Bro Down

Black Christmas

by Hope Madden

In the history of cinema, the number of bad, misogynistic horror movies is too high to count. I literally cannot count that high. So, even though Black Christmas is not a good horror movie, it’s somehow comforting to know there is now at least one bad feminist horror flick.

Co-writer/director Sophia Takal (writing alongside April Wolfe) puts a new spin on Bob Clark’s seasonal classic. (Well, Clark also directed A Christmas Story, but I’m talking about his 1974 original Black Christmas.)

Christmas break is upon the Hawthorn College campus and students are slowly trickling home. Any sorority sisters left at school will wish they’d made other plans.

Clark’s bloodier yuletide gem remains relevant because it’s a pre-slasher slasher, meaning that it doesn’t entirely follow the formula because there was no formula for slashers in 1974. Many consider Black Christmas to be the first of that sub-genre, so it subverts expectations because, when it was made, there were none. Fun!

The second reason people return to it annually is the creepy ass phone calls that still somehow manage to be chilling.

Takal definitely frustrates with phones, although not to nearly the same chilling effect. But she does manage to give the formula a switch-up.

Imogen Poots leads the cast as Riley, and we know Riley is the film’s hero because she has the most to overcome. Poots is a reliable performer, though she struggles to give Riley much character. Still, you see flashes of her talent, especially in an infuriating conversation with campus police.

Aleyse Shannon leaves a more interesting impression as activist/bestie Kris, and Cary Elwes makes a welcome, oily visit as the professor you really, really hate.

Unlike the ’74 original or the unwatchable 2006 reboot, Takal’s Black Christmas is PG13, so don’t expect any real scares or envelope-pushing violence. Where Takal takes chances is with the message that rape culture has to be burned to the ground.

The film is a blunt instrument, but there are moments in the dialog that are both cathartic and funny. Female characters are treated with sincere scrutiny and empathy (except in the film’s prologue, which is just disappointing).

And yet, the leap in logic between “let’s go to the cops” and “here’s my supernatural theory” is so grand, so bold, so ludicrous that you almost have to admire it. It absolutely sinks the movie, but there’s something applause worthy in the wrong-headedness of it.

The plot ends up killing Black Christmas, which is too bad. Takal threads some audacious take downs of bro culture throughout a film with a lot of insight. It’s just not a very good movie.

Fright Club: Best Christmas Horror Movies

It’s the holidays!! Who doesn’t want to snuggle in with their cup of nog and a nice, Christmassy bloodletting? I know we do. But with so very much to choose from – Krampus, A Christmas Horror Story, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Santa Claws, Gremlins, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Legend of Hell House, The Children, Satan’s Little Helper, Santa’s Slay – which should you watch?

Well, none of those. I mean, they’re great in their own (sometimes awful) ways, but we have a list of 5 that may actually scare you.

5. Saint (2010)

What is every child’s immediate reaction upon first meeting Santa? Terror. Now imagine a mash-up between Santa, a pirate, and an old school Catholic bishop. How scary is that?

Well, that’s basically what the Dutch have to live with, as their Sinterklaas, along with his helper Black Peter, sails in yearly to deliver toys and bag naughty children to kidnap to Spain. I’m not making this up. This truly is their Christmas fairy tale. So, really, how hard was it for writer/director Dick Maas to mine his native holiday traditions for a horror flick?

Allegorical of the generations-old abuse against children quieted by the Catholic Church, Saint manages to hit a few nerves without losing its focus on simple, gory storytelling.

4. Black Christmas (1974)

Director Bob Clark made two Christmas-themed films in his erratic career. His 1940s era A Christmas Story has become a holiday tradition for many families and most cable channels, but we celebrate a darker yule tide tale: Black Christmas.

Sure, it’s another case of mysterious phone calls leading to grisly murders; sure it’s another one-by-one pick off of sorority stereotypes; sure, there’s a damaged child backstory; naturally John Saxon co-stars. Wait, what was different? Oh yeah, it did it first.

Released in 1974, the film predates most slashers by at least a half dozen years. It created the architecture. More importantly, the phone calls are actually quite unsettling.

Why the girls remain in the sorority house (if only they’d had an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!), or why campus police are so baffled remains a mystery, but Clark was onto something with the phone calls, as evidenced by the number of films that ripped off this original convention.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30OgeKqpIvw

3. Sheitan (2006)

How fucked up is this one? The fantastic Vincent Cassel stars as the weirdest handyman ever, spending a decadent Christmas weekend with a rag tag assortment of nightclub refugees. After Bart (Olivier Barthelemy) is tossed from the club, his mates and the girls they’re flirting with head out to spend the weekend at Eve’s (a not shy Rosane Mesquida). Way out in rural France, they meet Eve’s handyman, his very pregnant wife, and a village full of borderline freaks.

But who cares when somebody might be knocking boots at any minute?

The film is savagely uncomfortable and refreshingly unusual. Cassel’s performance is a work of lunatic genius, and his film is never less than memorable.

2. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

It’s not just the Dutch with a sketchy relationship with Santa. That same year Saint was released, the Fins put out an even better Christmas treat, one that sees Santa as a bloodthirsty giant imprisoned in Korvatunturi mountains centuries ago.

Some quick thinking reindeer farmers living in the land of the original Santa Claus are able to separate naughty from nice and make good use of Santa’s helpers. There are outstanding shots of wonderment, brilliantly subverted by director Jalmari Helander, with much aid from his chubby cheeked lead, a wonderful Onni Tommila.

Rare Exports is an incredibly well put together film. Yes, the story is original and the acting truly is wonderful, but the cinematography, sound design, art direction and editing are top notch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pH9IyqTk1E

1. Inside (2007)

Who didn’t know this would be our #1?

This is not your usual Christmas cheer – not even for this list. No, this is a horror movie, no question about it, and it stems from the country that put out some of the most extreme yet excellent the genre had to offer in the first decade of this century. France’s 2000 – 2010 output included High Tension, Frontiers, Martyrs, Sheitan, Calvaire, Them, Irreversible, and Trouble Every Day, all of which are spectacular and challenging horror options. Inisde stands out for its exponentially developing pace, its sinister sense of humor, and one outstanding villain.

Beatrice Dalle’s insidious performance is hard to shake. Fearless, predatory, pitiless and able to take an enormous amount of abuse, her nameless character stalks a very, very pregnant Sarah (Alysson Paradis). Sarah lost her husband in a car crash some months back, and now, on the eve of Christmas, she sits, enormous, uncomfortable, and melancholy about the whole business. She’s grown cynical and despondent, more depressed than excited about giving birth in the morning.

Alexandre Bustillo’s film seeks to change her mind, make her want that baby. Because Dalle’s lurking menace certainly wants it. Her black clad silhouette is in the back yard, smoking and stalking – and she has seriously bad plans in mind.

Bustillo and directing partner Julien Maury swing the film from intelligent white collar angst to goretastic bloodfest with ease. The sadistic humor Dalle brings to the performance adds chills, and Paradis’s realistic, handicapping size makes her vulnerability palpable.

This is a mostly brilliant effort, a study in tension wherein one woman will do whatever it takes, with whatever utensils are available, to get at the baby still firmly inside another woman’s body.

Merry f’ing Christmas!

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Fright Club: Best Slashers

Listen to the full FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST.

Senior Aussie Correspondent Cory Metcalfe makes a return trip, because he is a slasher junky and we needed the assist. Together we walk through the five best slashers in cinematic history, but first we had a couple of arguments to settle.

There are millions of potential films in this category, so we defined the term slasher for our purposes. Well, Hope defined it and George grumbled about it. Definition: A group is stalked in a neighborhood/woods (not a single, isolated location) by a seemingly indestructible killer with a blade of some kind. So, no Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, Maniac.

On to our second argument – one of Cory’s all-time favorites (and likely a film you expect to see here) did not make the list. Again, blame Hope, though Cory was a great sport about it.

With that out of the way, it’s time: Fright Club counts down the five best slashers!

5. Bay of Blood (1971)

Here is where you might have seen Friday the 13th, but won’t. In fact, nearly every campground slasher – The Burning, Sleepaway Camp, the wonderful new Belgian horror Cub – all owe a debt, not really to Friday the 13th, but to Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve).

If you’re familiar with Bava (and you should be), it’s probably because of his more romantic, visually lovely films like Black Sunday, but in ’71 he made his bloodiest film and created nearly every gimmick we’d soon see across the slasher subgenre.

The story is basically nonsensical. There’s a murder early on that sets up a fight for an inheritance; meanwhile four nubile youths stumble into the same inheritable bayside cottage, where they have sex, skinny dip, die, etc. You will notice entire scenes lifted directly for use in Friday the 13th, but the film is also fun because, as it predates the genre, it often feels like it’s somehow veered off the path (because there was no path yet). So Bay of Blood gets the nod because it did it first.

4. Black Christmas (1974)

The other foundational work in the genre, like Bay of Blood, Black Christmas created the architecture for the slasher. Fun trivia: director Bob Clark made two Christmas-themed films in his erratic career, including the iconic A Christmas Story (You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!). Black Christmas is remembered less well.

Sure, it’s another case of mysterious phone calls leading to grisly murders; sure it’s another one-by-one pick off of sorority stereotypes; sure, there’s a damaged child backstory; naturally John Saxon co-stars. Wait, what was different? Oh, yeah, two things. Maybe three. The story veers off on a red herring chase that’s utterly ludicrous. Also, the actors – Margot Kidder, in particular – show more commitment than you’d normally see in this kind of film. Most importantly, the phone calls are actually pretty scary. There’s something unseemly about them, unsettling.

Why the girls remain in the sorority house (if only they’d had an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!), or why campus police are so baffled remains a mystery, but Clark was onto something with the phone calls, as evidenced by the number of films that ripped off this original convention.

3. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Teens on suburban Elm St. share nightmares, and one by one, these teens are not waking up. Not that their disbelieving parents care.

Depositing a boogieman in your dreams, creating nightmares that will truly kill you, was a genius concept by writer/director Wes Craven because you can only stay awake for so long. It took everyone’s fear of nightmares to a more concrete level.

Plus, Craven had plenty of iconic kills and images up his sleeve. That face that stretches through the wall is cool, the weirdly long arms out behind Tina are still super scary. The nightmare images are apt, and the hopscotch chant and the vision of Freddie himself were not only refreshingly original but wildly creepy. All of that plus an iconic villain, brought to glorious life by Robert Englund’s darkly comical performance, and you have a real keeper.

2. Scream (1996)

A dozen years after recreating the genre with Nightmare, Wes Craven did it again. When Scream hit screens in 1996, we were still three years from the onslaught of the shakey cam, six years from the deluge of Asian remakes, and nearly ten years from the first foul waft of horror porn. In its time, Scream resurrected a basically dying genre, using clever meta-analysis and black humor.

What you have is a traditional high school slasher – someone dons a likeness of Edvard Munch’s most famous painting and plants a butcher knife in a local teen, leading to red herrings, mystery, bloodletting and whatnot. But Craven’s on the inside looking out and he wants you to know it.

What makes Scream stand apart is the way it critiques horror clichés as it employs them, subverting expectation just when we most rely on it. As the film opens, Casey (Drew Barrymore) could have survived entirely (we presume) had she only remembered that it was not, in fact, Jason Voorhees who killed all those campers in Friday the 13th; it was his mother. A twisted reverence for the intricacies of slashers is introduced in the film’s opening sequence, then glibly revisited in one form or another in nearly every scene after. It could be the wryly clever writing or the solid performances, but I think it’s the joyous fondness for a genre and its fans that keeps this one fresh.

1. Halloween (1978)

No film is more responsible for the explosion of teen slashers than John Carpenter’s babysitter butchering classic.

From the creepy opening piano notes to the disappearing body ending, this low budget surprise changed everything. Carpenter develops anxiety like nobody else, and plants it right in a wholesome Midwestern neighborhood. You don’t have to go camping or take a road trip or do anything at all – the boogeyman is right there at home.

Michael Myers – that hulking, unstoppable, blank menace – is scary. Pair that with the down-to-earth charm of lead Jamie Lee Curtis, who brought a little class and talent to the genre, and add the bellowing melodrama of horror veteran Donald Pleasance, and you’ve hit all the important notes. Just add John Carpenter’s spare score to ratchet up the anxiety. Perfect.