Dec 22, 2012

CHRISTMAS 5


Ah, Christmas. The time to suffer the obligations of gift-buying, family-seeing, traffic-enduring, and other such unavoidable traditions that go along with said day. And after the turkey or seven fishes or whatever Christmas food staple nestles warmly in your tummy, the inevitable will happen: You will plop on the couch, flip on the tube, and you will have three options: watch 24 hours of A Christmas Story, 24 hours of Scrooged, or 24 hours of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Or…you could try something different. Consider these five alternative films to enjoy during the Merry Yuletide whatever.



GREMLINS

It’s Christmastime in Gremlinstown, and the snow is falling like insane crazy. So much snow falls in this film that it almost feels like it takes place on another planet, and when poor Zach Galligan is unable to start his VW Bug that looks like a gigantic marshmallow, you can almost feel the biting cold nipping at your nose…and every other part of you. But it is Christmas, after all, and one present in particular is going to change his life: Gizmo, the adorable Mogwai who can purr, sing, dance, and spawn monsters out of his back.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A traveling salesman buys a mystical animal from a funny little shop for his son for Christmas. The animal, a Mogwai, is not to be fed after midnight, is not to touch water, and is not to be exposed to bright light. If any of those things happen, all hell will break loose. Well, hell does break loose: Old crippled women are thrown out windows and science teachers are stabbed to death with syringes.

You know! For kids!

Here’s the thing about Joe Dante: While he and his colleagues Spielberg and Lucas became famous for their films that danced in the nether regions between PG and R (it was Temple of Doom that gave the world the PG-13 rating) before moving on to a more distinct age group, Dante never really left. His films have consistently been way too dark for PG/PG-13, yet still lighthearted enough not to be saddled with the R. The 'Burbs, Gremlins, and even his most recent effort The Hole all exist in such an unsellable place (by Hollywood standards) that studios don’t even know what to do with him. In this day and age, films that should be R are neutered down one rating lower. The Die Hard and Alien series come to mind. Because it’s easy to market films with a clear idea of a rating. But Joe Dante consistently blows the lid off that establishment, almost with mischievous glee, happy to remain in that oblivion-like rating of PG-15½.

People die like whoa in Gremlins. And the gremlins themselves are boiled, burned, fried, exploded, and chopped into bits. Chunky gore flies every which way, and you can't help but feel conflicted that you're enjoying a film with so much viscera juxtaposed against the fucking adorable Gizmo.

But this is Dante's playground, after all.

Christmas Lesson: Don’t buy mystical animals from the Chinese.


 

BLACK CHRISTMAS

This is one I appreciate more and more every time I watch it. The first time I saw it, I knew very little about it. I was expecting a cheesy flick about a stupid gimmicky killer riding the coat tails of Michael Myers, a la April Fool's Day or New Year's Evil. I expected heads rolling down steps and candy canes shoved into eyes. I was ready to love it because of the so-bad-it’s-good mentality.

But Bob Clark’s 1976 Canadian thriller (pre-dating Halloween by two years) is actually pretty classy, not terribly violent, and especially eerie. Simple and uneventful though they may be, the opening credits as the camera hovers on the front of the sorority house, and as a very somber choral version of “Silent Night” plays, it’s so effortlessly ominous that it always sticks out in my head. This is one title I make sure to watch every year, and when I slide the DVD into my player and let it rest on the main menu for a tad, that same eerie rendition of “Silent Night” fills my house and gives me goosebumps.

For those not in the know, Black Christmas tells the tale of a sorority house assaulted by perverted and threatening phone calls from an unknown person. Though the first phone call of the film is shocking to us, seems as if they’ve been getting them for some time. Most of the girls, including the incredibly cute Olivia Hussey, thinks it's disturbing, but another – a very young and pre-insane Margot Kidder – acts indignant about the whole thing. Plus she drinks a lot.

College!

My favorite thing about Black Christmas, other than the very confined setting and actual attempt at setting up as many motives as possible, is the ending. Ambiguous endings often rile up audiences, but us horror fiends hardly ever get one. More than anything we get cheap, last-second “twists” that insinuate the problem our protagonists spent the last 90 minutes trying to solve hasn’t actually gone away. And the end of Black Christmas isn’t just ambiguous, but it punches you in the face with how unresolved the story is left.

Take that, ADD-addled modern audiences. Speaking of, see the remake! I think heads explode or something! (I’m just kidding – don’t see the remake.)

Christmas Lesson: If someone calls you on Christmas, tells you it’s Billy, and then calls you a fucking cunt, just tell them you’re Jewish.


 

INSIDE
If I had a nickel for every time an insane women tried to break into my apartment and cut my baby out of me with a pair of scissors…

The French, man. We like to laugh at them and call them frogs and make fun of their fey men, but they do not fuck around when it comes to horror. I have seen an awful lot over the years. I am not the type of hardcore splatter fiend in that I will watch Z-grade gore films where people are disemboweled, but I like to think I have a pretty strong stomach. After all, I came out of Cannibal Holocaust somewhat disturbed but relatively unscathed.

Inside, though…is fucked up. It’s so absurd and gonzo that it transcends violence into cartoon territory before heading back to violence again. You don’t know whether to laugh, scream, or physically hold yourself as you witness the torture bestowed upon poor Sarah by her attacker.

It’s Christmas Eve. Sarah, recently widowed, is at home and very pregnant. There are rioters in the street setting cars on fire and creating all-around havoc (for reasons never made clear, though the country in actuality was besieged by “civil unrest” at that time). Unfortunately this will keep the police rather busy when Sarah begins to call for help…when that mysterious figure makes their appearance and begins to terrorize her…getting worse with each attack.

It builds to something very bloody, very disturbing, and very fucked.

Though I love Inside, I’ve only watched it once. Part of me believes I don’t have the balls to sit through it again. Maybe that will change this Christmas…but I doubt it.

Christmas Lesson: Don’t be pregnant at Christmas.


 

CHILD’S PLAY

As a child, I knew Child’s Play 2 and 3 by heart. It wasn’t soon after when Bride of Chucky came out, and I adopted it into the “watching them over and over” club, which also contained several chapters of Friday the 13th and Savini’s remake of Night of the Living Dead.

So then what to my wandering eyes should appear, a commercial for TNT’s now-defunct "Monstervision" airing the first Child’s Play the approaching Saturday night. Somehow never having seen it, I popped in my tape to add it to the collection and off I went, expecting bad puns, Chucky’s way-too-quick footsteps running all around, and his use of very unorthodox weapons to dispatch his victims.

I can’t say I was prepared for what I saw. And now, as an adult who can appreciate the craft and suspense of the genre over the cheap thrills and animatronics, I really wish I had seen the first film…you know…first. Because while it still is an effective and well-done little movie, the “more is more” approach the later sequels would take have rendered the original a little less surprising.

Child’s Play, again, take its time. You’re well into the second act before Chucky the doll commits his first doll murder, and we’re damn near into the third before he comes to life before our very eyes. Up until then, the movie tries its hand at suggesting that Karen Barclay’s son, Andy, is the one responsible for the murders and mayhem occurring in wintry Chicago. Of course, even though this was not a concept the film ran with long enough to make it a significant plot point, insofar as cluing in the audience but not the characters as to the “real” killer, knowledge of the later sequels in which the doll is very much alive renders this red herring pretty much obsolete. Still, it’s a nice touch, and showed an attempt to do something different. Chucky spends much of the pre-murders portion of the film waving, nodding, and asking if someone wants to play, using his fake Good Guy voice. This is all well and good and only minorly creepy in the sense that Chucky is fucking ugly, but after Andy’s constant claims that Chucky is responsible for all the wrongdoings, his mother tears open the hatch on Chucky’s back to see there are no batteries (OMG run!). It’s very creepy, and made even creepier when the doll’s head spins a 180 in her arms as she threatens to throw him into the roaring fireplace.

Child’s Play might have one ending too many, but it’s a minor classic that, like many iconic films which spawned a franchise, can sometimes be misremembered as being like all the rest.

Christmas Lesson: Don’t buy Christmas presents from the homeless. Seriously, I don’t care how much your kid wants something. Leave it be.


 

INVASION U.S.A.

 

Not horror, I know, but…try telling Chuck Norris he’s not welcome here. Besides, there are many reasons to include Invasion U.S.A. One, above all else: it is violent. Not in the sadistic sense (though the film pulls no punches) but in the sense that it’s constant, and hard-edged. Chuck Norris, while playing the hero, goes very much against type here. He doesn't defeat bad guys with a wink and a smile. Though he is doing the country a remarkable service and fighting back against terrorist oppression, he has, in a sense, become the killer. Like Michael Myers hiding in the shadows, he lunges out of nowhere and offs whoever’s nearby. In Commando, you see Arnold run up to a man to stab or shoot. In Invasion U.S.A., you see the opposition only. And then you see Chuck pop up and dismantle them permanently. It very much turns the table of the action hero and makes him very atypical. In one particular scene, in which a small group of terrorists tucked away in an alley is trying to detonate explosives inside a nearby church, it would seem they are experiencing some kind of technical difficulties...because the suitcase of explosives has somehow gone missing from the church's front steps, even though every single one of them had their eyes trained on that same spot. Chuck appears above them on top of a building.

“Not working, huh?” he asks and drops the explosives he has retrieved down on top of them. With barely restrained maniacal fury, he grits, “Now it will.” (Cue explosion.)

The look in his eye is near sociopathic. In fact, he looks completely out of his mind, as if there is no humanity left in him at all.

Make no mistake, every action star has their one film in which they kill a ridiculous amount of people in a ridiculous manner while truly epitomizing what we love about the bygone action genre, before, of course, Jason Statham and gigantic alien robots came along and changed the genre forever. For Arnold, that movie is Commando. For Van Damme, it’s Hard Target. And for Norris…Invasion U.S.A.

As far as our plot, Richard Lynch leads what appears to be the entire Russian army (and some Cubans!) across America, intent on invading and taking over the entire country on Christmas Eve, when most people will be saddled with food and drink, and completely distracted. I suppose because Russians are communists, and communists hate consumerism, and King Consumerism = Christmas?

No idea, really. But it doesn't matter – not when Lynch is firing a fucking bazooka through an outdoor Christmas tree and blowing up its occupying house...and then another...and another.

All seems to be going quite well, and it would seem taking over America is pretty easy stuff.

Not so fast.

What these Russkies didn’t count on…was Chuck Norris.

Invasion U.S.A. is directed by Joseph Zito, the man who brought us Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, The Prowler, and another Norris film, Missing in Action. Zito brings the unrelenting, slightly grimy edge to Invasion U.S.A. present in his other films. And from what I have read, Invasion U.S.A. has sold more video units for MGM to date than any other of its library titles…second only to Gone with the Wind.

My personal favorite part of this film is when main baddie Lynch suffers nightmares in which Chuck Norris kicks him in the face. He does not fear being killed or tortured by Chuck, mind you...but is terrified of being kicked directly in the face.

It's good for a laugh.

Christmas Lesson: Don't be Russian, anti-Christmas, and near Chuck Norris.




If I may be serious for a moment...

Our country is still recuperating from the devastating shootings that took place in Newtown, CT. No one ever wants to turn on their TV in the morning and see that kind of news story. And, quite obviously, no one in their right mind would ever want to be on the receiving end of that phone call telling them a gunman has opened fire at their child's/children's school. A friend of mine considers the senselessness and sadisticness of the shooting to be tantamount to 9/11. I can't say I disagree. Though we horror fiends may consume movie after movie dripping with bloody violence and slow-motion shootouts, we know that it's all just make-believe. We know that they are actors and stunt men covered in squibs and stage blood. But unfortunately the real stuff doesn't go away when you pop that DVD back into its case and slide it back on the shelf.

As nightmarish and sad as the shooting has been, it really seems to have spurred action to finally re-examine our gun laws in this country. Former member of the House of Representatives and Republican conservative Joe Scarborough has re-evaluated his own previous views on guns and determined they were "no longer relevant," done so in a very classy and stoic editorial. President Obama has begun campaigning to revisit the assault weapons ban he briefly flirted with during his reelection campaign, tasking Vice President Joe Biden to take charge and begin getting the word out. Even the NRA themselves have been respectfully quiet, ceasing activity on Twitter, deactivating their Facebook, and preparing to release an official statement which, at this point, has not yet been made public.

The reason I am bringing this up is because I felt this post – in which several of the films mentioned are praised for their violence and grue – serve as my semi-argument on art vs. reality. As the purveyor of this blog, I feel a slight responsibility to admonish the kind of real-life violence that seems to be more and more consistent within our society, especially our schools – not that I am deluded enough to believe this blog attracts enough readers to ever be deemed controversial and create a firestorm, but because the kind of material celebrated here can often seem insensitive and blasphemous in the wake of such tragedy. I try to maintain as much distance from reality as I can while concocting the posts that I do – because time and time again, it's been proven that sometimes reality is just too depressing in which to exist. But sometimes things cannot be left unsaid. Sometimes they have to be confronted head-on – a reaffirming of humanity, if you will – before we delve back into the land of the dead. So allow me this break to reaffirm my own humanity – to alert you that, though I love watching Chuck Norris kill dozens of men with double-fisted SMGs, I recognize that's not reality. It's entertainment – one that seems to change face with every new tragedy.

In the weeks and months to come, we are going to hear all sorts of theories and explanations for why the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary occurred. People will blame violence in films and video games, as that is the go-to for tragedies such as these. But what causes this kind of violence? Is it really violence in films and video games? Or is it violence that leads to more violence? This article, which details surging gun sales in Newtown in the days following the shooting, especially "the same exact gun the shooter had used" (a quote later removed from the article), would suggest that it's violence which breeds violence. And once these people are finished blaming violence in media, they will blame the shooter's mother, an apparent "doomsday prepper" and gun obsessive. But is this right? Is the image painted of her by the media one which accurately portrays her? In the end, it doesn't really matter. Twenty-six people are dead, twenty of those being children under ten years old. What does matter is if we'll finally learn our fucking lesson.

My thoughts are with the family and friends of the slain, as I'm sure all of yours are, too. It's going to be a long road back for many Newtown residents, but here's hoping they don't have to travel it alone.

The blog will be on auto-pilot for the next week or so as I spend time with my own loved ones.

I wish you all a very safe wintry holiday of your preference.

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