“If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl . . . it’s on too tight!” — advertising tagline for Black Christmas
Canada is a nation of firsts. Torontonian Don Munroe built the first table hockey game here in the early 1930s. Other parts of the country can lay claim to the Jolly Jumper, the celebration of Labour Day, artificial hearts, the Robertson square-head screwdriver, and it was a Canadian who mixed the world’s first Bloody Caesar. The country has broken ground in many fields, including film. Florence Lawrence, the first performer to be identified by name on screen, was born in Hamilton, Ontario, while the first aboriginal actor to portray a Native American on television, Jay Silverheels, hailed from the Six Nations Indian Reserve in Brantford, Ontario.
In a more macabre vein, without a groundbreaking 1974 Canadian horror film there might never have been a Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers. Between them the gruesome threesome have sliced and diced their way through at least two dozen movies, but the mayhem they imposed on promiscuous college girls and studly teens owes much to one film made in Toronto, a movie Film Threat magazine calls “the first modern slasher movie.”
Director Bob Clark didn’t invent the slasher film with Black Christmas — arguably Psycho, Peeping Tom or Bay of Blood (Reazione a catena) were the granddaddies of gore — but he did establish the format. Mix and match the fear of an unwelcome visitor to a sorority house brimming with randy college girls, a holiday-turned-violent theme, the anonymous phone call used to terrorize girls, a motiveless killer, a mysterious male stalking young women, and a female lead who must conquer her own fear in order to stay alive and you have the plot of dozens of films that were to follow.
Shot in Toronto between February and May 1974 on a budget of roughly $600,000, Black Christmas is about an unseen psychotic killer named Billy who makes disturbing, obscenity laced phone calls to a group of sorority girls. Soon he escalates from one-sided phone sex to dispatching the girls one by one in brutal fashion.
“It was originally called Stop Me,” says Clark, who was killed in an April 2007 car accident, “I don’t think I’m taking unfair credit, but Black Christmas was my title, my idea. I love the contrast of the idea of Christmas, the jolliest of all seasons with this dark kind of imagery. Both a horror film and Christmas have tremendous trappings that make a nice juxtaposition.”
Apparently others agreed with him. In the next two decades a tsunami of holiday themed horrors — Christmas and otherwise — drifted into theaters; My Bloody Valentine, New Year’s Evil, April Fools Day and a Santa’s sack of movies featuring death by Christmas tree light.
What sets Black Christmas apart from the rest of the Christmas horror pack are the memorable characters. The standout is a pre-Lois Lane Margot Kidder as the sharp-featured brunette Barb, whose alcoholic tendencies foreshadowed the actress’s troubled real life. “One of my favorite memories is Margot coming to the set for her famous turtles-screwing-for-three-days scene,” says Clark. “She was supposed to be imbibing, and she was, to get in character. She was definitely there.”
As Barb she thumbs her nose at any form of authority — be it the thick as a brick Sgt. Nash or the threatening caller — and steals every scene she’s in with her reckless energy. When she slurs, “This is a sorority house, not a convent,” it is lewd, raunchy and sexy-funny.
Argentine-born Olivia Hussey as Jess is not the typical sorority slasher movie heroine. Hussey brings a quiet strength to Jess that hints at a fountain of inner resolve. It has often been said that slasher films are the most Republican of genres because of the punishment meted out on people who go against conservative middle-American values. In other words smoking pot and jumping from bed to bed is bound to earn you a one way ticket to hell courtesy of some masked madman, while the virgin of the group usually makes it through bloodied but unbowed. In Black Christmas Jess rebels against her boyfriend, and is planning to have an abortion. Clearly she is no virgin, and yet she is the sole survivor of Billy’s rampage.
The boyfriends of Claire and Jess — Chris Hayden(Art Hindle) and Peter Smythe(Keir Dullea) — are studies in opposites. The Halifax-born Hindle plays Chris as earnest and loving (although he does wear a raccoon coat), a stand-up guy who loves his girlfriend even if their relationship is chaste.
Keir Dullea as Peter is a different story. Peter is an eccentric musician who realizes too late that he has traded one passion for another. His love of music overshadowed his feelings for Jess and now she is backing away from him. He is prone to fits of anger, and this hot-headed behavior is the perfect red herring (or McGuffin as Hitchcock used to call them) to make us think he is the killer. It is interesting to imagine how the character might have differed if Clark’s first choice for Peter, Malcolm McDowell, had accepted the part.
During shooting Dullea was only available for a week as he had other commitments in Europe. In his short time on the film, he never met Margot Kidder and worked with John Saxon only briefly. “My total experience with working with anybody was Olivia Hussey,” he says. Clark shot all of Dullea’s scenes first and in editing made it appear as though he was there for the whole time.
Like Black Christmas’s other imported movie star, Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea’s early career showed great promise, but didn’t mature into full-blown movie stardom. Two films hinted at his star potential — 1963’s Lisa and David and Bunny Lake is Missing in 1965 — but it wasn’t until he played astronaut Dave Bowman in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 that his full promise was reached. He failed to really capitalize on the notoriety that movie earned him, leading Noel Coward to famously quip, “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.”
Uncredited but very effective are the actors who voiced the obscene phone calls. The disembodied voices of unseen evil were supplied by a number of people including Bob Clark, actor Nick Mancuso and several female actors. “[The phone calls are] a compilation of about five actor’s voices,” says Clark. “I remember what Nick brought it to was an intensity that certainly I had never seen before,” said sound designer and composer Carl Zitrer who engineered the calls, mixing in reverb and an array of spooky sounds.
Was Black Christmas the inspiration for John Carpenter’s seminal slasher flick Halloween? It’s a question that has sparked a fair amount of debate, so let’s break it down. There are similarities that cannot be denied between the two films.
Most obviously both films open with a point of view shot of the killer creeping around the outside of a house at night. Clark uses this shot, and many POV angles to great effect in Black Christmas, but he wasn’t the first to use the subjective camera to create fear. Clark simply took an old idea and put a new spin on it. He would later say that he hoped to break new ground by “employing some, if not new, certainly reworked and rethought cinematic ideas.” Mario Bava used distorted POV in Blood and Black Lace, and Hitchcock used it in the shower scene in Psycho, just to name a couple famous examples. Clark’s innovation in Black Christmas was to make the point of view shot his centerpiece, using it create a mood of terror rather than a secondary complement to the horror already on screen.
Clark’s film is unique in that we never see the killer, he moves in the shadows, a subliminal figure of terror unlike the very visible Michael Myers in Halloween. What they share, however, is motive – neither of them has one. They are striking out at these victims for no reason. Carpenter says he modelled Michael Myers’ relentless passion for killing on a film by Michael Crichton. “I must tell you that I cribbed from Westworld – Yul Brynner as a robot gunfighter who malfunctions and keeps coming after them. I just took it a step further, but I gave you no explanation.” Pre-Black Christmas movie homicidal maniacs always had a motive, but we never know why Billy targeted the Pi Kappa Sig house or its inhabitants.
There is one major difference between the two – Billy is literally a raving lunatic, screaming and grunting his way through the film, whereas Michael Myers (and later, Jason Voorhees) is unnaturally silent.
It may have just been weird synchronicity that two films about homicidal maniacs open with unusual POV shots, and share an ideological bent, but there is no question that Black Christmas and Halloween are similar.
“I absolve John Carpenter every time,” says Clark. “The facts are that I was going to direct a film John wrote a couple of years after Black Christmas. He was a big fan of Black Christmas… and he asked me if I was ever going to do a sequel.
“I said, ‘I would make it the following fall and somehow in the interim the killer had been caught and had been institutionalized. I would have him escape one night, and now he is free in the community… and he starts staking them again at the Black Christmas sorority house, and I was going to call it Halloween.’
“I think he was influenced by it, as were a few others. When you think about what John Carpenter did, [however], wrote a script — really quite different from that idea —directed it, edited it and did the music. It was a terrific piece of work. Maybe the title Halloween he should have given me a little of, but I didn’t own that either.”
Despite the rave reviews, and the prediction of Olivia Hussey’s personal psychic that the film would make a bundle, Black Christmas didn’t fare well at the box-office in the USA. To boost admissions, in some markets the movie’s name was changed to A Stranger in the House to avoid confusion with the flurry of blaxploitation films that were appearing at the time. It was also released as Silent Night, Evil Night.
Viewed through today’s eyes the movie holds up. It is very stylish, although slower in sections, and with a lower body count than modern horror fans are used to, but it is still capable, more than three decades after its conception, to raise goose bumps. A testament to the film’s enduring ability to scare came when NBC cancelled an airing of the film because they felt it was too intense for television audiences. It has also earned the seal of approval from Quentin Tarantino, who cites it as one of his favorite movies.
“It’s an interesting film.” says Clark, “I thought it was a good, scary, classic horror story, and those have a way of surviving.”
One of the most used film chestnuts is the “one last job” cliché. As a plot device we’ve seen it in everything from “The Sting” to “The Wild Bunch” to “Sexy Beast” to “Inception.” It usually involves a character’s search for redemption; a release that can only come after doing their usual job/gig/illegal activity one more time. Usually things don’t work out as planned but rarely have the consequences been as biblical as the climax of the aptly titled new thriller “The Last Exorcism.”
Staged like a documentary “The Last Exorcism” follows the exploits of Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a fundamentalist preacher and exorcist. I say exploits because Marcus makes a habit of exploiting the beliefs of his followers for money. He is, more or less, a God fearing man, but despite his fire and brimstone sermons, he doesn’t buy into the existence of demons. He’s like a slick salesman who doesn’t really believe in his product. He does however think the process of exorcism helps people who have faith He’s happy to take their money and business is good. “The Vatican gets the press,” he says, “because they have ‘the movie’” but he is called on to do dozens of exorcisms a year. After reading about a botched exorcism in which a young boy is killed, however, he decides to hang up his cross. He’ll do the fabled one last job for the benefit of the documentary cameras but that’s it. Of course, the demonic doings on the farm of Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) in rural Louisiana test his faith—or lack thereof—more than he anticipated.
“The Last Exorcism” is part “Blair Witch Project” and part “Wicker Man” with a taste of “Rosemary’s Baby” thrown in for good measure. Despite some gaping credulity gaps—like a documentary crew who stays well past the point when any sane person would have run for the hills—it’s filled with enjoyably cheap and nasty b-movie thrills. By and large there are no special effects, just old school frights like eerie shadowy figures walking down hallways. The scares come from the situation, the characters and the layer of tension that director Daniel Stamm allows to build slowly as he nears the fiery climax.
As I said earlier, along the way credulity is stretched paper thin, and hardcore horror fans will likely see some of the twists coming, but Stamm compensates for that in the casting. One of the worst aspects of these “found footage” faux documentaries is the acting. Too often amateurish performances stand out like sore thumbs in these films, but with very few exceptions “The Last Exorcism” pulls it off acting wise. Particularly strong are Patrick Fabian as the sardonic know-it-all preacher and Ashley Bell as the 16-year-old demon child. Fabian brings some unexpected charm and humor to the role and Bell impresses as she careens from innocent to evil in the blink of an eye.
“The Last Exorcism” isn’t the most startling or original horror film to come along recently, but it is suitably creepy and should make you gobble your popcorn just a bit faster during the scary scenes.
1. Romero’s zombies don’t eat brains. “I’ve never had a zombie eat a brain! I don’t know where that comes from,” he told Vanity Fair. “Who says zombies eat brains?”
2. Romero didn’t even call his undead characters zombies in his first movie. “When I did Night of the Living Dead,” he told About.com, “I called them ghouls, flesh-eaters. I didn’t think they were. Back then zombies were still those boys in the Caribbean doing the wet work for Lugosi. So I never thought of them as zombies. I thought they were just back from the dead.”
3. Romero doesn’t watch The Walking Dead. “I love the books,” he said to io9.com. “I haven’t seen any of the episodes.”
4. Romero has had it with people asking him about zombies. When asked by eatsleeplkivefilm.com if he is tired of zombie queries he said, “Yes. But you know what are you going to do?”
5. Romero wears his famous thick-rimmed black glasses mostly for show these days. “I don’t need them anymore. I mean I don’t need them to read, I mean these are bifocals. I used to need them for reading and for middle-distance. Now I’m a little fuzzy on the long-distance, but I guess that all turned around with old age, so I don’t need for these reading but I’m thinking of just taking the lenses out, because I’ve got to wear them for photographs; everybody says, ‘Where’s your glasses?’“
6. Romero wears Goliath brand glasses. From barimavox.blogspot.ca: “The Goliath is favoured by famed horror filmmaker and Grandfather of the Zombie, George A. Romero and worn by Elliot Gould in the Ocean’s 11 trilogy and Robert De Niro in Casino, as well as by the late flamboyant actor and game show host Charles Nelson Reilly.”
7. Quentin Tarantino says the “A” in George A. Romero stands for “A fucking genius,” when actually it stands for Andrew.
8. Romero calls the 1951 Michael Powell film The Tales of Hoffman, “the movie that made me want to make movies. I was dragged kicking and screaming by an aunt and uncle. I wanted to go see the new Tarzan; the new Lex Barker movie to see how he stacked up against Weissmuller and they said, ‘No! We’re going to see this,’ and I fell in love with it. It’s just beautiful. Completley captivating. It’s all sung. It’s all opera. It’s not like The Red Shoes where there is a story running through it and then Léonide Massine does a ballet at the end. I just fell in love with it from the pop.”
9. Romero is of Cuban and Lithuanian descent. His father was Cuban-born of Castilian Spanish parentage, his mother Lithuanian-American.
10. At age 19 he worked as a gofer on the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest but was unimpressed with the director’s mechanical and passionless directorial style. He was there for the train station scene shot in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. Also among the onlookers was future It’s Alive director Larry Cohen.
When I was a kid I used to read a series of books called Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. They were kind of like the Hardy Boys, but always had a supernatural twist of some kind. They had names like The Mystery of the Green Ghost and were a precursor to the Goosbumps books in that they were exciting and scary. I bring this up not just to take a stroll down memory lane, but because the new film Monster House reminded me of the spirit of those books—harmless scary fun.
Like the heroes of the Three Investigator novels, Monster House finds a young trio of friends, two boys and a girl, trying to discover the secret of a gloomy old haunted house in their neighborhood that seems to come alive and devour anyone and anything that dares trespass on its front lawn.
The movie was created using the motion-capture process last used for Polar Express. Behind each of the animated characters are performers who act out each scene on a “black box” set wearing special suits that capture their every move on a computer. Once animated the performances have the spontaneity of live action with the distinctive look of animation. I thought the animation in Polar Express was creepy—the characters put me in the mind of zombies performing a Christmas pageant—but Monster House makes much better use of the high-tech animation method.
Despite the animation and the movie’s outlandish story, you get the feeling from Monster House that you are watching real kids on a real adventure. The three leads behave the way kids do and the strong script allows them to talk to one another as kids do. Their dynamic as friends owes more than just a little to Harry Potter, but they are fun to watch, particularly Chowder, the little trouble maker who gets most of the laughs.
Some scenes in the film might be a little intense for younger viewers, but nonetheless Monster House is a good bet for the whole family.
The most surprising thing about “Frozen” a new horror film from “Hatchet” director Adam Green, is that it isn’t a Canadian movie. With its vast vistas of snow, wolf attacks, two Canadian leading men and body parts getting stuck to cold steel poles, “Frozen” has Great White North written all over it.
Set on a remote ski hill in Massachusetts “Frozen’s” story is very simple. Three snowboarders—Parker (Emma Bell), her boyfriend Dan (Kevin Zegers), and his best friend Lynch (Shawn Ashmore)—get stranded on a ski lift fifty feet in the air after the hill has shut down. The resort, only open on the weekends, won’t reopen for another five days and unless they can find a way to safely get off the lift they will freeze to death.
This is situational horror. There are no monsters, just bad timing and bad decisions that force the unlucky trio to face their darkest fears—the dark, the cold, heights and the worst foe of all, Mother Nature. Director Green subtly ups the ante every minute of the film’s running time, believably building horror, both physical and psychological. Not that much happens and the action is at a minimum but “Frozen” is an extremely tense movie.
Green makes good use of the stark surroundings and sound design. I’m not sure what they used to create the squishy sound that dominates one grisly scene, but it proves conclusively that sometimes what you hear is scarier than what you see.
On the downside, the barebones story doesn’t demand the full feature length treatment. In the early moments of the film, once the lift stops suddenly, it feels like the movie will movie along quickly. Once the action starts—or, more accurately stops—the fear and tension build a little too rapidly. The three friends fall apart in seconds, panicking too soon. Green let that bit of pacing get away from him, but soon has the real horror start and gives them a reason to be on edge.
Still, at ninety minutes “Frozen” feels padded, particularly during the, occasionally interminable small talk the friends makes to take their minds off their predicament. Too often it feels like filler and worse, frequently sounds like acting school monologues. The prattling gets tiresome as the movie nears its final moments and a bit of trimming here and there could have brought this down to a lean and mean eighty minutes.
Green has pulled good performances out of the actors, particularly from newcomer Emma Bell, who avoids the usual pitfalls of being the only female presence in a horror film.
“Frozen’s” tense story of survival will, at the very least, make you think twice about that trip to Whistler next year. Maybe Myrtle Beach would be a better choice…
Big monsters are back. Movies like “The Host” and “Cloverfield” have reintroduced audiences to that rarest, but biggest of beasts, the giant out-of-control monster. Who needs vampires and zombies when you could have a ninety foot tall squid with a bad attitude and a Christmas bulb for a head?
The latest addition to the big monster genre is “Monsters,” an indie movie that reportedly only cost $15,000. Part road trip, part romance and all atmosphere, the story of Andrew (Scoot McNairy), an opportunistic photojournalist, who must escort his boss’s daughter, Sam (Whitney Able), back to the U.S. border through the treacherous quarantine area inhabited by… you guessed it, giant creatures left there when a NASA space craft carrying samples of extraterrestrial life crashed.
It’s a pure b-movie premise and for the first fifteen minutes or so promises to be little more than a Roger Corman film with better CGI. Then something happens. The movie becomes about the relationship between total opposites Andrew and Sam as they bond over their trip’s hardships and the strangeness of their surroundings. It’s a giant monster movie that focuses on the characters and despite some wild plot contrivances, it works.
The character study is a slow burn that leads up to the big reveal, the unveiling of the creatures. For most of the film they are seen and not heard but director Gareth Edwards paces the film carefully building up suspense through use of sound effects to climax with a wild mating dance between two of the Lovecraftian beasts. It’s a strangely beautiful and eerie sequence that brings the movie to a close.
“Monsters” isn’t as effective as “District 9” or “Cloverfield,” two other recent movies that introduced us to new creatures, but it is a complex film with timely messages about immigration (the US is protected by a giant fence to keep the monsters out) and our reactions in times of danger.
Horror fans must have an almost permanent feeling of deja vu these days. It seems that the horror films that we grew up with in the 1960s and 70s, like The Amityville Horror, Dawn of the Dead, The Fog and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, are all being re-made, which makes the new releases list in the newspaper occasionally seem like it came from the Twilight Zone.
The latest cult horror film to find a new life in 2006 is The Hills Have Eyes, the 1977 Wes Craven film that gave us the immortal line, “We’re going to be French fries! Human French fries!”
The 2006 version is directed by the French director Alexandre Aja who gave us the deeply unpleasant, but rather effective thriller High Tension last year. For the most part Aja takes his lead from the original film about an unfortunate family of vacationers who get stranded in desert of New Mexico, falling prey to mutant cannibalistic hillbillies. The bad guys are descendents of miners who worked in this remote location and continued to live there even after the government started testing nuclear bombs in their backyard. A generation later they have mutated into some very unpleasant creatures with bad tempers and a taste for human flesh.
Aja’s version takes one major liberty with the source material. In the original Craven established that the mutants, although they were evil, were a family. In fact they mirrored the poor family they were terrorizing—all American verses Americans all messed up by their own country’s experiments. I thought the contrast was one of the strong points of that film and lent a tone of social commentary about nuclear testing to the piece.
Aja forgoes social comment for shocks, and although he takes his time getting to the hard-core action, once the thrills arrive they’re worth the wait. This movie is not for the easily disturbed or the faint of heart, but if you like your scares gruesome and fast paced the Hills Have Eyes is for you.
A Saturday matinee screening of Paranormal Activity was the first and only time I have ever heard anyone actually scream in a theatre. I don’t mean a quiet whimper followed by an embarrassed laugh or a frightened little squeal. No, I mean a full-on, open throated howl of terror.
The release of Paranormal’s prequel last weekend got me thinking about other big screen scream worthy scenes. So just in time for Halloween are some leave-the-lights-on movie moments.
If Alfred Hitchcock had any doubts about the effectiveness of the shower sequence in Psycho they must have been put to bed when he received an angry letter from the father whose daughter stopped bathing after seeing the bathtub murder scene in Les Diaboliques and then, more distressingly, refused to shower after seeing Psycho. Hitch’s response to the concerned dad? “Send her to the dry cleaners.”
The shower scene was terrifying but at least it was allowed to stay in the movie. In 1931, Frankenstein star Boris Karloff demanded the scene in the movie where the monster plays with a little girl, throwing flowers in a pond be cut from the picture. It’s a cute scene until the beast runs out of flowers and tosses the little girl into the water, leaving her to drown. Karloff, and audiences, objected to the violence against the youngster and the scene was shortened, then removed altogether and remained unseen until a special videotape release 48 years later.
More recently, The Exorcist (now beautifully restored on Blu Ray) so traumatized audiences with shots of the possessed Regan MacNeil’s 360-degree head spinning that in the U.K. the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade were on-call at screenings to tend to fainters. Star Linda Blair says she wasn’t traumatized by the film, but admits there has been one long lasting side effect. “You wouldn’t believe how often people ask me to make my head spin around,” she says.
Blair may have been unfazed while shooting her gruesome scenes, but not all actors emerge unscathed. Elisha Cuthbert was so grossed out while shooting the notorious blender scene in the down-and-dirty flick Captivity she says she felt “physically ill twice” and had to have a bucket nearby.
Scary scenes one and all, but recounting them begs the question, why are we drawn to them?
The quick answer comes from Alfred Hitchcock who said, “People like to be scared when they feel safe.”