Black Christmas (Shudder)

No writer-director in the history of film has shown as versatile a knack for anticipating film trends as Canada’s Bob Clark. His 1979 film Murder By Decree pitted Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper in a scenario that anticipated the fascination with “mash-ups” (though that phrase was not yet invented) and cinematic psycho-killers that continues to this day. His youth-and-sex comedy Porky’s followed closely behind 1979’s Animal House to achieve similar success. In 1983, he made A Christmas Story, which has since joined It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol as a rock-solid perennial holiday favorite. But of particular interest to us here is one of his earliest successes, that anticipated many of the standard tropes that would be credited to the slasher films of the ‘80s: 1974’s Black Christmas.

The featured players in Black Christmas include Art Hindle (Cronenberg’s The Brood), Andrea Martin (SCTV) and John Saxon (Enter The Dragon, Tenebrae, Nightmare on Elm Street). In the three lead roles were Keir Dullea (who would seek a role to overshadow his portrayal of an explorer of inner and outer space in 2001: A Space Odyssey for all of his career), Margot Kidder (fresh from critical and popular success as conjoined twins in Brian De Palma’s Sisters, and with Superman’s Lois Lane and Amityville Horror still well ahead of her) and Olivia Hussey (Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and later to play the Holy Mother in Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth). I can think of only one other slasher movie to boast as talented a cast: 1982's Alone in the Dark.

Plot devices that are used quite well in Black Christmas wound up so overused in the late ‘70s and throughout the ‘80s that nowadays they provide more amusement when used as a drinking game (recognize a trope; other players must name an ‘80s movie that used it.) To go into plot details here would ruin the game. Just remember: play responsibly!


Anna and The Apocalypse (Hulu)

“No time for weakness when the undead are waitin’
Tool up, get out there and start decapitatin’…
When it comes to killing zombies, I’m the top of my class
While you’ve been hiding, I’ve been kicking some ass.”

These are not the best lyrics in the Christmas-zombie-musical film, Anna and the Apocalypse, nor are they the worst. Like everything in this movie – the music, the script, the splatter effects, the acting, and on and on -- they are mediocre, just wallowing in their neither-good-nor-badness. Like so many who have attempted to make an enjoyably bad movie, the filmmakers miss a key point: bad film is not achieved by lack of effort. Any really good bad movie is bursting at the seams with sincere good-faith effort and the sort of good intentions that pave the Highway to Hell. Just look at any Ed Wood movie, or any of the riper efforts of Nic Cage. Why bother with Anna and the Apocalypse, when you can watch The Apple again instead?


 

A Christmas Horror Story (Prime Video)

In the few years since its release, A Christmas Horror Story has gathered sufficient praise by word-of-mouth and the web to join the ranks of holiday classics. Though its not as polished as Gremlins, and it lacks the star power of Black Christmas, William Shatner, as a Christmastime deejay whose own story provides the movie with a connecting thread, serves well as the star atop this holiday tree. 

Of the four stories that comprise the film, the first is the weakest; it concerns a group of teenagers investigating a crime that the authorities never properly investigated, and they find themselves locked in a high school's basement, forced to confront a wrathful ghost. 

The second story is the most expertly made of the bunch, the most professionally shot and acted. A family visits the woods to select a Christmas tree, trespassing on private property at the father’s insistence.  Both parents are momentarily freaked when their son wanders off, but the missing boy is soon found. Things seem normal...but the boy’s behavior is not.

In the third story, a family visits their Aunt Edda, despite their dislike for her. During their visit, one of the kids breaks a figurine of Krampus, the treacherous “anti-Santa” who deals punishment to misbehaving children; Edda demands they leave her home and, after their car breaks down, they find themselves stalked by a monstrous, unforgiving Krampus.

All the disparate story threads are woven together in the final story, making the singular title appropriate despite the multiple stories, and providing a rousing finish in which Santa faces off with Krampus, even as he deals with elves transformed into a horde of the living dead.

The film is brimming with enough first-rate ideas to make it a must-see, even if it weren’t competently made. The fact that it’s well-made is purely a bonus. 

 

All The Creatures Were Stirring (Shudder)

A Christmas Horror Story set a high bar for all Christmas-themed horror anthology films to follow it, and we’d be foolishly optimistic to expect such a high standard to be quickly met. All The Creatures Were Stirring doesn’t meet the strengths of the 2015 film, but it does have its inspired moments, and an overall gloss of enthusiasm for the genre that helps to maintain the viewer’s enthusiasm through its occasional weaker moments.

Jenna (Ashley Clements) meets Max (Graham Skipper) outside of a theater on Christmas Eve; the marquee reads, “All The Creatures Were Stirring.” Neither know what the play is about, but since they are “orphans” sharing a familyless holiday, they decide to give it a try. A disinterested theater staff takes their tickets, and a title-card announces the first story, “All The Stockings Were Hung.”

Actors on the stage mimic office work, which dissolves to an office where story one is set. In the story, a group of office workers are compelled to participate in a gift-giving game, a “secret Santa” game with a difference. You may either keep the gift you are given, or choose to “steal” another player’s gift. When the second round of the game proves fatal, the stakes, of course, are instantly raised.

The second story is introduced by another on-stage title-card, “Dash Away All.” Actors mime holiday shopping, as we dissolve to Eric (Matt Long) carrying his purchases from a department store to his car in the parking lot. By a series of mishaps he locks himself out of the car, while his phone is locked in. He turns for help to a pair of bystanders in a parked van, Sasha (Catherine Parker) and Frankie (Makeda Declet), who allow him to use their phone to call roadside assistance. Eric comes to suspect the pair are up to something. Suffice to say that they are.

The next segment, “All Through The House,” revolves around holiday hater Chet (Jonathan Kite), who is having trouble finding anything other than tired holiday “classics” on his cable service. The parallels and direct rip-offs from the Dickens classic are too numerous to mention, making this the least original of the tales, but its status as a parody excuses that shortcoming, especially when it successfully scores a laugh, which it does more often than not.

The segment “Arose Such A Clatter” seems perfunctory; Guy (Mark Kelly), a photographer, is looking over some of his work as he drives home. His distracted driving causes him to collide with a reindeer; after a quick cleanup, he drives away; the camera lingers at the scene, finding a halter with the name “Blitzen.”

Arriving at home, Guy is greeted by his sweetheart Suzy (Megan Duffy); soon thereafter they are attacked and killed by the vengeful Blitzen.

“In A Twinkling” is the strangest piece, and some will name it their favorite. Like classic Rod Serling, it puts everyday life through a bizarre filter, taking it to its logical extreme. Steve (Morgan Peter Brown) is determined to spend Christmas alone. By his determination, we know he has a good reason for this, though we’re given no clue what that might be, when his friend Gabby (Constance Wu) decides to spring a Christmas surprise on him. A surprise that puts Steve and Gabby on a collision course with…let’s call it The Kooky Zone.

The final stage presentation, “And To All A Good Night,” provides the wraparound for the anthology, and since there really isn’t much to it, I’ll spare you.

All in all, it may not make for the most memorable of holiday cinema experiences, but I think most will count it as one hour and twenty minutes worth spending.

 

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In the 1970s, while working in the distribution department of a major book publisher, Robert Martin enrolled in a writer’s workshop conducted by Henry Beard, one of the founders of National Lampoon magazine, and Anthony Hiss, an editor at The New Yorker.

With their training, and a resume that (falsely) claimed a Liberal Arts degree from Brown University, along with some freelance writing samples from newspapers and “men’s entertainment” magazines, he gained the assignment from the publishers of STARLOG magazine to edit their new sister magazine, FANGORIA. By emulating the horror film magazines that he loved, The Monster Times and Castle of Frankenstein in particular, he was able to make FANGORIA the most successful magazine of its kind in publishing history. After leaving the editor’s chair in 1986, he began working with his most admired filmmaker, Frank Henenlotter, first adapting Henenlotter's screenplay Brain Damage into a short novel, then co-writing the screenplays for the films Frankenhooker and Basket Case 3. He now lives in semi-retirement in Las Vegas, Nevada.