Monday, November 26, 2012

Black Christmas (1974)

... aka: Noël tragique
... aka: Silent Night, Evil Night
... aka: Stop Me
... aka: Stranger in the House

Directed by:
Bob Clark

Depending on whether you believe "slasher," as a film categorization, applies only to post-HALLOWEEN films or not (many do), Black Christmas can either be seen as one of the most important slasher films of all time, or one of the most important proto-slashers (non-slashers that clearly influenced the later subgenre, i.e. Mario Bava's BAY OF BLOOD). Regardless of how you want to class it, it's well deserving of its reputation as a very good, highly influential film. The premise set down by writer Roy Moore is a rather simplistic one. Young women in a sorority house around Christmastime are harassed by an obscene phone caller who seems to be speaking in multiple voices and makes scary pig noises / crying sounds. Over the course of the next few days (while most of their house mates are gone on break), the caller gets inside, hides out in the attic and periodically sneaks downstairs to pick them off one by one. Just like with Carpenter's aforementioned genre-defining classic (which Christmas predates by four years), it's really the execution that makes the difference, not the plot.

Olivia Hussey (who was well-known for playing the female half of Franco Zefferelli's ROMEO AND JULIET [1968] at the time) gets star billing as nice sorority sister Jess. However, bucking the moralistic trend of later slasher flicks, this nice girl happens to be sexually active and plans on getting an abortion because she wants to sever ties with the potential father; intense and possibly unhinged music student Peter (Keir Dullea). The attempt to set up Peter as a possible suspect (the obscene caller makes abortion references and a silhouette of the killer has a similar hairstyle) is one aspect of Christmas that doesn't really work all that well. Since it's more of a mood piece than a traditional mystery, it's not even really important who the killer is; something the ambiguous ending just further accentuates. That also means we don't really care much about the multiple scenes set at the police station (where genre legend John Saxon oversees a rather inept investigation), as well as the parallel crime of a high school girl raped and murdered which may or may not be the work of the sorority house killer. Both of which just seem to distract attention away from where it should be.

There's a surprising amount of comedy here, which is effectively used to lighten the mood. Hussey and Dullea are adequate in their roles (though the way Hussey answers the phone [HELLO!! PARDON!! WHO!?!] has always driven me up the wall!), but the two most memorable characters are the ones used to provide much of the humor; ones played by Marian Waldman and Margot Kidder. Waldman's character Mrs. Mac is a drunken, vulgar house mother who hides bottles of booze throughout the sorority house in the strangest of places, including in a hollowed-out bible and in the back of a toilet! Kidder gives perhaps the film's best performance as a nasty, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, heavy-drinking bitch who gives little kids alcohol and decides to tell a grieving father (James Edmond) whose daughter may be dead a story about going to the zoo to watch animals hump. Andrea Martin (then known for her comedic skills as part of SCTV but playing it completely straight here), Art Hindle (who later appeared in such highly-regarded genre films as the excellent remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and Cronenberg's THE BROOD), Lynne Griffin (from the slasher CURTAINS) and Nick Mancuso (who provided some of the telephone voices) round out a solid cast.

Director Bob Clark manages to provide several wonderfully-timed jump scares (particularly one where the killer's hand emerges from off-screen to grab Hussey by the hair), but much of the scare factor here actually comes in the form of eerie individual shots. Cinematographer Reginald H. Morris hardly ever seems to get credit for his work and for providing some of this film's very best moments. One of the key images here is one of the victims; mouth gaped open in shock from under plastic, sitting in a rocking chair in the attic and positioned in front of a window. The image is iconic not so much in what it technically is, but the way it looks because of how it's lit and photographed (using several different viewpoints from both inside and outside the home). Some of the film's creepiest moments are ones where only the killer's eye can be seen; before he makes use of a glass unicorn on a sleeping Kidder and peering from behind the door at Hussey right after she's discovered the bodies of several of her friends. These shots were obviously inspired by a similar shot in the suspense classic THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945) and they're used very well here. Cameraman Albert J. Dunk also did a great job with the killer POV shots, utilizing an over-the-shoulder harness to capture a jerky, creepy effect.

Some may feel my rating should be a notch higher, but this does miss the mark on true excellence by just a hair for me personally. Too many extraneous scenes - and too many unnecessary detours along the way - bog it down a little bit. They also don't help matters when it comes to re-watch value. Once you've seen the film a time or two and know where it's going you'll probably realize it. Still, the creepy moments retain every bit of their potentcy all of these years later and that's something to really be commended.

First released to U.S. theaters under the title Silent Night, Evil Night, the film underperformed at the box office until the title was changed back to Black Christmas. Bette Davis, Gilda Radner and Malcolm McDowell were all offered roles but each turned them down. Edmond O'Brien had to drop out of the role Saxon ended up playing due to illness.

The 2006 "remake" of Christmas (directed by Glen Morgan) didn't even bother trying to be suspenseful, atmospheric or scary and just went straight for gore and camp. It's already forgotten.


Brainsucker, The (1988)

... aka: Brain Sucker

Directed by:
Herb Robins

Sitting through this entire video (distributed by bottom rung label Raedon) hurt my soul. And it didn't hurt so good either. First off, I need to confess that I had tried watching this at least three times in the past and found the first ten minutes so insufferably annoying I kept turning it off. Since then it has spent over 2 years hibernating on my computer's hard drive. I was finally sick of skipping over it. Sick of looking at the title all of the time. Sick of knowing deep down in the back of my mind it was there... in my life... No matter what I did or where I was at, a nagging voice in my head kept reminding me... "The Brainsucker is still with you... waiting to be watched... hogging up valuable space... making your computer run just a little bit slower..." I needed to finally rid myself of it. Instead of calling in an exorcist, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, grabbed some ibuprofen, bit down on my lip and pressed play... I was going to do it this time, dammit! I was going to finish The Brainsucker if it killed me. If for no other reason, the world deserves a warning. And hey, maybe it would actually improve after the first ten minutes. Stranger things have happened.

Max (Jonathan Middleman) is arrested for shoplifting for the fifth time in a week and taken before a screaming judge who has just sentenced a Rastafarian to probation for publicly passing gas. He calls Max an "amoeba" and a "cockroach" before a disfigured hunchback named Kutz (Dan Bush) comes to his aid. The hunchback slobbers, sticks out his tongue, speaks in a highly irritating and often unintelligible accent and offers the judge an arrangement: let Max go into his custody so they can perform behavior modification experiments on him and he'll never have to deal with him again. Since this film doesn't take place in the real world, the judge agrees. The hunchback then drugs Max's drink, wraps him in a rug and drags him back to his mad doctor boss Professor Klotz's laboratory. Klotz (Ralph Farrar) wants to create the first "completely positive super human being." His cardboard machine (which has a Frisch's Big Boy head on it) has two settings: "Good" and "Evil." He sets it on "Good" and leaves the room. The hunchback enters and turns the knob to "Evil" instead.

Soon after, Max lapses out of his very good and very evil personas. He steals some clear tubing and a corkscrew from the lab and runs off, swearing vengeance on the whole city for his predicament. He finally comes to the conclusion that he wants to suck out everyone's brains and starts with a couple of bikers who harass him. Max then pays a visit to his loving mother (Gay Nathan), who blames him for driving the love of her life away. She tells him "I should have killed you at birth!" and adds "I should have let them help make antitoxin for hook-and-mouth disease out of you or something!" (??) Max moves on to a hotel. Since he's saved up a few hundred dollars, he's able to rent out the Presidential Suite and he poses as a psychiatrist named "Mr. Suck." He lures a hooker, an old woman and her priest son back to his room, sucks out their brains and then hangs their bodies up in the closet. An actress named Joanna (Marjorie Morris) stops by and Max decides he likes her enough to let her live and begins dating her.

Max drags Joanne to a party, where he de-brains a slutty socialite (Judith Cameron) while she gives him head in the hot tub. He then takes Joanne to a drive-in theater and kills a virginal teenage girl in the bathroom while she sits on a toilet. Perplexed by the sudden outbreak in murders, Inspector Peugeot (Dave Stevens) calls in Detective Howard Kropotsky (the director) to help solve the case. The finale takes place at an airport, where the movie suddenly and desperately tries to convince of its deeper meaning! Oh, I'm sure it all made sense in Mr. Robins' mind.

Shot with a camcorder around the Santa Fe, New Mexico area by the director of THE WORM EATERS (1977), who had also acted in several Ray Dennis Steckler films, this is amateurishly made, horribly edited and acted, has what is probably the most irritating theme song ever ("Brainsucker Rap"), is full of continuity errors and has sets and costumes so tacky they'd have been rejected by John Waters. Some lines of dialogue are repeated for no good reason, boom mikes are visible several times and during one scene I swear you can hear the director or cameraman talking in the background. The untalented cast flub their lines, overact, talk directly at the camera, scream all of their dialogue at the top of their lungs or speak in often unintelligible fake accents. But as stupid, technically inept, annoying and terrible as this whole thing is, I guarantee you won't see another movie quite like it. This thing is weird and then some.

Now into the dark abyss of my recycling bin you go, Brainsucker. Never to be seen again.


Family Reunion (1989)

Directed by:
Michael Hawes

Around Christmastime every single year Tom Andrews (Mel Novak) has the same nightmare. In it, a cult of devil worshippers are about to sacrifice a baby named Matthew when an armed posse of townsfolk bust in and shoot them all to death with a rifle. Tom, along with his psychiatrist wife Kathy (Pam Phillips), his bitchy teenage daughter Erin (Kaylin Cool), his prankster son Billy (A.J. Woods) and his reluctant, chain-smoking father Henry (John Andes), who has a heart condition, load up their station wagon and plan on setting out to visit Kathy's parents for the holidays. But first, Tom decides to swing by the small, abandoned town of Sutterville because Billy really wants to see an honest-to-goodness ghost town. On the way there, they pass a few cops who've just arrested a strange young man named Clarence (Ken Corey) who's just used his telepathic powers to assault one of them. A brief discussion with Officer Mel (Brad Kelly) reveals that Sutterville hasn't really been occupied since 1948, when 40 years ago the townspeople were reputed to be involved in black magic and thirteen coven members were killed... just like in Tom's dream.

Because of the vagrancy problem and his family getting restless from the drive, Tom decides to turn his car around and skip on Sutterville. Unfortunately, Clarence uses his powers to make the accelerator stick on the car, which delivers the family to the town, anyway. A ghost girl shows up to inform little Billy that his "... Grandpa is to blame" and gives him a pentagram necklace. Erin finds herself trapped inside their car with a rattlesnake. Grandpa Henry is awfully defensive about something and Tom gets bad headaches and starts snapping at his family members. Their luggage disappears and someone steals the battery out of the car, stranding everyone there. Meanwhile, at the nearby police station, the officers who've arrested Clarence discover his fingerprints match those of someone born in 1925 and who supposedly died in 1948. Clarence uses his powers to cause havoc. He knocks a policewoman hanging Christmas lights off a ladder, makes the entire station shake and kills his cellmate (an obnoxious skinhead) and paints "Merry Christmas" on the walls with his blood. After forcing officer Charlie (special guest star Jack Starrett) to shoot himself in the head, Clarence steals a motorcycle and heads back to Sutterville... just in time for a "family reunion."

Judging by the fact there are currently less than 30 votes for this on IMDb, it appears that not many people have actually seen this one. Poor distribution over the years may explain that. It's not terrible. Actually, the production values are quite good and it's rather slickly made. Usually these unseen movies are extremely cheap, but this one appears to have had a reasonable budget. The director does a nice job setting up some of the horror scenes and with the desolate desert atmosphere, plus uses an excellent shooting location for the ghost town. The biggest problem is that the writing is dull and the plot is extremely predictable. About half the movie seems to be the family standing around outside talking and the scenes at the police station with Clarence using his powers to cause various problems are far more interesting and entertaining than the scenes with the family. The film also gets sloppy as it starts to reach its conclusion and doesn't do an adequate job really explaining things. The fate of the grandfather character is also strangely left up in the air, as he just seems to disappear at the end.

The acting isn't great, but it's not awful either. Corey, in particular, does a good job in his role. You can tell the director / writer Hawes was strongly influenced by CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984); the Stephen King adaptation that evokes glowing nostalgic praise from some people but in reality pretty much sucks. For starters, the abandoned rural ghost town in the middle of nowhere, but also the youthful, creepy Satanist dressed in Amish garb. Instead of "He Who Walks Behind the Rows," the cult here want to call forth "He Who Shall Lead Us Into Battle." And there are other similiarities.

First Look issued this on VHS many moons ago and in 2000 it was released on DVD by Image. Apparently nobody cared either way.

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