well-to-do high society types, that just tend to rub middle-class me the wrong sort of way.
. . . And All Through the House
Case in point is Joan Collins as a money grubbing wife who kills her husband on Christmas Eve. The first thing that she does after clubbing the man in the head is not to clean up the murder scene, but to check the safe to see that his insurance papers are all in order. But then two things happen to up the ante. The first is that the couple’s daughter calls down from her upstairs bedroom. The second is that the radio announces that old crazy guy on the loose from the mental institution trope: “a man described as a homicidal maniac has escaped from the hospital for the criminally insane . . . and may be wearing a Santa Claus costume.” (I know this trope seems well-worn, but the only other time I can actually remember it from a film is Night of the Creeps.)
Now the murderous mother has to deal not only with cleaning up her crime scene, but also keeping the madman outside, and her daughter on the inside. The TV version of this episode has much more back and forth between the woman and Santa, but the ending to that plays out much the same here in the original. I won’t ruin either of them for you if you haven’t seen them. Just note that the Santa here is more likely to be seen on a Macy’s float while the latter Crypt Santa is more akin to the drooling on his straight-jacket in a padded cell sort of criminally insane.
Reflection of Death
The second story in this anthology stars Ian Hendry as a man who leaves his wife and children to run away with his mistress. Only, obviously, things don’t go as they planned. Hendry wakes up from a nightmare during the drive, and moments afterward they are involved in a pretty wicked car crash. The car flips upside down several times, with silly slow motion cuts of each of them banging around the car’s interior. Then, seemingly moments after the crash, the man awakes to find himself in the English countryside, near his burned out car. As the viewers, we follow his POV shot through the woods looking for help, but everyone he stumbles upon runs or drives away. He returns to his wife’s house to have the door slammed on his face and her scream in terror. The reveal of whatever is so hideous and repulsive about this man doesn’t happen until he visits the apartment of his mistress and sees . . . well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. I felt that Reflection of Death was the weakest of the tales in this film. It was one of those easy to see twist endings, as well as one of those weird, too funny to take seriously dream endings. It’s all very well shot and well acted, but just not up to the standard of the rest of the stories.
The third story features the late great Peter Cushing as a down-on-his-luck Mr. Rogers type character named Mr. Grimsdyke. All of the neighborhood children love him, and frequently visit his home to take in puppet shows and recieve gifts. Unfortunately, Mr. Grimsdyke is unfairly hated by his very well-off neighbor played by Robin Phillips. This entitled bastard takes it upon himself to get Grimsdyke to leave the neighborhood in an effort to ease their property taxes. It is laughable to see what the neighbor’s call a veritable pigsty actually be so clean and tidy. Perhaps they were offended by Grimsdyke’s finger-less hobo gloves. So, this young prick makes Grimsdyke’s life hell by first tearing up another neighbor’s rosebushes and getting the police to take Grimsdyke’s dogs away. Next, he gets him fired from his job as a trash-collector and then makes all the families in the neighborhood keep their children away from him. And if that isn’t enough, he sends the poor old man a bunch of NASTY Valentine’s Day cards.
This kindly old man just can’t take it any more. Distraught after all of the vitriolic hatred, he decides to end his life by hanging himself in the pantry. With smug satisfaction the entitled young man and his father find the body, and for them at least, all is finally right in the neighborhood. Only, poetic justice is served, when one year later Grimsdyke rises from the grave to deliver his own Valentine’s Day card. This story is probably the best of the bunch in part to Cushing who was playing a character pretty similar to himself. Throughout Grimsdyke talked to the photograph of his deceased wife Helen when in reality Cushing’s own wife Helen had passed away about a year before this film. (I can’t comment on the actor’s use of a ouijia board or automatic writing device to contact her though.)
Wish You Were Here
The fourth story is a classic spin on that old story The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs. In fact, they even reference that story in this one! Richard Greene plays a business faced with mounting debts. Either he can go into bankruptcy, or sell off all of his collected artwork to stave off financial ruin. Surprisingly, he decides to be honorable, and sell of his excesses. That is when his wife stumbles across an oriental statue that promises to deliver them the standard three wishes. Immediatedly, despite a caution from the businessman himself, she wishes for their wealth back. Lo and behold, they get a call to meet with their lawyer, but when Greene goes he is chased by a skeletal biker, crashes, and dies. The wife, however, becomes well off because of her husband’s ample life insurance.
Knowing that she has still has two wishes, and distraught about her husband’s death, she uses another wish — again, despite the warning from the lawyer — and asks for him to be returned to her just as he was before the car crash. Some mysterious undertakers bring in the husband’s coffin and lay it out saying he had a heart attack right before the crash. Second wish wasted. She also wastes the third wish to ironic effect, but I won’t say what happens, except that of all five protagonists, this guy gets the rawest deal in the end, and actually given what happens, he shouldn’t be with the others in the Crypt Keeper’s prescence. It is the foolish wife who brings down all the trouble on this man.
The movie’s last story sees Nigel Patrick as Major William Rogers, the newly appointed superintendant for the Elmridge Home for the Blind. He addresses his men in the most military of fashions, and turns the home more into a barracks than a convalescent home. The blind men are not pleased, especially as the major and his German shepherd feast on steak and wine while they must eat meatless slop and sleep in their frigid beds on cold, heatless nights. When one of the blind men dies the others have finally had enough. They decide to take over the hospital and punish the major (and his dog) for how they have treated him.
The blind men lock up the major and his dog in separate cells in the basement. Then they go to work with wooden boards, saws, hammers, and nails, blindly shambling through their construction zone like zombies. Once they are finished, they open the door to the major’s cell, and he is faced with a Saw-esque torture hall covered with exposed razor blades. There is no going back, and he must proceed . . . to his doom!
This was such a fun film. It much less cornball than the 90s TV show, but I think there is still a healthy amount of sardonic charm and cinematic irony to make this fun for the whole family. It is only rated PG after all! It is well acted with a nicely rounded cast. Also, this is just dripping with Gothic charm as the visuals of a rundown cemetery at the opening and the music, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor in the opening and closing, contribute to something that is very British, sophisticated yet atmospheric. It also doesn’t betray its comic book roots, as the blood throughout is bright vivid red. There isn’t anything too gory, but there madman Santa, as well as the Peter Cushing zombie have been iconic images in the horror genre.
If you haven’t watched Tales from the Crypt recently, then the holiday season might be just the time for you and yours to enjoy something shocking, yet pleasing for all, young and old.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
The Twelve Slays of Christmas 2013
For the first slay of Christmas, this genre gave to me, a scream queen hanging free!
Welcome to the first of twelve slays this holiday season. I’m gearing up for Christmas in bloody good style with a look at several Christmas-themed horror genre (film, literature, etc.) picks. First on the list, is Silent Night, Deadly Night, one of the more infamous of the killer-in-a-Santa-suit films. This movie is notable as being the one to make Paramount put the axe to Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th part 4: The Final Friday, and it also has one of the most memorable movie posters from the glut of 1980s slasher flicks. Although this one might not feature the best Psycho Santa Claus, when compared to other holiday-themed horror outings, this one is certainly not terrible.
The movie opens up on Christmas Eve 1971 with a family on a roadtrip to see Grandpa. All of the familiar faces are present: father, hot mother, un-carseat-strapped baby, and little boy in the backseat. Little Billy is concerned that he won’t be back home before Santa Claus comes to his house that evening. But, Hot Mom comforts her son by telling him, “Don’t worry, Santa Claus is going to bring you a big surprise tonight. You just wait and see!”
It doesn’t take a genius to realize this bit of foreshadowing, but the family showing up at a mental health facility to visit the institutionalized grandfather does take aback an unacquainted viewer. Grandpa is in a catatonic state and completely unresponsive to his family or the doctor. The family leaves Billy to go and ‘review papers’ in the doctor’s office. It is telling the sort of parents these two are to leave a kid — maybe 5 years old — alone on his own in an insane asylum. As Hot Mom walks away, she drops another winning line with “Don’t worry, Grandpa’s not going to hurt you.”
Crazy Grandpa snaps out of his previous state and rants to little Billy about the evils of Christmas. “Christmas Eve is the scariest damn night of the year. I’d be scared too, if I was you,” he says. Santa only gives presents to the nice children, but if you’re naughty, then you’ll get punished. “If you see Santa Claus tonight, you’d better run boy. You’d better run for your life!” Despite the foreboding tone, this warning would prove to better parenting advice than Hot Mom ever provided for Little Billy.
Later, on the drive home Billy confesses that he is scared that Santa will come and punish him, but Hot Mom tries to comfort her son by telling him that Grandpa is nothing but ‘a crazy old fool.” Little does she know, however, that elsewhere in the state some Santa suit clad criminal has just gunned down a store owner in a holdup for a measly $31.
Predictably, the family stops by this Madman Santa who has been having car trouble. Little Billy urges them to keep driving, but his dad stops to help, and gets shot for his troubles. Billy hightails it to the woods, while Santa deblouses (gotta get those tit shots in right?) Hot Mom before slitting her throat. Santa decides not to pick off the helpless crying baby brother, and instead just shouts into the woods after Billy, who winds up at an orphanage 3 years later. (There is absolutely no closure on this Psycho Santa, so presumably he is still out there in the backwoods of Utah killing Hot Moms and store owners for chump change.)
Saint Mary’s Home for Orphaned Children is not a very pleasant place for the Christmas-weary children of the world. The nuns running the joint seem to buy into the secular importance of Old Saint Nick, so you can imagine the shock that it causes when 8 year-old troubled child draws Bloody Kris Kringle and beheaded reindeer. The Mother Superior punishes the Awkwardly Mulleted Billy by sending him to his room.
Sister Margaret thinks that the memory of the violence that Billy saw is just waiting to come out and be reenacted, but Mother Superior doesn’t care what she thinks. Mother Superior is old school, and feels that it is best to beat Billy’s violent urges into suppression. Which is exactly what happens after finding out that Sister Margaret has let Billy outside to play with the other children. He does, but only after stopping to peep on some older kids doing some pretty advanced mistletoe activities behind a locked door. (Mother Superior beats them too!)
That night, when Billy can’t stay in bed, so he gets tied down to the bedposts. Then the next day — Christmas Day — things come to a head, and although Mother Superior thinks her strict punishments have been effective, we know otherwise. Billy is dragged onto Santa’s lap, and punches the jolly fat man right in the nose. He goes off to cry in a corner, and there is an effective freeze frame of Billy looking up in terror at whatever punishment from Mother Superior lies in store.
Ten years later, Billy has developed into an 18 year-old dreamboat. This tall drink of water is ripped, and baby-faced, with brown eyes, blonde hair, and just a hint of dimples at the corners of his lips. Sister Margaret has just landed Big Buff Billy a job at Ira’s Toys as the new stockboy.
The filmmakers provide an awesome musical montage of what it was like to work in a toy store in the 1980s. I don’t want to spoil the fun too much, but there is a lot of box hauling, child lifting, time-card punching, and milk drinking, all while Boss Ira nods approvingly, and Billy’s lazy coworker slacks off and drinks J&B whiskey. Unfortunately, things can’t stay all musical montage good for Billy, as Christmas is now fast approaching. Billy has been acting more and more off — staring off into space and suffering wet dreams turning to nightmares — as December 25th approaches.
The tipping point comes when the regular Santa breaks his ankle and Billy must fill in. Billy is creepy and uncomfortable in the blood-red and white suit, and as children wriggle on his lap and he whispers to them to be good, or he’ll punish them. I really wanted this moment to be dragged out a bit, but instead we cut to the store’s after hours Christmas party, and one of the best lines from the movie with Ira’s: “Seven o’clock! It’s over! Time to get shitfaced!”
Sister Margaret is on her way, after being told that Billy was portraying Santa by the lazy J&B swilling coworker. But it is too late! All of the drunken holiday reveling, and overly forward, ripped-clothes lovemaking (read: attempted rape) makes Billy snap. It’s time to punish these naughty folks!
Psycho Santa Billy makes short work of the employees of Ira’s toys in a variety of ways that include X-Mas light hanging, boxcutter mutilation, clawhammer braining, and arrowing through the chest. Then Billy takes his rampage out on the streets. This is when 80s scream queen great Linnea Quigley gets offed in this movie’s most creative kill. As a neglectful babysitter, she leaves her boyfriend on the basement pool table, and goes upstairs, topless, to let in the homeowners’ cat. But when she opens the door, she finds that it isn’t the cat whose collar she heard jingling, but Psycho Santa Billy! He who chases after Quigley, wearing only hotpants, and impales her on a mounted deer head. The boyfriend gets thrown through a window and ends up impaled with a large chunk of glass. Finally, the babysittee comes away with a boxcutter, placed gently in her hand, as she is a good girl and not deserving of Santa’s punishment.
Billy continues on his rampage into the woods where he finally gets the chance to use that double-headed axe he’s been hauling around. The hapless victim is a sled-stealing bully who gets his comeuppance with a blow to the neck on a downhill run. His buddy (doppelganger of former pro-wrestler Edge) is left screaming his head off in the night.
Sister Margaret and the police are worried as the body count is rising. The police are scouring the neighborhoods, but only interrupting tender family Christmas moments instead of finding the murderous Kris Kringle. They deduce that he is heading for the orphanage, so they dispatch officers there, who manage to get there just in time to gun down Santa Claus. Only, it’s not Psycho Billy Santa, but the kindly, old deaf priest who plays Santa for the orphaned children.
As Billy stalks his way to the orphanage, one wonders if Mother Superior will be the next person on the wrong end of an axe swing. Find out if Santa Claus dies by watching Silent Night, Deadly Night yourself. This is an above average slasher film and it certainly deserves to be seen by any fan of horror and/or Christmas movies.
It had been years (maybe a decade+) since I’d seen this, so I was thrilled when I rediscovered how good the acting was. Lilyan Chauvin as Mother Superior was obviously the best, as she was classically trained, and ran her own acting school. I thought that Little Billy (Jonathan Best) was far less annoying and more believable than Weird Mullet Billy (Danny Wagner). Also, a superb and creepy performance was put on by Will Hare as Crazy Grandpa. Robert Brian Wilson as Psycho Santa Billy wasn’t terrible, but he’s no Thom Mathews.
The special effects are standard fare, but it really makes me nostalgic for the days of complete physical effects. CGI squibs and gunshots just don’t really cut it in comparison to something as simple as some blood bags detonating.
It was pretty sweet to see all of those old 80s toys in Ira’s toy store. However, it’s probably for the best that toy stores these days don’t stock double-headed axes or bow and arrow sets.
Perry Botkin’s music is creepy throughout, especially the opening with the child singing. Even the funny picks, like the musical montage were spot on in tone and definitively 80s. When you think about it, even outside of a Santa slasher flick, all those X-Mas songs about an old man watching children throughout the year, and breaking into their houses to leave gifts for them, are a bit disconcerting.
Fun fact: this film opened the same weekend as A Nightmare on Elm Street and outgrossed that film before being pulled from theaters after becoming the target of parents’ protest groups.
Silent Night, Deadly Night was written by Michael Hickey and directed by Charles E. Sellier, Jr.
I recommend you watch it, and don’t be naughty this Christmas season!
I just finished this great documentary film about the humble beginnings, tumultuous but money making middle, slow sequel descent, and eventual rebirth of that most maligned subgenres of the horror genre — the slasher film. This 2006 documentary was written by J. Albert Bell, Rachel Belofsky, and Michael Derek Bohusz based off the 2002 book by Adam Rockoff. This feature is loaded with appearances from all of the usual big names like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Sean Cunningham, Greg Nicotero, Tom Savini, and Rob Zombie, but also features some lesser seen horror personalities such as Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp‘s Angela) and Slumber Party Massacre director Amy Holden Jones.
This film briefly touches on the early proto-slasher type films of Psycho and Peeping Tom, before acknowledging the true harbinger of the American slasher film movement with Halloween. That film, in my opinion, is great in just about every respect — an awesomely creepy score, atmospheric settings, appropriate pacing, and a strong ending — but admittedly, it does lack in gore. Fortunately, there are other (countless others) to fill the void in the blood and guts department. Savini and Nicotero discuss some of the effects seen in such slasher greats as The Prowler, The Burning, and Friday the 13th part 4. Additionally, the giallo film influence is mentioned, as these slasher greats are just as inspired by Italians maestros like Mario Bava and Dario Argento as they are American madmen like Ed Gein.
Unfortunately, the slasher’s meteoric early-1980s rise was tempered by a mid-1980s backlash. Many of the early theatrical releases hold much more artistic value, but later churned out for the VHS-market releases simply provide a high body count without any sort of redeeming philosophical or artistic merit. When producers simply start pumping out film after film featuring a killer murdering on a certain day (My Bloody Valentine, April Fools Day, Graduation Day, etc.), something has to give.
Another nail in the coffin was the backlash from critics and concerned parents groups about the effect of slasher films on American audiences, particularly women and children. Roger Ebert is quoted as saying, “these films hate women.” Wes Craven admits “slasher films are considered one notch above pornography,” but many of these producers and directors, Craven included, feel that this idea is too short-sighted. Often times it is a strong feminine character who is able to survive the onslaught and provide representation of the sort of moralistic values the conservative (Reagan-era) leaders desired. Rather than being misogynistic, Amy Holden Jones maintains that a movie like hers plays to a woman’s true life fears, and contains more frequent and more graphically depicted male deaths. Also, Holden Jones adds that one can’t discount those movies that feature a female in the role of the killer. Betsy Russel (Mrs. Voorhees from the original Friday the 13th) puts it best with this quote: “I don’t think it’s demeaning to women! It’s an art form!”
But what about the children? Won’t somebody think of the children? There is an anecdote retold about how protests of the movie Silent Night, Deadly Night not only led to its being pulled from theaters, but also convinced Paramount to put the axe to Jason Voorhees in The Final Friday. Children should be parented, rather than their biological producers smearing mud all over the good name of sleazy slasher flicks. Besides, it is much safer to let teenagers key into these movies, with their fictional portrayals of violence, than to send them off to war as photographers (in Tom Savini’s case). Art, and I believe that is an apt term for a select number of slasher flicks, is a reflection of life and sometimes life is bloody, and filled with sexual deviancy or bodily mutilation. The desire of people to watch these films is to explore and understand part of the human condition and what it means to be a part of an ever growing materialistic society. Amy Holden Jones continues this line of thought: “Horror movies before [the 1980s], the metaphors had gotten old . . . I think in the 80s there was a new perception that the enemy was ourselves. That the worst possible enemy was another human who had gone crazy and whose motive was not rational and who could just come out of the blue and kill you.”
This emphasis on reality may have been what made the slashers great originally, but it was the more fantastical Nightmare on Elm Street that brought a resurgence for the genre in the mid-1980s. Again, there is the idea of paying for the sins of youth: sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll equals death, but a film like Nightmare, and a killer like Robert Englund’s Freddy Kruger, is much more sophisticated and stylish than the earlier glut of slashers. Unfortunately, Freddy was wearing some double-edged finger blades, as his films and character led to the greater corporatization of the slasher killers. All of a sudden murderous madmen could be marketed to middle America. Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Leatherface were resurrected and milked for sequel after sequel until these films divulged into self-parody (see Friday the 13th part 6). All of our masked antiheroes sort of just faded away, into a 1990s slasher slump.
Until Wes Craven returned with the ultimate meta-critique on the genre with Scream. This film harkened back to Hitchcock’s Psycho with a big-name actress killed in the beginning of the movie. It also laid bare all of the rules and underlying philosophy that makes a slasher film tick. Scream made horror (and particularly slashers) mainstream again by using popular actresses in a familiar routine, only slightly shook up, and with a nod and a wink to all the genre’s fans from the previous decade. A movie like Silence of the Lambs may have been afraid to admit that it was horror, but Scream laid it all out, and led to later slasher-esque films like Saw and Hostel, which emphasize the familiar old troupes, tweak things a bit, and amp up the special effects gore to torture porn levels.
It is obvious that since the release Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film. horror has become more mainstream. Today Greg Nicotero’s gut-wrenching special effects in The Walking Dead are some of the most popular sights to be seen on cable television. Additionally there was an entire show focused on a serial killer with Dexter. True, there are still slasher stinkers (and remakes) cheaply being shit out by production companies, but there are some hidden gems out there like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon or the throwback Hatchet series to enthrall modern viewers. To quote former editor of Fangoria Tony Timpone, “the genre has an amazing resiliency, just like the characters in those films.”
It’s 1919 and the city of New Orleans is gripped in fear from a spate of axe murderers. No, it’s not your humble reviewer, Axe-Wielding Alex, running amuck with a time machine. This killer is a jazz musician with a penchant for chopping up lovely ladies. He holds the city ransom, saying that he will kill again if any house he passes in the night doesn’t have a jazz band playing inside.
Understandably, the women of New Orleans are terrified, but those of Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies are particularly incensed. They are powerful witches after all, though their speech and ladylike manner of ninety-six years past belies their murderous potential. As Axeman (Danny Huston) passes their mansion on his night walk, he hears not jazz but opera music playing on a phonograph. He stalks up the stairs, axe in hand, and finds a solitary woman dealing out tarot cards. When she reaches the Death Card he goes to strike! Only his senses are betrayed! This is a trap that he didn’t foresee, and like Julius Ceasar centuries before, he is knifed to death by a mob of black-hooded figures.
Thus begins of “The Axeman Cometh” with the mortal end of the Axeman. After the opening credits American Horror Story: Coven flashes forward to the present day with our second-most virginal witch Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) investigating the missing Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts). Zoe rifles through a box of Madison’s stuff, where she finds a flask and a derringer, before being led by a rolling mini-bottle of alcohol into a secret closet compartment. She finds photographs populated by past coven women, but more importantly she finds a ouija board, or as Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) calls it, a spirit board.
Zoe presents her hypothesis of dwindling witch generations and proposes that the three remaining neophytes do something to combat the problem by starting with discovering what happened to Madison. While Nan (Jamie Brewer) is consumed by her crush on neighbor boy Luke (Alexander Dreymon [absent from this episode]), and Queenie, in the pocket of Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), wants to play things safe by first consulting the Supreme, Zoe’s initiative wins out. The three witches drink absinthe — drink of the divine, which [they] are — are then hold a seance with the spirit board. Queenie cautions the others — be polite! — but instead of summoning Madison, they make contact with another of the house’s deceased spirits — AXEMAN — who accuses the witches of murdering him. Queenie stops before they can find out anything more, again cautioning the others by saying, “If survival is so important to you, you better find out who you’re talking to!”
The girls research the Axeman by checking an online fan site. They quickly learn that the jazz man killed eight people, and connect the dots that the nickname for a saxophone, which he played, was an ‘axe.’ Nan points out a picture of the class of 1919 witches, and Queenie reads out a diary entry that foretells his killing: “This jazz killer has killed long enough. This city is done trembling. Tonight it ends.”
Zoe presses the Axeman’s ghost for more information about Madison, but Queenie and Nan, afraid of releasing the murderous spirit, wisely opt out of a second seance. The youngest witch goes it alone, and the spirit board gives her the clue ATTIC. Up in the attic Zoe finds walls of creepy babydolls, and then Madison’s overly ripe, one-armed corpse. Spalding (Denis O’Hare) grabs Zoe from behind, but she easily gets out of his grasp and knocks him out with one of his precious porcelain dolls.
The girls tie the “twisted tea-serving necrophiliac” up to a chair and torture a confession out of him. Spalding hides Fiona’s deeds and takes full responsibility for Madison’s death, saying that he killed her just to have sex with her dead body. He also mocks them, saying that if they go to the police it would bring disaster down on the coven. In retaliation Queenie uses her power to burn half of his cheek off with a red-hot spatula. Zoe doubts the veracity of his confession, but as of yet she doesn’t peg Fiona.
Instead, she travels to Misty Day (Lily Rabe)’s swampy sanctuary for help. Misty has been busy with the recently resurrected Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy), buried under a mound of mud, and the returning FrankenKyle (Evan Peters) Monster. Misty tries giving Kyle a bath, but doing this causes him to have visions of his incestuous mother. He has a fit of rage, smashing a chair and Misty’s 8-track player (along with her Stevie Nicks tape) in the process. Fortunately, Zoe arrives just in time to soothe the savage beast, and takes them both back to the mansion.
Kyle gets chained up while Zoe and Misty perform a ritual to bring Madison back to life. They reattached her arm, and then literally push the death out of her corpse. Out pops a mouthful of blood and a single cockroach, but Madison sits up, coughing, and says, “I need a cigarette.” Afterwards, Zoe decides to keep Madison a secret from Fiona. Misty raids the kitchen, but declines staying with the coven, saying that “she’s got bad vibes, real bad” about something foul in the house.
Meanwhile, Fiona receives chemotherapy, but she is plagued not just by cancer, but also by the thoughts of the other patients in the hospital room. Suddenly she has acquired the power of mind reading! This new power freaks her out, and she tries to leave, ripping the IV from her arm to squelch the others’ thoughts. She says that her daughter Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) needs her more than ever before, and that she’s only doing the cancer treatment for her. Of course, Fiona shows a bit more selfishness when she says that she just wants one more great love affair in her life. In order to comfort herself, she placates the others in the treatment room, easing the worries on their minds.
Blind Cordelia, using a white cane, arrives home with her husband Hank (Josh Hamilton) to find that Fiona has specially prepared her room for her. Cordelia finally has a bit of an edge to her character. She chides her mother for furnishing her room with the wrong type of flowers — “roses pull in love and romance, but that’s not what [she’s] looking for . . . [she] needs chrysanthemums for strength and protection.” She has another vision of her cheating scumbag of a husband, and says that he “will be accountable for every single betrayal.” After Hank leaves, Cordelia has a vision of Fiona burning Myrtle Snow at the stake. Fiona maintains that Snow committed the acid attack on her, but Cordelia knows that isn’t true.
Hank ends up going straight to Cornrows City, where he has a powwow with Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett). In an interesting turn of a events, it seems that Hank is a ‘professional witchhunter’ hired by Laveau to take out not just the coven, but all of the descendants of the original Salem witches. Which is what he has been doing — in a flashback Hank is seen spying on Cordelia while interviewing Kaylee (Alexandra Breckenridge), the redhead whom he shot in the head two episodes ago. Hank cites her death, as well as eight others, as proof that he hasn’t gone soft. Bassett delivers an excellently acted monologue and with simmering anger rants about the coven witches disrespecting her, Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) being dug-up, and Fiona’s beheading of her beloved Minotaur. Laveau gives Hank an ultimatum, she’ll have either the heads of all the witches in the coven, or his.
However, it is not Hank who poses a threat to his wife, but the spirit of the Axeman. He had been promised release from Zoe, but she reneged on that, so now the vengeful spirit threatens Cordelia to call the others to release him.
At the same time in another room, Madison is being questioned by Zoe, Nan, and Queenie. The previously deceased witch doesn’t remember the circumstances surrounding her death, just the color red, and then black forever. Cordelia’s screams draw the living witches away. On the other side of a locked door, Cordelia blindly flees from her stalker, who relishes in chopping up the furniture. The lights cut out and jazz music fills the house. The three girls run down to the library, where Zoe is drawn to a book that will release the Axeman from his after-life imprisonment in the house. After the spell is said, all of the candles in the house flare up and they are able to get to Cordelia.
The next shot shows the Axeman, leaving the house, going out the front gate, and then arriving at a jazz bar to buy a gal a drink. And who is that gal? Why, it’s the Witch Supreme Fiona Goode.
The next episode is the halfway point of the season. I’m still not exactly sure how things are going to shape up for the second half of Coven’s run. There will be two factions against Fiona. Laveau’s voodoo sect along with Hank and Misty & Myrtle. I honestly don’t see someone like Laveau teaming up with the other two witches, but she may end up trying to use them in her schemes against the coven. There are two wildcards — Cordelia and Zoe. Cordelia did not approve of her mom killing Myrtle, but I honestly can’t see her turning against Fiona. While she is angry at her mom, she has a stronger connection to the coven than to possibly betraying it to Hank and Laveau. Zoe, I think, suspects Fiona. While Queenie is clearly in Fiona’s pocket now, Zoe has had more meaningful interactions with outsider Misty Day. Also, she has one of the witches most traumatized by Myrtle’s execution. However, she does proclaim to have the coven’s best interests in mind and wants the race of witches to be preserved for future generations.
The confrontation between Laveau and Fiona should be epic when it finally arrives, but I think that Fiona will have some other pesky things to deal with before then. She will probably feel the betrayal of a lover in the form of the Axeman. Would this bring her closer to her love-spurned daughter? I think that the Supreme will also have to reckon with Luke’s over-bearing Christian mom again in the future.
I have no doubt that Hank will have his head end up on someone’s platter, but whether that is Fiona’s, Cordelia’s or Laveau’s I’m not sure. Perhaps he may even try to get with Zoe and be fucked to death!
One of the things that I didn’t really like too much about AHS‘s first season was how much power it gave the spirits. They were dead, but essentially could act in any way a living person could. In my opinion their spiritness needed to be tempered with a limitation to their physical interactions with living characters. Coven obviously has taken a different route in dealing with the dead characters until now, but I hope that the Axeman gets some sort of demonic explanation rather than just being a disembodied ghost. On that note, I thought that Danny Huston was excellent in his role as a murderous madman. His facial expressions and mannerisms reminded me a bit of Laura Palmer’s killer in Twin Peaks.
I laughed out loud when Fiona called Hank jughead.
Additionally, this line from Bassett got a laugh too: “You think I did that? I look like the Taliban to you?”
Kathy Bates was conspicuous by her absence. I’m sure she will pop up next week, and it will be interesting where he allegiances lie concerning Fiona and the rest of the coven.
I was never a big Stevie Nicks fan before, but I’ve been digging her tunes in this season.
Next week, Fiona has one more great love affair with the Axeman in “The Dead.”
Although the graphic sights and sounds of the horror movies glisten more vibrantly than the written word, the Halloween season is a great time to revisit horror fiction. One of my perennial favorites to read this time of the year is Edgar Allan Poe, whom no genre fan is a stranger towards. Poe was not just a superb storyteller in the realm of horror, but his work stands as that of a master craftsman in the (relatively new for his time) art of the short story. Just as movies have tighter narratives and less lag than a serialized, weekly TV programs (see The Walking Dead’s second season), so too is a short story is able to vividly portray a terrorific jolt while remaining in the confines of a few pages. This shorter form constricts the writer to a more economical with his words than a novelist. But, while it meant that Poe’s stories would be stripped any superfluous language, the essential details would remain clear and a singular chilling moment would be distilled to haunt the reader’s imagination.
A perfect example Poe’s craftsmanship and economy of language is “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which at a mere 2000 thousand odd words, is short and to the point. Now, while the tale’s brevity may make it more appealing to modern readers, what makes this an effective horror story that has stood the test of time is Poe’s pacing and use of repetition in his writing. Although some of Poe’s other stories, such as “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat,” would also feature murderous narrators retelling their evil deeds, it is my opinion that “The Tell-Tale Heart” establishes this maniacal fiend not only the best in Poe’s body of work, but probably in the entire canon of dark fiction.
Before diving into what makes “The Tell-Tale Heart” tick, have a look at the story’s opening paragraph:
TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
Again, the two key elements that make this story so effective — pacing and repetition — are both present from the opening lines. From the onset — from the very first word — the pacing is quick. This narrator’s mind and heart is racing, and the reader speeds along with him, not only because of the words that Poe chooses — “nervous/dreadfully/disease/sharpened” — but also because of the internal rhythm of the sentences he constructs. Each word is a short explosion — a hammering — punctuated only by the next. This is not some Lovecraftian lugubrious and slowly unfolding story, this is Edgar Allan Poe at his most frenetic and fanatical. Consider how the exclamation point after the first word bursts forth from the page. Consider how the next word — nervous — is not recited simply as a matter of fact, but as a condition of being. No one calmly says that they feel nervous, no, this word bounces off the page as an actor, or a murder would actually speak it. There is a stuttering in this text, but it further serves to quicken the pace. Read the next word — very — and there is a comma afterwards telling you to stop, to slow down, but that is all too much as you are already sucked in. The words move more quickly now, pausing only momentarily at the semicolon, and then racing off to the question mark, where, despite the narrator’s pleas to be considered mentally sound, the reader has likely already reached the sobering realization that he is unreliable, if not altogether off his rocker. The second sentence continues this frantic pace, all while reaffirming to the reader that this man, claiming to have been imbued with superhuman hearing following an act of murder, is certifiably insane.
It isn’t just punctuation or word order that contributes to the quickened pace, but also the very words themselves. All of them are short. In this opening paragraph there is not a single word longer than three syllables. Neither the narrator’s, nor the reader’s heart is at rest, and neither can simply plod through the text. These are hearts under stress, and although the shorter syllabic structure makes the reading more rhythmic, it also serves to speed things up. The narrator’s palpitations are palpable to the reader because of Poe’s control over the pacing of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Naturally, Poe pulls back as he eases into the rest of the story, but it is interesting to note how he starts this tale with the same heart-pounding pace as the horrific reveal at the finish.
As with pacing, repetition is something that Poe could could use very, very effectively — see “The Raven,” and especially, “The Bells.” In “The Tell-Tale Heart” the first sentence contains repetition of the words ‘very’ and ‘nervous.’ Our dear narrator isn’t just nervous — he isn’t even just very nervous — he is nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous. Poe’s repetition isn’t confined to just repeating words, as starting from the second line Poe uses a repeating sentence construction: not destroyed –not dulled and continues on with repetitious sentences: I heard all things … I heard many things. What does this repetition serve? It ties the reader closer to the subject matter as we are compelled to feel as the narrator feels. We are hearing the same thing, in our head, over and over again, just as the narrator is hearing, over and over again, incessantly, maddeningly, that beating of the dead man’s heart.
Poe’s language heightens the reader’s sense of awareness as one falls in line with the narrator’s speech pattern. This is deliberate, to make your heart speed up and to make you short of breath with the heavy H sounds in the last few lines of the opening. Speak them out loud yourself. These are heavy, breathy sounds — hearken, how healthily, whole story — and they serve to slow the pace as the narrator, and you the reader catch your breath from the fantastic opening of the story.
And what a story it is! “The Tell-Tale Heart” is as archetypal and influential as any other in the genre of horror. This horrific Halloween holiday season, I would urge you to get back the roots of horror and rediscover one of the monumental pillars of the genre (and all of fiction). Go and pull your Poe off of your bookshelf (any self-respecting horror fan ought to own a tome!) and revisit “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Or you can read a copy of it online here.
Finally, check out this wonderful animated version of the story narrated by James Mason. His rendition of the madman is strikingly similar to the one in my head! Be warned though, that even though it is excellently rendered and recited, this story is slightly abridged from Poe’s original masterpiece.