Slashing Through The Snow

It’s Christmas 2020, folks, and is anyone feeling any festive cheer?  What with The Return of Covid, an argy-bargyed election, renewed lockdowns, fights over who gets the vaccine, and then there’s the weather—although I’m personally fond of snow, I just wish my apartment radiator wouldn’t follow its lead and decide it’s the time of year to hibernate—I take it we’re all pretty down in the dumps right now.  And if you’re all thinking that Ebenezer Scrooge has the right idea, well—I’m not here to say you’re wrong.

But, hey, it’s Christmas time, and here’s my annual Grand Old Movies holiday post, and I just want to say—what a perfect moment to look at Christmas horror movies.  Can you remember when you first realized that Christmas meant horror cinema?  I can.  Back in the days of my youth, during the Jurassic era, when I worked at one of my first jobs, I recollect a movie coming out, whose one box office lure was that it featured Santa Claus with an axe.  So potent a money-maker did its producers feel this feature to be, that their posters showcased an image of a red-suited arm wielding said long-handled cleaver.  Talk about an argy-bargy.  Some of you (much) younger readers might yawn, roll your eyes, and say, “So what,” but back in my stone-age days, Santa and axes combined was unheard of.  It was a shock to all nice-thinking people; it was an assault on children’s innocence; it was a toppling of civilization’s already fragile pillars.  It was…just not done.

Who knows?  From today’s crumbling perspective, those nice-thinking people might’ve been right.

Anyway, this is where the job I was at figures in.  Someone in my office—I have no memory of her name, only that she was older and in a senior position—was indignant, and I mean, personally outraged, that anyone would dare, as she put it, take such a nice, warm, positive image as gift-bearing Santa and stick a weapon of destruction in his sack-bearing hand.  I recall listening and nodding, my face a solemn mask—one didn’t answer back to one’s seniors in those days—but privately thinking the whole thing sounded hilarious.  I mean, Santa with an axe?  How more subversive (especially of such huffy-puffy ladies as my senior colleague) could you get?

I don’t remember the name of this particular movie, because a number of movies came out almost right after with the same cheery holiday theme:  Santa is coming to get you, naughty or nice be damned.  Many people must have agreed with my private thinking at the time, because, hey, supply follows demand, and Christmas cinematic horror is now a staple of the season.  I know, I know, film scholars might point to a holiday classic such as It’s A Wonderful Life and explain what horrific elements underlie its redemptive narrative.  Like—there’s bankruptcy, poverty, frustrated hopes, contemplated suicide, and Mean Mr. Potter, the very image of corporate greed pummeling the small shopkeeper into the ground while driving wealth to the top of the economic ladder—pertinent, yes?

But at least Clarence the Angel doesn’t come round swinging an axe…

So herewith is a look at some bleak holiday favorites to stick into your stocking come the 25th of December…

You’re Damn Right There’s A Creature Stirring…

Black Christmas from 1974 scared the bejesus out of me.  I say this as a relatively latecomer to this film, without preconceived notions.  Its reputation today is that of a ‘firster’:  One of the first films in the slasher movie genre, one of the first horror movies set during the Christmas holidays, and one of the first to use the now-familiar The-Call-Is-Coming-From-Inside-The-House trope (although, in today’s near-landline-free environment, that last will puzzle millennials).  Such a reputation may now glaze the film in a nostalgic haze, like a Currier-and-Ives chromo.  It may have scared our parents, we’ll say, but it won’t scare us.

Oh, but it will.  I assure you, it most definitely will.  From its first shot, a point-of-view angle on a sorority house decked out in Christmas lights and hosting a holiday party, during which you hear very heavy soundtrack breathing, its mood is unsettling, suspenseful, and plain—creepy.  “It’s him again, the Moaner!” cries sorority sister Olivia Hussey as she picks up a ringing phone to listen to a mélange of cries, shouts, garbled obscenities, sinister giggles, and then—spoken loudly and clearly—“I’m going to kill you.”

For anyone who’s ever received an obscene, threatening call—especially for women who have—this scene will not only hit, but will drill right through and skewer your fear nerve.

What makes this scene even creepier is how the call fascinates the other sorority members.  They cluster round Hussey to listen, house sister Margot Kidder even angling her head to hear better.  And that the Moaner has called “again”—what, the first time wasn’t enough?  Such is the lure horror has for us (certainly proved by the slasher genre’s success).  We’re drawn to what terrifies, disgusts, repels, and threatens us.  It not only attracts, it entertains.

Mix that in with the ambiance of a cheery Christmas party (holiday music playing throughout the call), and you’ve got one twisted piece of work here.

The film exploits both this fear and fascination by (spoiler alert) never showing the killer.  The camera hints when danger is near—a looming shadow, a set of clothes trembling on their hangars, a point-of-view shot of one girl on a phone call(!).  But the monster stays, literally, in the dark; never seen, never made visual.  It’s a moving, shapeless Void, its only appearance, its only clue as to what it is, manifested by a huge, staring Eye.  We can’t see It, but It can sure see us.

And what of the phone calls themselves?  Composed of many voices, in many timbres, they converse and argue with each other, to the amazement of the horrified listeners—speaking in tongues as it were, with no explanation or background offered, no identity fixed.  The voice/s enact a garbled, senseless narrative; whatever story we’re hearing, it’s one that can’t be told, arising out of the same inchoate abyss the never-seen killer inhabits.  What more apposite embodiment of this Creature than the image of its first victim, her dead eyes staring blindly, her mouth fallen open in a silent scream.

I haven’t seen the film’s two remakes, which I understand take a feminist, even blackly humorous, perspective.  But this first version, released a few years after the 1960s, gives a downbeat, unromantic view of young women who came of age in that generation.  The subjects it touches on—female independence, liberated sexuality, abortion, singlehood—now come across as the let-down aftereffects of that freewheeling decade.  The women are unhappy and disconnected:  Their families are distant and uncaring (Kidder is heard griping offscreen, “You’re a real gold-plated whore, mother”), they drink too much, they make bad choices in men (one woman tries to leave a violent boyfriend).  Women have always had such problems, but, in the film’s holiday context, these issues are starkly highlighted, not even Christmas relieving the gloom.  And the meeting point is the sorority house—the house, the traditional location of women, here becoming a site of death, horror, and dread.

As for the holiday itself, the film undercuts its accrued, traditional meanings.  Partiers complain and drink, then drink some more (Kidder feeds booze to a child); a teenage girl’s mutilated body is discovered in a park; carolers sing at the front door while a sorority girl is murdered upstairs.  Although the film is sparing with violence and gore, its aura is one of pervading misery (heightened by cinematography as cold and frost-bitten as the season).  The movie shows us Christmas as not a time for friends, family, and gifts, but for raising the barricades and barring the door against whatever Madness lurks outside—because it might crawl in…

You Really Better Watch Out…

“Lord almighty,” says boozy Aunt Dorothy as she surveys her niece’s tastefully arranged Christmas table setting, “looks like Martha Stewart threw up in here.”

That line says everything about the mood of the 2015 movie Krampus, in which your typical dysfunctional family gets together for the holidays and discovers…not Love, Happiness, The True Spirit of Christmas, and all that crap, but that things can only get worse.  Indeed, worser.  But jeez, you might say, but it’s Christmas.  To which this film’s title character would only laugh in response.  And then toss you into the fiery pit.

Not your typical holiday movie.  Frank Capra and Charles Dickens must be rolling in their graves.

And as for that Thing On The Roof that’s about to come down the chimney…If you bet that’s Santa Claus, well…you lose.

Krampus’s first scene, during the credits, is a hoot:  A montage of holiday shoppers storming a Walmart-like box store on an acquisition rampage.  People trample the help, mangle the toys, punch each other in the face.  Can’t get much more merry and bright than that.  Meanwhile, on the soundtrack Bing Crosby warbles warmly how It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.  Really?  It looks a lot more like Pickett’s Charge to me.  I’d bet even Bing, that best-known and best-loved interpreter of Christmas songs, would rotate in his casket at this (and I bet that bet I’d win).

The initial scene is hysterically funny but also uncomfortable.  It’s probably what many who, like the story’s central family, after putting a lot of Martha-Stewart-ish care and concern into choosing the right holiday decoration, gift, or menu, wouldn’t want to admit what Christmas has become:  A consumer spend-fest, with one expected to submit to imposed familial obligations that no one wants to but feels he must.  When Max, the film’s young protagonist, complains to his father as to why they have to invite their awful aunt, uncle, and cousins every year, his father weakly replies, “Because that’s what a family is, Max.”  To which Max retorts, “Do you really believe all that?”

Krampus, at base, is about the maintenance of such Belief.  Specifically, about belief in the meaning of Christmas itself.  I never heard of Krampus until this film came out (and, like those Santa-slasher films, it seems to have started a Krampus-cottage-movie industry), but he’s a figure out of North European folklore who’s like Santa’s dark, Jungian twin:  While jolly Saint Nick gives gifts to good children, goat-like Krampus drags off bad children to Hell.  Especially those who don’t profess a belief in Santa or the Yuletide spirit.  (A bit of a holiday bully, this Krampus.  Kind of like the relative who demands that everyone be happy.)  So when a disappointed Max, who still believes, if a little half-heartedly, in Santa Claus, rips up his letter to the North Pole and tosses the scraps out the window, word (or maybe the scraps) gets back to Krampus.  Which is when the fun begins.

I did enjoy Krampus.  The beginning scenes, of Max’s upper-class, cultivated, snobbish family clashing with their working-class, vulgar, bad-mannered relatives, are screamingly funny.  Every Left-vs-Right mutually mistrusting stereotype has been precisely and snarkily incised, down to the crass uncle’s loaded firearms in his monster truck and Max’s effete dad finally grabbing a shotgun himself and blasting away when the situation gets fraught.  The film moves adroitly from the comic horror of the maladjusted family holiday to the supernatural horror of Krampus and his awful minions besieging Max and his family.  It recalls those scenes in classic westerns in which the settlers are holed up in the fort, with no Marines in sight.

But this latter half is also terrifying.  As in a classic slasher flick, the monsters whittle down the cast, picking off family members in various horrific ways (such as being swallowed by a giant Jack-in-the-Box) until one survivor must alone face the horror.  The intensity is such that I wonder how small children would react to it, or if Krampus is the best choice for all-family viewing.  I’d make another bet that Krampus would be popular with viewers who make it an annual Christmas tradition to watch the film Die Hard—you know, that heartwarming holiday movie about Yuletide terrorists taking over a building, where they set bombs and shoot hostages and only Lone Marine Bruce Willis comes to the rescue.  Wasn’t Bing heard crooning on the soundtrack of that one?  Where has this holiday gone to?

Although I won’t spill any spoilers, Krampus’s ending is atypically downbeat and ambiguous for a Christmas flick, and it’s roused some Internet discussions as to its meaning.  You can read some (spoiler) interpretations here, here, and here, but basically the ending can be construed in two ways.  As:  1) Yes, it’s Happy, albeit muted, or, 2) No, it’s Not.  The articles I’ve found discuss both readings, but seem uniformly to vote on the Happy, If A Little Mixed as the correct choice.

But being that this is the year 2020, I’m choosing the other option:  Hell, no, it’s not.

Here Comes—Wait, Who Did You Say That Was?

Finland is less than 2000 miles from the North Pole; its city of Rovaniemi is only a few kilometers from the Artic Circle; and Rovaniemi’s Santa Claus Village intersects the Artic Circle itself.  So I think you can say that the Finns know a thing or two about the Pole’s most famous resident.

However, that doesn’t mean that what they know is anything good.

As with Krampus, the 2010 Finnish film Rare Exports strikes a sour note on that whole Ho-Ho-Ho thing.  But it goes much further.  The Santa folklore cited by the film’s child protagonist, Pietari, is in the Krampus vein, in that Kris Kringle is not the jolly old elf of Clement Clarke Moore’s poem or vintage Coca-Cola ads; nor is he that delightful old, white-bearded gentleman embodied by Edmund Gwenn.  No, as this film has it, Santa may be more akin to that creep hiding out in Black Christmas’s sorority house—he’s a cruel, dark-hearted, demonic figure, who likes to punish and whip children for the jolly fun of it and even stew them in a pot when he’s in the mood for a quick snack.

My advice is not to send this guy your Christmas wish list.  Who knows how he might construe it.

Rare Exports, however, is significantly different from even such snarky American Christmas films as Krampus or Jingle All The Way.  It’s not set in a clean, bright, holly-hung American suburb but in another culture entirely.  The story takes place in a bleak Finnish hunting village, whose residents live in dark, cramped wooden buildings surrounded by vast forests and spreads of snow, and whose main occupation, besides sheer survival, is reindeer hunting, both for selling and for basic sustenance.  The men (and we see only a male cast) are gruff, bearded, and silent; their young sons, even small Pietari, know how to ride snowmobiles and shoot rifles.  Children (as evidenced by Pietari’s grim Santa Claus research) need to grow up fast here.

Which is why when an evil and rich American industrialist starts blowing up a local mountain and destroying local reindeer herds, the Finns have to take this seriously.

But the crux of the film is what’s in that mountain, the contents of which Mr. Moneybags is willing to despoil a beautiful landscape, ruin a town’s economy, and spend heaps of money on heaps of dynamite to acquire.  That’s because, according to his calculations, Santa Claus, the real Santa, is buried there.  So every day (as counted down on Pietari’s Advent calendar), the mining engineers set off explosions to get to what’s down there—and we know something is, because, according to the chief engineer’s report, “It still has a pulse.”

And when an extremely old, dirty, savage bearded man is found alive and trapped in a pit meant for wolves, Pietari and his father and friends must figure out—just WHAT is this creature?

What they find out about the old boy is dark indeed…

Rare Exports was expanded from a 2003 short film (just over 7 minutes long) by the same filmmakers, Rare Exports Inc. (whose compact, self-contained narrative explains the title).  The short film is pure comedy, but the feature is brooding, cynical, disturbing, and satirical.  It mines the dark pagan roots of the original Santa Claus myth, while casting a skeptical eye at the crass commercial enterprise Christmas has become.  This may be the only Christmas film I know of that ends not with smiles and tears and renewed family bonds but with the realization of a holiday marketing opportunity.  The filmmakers deepened their material from their short film, and their longer movie stands as a great entry in the Santa Claus mythos.  It may not be the perfect Christmas horror film, but it’s pretty darn close.

One other thought about Rare Exports—what you might call an extra-diegetic one.  And that is—why is this evil industrialist searching for, of all people, Santa Claus?  An unusual quest for a tycoon to undertake, even if you take in Christmas’s ongoing commercialization and what that means for profits.

Except money isn’t the industrialist’s motive.  It turns out that he, too, like Max and Pietari, is a Santa Claus freak.  “Always believe!” says our plutocrat, his eyes as starry as a child’s.  The film doesn’t dig into this plot vein, but I found it fascinating to ponder.  Could it be that, like Pietari, our industrialist had once been a lonely and imaginative little boy, who now, having gained power and economic clout, can make his fairy-tale dream come true?  Maybe wish-searching applies only to American entrepreneurs—in the movies, anyway.  It’s as if Mean Mr. Potter had given us a peek into his hidden soft spot within that gnarled, crusty exterior.  Or if that other rich, unhappy capitalist of American cinematic lore, Charles Foster Kane—who longs, perpetually, for that little lost sled, symbol of all he has lost, or lacked, in his expensively accoutered life—had decided, rather than loot European art houses, to excavate that mysterious mountain instead.

Just think:  Could Santa Claus be—Rosebud?

There’s No Place Like Home For The Holidays…

Do not confuse Dead End from 2003 with the 1937 William Wyler classic, about a gangster returning to his home turf to find you can’t go home again.  This later film is a well-done, low-budget shocker about a family traveling to spend Christmas-as-usual at Grandma’s.  As a snap synopsis, that might sound typical of the Christmas-movie genre:  A grudging family get-together in which all concerned rediscover their you-get-the-picture-we-have-been-here-before.

I assure you, though, the film’s not about that (this is a post about horror, after all).  Because in this Dead End, you may not get home at all

Dead End begins with the typical reluctant family, comprising Dad, Mom, Big Sis, Teenage Son, and Big Sis’s Boyfriend, driving on Christmas Eve to Grandmother’s house for a holiday gathering no one is looking forward to.  But then Dad decides to get off the interstate he’s been driving on for the past 20 years and take an alternate route on an unknown road through thick woods.  Maybe for a change or maybe for the hell of it.  Or maybe it’s a Freudian slip…

But when, after nearly careening into a passing vehicle (from falling asleep at the wheel), Dad sees a Woman in White on the side of the road and stops to help.  The Woman, in a daze and not speaking, is holding a baby—which turns out to be dead…

That’s when the fun and games begin.  Family members start to disappear, one by one, in gory and gruesome fashion, each one then being carried off in a large, black, hearse-like car.  Meanwhile, the survivors bicker, whine, argue, gripe, snipe, snarl at each other, sing “Jingle Bells” to pass the time, and reveal dark family secrets, such as:  Mom once had an affair with Dad’s best friend, who, it turns out, fathered Teenage Son.  In exchange, Mom forgives Dad for his affair with Sally Schmidt: “I know how you two used to meet at the Motel 6 and hump each other raw on your lunch break…”

Are we having fun yet?

The road goes on, endlessly, without change, without variety—and no explanation why (“alien activity,” insists Teenage Son).  The car keeps moving, never stopping (although every time it does, someone dies), and the only road sign seen is for a town named Marcott, which never appears.  What does appear, and re-appear, however, is the enigmatic figure of that Woman in White, who, like the family itself, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.  As the family numbers dwindle, the tensions rise, the personalities crack, the hysteria mounts…yet no end is in sight.

And there’s still that holiday party to get to…

The film plays off its horror with dark humor, offering some nice, grisly touches that dare us to laugh.  As in:  The Boyfriend wears an earring in one ear; when he’s found mangled by the road, the Teenage Son picks up the Boyfriend’s cell phone; dangling from its antenna (when cell phones still had them) is that earring—still attached to that ear.  Just how you’d like to remember a loved one.

There are also weird (but aptly weird) touches such as the Teenage Son sneaking into the woods to masturbate to a magazine picture of Miss July, while the Boyfriend, simultaneously, is allowed to see the face of the (very dead, very mangled) baby held by the Woman in White; as the Son climaxes, the Boyfriend screams.  Dad and Big Sis tramp through the woods and crawl under a fence to get away from that endless road, only to end up right back on it—indeed, right back at their car.  You sense that this never-ending, no-exit road trip, with the family traveling to a Christmas party no one wants to go to, to be with relatives no one cares for, is a Yuletide vision of Hell.  “Talk about a Merry Fucking Christmas,” grouses Dad.  What a metaphor for such family festivities.

I like how the film works around its low budget, suggesting much with little.  We don’t see the Boyfriend’s mutilated body, for example, we see only the family’s reaction to what’s on the road, as well as that bloody hanging ear (“Drop that thing,” snaps Mom, “it’s dirty”).  Nor do we, in a later scene, see the figures in the woods that (now-crazed) Mom claims to see; instead, only shadows striate the windows.  The filmmakers manage to heighten the tension and horror with essentially one simple set, that never-ending, never-changing road, and they ring (as well as wring) changes from it both expected and not.  You know in your gut why these characters become hysterical.

Dead End is short (less than 90 minutes) and swift; its main drawback is that it’s like an extended Twilight Zone episode, and you may see the end coming.  But it’s compact and well written, it doesn’t dawdle or waste time, and its details build on each other.  The acting is excellent—Lin Shaye, that wonderful actress from the Insidious film series, plays Mom, and she’s equally delightful here.  If the final twist is not original, it does tie everything up, with just enough of a chill to send you off to your hot toddy eggnog for relief.  Watching the movie is like visualizing a spooky campfire tale, told to scare the bejesus out of you.  Which I think is the film’s ultimate purpose, and which it accomplishes beautifully.  Like Ted Hughes’s poem Pike (and its eponymous fish), it’s constructed to do exactly what it’s meant to do.  Holiday or no holiday, that’s something to celebrate.

Merry Christmas…

If you’re looking to watch the above films for your holidays, Black Christmas, Rare Exports, and Dead End are all available (for free, with ads) on Tubi (my earlier lockdown-recommendation Tubi post can be found here).  Although Tubi does not host the 2015 Krampus film, it does host several other Krampus-titled movies (including a couple about Mother Krampus…who knew Krampus had a Mom?…).

Bonus Clip:  Here’s the entire 2003 short of Rare Exports, Inc., a film that’s laugh-out-loud funny.  And isn’t a good laugh what we could all use?

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