HORROR TEN SPOT: Favorite Holiday Horror Films
Ah yes, it's that time of year again. As Halloween shrinks to nothing in our rear view, the holiday season is set to officially get underway. Turkey day hits in one week, and before you know it, we'll be unwrapping gifts and sipping spiked eggnog by the quart. But before we get all sentimental and delve headlong into the yuletide season, why not kick things off with our own holiday celebration. What pre tell, does that include, you may ask. Exactly what you think. It's time to fete our all time favorite holiday horror movies...big and small, official and not so. Fireworks, trick or treating, turkey carving, new year's kisses, birthday candles, candy hearts and the rest...here now is my favorite holiday horror films.
WARNING: MINOR TO MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
WARNING: MINOR TO MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
William Lustig, the man who brought us the inimitable MANIAC as well as all three MANIAC COP films, seemed to revel in the spirit of independence day for his ultra-schlocky 1997 B-movie UNCLE SAM...the quality of which I still contend is outmatched by the film's poster and box-art. Even so, the so-bad-it's-good factor deserves rank among the holiday horror pantheon. I mean, come on, what's not to love about Isaac Hayes spouting lines with Bo Hopkins and genre favorite PJ Soles? Funny, on a day when the townsfolk are supposed to be celebrating their freedom, the victims of the film are ultimately proven there is no escape. None at all. They're only left to face a sick f*cker slicing and dicing his way through a small population...in a f*cked up Uncle Sam mask of all things...his eyes jaundiced and glazed over like a besotted pauper. Obvious allegories to the psychological damage incurred by Vietnam are at work, but in a movie like this, we really don't need a heavy-handed motivation. Simply sign up, UNCLE SAM's taking names!
Remember when Eli Roth made movies? WTF happened? Well, as some still await his full length adaptation of the gnarly faux-trailer that abridged the two tales of GRINDHOUSE, Roth perhaps showed his greatest promise in THANKSGIVING, which he shot over two days in the Czech Republic. No doubt drawing on the sleazy pulp and unremitting trash of 70s exploitation fare, Roth imbued his trailer with a bout of nastiness we just don't see any more from American films. Hell, Roth even lent his own voice to mimic the portentous tone of 70s preview announcers, a touch I've always appreciated. Further particular standouts in the 3 or so minutes? How about a cheerleader dropping panties, doing a splits-bounce on a trampoline, only to land plum on a butcher knife...in between her legs. Better yet, the grotesque crescendo with the entire family, Leatherface style, where they turn a human victim into a cannibalistic turkey day feast. F*cking delicious!
Often considered a companion piece to PROM NIGHT, the other 1980 Jamie Lee Curtis slasher film, many may forget Roger Spottiswoode's TERROR TRAIN actually takes place during New Year's Eve. And thus, it fits our criteria. I've always enjoyed this one a great deal, as I usually do compelling films that take place in one location, over the course of one night. Here though, what elevates TERROR TRAIN from lesser efforts of its ilk, is the cast. The great Ben Johnson adds instant pathos to the proceedings, with Hart Bochner, Vanity and even David f*cking Copperfield lending ecclectic but admirable support. There's also a snap ending, whodunit style, that comes as a bit of a surprise the first time you see it...the nature of which is shocking in its own right. Don't want to spoil much, but homicidal herms are where it's at! Extra props to DP John Alcott (THE SHINING), who framed the film with a claustrophobic focus, making the train as inescapable as the killer himself. All a-f*cking-board!
Two distinctly polarizing camps Fred Walton's APRIL FOOL'S DAY has created over the years, you tend to either love or hate his 1986 horror-charade of grandeur. I personally grew up watching it, as it's one of my older sister's favorite horror joints, so I'm certainly in the former camp. I know it's not an official holiday, but what the hell, there's plenty to go around. Besides, I believe it's the budgetary constraints of this early independent feature that actually fostered the kind of ingenuity the film boasts. If Walton had more green to spend, perhaps we see too much...and the film plays differently as a result. Based on the Agatha Christie tale "And Another One Falls," the film has a fun whodunit slasher vibe, despite the fact most of the kills are of the cut-away variety (for good reason, as the climax proves). A hint of advice, avoid the 2008 remake at all costs, instead go back and peep the who's who of 80s bit players, from Amy Steele (FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2) to Clayton Rohner (JUST ONE OF THE GUYS).
Okay, okay, so it's not a national holiday, but it is a ubiquitous personal celebration...and for that, why not include J. Lee Thompson's exuberant 1981 slasher flick HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME? After-all, Thompson directed THE GUNS OF THE NAVARRONE and the original CAPE FEAR, so the man knows how to tell a f*cking story. Speaking of, HBTM was penned by John C.W. Saxton, author of ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE S.S. (one of my favorite sleaze joints). Here, the set-up is simple enough: a troubled, black-out ridden girl invites her friends to her 18th birthday party. What ensues? A cadre of grisly murders, that's what. Made in the wake of FRIDAY THE 13TH, HBTM often gets lost in the shuffle of countless watered down imitations, but make no mistake, this sucker has enough grit and grue to sate any horror aficionado...this despite numerous excisions from the MPAA. With a twist ending, one that was shrouded by false press reports alluding to the contrary, makes HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME a pleasant gift indeed!
While I've only seen bits and pieces of Darren Bousman's rendition, Troma Films' very first title, MOTHER'S DAY, is quite a grueling little piece of pulp. Makes you wonder why and when the company actually took a one-way turn to the campiest of campgrounds. So be it, I'll back Charles Kaufman's second of five total features, and do so proudly. Why? There's a nihilistic tone supported by the scratch and grain of 70s grindhouse fare...at the same time reflecting some of the camp-and-kitsch we'd come to identify with 80s horror. It's grimily unapologetic, a quality I'm instantly drawn to...but it's also partially satirical. The flick was made for a paltry $115,000, unthinkable in this day and age....and interestingly, MOTHER'S DAY was filmed simultaneously on the other side of "Crystal Lake" while FRIDAY THE 13TH was being shot. Perverted, depraved, flat out repulsive at times, here's one MOTHER'S DAY you won't be sharing with mom anytime soon.
Loathed by many, loved by few...has there ever been a more polemic horror joint to arrive in the last 25 years than Charles E. Sellier Jr.'s SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT? So divisive was this film - about an axe-wielding maniac decked in a Saint Nick costume gorily butchering residents of a small town on Christmas Eve - that parental protest resulted in the film being yanked from theaters after only a two week run. In fact, the original plan to extend the run through Christmastime was scrapped, and it was only years later the film became a cult-hit on video among hardened horror circles. And for good reason. This is a highly cynical horror film without compunction, as graphically disturbing as it is conceptually. In fact, so outraged were Siskel and Ebert, that when they reviewed the film on their TV program, they waited for the credits to roll...and instead of reading the actual names, they simply shouted "shame, shame, shame" for every name that scrolled by. Now that's a success!
As much as I enjoyed Patrick Lussier's 2009 redo, I am still quite partial to George Mihalka's 1981 original version of MY BLOODY VALENTINE. As one of my all time favorite slashers, on this list or any, I contend the major success of the film hinges on the entire whodunit element that cruxes the plotline. Shot on location in Nova Scotia, the film sort of plays like a best-of Italian giallo film, where victims are savagely felled one by one, and it becomes up to us to suss the culprit. I love that structure in a horror film, and MBV certainly ranks among the best to feature it. In terms of the grue gauge, the film was originally tagged with an X-rating, a codification that was reduced to an R after 9 minutes were chopped (see the uncut version, now available on DVD, it's pretty damn gnarly). Still, the violence in MBV ain't for the faint of heart. Need some trivia? If you pay close attention, you'll notice the film takes place on Thursday, February 12th, with a town dance to be held on Saturday, the 14th. As a fellow Paramount production, an obvious connection would indicate that our pal Jason Voorhees was tearing shit up on Friday, the 13th...one day after the events in this film take place.
Predictable perhaps, but did you really expect us to omit John Carpenter's seminal slasher joint? Not a f*ckin' chance! Constantly cribbed yet rarely outdone (if at all), HALLOWEEN has exemplified the less-is-more approach to suspenseful horror, and has remained the paradigm of such for the last 33 years. Shot on a shoestring of about $300,00, Carpenter ingeniously used old fashioned filmmaking techniques to create a sense of impending dread that most A-list films couldn't achieve. With long takes and deep focus shots, a simple but searing musical score (one Carp contends is scarier than anything else in the film), the effect of the film mounts and mounts until the final third of the film erupts into an all-out bout of butchery. Michael Meyers, as iconic as they come in this profession, is also the first to be exploited as a recurring character in a slasher franchise. His aesthetic not only influenced many of his predecessors, so did the economic model of the film itself. And if you counter with LEATHERFACE, his sequel appearance didn't come until 1986, five years after Meyers' second slaughter stint.
I really love the work of the late great Bob Clark, a man who had such varied aplomb in the language of film that he successfully made two of the most diametrically opposed Christmas films of all time...BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) and A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983). While most are no doubt familiar with the latter, it's Clark's BLACK CHRISTMAS, the precursor to the American slasher subgenre, that is bestowed the highest gift on our list. Abominable remake aside, BLACK CHRISTMAS not only set the bar, it pretty much authored the rules of the game. A lone stalker, identified through shaky POV shots, taunts and tortures a harem of sorority girls. Sound familiar? A harasser calling from inside the house? Banging any chimes? Thing is, aside from the pioneering, the film is actually anchored by good storytelling and solid performances from good actors. Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon...these are pros' pros...and what could easily be cast aside as B-movie pabulum actually turns out to be something far greater. BLACK CHRISTMAS, top of the f*ckin' tree!