Review- Christmas Evil (1980)

Review- Christmas Evil (1980)

I first heard of this Yuletide horror flick as John Waters spoke about it as being his favourite seasonal cinematic shocker. With such high praise from The Prince of Puke I later heard it was being shown at a local cinema in Sydney, Australia where I lived for a year (it was actually shown as part of a double bill with Black Christmas which is possibly the greatest duo of films I’ve ever seen on the big screen).

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This film was also seized during the raids on video shops that happened in the UK during the video nasties furore. After it was seized it was then banned by the BBFC. Hence, why I wasn’t allowed by the powers that be to see this masterpiece in the 80’s.

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The film centres around Harry Stadling who we see first as a child as he sees Santa pleasuring his mother. After seeing Old Nick being so naughty he goes upstairs and self harms with a broken ornament from a Christmas tree.

The film then flashes forward to Harry as an adult working in a local toy factory. He seems to be completely obsessed by Santa Claus and even dresses like him, sleeps in his outfit and orientates his whole being towards becoming him. We even see him applying way too much shaving foam to his face so that it resembles a white beard to make the likeness even more apparent. He has also starts to make notes regarding the neighbourhood children as to who has been ‘good’ or ‘bad’ whilst jotting down examples of why he has arrived at his decision.

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Harry is told by his boss that the factory will donate toys to children at a local hospital but only if production at the factory increases and employees chip in with their own money. This angers Harry who sees this as an indication that his boss only cares about production rather than genuinely caring for the local unfortunate kids.

Harry’s Santaphilia reaches new heights on Christmas Evil when he seems to truly believe that he is Father Christmas. He starts to travel around in his equivalent of a reindeer led sleigh- a van with a picture of a sleigh on the side of it. He creeps into his brother’s house and leaves bags of presents for his nephews and then leaves a bag of dirt to one of the other neighbourhood children he has noted down as being ‘bad’.

After he is mocked by three men who are leaving church, he stabs one of the men in the eye with a sharpened Christmas ornament and then kills all three with an axe. After then entertaining people at a local Christmas party who mistake for just some harmless Santa impersonator and after telling the kids present that they should be good, he breaks into his co-worker Frank’s house (who we saw earlier in the film after he asked to swap shifts with Harry so he could be with his family only to be then spotted by Harry in a local bar drinking with his pals much to Harry’s chagrin) and murders him but not before leaving toys for his kids.

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To tell you much more would ruin the film for everyone and disclose some genuinely unexpected and quite brilliant twists. Without giving too much away I love the fact that even though he’s a murderous Santa, the neighbourhood’s kids protect him from an angry mob who have formed to capture or even kill him. The kids will save Santa even he is to Christmas what Michael Myers is to Halloween.

The final scene will fully ignite the magic of the Yuletide season in your soul. Seriously! Did Steven Spielberg steal it for possibly the most iconic scene of E.T? Quite possibly. I’ll take this movie over Spielberg’s saccharine family favourite any day though.

A genuine oddity and a film unlike any other, Christmas Evil was worth the wait for me and John Waters is completely justified to have taken this to his heart. Perfectly acted, beautifully photographed and with some fantastic insights regarding ‘this most wonderful time of the year’. These include those who are permitted to buy into the whole illusion of Christmas whilst others aren’t, the vileness of capitalism masquerading as being caring and charitable (but only if production is increased) and how in-crowds and groups judge others as ‘one of us’ or not.

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Waters said that if he had kids (and that would be quite something) he would sit down and watch this seasonal shocker with them every year. And if they didn’t like it they would be PUNISHED! That’s fair enough in my book.

***** out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 28- Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 28- Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

As soon as I saw that this 1965 Amicus film was directed by Freddie Francis I knew that the direction and photography would be beautiful. And I was right! I was also excited as I knew that this was a horror anthology film and starred two heavyweights of the genre, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

As well as Cushing and Lee the cast also includes Alan ‘Fluff’ Friedman, Donald Sutherland and Roy ‘You’re a Record Breaker!’ Castle. We even get Kenny Lynch appearing in a cameo role.

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Travellers in a train compartment are joined by the very sinister Dr Schreck who whips out his deck of tarot cards and tells each of his fellow traveller’s fortunes. Each fortune told is a separate episode in this anthology.

The separate stories involve vampirism, a vine seemingly related to a Triffid that comes to life, lycanthropy, voodoo and black magic and a severed hand. I want to give more details away about each segment but there are so many brilliant twists and turns that writing any more would be like trying to tiptoe through a field full of landmines.

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Each episode is completely different from each other, taking place in a real breadth of locales and circumstances which keeps the film as a whole really varied and interesting.

This film has all the ingenuity of five separate mini episodes of Tales of the Unexpected. Each concept is unpredictable, genuinely ingenious and likely to surprise most viewers.

A joy from start to finish with perhaps the biggest twist coming after each of the characters fortunes has been told.

****and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 27- Beyond Evil (1980)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 27- Beyond Evil (1980)

A few things about this film should attract cult film aficionados. Firstly, it stars John Saxon and Lynda Day George. It was also released on the infamous video label VIPCO (home of Zombie Flesh Eaters and Shogun Assassin in the early 80’s). It’s also features some of the cheapest special effects I’ve ever seen which have aged incredibly badly. In other words, it’s great fun and has plenty of things going for it.

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A couple move to a tropical island and find a mansion that is so cheap that they have to buy it. But it then becomes apparent that Barbara (George) is showing signs of being possessed by the evil spirit of the wife of the previous owner who was practising the occult before she ended up killing and being killed by her husband.

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This is kitsch cult cinema at it’s purest- bad effects, bad acting, bad plot. BUT, very enjoyable because of it. This film has, erm, character! This movie would be perfect if you stumbled upon it on an obscure cable channel late at night.

*** out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 24- Horror Hospital (1973)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 24- Horror Hospital (1973)

When I saw that Robin Askwith headed the cast of this British 70’s horror flick I instantly thought of the brilliant bawdy comedies The Confessions series which he starred in and were delightfully mucky and low-brow. Perfect for the era. If Mr Askwith could prove a huge hit with the sexploitation brigade surely he could score big when it came to another low brow form of entertainment, the horror film.

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Horror Hospital and The Corpse Grinders- what a double bill!

Here he plays Jason Jones who works in the music industry but after his manager rips off one of his songs he decides to escape via a company offering getaway breaks (‘Hairy Holidays’!) and heads away from London and the music scene. He meets a girl on a train and they get on handsomely. She is even going to the same ‘health farm’ that he is headed to.

And so the adventure begins. Even the ticket collector at the station they arrive at is like someone from a Hammer horror film. However, this holiday destination is actually a hospital in which the residents are wayward hippies and permissive types who are then lobotomised.

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The resulting adventure is part horror film, part groovy campathon which it accomplishes with relish. There is a cast of various oddball supporting characters that are just as entertaining as the main players and there are great touches such as the car fitted with a huge knife that shoots out to behead anyone brave enough to try and escape.

This film captures a great time in British film when films were made for the young with their content being just as boundary transgressing as the youth of the day themselves. Hence genres such as bawdy, racy comedies and bloody (but humorous) horror was the order of the day. A golden era.

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As lurid as the paisley underpants Askwith wore in the Confessions movies.

***and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 22- The Ambulance (1990)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 22- The Ambulance (1990)

A young cartoonist Josh chats up a young woman named Cheryl in the street (the board at Gillette must be despairing at this) but when she collapses she is then taken to a nearby hospital in an ambulance which has been called for her. When Josh tries to track her down there appears to be no trace of her being taken to any hospital in an ambulance. Josh then learns that the same fate happened to Cheryl’s roommate. Something fishy is going on. Does it have anything to do with that specific ambulance?

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With such a great premise I was expecting a cross between Coma and Maniac Cop. But, alas instead this is more like a TV movie that feels very slight and somewhat hollow.

I was also expecting more as this was directed by the great Larry Cohen and whilst there are some great directorial flourishes and some great dialogue which Cohen also wrote (all of the supporting characters in Cohen’s films have the best in quirky left-field comebacks), they don’t save this movie.

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A wasted premise and a shame.

** out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 20- The Guardian (1990)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 20- The Guardian (1990)

A young couple have their young baby snatched away from them and offered as a human sacrifice to an ancient tree to prolong it’s life by the infant’s nanny. We then see a short time later the Druid nanny from Hell starts new employment caring for another couple’s child.

This tautly and stunningly beautiful film was director William Friedkin’s first excursion into the horror genre again after that low-key film that he directed in 1973 that no-one ever talks about anymore. Just kidding. Friedkin’s first horror movie after The Exorcist was bound to garner much press and this film did. It was also predictable that any film that wasn’t as genre-defining and revolutionary as The Exorcist would provide howls of derision and bad reviews which was the fate for The Guardian.

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I refuse to think of any film directed by William Friedkin to be irredeemably bad or massively flawed. And this truly is the case with The Guardian. Amazingly directed, beautifully shot, pinpoint perfect performances (a big shoutout goes to Jenny Seagrove as the anti-Mary Poppins) and you have a taut 1990 film that has more positives than negatives. If anything is lacking it’s maybe the generic source material and the constant re-writes that affected the film. But it’s interesting to see such a great director working on strictly genre fare and seeing what happens. This reminds me of Martin Scorsese directing Cape Fear and seeing what he could do within such parameters.

The horror scenes are great and the buildup of tension is lovingly established. The film establishes the feeling of placing the well being of your baby into someone else’s life and that someone turning out to be a nutjob (if only the film had ditched the supernatural element and made it about a psycho nanny instead. This film could have been to childcare what Jaws was to sharks). The loss of control and the erosion of some of the most precious parental boundaries are fully explored here and the result makes for a very chilling film.

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Time has been very kind to The Guardian. It’s established a fanbase and isn’t the disaster some critics would have you believe it was at the time. In fact, it’s a very good movie.

***and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 18- Children of the Damned (1964)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 18- Children of the Damned (1964)

A sequel to Village of the Damned which is less a continuation of the plot and instead like a film containing characters who possess the same powers as the children in the original but under different circumstances.

Whereas the original took part in a countryside idyll, the action within this film is based in London. A gifted child called Paul is studied and observed by the relevant governmental authorities. Other almost supernaturally gifted children are also discovered and brought to the city so that UNESCO researchers can witness them at work. They are brought from places as varied as China, Russia and Nigeria.

These gifted children then abscond from each of their respective embassies that they are staying in and take refuge in an abandoned church. It’s here that the authorities and the army find them and have to decide whether to try to coax the children out or destroy them if they pose a threat to humanity. It’s here that a tense standoff encroaches.

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This film as opposed to the original is firmly on the side of the children who we see as persecuted and in need of human support. The original depicted them as inhuman, devoid of emotion and empathy and very much as villains in a horror film. Children of the Damned elicits sympathy and compassion for the children who are shown as unjustly discriminated against, ostracised and treated as freaks in many ways. Having high levels of intelligence and other powers such as telekinesis are gifts but also hindrances. Witness the speech Paul’s mother shrieks at him that she should have destroyed him before she took him in her arms for the first time.

I made the mistake of reading the reviews for this film before I actually watched it. The few examples I could find were derogatory and very unflattering. They were also wrong, in my humble opinion. Children of the Damned may not be as good as the original film it is a sequel to but is still a vivid, well written, engaging film that is well worth a view. The shots of 60’s London are beautiful. A special mention to Ian Hendry (Repulsion) who heads a stellar cast.

***and a half out of *****

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31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 17- Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 17- Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972)

The head of a theatre troupe Alan (think of a cross between Charles Manson and Timothy Claypole in lurid and very colourful 60’s clothing) takes his fellow thespians (who he refers to as his ‘children’) to an island which is used as a kind of graveyard for dead criminals. He then assumes the role of a religious leader, puts on robe he just happens to have brought with him and  proceeds to try and raise the dead using his knowledge of magic. Whilst this (seemingly) doesn’t work they dig up the dead body of a man called Orville. However later on in the film the dead do indeed rise again and get their revenge. They board the actor’s boat at the end of the film.

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The director of this film is listed as Benjamin Clark but is in fact Bob Clark who went on to make the masterpieces Dead of Night and Black Christmas. Allan Ormsby who plays Alan went on to direct the excellent Ed Gein biopic Deranged.

This film has an interesting vibe to it that is similar to the counterculture early 70’s vibe of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (but without the violence or genuine transgression). This is gritty low budget filmmaking that points to the drive-in but also to the arthouse realm.

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The colour palette of the cast’s wardrobe is like watching an acid trip with each character wearing a different very bright colour and when more than one cast member is in the frame together it’s a trip. In fact theres a shot in the movie of the cast members all lines up behind each other and it’s like a spectrum of colour. The audience members on certain substances must have loved this sequence.

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This is an interesting film but far from being some kind of 60’s classic. The title is very misleading also.

**and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 13- The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 13- The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

A novel twist on the ‘demonic possession’ sub-genre. This is more a courtroom drama regarding the priest who tried to save a girl (Emily Rose) from possession by a demon but which resulted in her death. Father Moore faces life imprisonment for his activities trying to save the teenage girl’s life.

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There are of course flashbacks to the actual possession and how it manifested itself and also the resulting exorcism ritual.

Any film that deals with this topic will of course draw comparisons with The Exorcist and any film going up against the 1974 classic will ALWAYS lose.

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But The Exorcism of Emily Rose is passable even if it employs the broadest brushstrokes and whilst it may look great, there isn’t a great deal of detail, nuance or depth to the events.

If you flicked onto this whilst channel surfing this is perfectly enjoyable. But don’t scratch too far beneath the surface because you won’t find much.

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**and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 12- Frightmare (1974)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 12- Frightmare (1974)

***TRIGGER WARNING!!!*** This is a Pete Walker movie.

In 1957 Dorothy Yates and her husband Edmund are convicted of murder and cannibalism (!) and sent to an asylum until the film’s present day (1974). They are then released supposedly fully cured and living a quiet life. But are they? The answer, of course, is no! The film shows Dorothy not being cured at all but using the cover of giving tarot readings to people who she then kills and eats.

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The film also deals with Jackie (Edmund’s daughter from a previous marriage) who regularly visits the couple offering gifts of animal brains whilst falsely telling them that they are actually human remains and that she is actually killing people so that her stepmother doesn’t relapse and remains free. It is also revealed that her father had actually faked being complicit in the crimes and faked madness so that he could stay with his wife. Jackie lives with Debbie, a wayward 15 year old who is the actual daughter of the couple who was placed into an orphanage as a baby just after her parents were institutionalised. She has recently been expelled from there as she is too much for the authorities to deal with and so spends most of her time with her boyfriend who is the leader of a violent biker gang.

Wow. There’s a lot going on in this film that is typical Pete Walker fare in that it’s dark, violent and dares to go to the places that other milder horror films dare not go. Which is exactly why I love him. He knows exactly what horror fans want and he delivers it in spades.

But there is more than meets the eye. Frightmare is also blackly funny, almost (and intentionally) vaudevillian at times and extremely intelligent. This is not just a horror movie but also a funny and very perceptive satire on family values and blood (pardon the pun) being thicker than water.

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Add to that gorgeous cinematography, amazing locales (loving the London scenes and surrounding area shots) and a moment in time being captured not just on film but also regarding film (this was a boon time for British horror with Hammer, Tigon, Amicus and directors like Walker all making great horror movies which would do amazing business at the box office).

I love the scene where Jackie drags her new boyfriend out of a screening of Blow Up. What a great statement on art movies which were then in vogue in some quarters of the mainstream.

All of the characters are brilliantly drawn and portrayed fantastically well with Walker regular Sheila Keith playing Dorothy with twisted relish. She is also able to be completely nuts one minute and then change into a repentant innocent little wife persona when her husband has seen what she’s done.

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The magnificent Sheila Keith

Kim Butcher as Debbie is also great when it comes to portraying a young girl with the quality to make others do her evil bidding for her. This is shown when she tells her biker boyfriend about the barman who wouldn’t serve her but then embellishes the story. Her boyfriend and his biker friends wait for him after the nightclub they are in has closed up to give him a good hiding. She reminds me of Chris Hargensen from Carrie.

The film hits every target it aims for with a bullseye and is pretty much perfect. I honestly think Frightmare is a twisted masterpiece.

***** out of *****