The Gift That Keeps On Giving- What Makes Black Christmas So Darn Scary?

The Gift That Keeps On Giving- What Makes Black Christmas So Darn Scary?

I had heard so much about the original of Black Christmas from 1974 by the time I finally got to see it. It’s reputation as being the main film that inspired the slasher movie sub-genre pre-Halloween was well established with horror fans salivating over it and singing it’s praises to the heavens.

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‘Lets see how scary it really is!’ I said to myself as I watched it on the DVD brought to us in the UK by the excellent Tartan Video. It was Christmas Eve and I was all alone in a shared house which all of my housemates had vacated to go home for the holidays. I can honestly say that I have never felt so scared, unsettled and downright terrified in all of my life.

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Years later and I’ve just arrived in Sydney to start a year long vacation/working holiday and as it’s almost the Yuletide season I see that my local cinema is showing a double-bill of Black Christmas and Christmas Evil which I had heard John Waters say was the best Christmas movie ever made. Christmas Evil was every bit as brilliant as I hoped it would be.

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Christmas Evil- another horror masterpiece

But a very curious thing had happened. I found my second viewing of Black Christmas to be even creepier and scary than the first.

So what is it about the film that works so well? In less imaginative hands Black Christmas could have been far more generic and less inspired, especially if it had been made when the slasher genre had kicked off. But the fact that the film was made prior to this means that there were no genre conventions or expectations to constrain it and so the sky was the limit.

The film concerns a group of sorority sisters and their house mother being together in their sorority house just before they all depart for their Christmas vacations. They don’t realise that they will be departing but in a much bloodier way than they could have imagined. They start to receive obscene phone calls but don’t realise that the deranged person making them is already inside the house. In fact, this is one major plot device that the audience is privy to as we even get a shaky POV shot of the killer making his way to an attic window to enter the residence. He makes said attic his HQ of terror if you will. The decor is suitably demented and creepy as hell with an old rocking horse and shop mannequins in it.

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The killer climbs into the attic of the house…
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…which is resplendent with such sinister artefacts as an old rocking horse

Of course, this plot device has been used sooo many times since but this was all very new in 1974 when the film was made and released. Black Christmas brilliantly mines into the urban legend of The Killer Upstairs that has been told countless times around campfires with the odd tweak or variation according to the person telling it.

The fact that the killer is using a separate phone line to make the calls whilst being in the same house as his prey has also been used since with 1979’s excellent When A Stranger Calls fully exploiting this idea and also referencing the same urban legend. But this was a full five years after Black Christmas was unveiled onto the world. Director Bob Clark also says that back then it was very common for one property, especially a multi-residence property like a sorority house, to contain many different phone lines for the multiple occupants.

And these aren’t just any kind of disturbing phone calls. These are calls that Clark wanted to be as disturbing as possible and he really excelled at this! He used multiple different actors on them to convey the different personalities inhabited within the killer who later identifies himself as Billy. If these calls don’t scare the bejesus out of you, you’re either lying to save face or you’re trying to be an edge lord. These calls veer between being sexually explicit, feral, unhinged and animalistic.

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But the film also depicts something that was happening to millions of homes around the world at that time. The primitive methods at tracing a call in the film and how difficult it was was a very accurate portrayal. In those days technology regarding telephones was in it’s infancy and so this left many people vulnerable to prank calls. It also left them vulnerable to calls from people who wanted to do more than just scare whoever was unfortunate enough to answer the phone. Black Christmas was reflecting back to audiences something that wasn’t spoken about back then and how scary and potentially traumatic it was. It was a practice so widespread that it resonated massively with audiences.

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The almost impossible task of tracing the calls within the film mirrored how difficult it was in real life

The calls suggest that you’re watching something a lot grittier than how other horror films operated up until that point. The Exorcist had been released the year before and pushed as many envelopes as possible whilst not merely for some tedious attempt at shock value. You get the feeling that Black Christmas is doing the same but in a very different way.

In fact, another feature of the film that makes it feel utterly unsettling is that whilst everything is going on in the house, other similarly dark events are playing out in the wider community. A young girl has gone missing. Some of the film’s characters join a search party in a local park to look for the girl and her body is discovered. Just as the film depicted the horror of the nuisance call, it also depicted the full horror of child abduction with many such cases seemingly happening with shocking regularity at that time and continuing to happen to this day.

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The park search

In fact, this sequence is given an extra layer of poignancy as the father of one of the sorority sisters, Clare who he was due to meet him that morning but didn’t show up, takes part in the search. After reporting her missing to the police, Clare’s father searches for the other missing girl unbeknownst that she has been murdered at the hands of Billy who has suffocated her with a plastic dry-cleaning bag. He places her body in a rocking chair in the attic with the film cutting to her body resplendent with the startled expression on her face still under the plastic.

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Clare’s body in the rocking chair with the plastic bag still over her head

Another great feature of Black Christmas are the characters. One example is Barb who provides the film with a hilarious scene whilst interacting with a very gullible and inexperienced cop when they report Clare missing. Her drinking becomes endearing to the audience (check out the scene when she’s letting a child have some of her booze) but could also be used by her to mask the fact that her mother seemingly doesn’t care about her. Mommie Dearest has decided to go away for Christmas with her latest boyfriend and these plans don’t involve her daughter.

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Barb doing what she does best

Another character who likes to booze is eccentric house mother and cat-lady Mrs Mac. We see that she has alcohol stashed in all kinds of places in the house including in a hollowed out book in her library. This character along with Barb provides a lot of the comedy within the film. But just because there are comic interludes these don’t detract from the feeling of unease and terror the film generates for the audience.

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Mrs Mac drinking. Again.

Jess is having problems in her relationship with her pianist boyfriend Peter when she discovers that she’s pregnant. She says to him that she is going to have an abortion which provokes the testy retort from her other half that she talks about it almost as if she’s ‘getting a wart removed’. Billy references this later in one of his phone calls, thus making her think that Peter could be the killer.

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Jess and Peter have the ‘big talk’

The actual murders themselves are something to behold in the film. Not only are they shocking and very well executed (pun not intended) but are also beautifully directed sequences. Clare’s shocking murder only ten minutes in, house mother Mrs Mack’s almost slapstick sequence involving a hook after she’s discovered Clare’s body, Barb’s exit with the glass figurines by her bed of which Billy utilises one to stab her. These wouldn’t have been out of place in one of the best Giallo movies never made. In fact, Black Christmas seems to hold quite a few similarities with some of it’s Italian counterparts.

The sorority house feels like another character within the film. The dark wooden shadowy passageways, cubbyholes and nooks and crannies which the killer has full access to are the perfect locale for the film to take place in.

The cast of Black Christmas is also a strong point for the film with a list of actors that is like a roll call of the creme de la creme of cult filmdom. Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, John Saxon to name but a few. Again, if Black Christmas had been made whilst the slasher movie was in full flow, maybe some of these actors would have declined to take part as some may have felt they were above such fare.

Carl Zittrer’s music for the film is suitably unsettling, surreal and downright macabre. Apparently the composer achieved the score by tying different objects to the strings of a piano to distort and warp the sounds it made when played. He would also record music and then play back the results at a slower speed to further manipulate the results until they were suitably unsettling enough. He certainly succeeded.

Whilst I’m rhapsodising about the film, there’s plenty more I could say but to do so would spoil the experience of seeing this masterpiece especially for the first time (although multiple viewings seem to enhance the film’s stature in my head as I pick up things that I didn’t hone in on during previous viewings).

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Black Christmas is a one-off. It has it’s own feel and sense of terror and dread that no other film has ever come close to replicating. There are very few horror films that actually frighten me but this movie scares the pants off me. It’s the Christmas gift that keeps on giving.

31 Days of Halloween- Day 9- I Don’t Want To Be Born (1975)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 9- I Don’t Want To Be Born (1975)

This film has the best plotline of any movie in the history of cinema. Really!

Joan Collins stars as a stripper in a burlesque joint. Her co-star is a gypsy dwarf named Hercules. He makes advances on his co-star but when she knocks him back he places a curse on her unborn baby making the unborn child psychopathic.

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If that wasn’t enough, the film also co-stars Donald Pleasance, Ralph Bates and Caroline Munro. Kids TV legend Floella Benjamin even stars as a nurse. Holy great casting, Batman.

The film effortlessly captures the period with 70’s London looking beautiful but with a sleazy underbelly as exemplified by the strip club. The film also gives La Collins an opportunity to look breathlessly fabulous in every scene. And every scene necessitates a costume change for Joanie.

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And then there are the fantastic kills from the baby from hell. I love how the film cuts from some awful act of violence to the cutest baby you’ve ever seen. It feels completely jarring, surreal and works really well.

I Don’t Want To Be Born also goes by other titles such as The Devil Within Her, Sharon’s Baby and The Monster which is the title that is being used for a new Blu Ray release from Network Releasing who are fantastic with their titles and so I look forward to how great this title will look. 70’s Joan Collins in High Def! We really don’t deserve it. And we’ve only just had Blu Ray releases of both The Bitch and The Stud.

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I actually think this film is a masterpiece. It’s also my favourite film from 1975. Yes, I think it’s better or maybe just as good as Jaws and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Of course there are those who dismiss this title as just 70’s exploitation fluff. But that lazy summation disregards the beautiful cinematography, the time capsule aspect of the time the film captures both on and off camera (there was a real thirst for horror movies amongst British cinema goers in the 70’s) and the set design which is pinpoint perfect. Oh, and the acting is pretty fantastic too. This film may be an Exorcist/Rosemary’s Baby rip-off but just like Beyond The Door it more than holds it’s own just like Piranha did in the wake of Jaws or Zombie Flesh Eaters after Dawn of the Dead.

A classic film. Seriously.

Grade- A+

31 Days of Halloween- Day 5- Blackenstein (1973)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 5- Blackenstein (1973)

Eddie Turner steps on a landmine whilst serving in Nam and loses his limbs as a result. His fiance Winifred is a physicist and looks to her former teacher Doctor Stein (his name is a red flag already) who has recently won the Nobel prize for his work regarding DNA and so may be able to graft new limbs onto Eddie. What could possibly go wrong? Well, lots. Dr Stein’s assistant Malcomb is knocked back by Winifred and so to retaliate he contaminates the DNA solution used in Eddie’s operation so that Eddie turns into an uncontrollable killing man-beast. While he appears bed-bound by day he secretly goes on killing rampages at night.

As you may have guessed this is the blaxploitation version of Frankenstein and was made after Blacula (the blaxploitation version of…do I really have to tell you?!) was a hit at the box office.

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The main word when describing this film is FUN. Yes, it’s cheesy in places but so what? It’s a perfect time capsule of the genre and what horror and drive-in audiences were lapping up at the time. And if I had been around during this era I would have been with them doing the same.

I’m loving that Eddie’s first port of call is to pay a visit to the male nurse we saw being abusive to him earlier in the film. I also love the fact that the punishment that Eddie doles out is to rip off one of the orderly’s arms. Who said there was no such thing as irony in films like this?

Blackenstein is also noteworthy as John Waters’ starlet Liz Renay is one of Blackenstein’s victims. Yes, Ms Renay from Desperate Living!

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My face for he world to see! Yes, Liz Renay stars in this film!

Look out for the Severin Blu ray that restores two versions of the film (the theatrical and slightly longer home video version). The film has never looked or sounded so good.

Grade- B-

31 Days of Halloween- Day 3- Werewolves on Wheels (1971)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 3- Werewolves on Wheels (1971)

I first saw this movie on VHS when I spent a year in Sydney, Australia. There was a Civic Video just off the red light district of Kings Cross that had a stash of low budget horror movies and other obscure titles. This was manna from heaven for me as I rented them all. One of them was Werewolves on Wheels, a film I had first read about in the essential tome Incredibly Strange Films by the Re:Search publishing house.

A biker gang break bread with the members of a local Satanist church and then start to change.

Let’s check off what this movie has all present and correct-

– Great movie title- check

– Great movie poster- check

– Great soundtrack- check

– Great plot- no, nope, NOPE!

It’s such a shame when a movie has so much going for it but forgets about a plot or any kind of narrative for an audience who isn’t stoned.

Werewolves on Wheels is too much wheels and not enough werewolves.

Grade- D

31 Days of Halloween- Day 2- Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 2- Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971)

Jessica, her husband Duncan and their friend Woody arrive at a new house in the country that Jessica and Duncan have bought. When they arrive they are surprised to find someone squatting there. They ask this person, Emily to join them for their evening meal and then to sleep there for the night.

The next day Jessica asks Emily to stay at the house until she finds somewhere else to live. From here on in strange things start to happen to Jessica. She has already just been discharged from a psychiatric hospital into Duncan’s care and so she doesn’t share what is happening as she thinks Duncan and Woody will think these events aren’t real and are merely down to her psychological state.

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In fact, the notion of gaslighting and the doubting of one’s reality feature prominently within the film.

Jessica starts to see a blonde girl who appears at chosen times but then runs away again. When she is out swimming, someone or something grabs her under the water.

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Jessica and her husband find items in the attic that belonged to the previous owners of the house and decide to sell them to the antiques dealer in the local town. He tells them the history of the family who used to live in there- they were called the Bishops and their daughter Abigail drowned just before her wedding. But he tells them that locals say that in fact she isn’t dead and is in fact a vampire who is always on the hunt for fresh victims.

To give away anymore plot points would be to ruin the film and so they will end there! Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is a fantastic gem of a film. Made in 1971 by director John Hancock, it has an air and feel all of it’s own. I love the fact that we are privy to Jessica’s thoughts which add another layer to the film and a palpable paranoia to proceedings.

There’s also the subtext of the city folk vs the locals that feels fresh here rather than cliched. And the locals of the local town are very unwelcoming indeed. In fact, they’re downright scary. And why are they all bandaged in some way?

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There are elements of Carnival of Souls within the film and Hancock’s film feels like it had some kind of influence on Spielberg’s Something Evil (which, by the way, STILL hasn’t been issued on Blu Ray. Scream Factory are the perfect candidates for this. Just a thought).

Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is a forgotten gem that isn’t forgotten anymore. In fact, it’s reputation has deservedly snowballed since it’s original release.

Hancock went on to direct the early De Niro masterpiece Bang The Drum Slowly which is also highly recommended.

Grade- B+

Review- Alice Sweet Alice (1976)

Review- Alice Sweet Alice (1976)

I love the horror films that are unlike any other films in the genre and stand alone with their quirks and idiosyncrasies. One such film is Alice Sweet Alice.

The film was actually called Communion when it premiered at numerous film festivals but was then retitled Alice Sweet Alice when it was picked up by it’s distributor and then released in 1977. With one of it’s stars, Brooks Shields becoming a star in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby even though she only appears in this film for all of about 10 minutes, it was then released again in 1981 under the name of Holy Terror. The film also received the ultimate seal of approval in the early 80’s when it was banned during the Video Nasty moral panic in the UK.

Not many horror films revolve around the issue of Catholicism but Alice Sweet Alice does and to horrific and chilling effect.

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We see Karen who is preparing for her first communion and her older sister Alice at home. It seems that whatever Alice does Karen whines about to their mother as is the case when Alice puts on her communion veil. This first scene seems to expand into a deeper theme within the film and that is what psychologists talk about regarding family relations when one child is treated as a ‘golden child’ (in this case Karen) and when another is treated as a ‘scapegoat’ for anything wrong that happens or any misdemeanour (Alice). The film expands on this further later in proceedings.

As revenge for Karen being such a brat, Alice lures her to an abandoned warehouse and scares her before locking her in a separate room and then threatening her if she tells anyone.

We see Alice wear a transparent (and very creepy) mask and bright yellow raincoat to scare their housekeeper Mrs Tredoni. Later on during the communion service we see someone wearing the same mask and raincoat bump off Karen by strangling her and then placing her body in a compartment within a bench then placing a lit candle inside for good measure. Could the person who did this be Alice who we had seen wear a similar mask earlier in proceedings?

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The film is very much a whodunnit as to whether it is Alice who is carrying out the murders and also if it isn’t her, then who is it and why?

Alice Sweet Alice is a proto-slasher movie and a fantastic one at that. Not only do we get the storyline regarding whether Alice is the murderer or not but also a brilliant character study regarding this character that goes into family dynamics that have only started to creep into public discussions recently.

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Add to this the very unexpected supporting characters who are as out-there as they are unexpected (check out the character of the bald, fat neighbour Mr Alphonso and you’ll fully understand what I’m talking about) and you have another demonstration of why this film really is a one-off and all the more brilliant because of it.

There are also moments of near hysteria within the narrative that feel like they’re straight out of a John Waters movie. In fact, when I first saw the sequence in which the character of Annie is stabbed I instantly thought of when the shopper has her feet stomped on by Dexter aka The Baltimore Footstomper from Polyester. The acting is unhinged and utterly genius because of it.

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Add to this some very inventive kills (check out the sequence in which Annie is killed in the hallway and when a later victim is thrown from a high building to land on broken mirrors down below) and one of the creepiest killer’s disguises I’ve ever seen (the director was influenced by Don’t Look Now in his choice of the raincoat).

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The look of the film is just as striking with a gorgeous muted colour palate that I’ve never seen in a film before and beautiful photography that means that this is so much more than just your average 70’s horror oddity. In fact it’s just one reason as well as the ones mentioned previously why this film is a complete and utter gem. The way to experience this flick is by going for the US Arrow Video Blu Ray. Their restoration of the film is a revelation and really something to behold.

Grade- B+

Review- Nico Icon (1996)

Review- Nico Icon (1996)

Note- Nico Icon can be found here on YouTube. Please make sure you switch on the English subtitles before watching as some sequences are in French and German.

I first became aware of the singer Nico in 1988, ironically the year the singer passed away. I was becoming a huge fan of Siouxsie and the Banshees and a new book had been published about the band. The first few pages went through the early lives of the band members and the bands they were listening to as they were growing up. Of course one of them was The Velvet Underground and Nico. The picture published to illustrate this however wasn’t one of the iconic monochromatic shots of the band wearing shades, black clothing and looking absolutely cool with it. Instead, the image was of Nico but after see had dyed her hair and wasn’t the glacially beautiful blonde chanteuse anymore. The pic was from 1970 and she was dressed in a cape. ‘What Goth could have become if more people had taken Nico to their hearts’, I thought.

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Shortly after this I started listening to and loving The Velvet Underground starting with their iconic first album. Nico’s voice was a revelation. Her teutonic vocals with her own sense of phrasing and meter were mindblowingly original. In fact, after hearing this album I bought The Marble Index and my love for Nico and her career was born.

On seeing the documentary Nico Icon on YouTube I decided to investigate further.

And I’m so glad I did. The film fully explores Nico’s legacy and metamorphosis brilliantly from her time as a model (a profession she hated as she saw herself as a blonde smiling object and nothing more), her introduction to movies with her turn in La Dolce Vita no less, her introduction to singing and then becoming a staple of Warhol’s Factory crowd (Andy famously described her singing style as like that of an IBM computer with a Greta Garbo accent) after being introduced to Warhol by Bob Dylan. Her stint as chanteuse on The Velvet Underground’s iconic first album (not to mention her relationship with The Velvet’s lead singer Lou Reed) followed shortly after this with her solo career as a result.

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From model…
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…to Warhol endorsed recording artiste

I wasn’t prepared for the emotional pull that the documentary has. The scene in which Nico’s aunt is listening to I’ll Be Your Mirror and starts crying because of the beauty of the music and her late niece’s vocals is incredibly moving. The fact that Lou Reed’s lyrics are displayed on the screen via the film’s subtitles show just how gorgeous they are.

The melancholic and reflective aspect of Nico’s music is also explored with songs as achingly stirring as You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone acting as a reflection of Nico’s life. She was evidently her own mirror for the world to see.

The transformation of Nico from blonde bombshell to Angel of Death is also examined. With this metamorphosis people who said to her that the change was too drastic and made her look ugly were met with joyous proclamations from the woman herself. She loved the fact that she wasn’t a blonde object of beauty anymore for others to ogle, an object.

She seemed to hate life and to be looking forward to death. She infamously became a junkie with her addiction to heroine (what else for the guest singer with The Velvets) which meant she toured constantly to supplement her habit. James Young is on hand to tell tales of what it was like to be in her band during this period with one incident involving her deliberately handing him a tour’s worth of used needles for him to dispose of when they were approaching border control whilst in their tour bus. ‘She was the Queen of the Bad Girls’, Young states. She also loved the track marks, rotting teeth and bad skin that the drug had bestowed on her body. ‘That was her aesthetic’, Young opines.

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Nico in the 70’s. Nothing scary about this pic at all…

Nico’s son Ari from her relationship with French actor Alain Delon (one of Nico’s other former lovers expresses that Delon was descended from sausage makers and even though he became a famous actor there was no getting away from his true family vocation in life) is also interviewed. We hear the shocking revelation that it was her who introduced him to heroine and that whilst he was once in a coma, she came to the hospital to record the noises his life support machine made to utilise on her next album.

But throughout the documentary one thing truly shines through and that is the music itself. There has never been any other artist like Nico in terms of music and image. She was a true individual with a back catalogue that is alarmingly and consistently brilliant. Whilst her first album Chelsea Girl was material written by others for her, her second album and every subsequent album after this starting with The Marble Index, showed that Nico wasn’t just an amazing singer and frontperson but also an astonishing writer. Her imagery and obsessions are just as idiosyncratic as her persona and are utterly intoxicating. Fortunately this is captured in the documentary with all phases of her music career being given an airing. And that’s one of the greatest aspects of the film- it encourages the viewer to investigate further and fall full-on into the disturbing, beautiful and esoteric rabbit-hole that is Nico’s oeuvre. And it’s an amazing place to vacate.

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Her transition from the blonde Ice Queen to the Angel of Death is extraordinary enough and reminds me of the transition that Scott Walker made from pop star pin-up to serious artist who made the kind of music that music critics can’t salivate over more. Nico was even more exemplary as when she started writing her own material we were suddenly plunged headlong into her own world with it’s own meanings and rules. It was a sphere of frozen borderlines, friar hermits and janitors of lunacy. What does it all mean? Who knows. But it works beautifully. We were invited into the mindscape of an island, a question mark, a true maverick and, dare I say, a genius.

This documentary is so good that not even the very pretentious device of snippets of dialogue appearing on the screen as text just as a subject is saying them can even ruin or tarnish proceedings. Thankfully this isn’t employed too often but why it was used at all is beyond me.

Proceedings are rounded off with a rendition of Frozen Warnings from the album The Marble Index sung by John Cale at the piano. It’s an apt tribute to a singer who Cale saw as someone truly exceptional even if the world is still catching up on Nico’s genius. But with a new biography coming out soon it appears that the wheels are in motion regarding this. This documentary is a great starting point for the uninitiated and familiar alike.

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Essential and one of the best documentaries about one of the best and beguiling subjects ever to grace the arts. Even Siskel and Ebert gave the film two thumbs up. But don’t let that put you off.

5 stars out of 5

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Review- Martha (1974)

Review- Martha (1974)

More Fassbinder goodness with this 1974 film as we see the central character start out as a happy go lucky woman who feels pressurised to find a man, settle down and adjust to married life. Her own parents are revealed to be in a loveless marriage until Martha’s father collapses and dies when he is with his daughter on holiday in Italy.

I’m not going to give away too much about the plot and what happens during the course of the movie as I don’t want to blunt the impact of the film but all I’ll say is that this is a dark piece of cinema! And I mean DARK!

As the concept of coercive control is just starting to be spoken about in the popular media, Fassbinder had made a film about it 1974. And gaslighting. And marital sadism.

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A special mention needs to go to Margit Carstensen in the lead role whose performance is nothing short of astonishing as we see her character’s spirit and very existence being destroyed and disintegrating before our very eyes.

I also didn’t know that Karlheinz Bohm had ever depicted a darker character than his star turn in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. I was sooo wrong! His character here is a sadistic psychopath/narcissist and acted to grimy and reptilian perfection.

I remember when I saw the movie Threads for the first time. I thought to myself that it couldn’t get any darker but then saw that that it was only halfway through it’s running time. I then saw that it could get MUCH darker! The same happened when I watched Martha.

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This does for marriage and societal expectations for women what Jaws did for sharks. When I watched this I kept thinking to myself ‘I’m so glad that I’m gay. And that I’m happily single!’

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

Review- Ali- Fear Eats The Soul (1974)

Review- Ali- Fear Eats The Soul (1974)

Emmi, a 60 year old widowed cleaner decides to enter a bar that is playing Arabic music to shield from the rain. She sits at a table on her own far from the regulars who are at the other side of the bar. They dare one of their entourage, Ali to go and ask her to dance. Whilst they think he will refuse instead he calls their bluff and complies.

With this Emmi and Ali get to know each other and this develops into a relationship. But with this the couple come face to face with societal prejudices regarding inter-racial relationships and their age gap.

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Masterfully directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ali- Fear Eats The Soul shows how the love between Ali and Emmi is met with others hatred, ignorance and bigotries.

The couple are quickly ostracised and find themselves all alone which is depicted by the couple being depicted in long shots in many of the film’s scenes. One such is the heartbreaking scene in which they both sit in the rain outside a restaurant where there are no other diners. The couple sitting at the middle table of a huge and empty seating area emphasises their ostracised status within the restaurant and society in general. In fact the only others there are the restaurant’s staff who have decided to stand outside openly gawping at the couple in wide eyed disbelief that they would dare to be in a loving relationship whilst transgressing so many norms of what is acceptable and what isn’t.

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The scope of these extreme long shots which emphasise their isolation and separation is huge with Emmi and Ali being shown to be tiny within them. This emphasises just how cut off from everyone else they are whether that be the people around them or society as a whole. Another example is when they go to a restaurant just after they get married. The couple even seemingly break the fourth wall and look into the camera as they are shown to be the only figures in the frame and dwarfed by how far away the camera is and how small their figures are in the frame. Fassbinder holds this shot for seconds but it feels like hours with the audience being made to purposely feel a little uncomfortable at having the characters dwarfed in their surroundings whilst they look us in the eye.

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Emmi is shown to be shunned by her family who took her for granted anyway and then by her work colleagues, her neighbours and even the owner of the small convenience store she used close to her apartment.

The issue of their relationship being built on love but without sex also poses a problem within the film with Ali going to the female owner of the bar for almost functional sexual fulfilment which Emmi finds out about. Again, we get another shot to depict Ali’s loneliness and isolation, this time in another long shot but this time on his own sat on the bar owner’s bed, completely alone and without Emmi just as she was alone when sat at the table in the bar at which they met.

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The film shows that Emmi’s family and friends only start to speak to her again and seemingly accept her new marriage when they need something- her babysitting duties when it comes to her son who had previously kicked in the screen of her TV on hearing the news of her marriage (a reference to Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows which was an inspiration for this film), her storage space when a neighbours’s son needs to store his belongings in a hurry, her custom and hence money when she is accepted again by the owner of the local shop.

The film also explores how powerful the need to fit in with societal norms really is with Emmi’s narrow minded friends deciding to come to her apartment to meet Ali but which then leads to a scene in which Ali storms out to leave after being objectified by the women as a powerful, exotic object of their lust resplendent with big muscles. They express surprise when they find out that he even washes everyday just like any other civilised human being. Ali feels dehumanised by this and rightly leaves hastily. Even when he leaves, Emmi voices the opinion that it is down to his ‘foreigner mentality’ and ‘others’ him even further.

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Emmi is received back into her gang of co-workers and by doing so ostracises a new woman who has joined her team just because she is an immigrant just like Ali. Toxic behaviour is evidently highly contagious.

During the film, Emmi goes to Ali’s workplace to see him after he had left. She is then humiliated because of her age by his workmates who he laughs along with whilst pretending not to know who Emmi is. The pull of conformity and not wanting to be seen as ‘other’ or ‘different’ is a powerful one and affects both Ali and Emmi in different circumstances.

But nothing brings people together quicker than when adversity strikes and puts everything else into it’s true perspective. And that’s all I’m saying as I don’t want to ruin the conclusion of this extraordinary film.

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There are amazing performances all round but especially from Brigitte Mira as Emmi and the unbearably handsome El Hedi ben Salem as Ali. There’s even an uncredited cameo by Fassbinder himself as Emmi’s vile son in law.

Fassbinder’s film is so well observed that it aches with the love between the two lead characters but also with the hatred and wilful lack of understanding from others that makes it so poignant and heartbreaking.

We also get a peek into the beauty of 70’s Germany which acts as a fantastic backdrop to this extraordinary film.

Ali- Fear Eats The Soul is a masterpiece. It is so poignant that if it doesn’t pluck at your heartstrings and stir your soul then you possibly don’t possess either. It will stay with you long after the film has finished.

Ali-Fear Eats The Soul is beautiful and brutal and just as relevant today as it’s ever been. Every now and again I watch a film that makes me think that my life is better for having seen it. Ali- Fear Eats The Soul is one such film.

***** 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 *****