Review- Black Christmas (1974)

Review- Black Christmas (1974)

Whilst it’s widely thought that it was John Carpenter’s Halloween that initiated the slasher genre those who actually know anything about horror know that it was actually Bob Clark’s Black Christmas made in 1974. In fact, Clark and Carpenter worked together on a project after Black Christmas was made. Clark said to Carpenter that he no longer worked in horror but that he had had an idea for a horror film that was never realised. This would be based around the occasion of, you’ve guessed it, Halloween! Carpenter then later asked to use the idea for a film he was to due to work on and the rest is history. This isn’t to say that Carpenter ripped off Clark but this explains how The Babysitter Murders (the original idea for Halloween) suddenly morphed into the masterpiece we now know and love.

In fact, the opening shots of Black Christmas are similar to those of Halloween- the killer’s point of view camera shot. Halloween reveals who this person is (and it’s one hell of a reveal) but Black Christmas doesn’t. In fact, the killer isn’t revealed fully throughout the entire film which is the first reason that Black Christmas is so revolutionary.

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The story involves a group of female students on the night before they leave their sorority house to go home for the holidays. They start to receive very disturbing phone calls and things start to get dramatically worse soon after.

Another reason to love Black Christmas is that the extent of the killer’s mental instability is shown by the first girl he kills. She is suffocated and then placed in a rocking chair in the attic where the psycho is hiding out. Throughout the film we see him ranting and manically rocking her.

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Arguably some of the most disturbing sequences within the film are when the intruder calls the girls. They don’t know the calls are actually being made by the killer who’s in the attic within the same house. From the calls we come to learn that the person making them is called Billy and that he seems to be playing out incidents from his past, incidents rife with cruelty, abuse and possibly murder. Bob Clark used five different actors for the calls. These phone calls are some of the scariest, most disturbing and unsettling sequences I’ve ever seen in a horror film. They were even cut when the film was first released in the UK.

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Theres also the fact that Black Christmas was the first film to use the now established trope of a killer’s phone calls coming from inside the same house as their potential victim(s). This was years before When A Stranger Calls.

Another great thing about the film is the humour contained within the movie especially from Margot Kidder’s character, Barb. It’s amazing that such an unnerving film can still have genuinely funny interludes but without forsaking the movie’s tension.

But maybe thats because the film is extremely tense indeed. Theres a certain sense of doom to the proceedings that are depicted in the movie. A great example is where Olivia Hussey’s character Jess has just found out that the calls are coming from the sorority house, that Billy is ensconced within it but so are two of her friends (the audience knows otherwise as we saw them get dispatched earlier). On going upstairs (even though the police have phoned and demanded that she leave the house immediately) she enters one of the girl’s bedrooms to discover their dead bodies- and the killer looking at her through a crack in the door. This sequence is one of scariest in horror history.

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Add to this one of the most warped endings I’ve ever seen in a horror movie and you have a masterpiece.

Theres only two horror films with the ability to give me sleepless nights. One is The Exorcist, the other is Black Christmas. Essential.

5 out of 5 stars

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Blu Ray Review- When A Stranger Calls (1979)

Blu Ray Review- When A Stranger Calls (1979)

I learnt about When A Stranger Calls after seeing the excellent horror film compilation Terror in the Aisles. I then saw the full film and was blown away. I bought the bare bones American DVD release years later and thought that was the best cineastes would get regarding this film.

So I was thrilled when I learnt that the amazing company Second Sight Films were releasing the movie on Blu ray with a ton of extra features. These include the sequel. And the original short film The Sitter that director Fred Walton made prior to the feature length film. And the soundtrack. This sounded like one hell of an amazing package. Does the reality live up to the specs?

The Film-

A young babysitter receives phone-calls asking if shes ‘checked the children’. After numerous calls to the police she learns that the calls are coming from inside the house (this plot device had only been used one time before in film terms with that film being Bob Clark’s Black Christmas in 1974).

After this extremely tense first 20 mins the film shifts gear and the second act of the film involves the killer, the cop determined to catch him and a bar patron the killer first rather clumsily tries to pick up and when that fails, stalks.

The last act of the film involves the babysitter years later again with the killer trying to kill her again.

Lazy critics and film fans will have you believe that the first and last acts of this film are great, with the middle act (and majority) of the film being boring and pedestrian. This is utter rubbish. My thoughts on the film and particularly the middle act of the film can be found here.

When a Stranger Calls is a masterpiece and I believe one of the best horror films ever made. Really. It should be mentioned in the same breath as Halloween, The Shining and Psycho but isn’t. Maybe this Blu ray release will help to rectify this situation.

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Video-

The transfer on Second Sight’s Blu ray is amazing. The picture quality is flawless and visuals crisp even though the intended look of the film is quite soft. I compared this release to the Region 1 DVD I mentioned earlier and this transfer represents a significant step up in terms of visuals especially in the scenes that happen at night or where shadows are involved. One scene that nicely demonstrates this is the nocturnal walk home the character Tracey takes from the bar.

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Audio-

The audio is just as great as the visuals. Previous releases had a tendency to sound muffled and flat in places. Second Sight’s release rectifies this to such a degree that both music and dialogue are crystal clear and easy to hear. There no need for a manual sound mix using your remote with this release as with so many other releases from other labels.

Features-

This release is jam-packed with special features and the kind of features that fans of the film were waiting decades to see.

Firstly, we get director Fred Walton’s short film The Sitter that was made as a short film with Walton hoping to expand this into a full-length feature after the success of Halloween. It’s interesting to see that a lot of the nuance and detail that are present in the When a Stranger Calls are already a part of The Sitter. The ice maker as a source of terror, Dr Mandrakis’ funny line about ‘we even have low fat yoghurt’ and the opening of the front door to reveal a detective are all in place in The Sitter showing that attention to detail was there from the very start. These elements weren’t added as an afterthought into the full length feature. I’ve waited years to see The Sitter and the wait was worth it. It certainly feels like the embryonic streak of genius that would later be more fully realised in the later film.

The Blu ray also includes the TV movie sequel When A Stranger Calls Back. It was great to finally see this film after hearing so much about it. The character arcs of Carol Kane and Charles Durning’s characters feel realistic and authentic and this is a worthy continuation of their stories. As with the main feature the video and audio on this movie are both top notch.

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Also included are interviews with director Fred Walton, stars Carol Kane and Rutanya Alda and composer Dana Kaproff. For a film of which little was known, fans suddenly have a treasure trove of information about the film’s genesis, it’s production and it’s reception. Walton’s interview is the most revealing and is full of anecdotes which shed considerable light on the film. One such is how actor Tony Beckley felt massively insecure about acting with an actress as great as Carol Kane. Colleen Dewhurst said something to him that instantly remedied the situation beautifully and restored his confidence in his abilities.

And if these special features weren’t brilliant enough we also get the film’s soundtrack on CD (a great addition as Dana Kaproff’s score is a massive part as to why the film works so well), a booklet including an excellent essay on the film and a replica of the original film’s poster.

Of all of the Blu rays I’ve bought this year this is by far the best. A great film has been given the treatment it truly deserves. But I have come to expect this kind of product from Second Sight Films as they were responsible for the amazing package released for The Changeling. I look forward to their release of Boys in the Band early next year.

5 stars out of 5.

Review- The Square Ring (1953)

Review- The Square Ring (1953)

A British film from the 50’s about professional boxing. We get to meet those fighters who participate in a one-night event that involves a programme of many fights.

This film is like a snapshot of a long lost era of British filmmaking. We have great characters, a sly sense of humour at play and grit in the way the sport is portrayed as completely corrupt and in turn corrupting.

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The film also shows how truly brutal the sport is. The ending is totally gut-wrenching and completely unexpected.

We also get British film royalty in the guise of legends such as Joan Collins, Joan Sims and Sid James as part of the cast.

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Highly recommended.

4 out of 5 stars

Review- Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Review- Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Poor Billy. Not only does he have a frankly terrifying visit with his grandfather in a mental institution, he then sees his parents slaughtered by a psychopath dressed as Santa who flags them down whilst on their way home.

He is then sent to a Catholic run orphanage where the Mother Superior loves to run proceedings with an iron fist. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’.

We then see Billy all grown up and working in a toyshop. But Christmas is on it’s way and Billy has major issues with anyone dressed as Mr Claus and with the holiday season in general after what hes been through.

Billy then goes on a murderous rampage after being made to dress as Santa.

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When this film was released in 1984 it outperformed A Nightmare on Elm Street which was released on the same day. However, after a TV spot was shown during a football game, the spaghetti hit the fan. Busybody morality groups aimed to take this ‘blasphemous’ film out of American cinemas. And it worked.

Yes, the film is a sleazy, extreme slice of holiday-based exploitation. But its also very tongue in cheek and possesses a sly humour that any person with an IQ over 25 will pick up on and enjoy. Halloween was never picketed for being a tasteless and corrupting movie that is based on an American holiday.

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In fact, the film feels polished and accomplished but still brutal and seems to foreshadow later movies made a couple of years later like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Stepfather. Slick, well-made movies that are still not adverse to being extremely graphic when needs be. A hybrid between Hollywood and low-budget grittier filmmaking.

I love the fact that the murders stick to the Christmas motif with seasonal motifs like fairy lights and antlers being used to bump people off.

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I watch this every December. But this celluloid delight can be enjoyed at any time of the year. Be thankful that common sense prevailed and this film is still available to the general public.

Filmmakers 1, Self-righteous Soccer Moms 0

4 out of 5 stars

Review- Yield to the Night (1956)

Review- Yield to the Night (1956)

Yield to the Night finds the character of Mary Price Hilton shoot her boyfriend’s lover and then spending her time in prison awaiting her execution by hanging. Her story is told in flashback during this stay.

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On the 7th day God created Diana Dors. From her TV appearances on The Two Ronnies (playing the head of a female army who wish to take over and make all men subservient) through to her appearance in the Adam and the Ants video for Prince Charming, Ms Dors was a regular part of my childhood.

I then discovered the TV series of Queenie’s Castle from the 70’s (filmed here in Leeds) which fully exuded Dors’ abilities as a great actress.

Yield to the Night was the only worthwhile foray into film for Diana with subsequent vehicles being a complete waste of her talents. This film is amazing. The flashback sequences which show how a sultry goddess could be driven to murder are fully rounded, believable and achingly painful. As are the sequences in which she is in captivity. Check out the internal monologues we’re privileged to partake in and how she is far from a blonde bimbo. These observations about her plight and her fate are reminiscent of Travis Bickle’s musings in Taxi Driver.

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A strong case is made for the brutality of capital punishment in a ‘civilised’ society and how wrong it is. Thankfully since the film’s release this has now been rectified. You will think of this film when someone comments ‘They should bring back hanging’ in response to a news story.

4/5 out of 5 stars

Review- Death Wish 2 (1982)

Review- Death Wish 2 (1982)

Due to all of the controversy regarding this film I had to wait until I was living in Australia for a year to see this opus fully uncut. This film still remains cut here in the UK. At the time of the film’s release the BBFC cut over 3 minutes from the film (chief censor James Ferman seemed proud of this and said that it was surely a record) due to two rape scenes contained within the movie.

The vigilante Paul Kersey (played with badass aloofness by Charles Bronson aka ‘The Man’) has moved from New York (the setting of the original movie) and is now practicing his considerable architectural skills in L.A. But after his housekeeper is raped and killed and his already traumatised daughter is subjected to the same treatment Kersey goes back into ass-kicking mode.

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There’s so much to love about this film. Firstly there’s Jimmy Page’s sleazy, unsettling soundtrack. It suits the film perfectly. There are sounds, moods and textures heard that make you want to luxuriant in it’s aural squalor whilst also wanting to run to the shower with a bottle of bleach and a wire brush. Yes, it’s THAT good. The soundtrack was actually nominated for a Razzie in the year of it’s release. As was Ennio Morricone’s score for The Thing. I’m part grinning, part grimacing as I write this…

The movie adores Los Angeles and lovingly shows its sun-drenched beauty but also the rotten underbelly of LA by night. The sequences when Kersey rents a dirty motel room, dresses down and prowls the nocturnal streets to find the scum who killed his daughter are some of the best ever captured on film of inner-city horror and urban decay. They also give the city’s amazing freaks, punks and ‘local colour’ centre-stage. These moments are worth the price of admission alone.

Hell, we even get Charles ‘Sheriff Bracken’ Cyphers thrown into the mix.

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But the thing I love most about this film is that Winner knew what he was directing. He was making an exploitation film and so the core elements of violence, retribution and gunplay are all exaggerated and amplified. Y’know- EXPLOITATION!

And this is what makes the film so enjoyable- and why Winner was so unfazed by the level of criticism that certain (but not all) critics levelled against the film. He knew that the hacks of the day always (and very predictably) slated films that audiences loved in drive-ins and 42nd Street cinemas. And he didn’t give a toss. He knew what audiences wanted and gave it to them. But rather than creating a rushed piece of crap he crafted a polished film that truly delivered but also had enough room for social commentary.

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It’s worth watching the studio debate on the film that was televised before Death Wish 2’s release. Enjoy Michael Winner’s relaxed, considered and educated response to criticism of the film from the hysterical feminist Anna ‘Rabies’ Raeburn and the show’s presenter.

It’s also worth seeking out the TV programme about film violence that Winner took part in with none other than Mary Whitehouse. Yes, the woman who spoke about The Evil Dead as if it was a snuff film EVEN THOUGH SHE HAD NEVER SEEN IT!

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Bore off

This is something that exploitation film fans understand- the actual genre and it’s conventions and tropes. We know that The Evil Dead is the horror equivalent of a dark comedy (in places, anyway) with blood by the gallon load replacing custard pies. We also realise that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is just as darkly comedic. This is because we’ve actually bothered to watch such films unlike the blinkered, elitist journalists or moral panic perpetuating self-appointed public decency crusaders.

And Michael Winner knew about this genre of films also. Enjoy his expertise.

4 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 31- Dawn of the Dead (1978)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 31- Dawn of the Dead (1978)

The sequel to George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead shows that the zombie epidemic has gotten much worse and society is on it’s knees. Two television workers plan to escape with two SWAT team members in the TV station traffic helicopter in search of…whatever they can find that’s better than their current situation.

There is so much to love about this friggin’ film. The tenement opening scene (the shoulder bite was cut by the BBFC as was the exploding head), the way the film suddenly changes course completely as the four fly off in the helicopter, the scene where they land to fill up the copter with fuel (theres the taboo of zombie kids being shot here. Theres also the amazing scene of the zombie having his head decapitated by the helicopter’s blades) and then we get to THE SHOPPING MALL!!!

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The shopping mall/man trap

The mall is one of the greatest locations ever used in a film. Imagine having this shopping centre at your personal disposal with everything inside being free and your property. I love Romero’s social commentary regarding this. The dream of consumerism quickly rings hollow as do the images being conveyed within the advertising produced before the zombie epidemic. Within the extended cut of Dawn (which is just as good, if not better than the original theatrical cut of the movie) the female character Francine is the only person who wants to leave the mall when the topic comes up of whether to move on or not. The men state that they have everything they need here and so should stay but Francine says that the mall is ‘a rut. A trap’. Ans she’s completely right.

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The four main characters

The zombies continue to come to the mall (Stephen mentions that ‘this was a big part of their lives’) which is a brilliantly wry observation by Romero. In this film the living dead have a very aesthetically pleasing blue tinge to their skin. Within the film the blood is redder than red making the film fully realise it’s comic-book vision. But it’s more than this. The film looks like a series of Pop Art paintings come to life. Andy Warhol had plenty to say about consumerism and mass production (his studio was called ‘The Factory’). It’s almost like he was art director on this opus.

But aside from all of the insights and allegories, this film is just great, great fun! The kills are innovative, disgusting and completely brilliant (Tom Savini returns to make-up and special effects duties and this film is probably the best demonstration of his work). Savini also stars as the members of a biker gang who try to take over the mall and seize it from the main four characters.

Wanna see a custard pie fight between bikers and zombies? Wanna see a zombie Hare Krishna, nurse and nun? Wanna see John Amplas (the lead from Romero’s earlier ‘Martin’) as a Pop Art Hispanic dude? It’s all in this film- and much much more.

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A zombie gets a custard pie in the kisser

I also love the character arc for Francine and the bromance between Peter and Roger.

This film has it all. Seriously.

5 out of 5 stars