HMAD Second Chances: Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)

DECEMBER 22, 2014


I first watched Silent Night, Bloody Night only a few weeks into HMAD's run, and I didn't think too much of it at the time. I will chalk it up to three things: one is the season; it's a Christmas (ish) movie that I watched in March. Not that a movie has to be timely to be enjoyed (Die Hard is awesome every day of the year), but for non-bona fide classics like this, it certainly helps to be in the seasonal mood. The second thing was the transfer; I'd have to pull it out to be positive, but I'm pretty sure the copy I watched on Amazon was an improvement, as there was only one brief section where it was too dark to see clearly, and the rest would have been one of the better transfers on my Mill Creek sets (for what little that is worth, yes yes I am aware). When you're straining your eyes and ears, it's going to just make the experience a less than pleasant one, even if it's the best movie of all time.

The third is what I already mentioned - it was early into HMAD's run. I hadn't been exposed to too many bad movies yet, so the grading curve has changed. I've also mellowed out a lot, and thus I'm more forgiving of lousy editing or confusing plot development than I was 6-7 years ago. I'm guessing there are a lot of movies in this "perfectly decent" category that got negative reviews as a result, and if I had the time I'd go back and revisit more of these older films to see if my opinion changed, but that likely won't ever happen so just accept this one "apology" as a Christmas gift to you longtime HMADers.

One of the things I definitely didn't give the movie enough credit for the first time around is a genuinely good mystery/whodunit, which skirts on the edge of being a cheat without actually going into that territory (which, if you think about it, is something they should all do, otherwise it'll be too easy to solve). The ownership of a house is at the movie's center, and someone unseen is knocking off just about everyone involved with it (the lawyer handling the sale, the town's mayor, etc), with all signs pointing to the owner's grandson, who showed up in town just as A. the murders started occurring and B. someone escaped from the nearby mental institute. Of course, if it IS him it'd be way too easy, but picking who it is out of the other suspects isn't so easy. Again, it's a bit of a cheat, but as always I have to hint that movies are a visual medium and if you merely HEAR about something then it probably isn't as cut and dry as we've been led to believe.

But how the mystery is explained does leave something to be desired, as it's done both with clunkily inserted flashbacks and at least two narrators. I know someone sitting there reciting pages of exposition isn't exactly thrilling, but I'll take that over the feeling that you're suddenly watching a different movie, as major plot points are spelled out/explained via people we don't see in the main part of the movie. If the IMDb is to be trusted, and it never should be, the movie was shot over a period of 2 years, so perhaps this sort of thing is the result of losing actors/locations and having to smooth over plot holes with new stuff that wasn't intended to be there originally.

The funny thing is, if that WAS the case, then maybe that would explain the POV shots, completely rare at the time and, like the flashbacks, a bit erratically used here. Still, the movie is a proto-slasher, and whenever you credit Halloween with some of these techniques someone will correct you and say Black Christmas did it first, but this actually came before both of them! And with the movie involving creepy phone calls and, as the title suggests, Christmas, it's a bit suspicious at times - was Bob Clark and/or Roy Moore influenced by this little drive-in cheapie? It languished in obscurity until the 80s (apparently it took an Elvira airing to come back into what passes for its popularity), so it's possible no one of note would have noticed the similarities back then, and Black Christmas itself was kind of obscure for a while (it was not a big success, and had multiple titles - including Silent Night EVIL Night, hilariously enough - that made it harder to stake a claim to anything).

Like Black Christmas, the holiday isn't really important to the plot the same way it is for Silent Night Deadly Night (or even the Black Christmas remake). There's a poorly decorated tree in Mary Woronov's house, and I guess the holiday is why no one's around, but otherwise that's about it. There's some snow on the ground but most of the movie takes place inside anyway, so that's hardly a holiday trapping. But there's something about it that taps into that darker, lonelier side of Christmas, for the folks without families or spouses nearby to spend it with. I remember when I first moved to LA, my wife was still in Mass (where this movie takes place! Filmed in NY though) when Christmas rolled around, and so I spent it alone; I went to a depressing double feature (Munich and Wolf Creek) and ate takeout from Fatburger. I think that's when I started playing Final Fantasy VII again too (this was my 4th attempt, and the first successful one as I finished it this time!). In short, it was pretty dire, and that's the kind of Christmas presented in this movie - our hero arrives in town and knows no one, our heroine is waiting for her dad to come over for their annual meal together (just the two of them), and it's just dark and quiet and sad. Plus there's a guy axing people to death.

Speaking of Arlington, I was tickled all over again by the movie's depiction of the city. It's a pretty bustling suburb, bordering on regular city (its only a town over from Cambridge, so that sort of spills over), but the movie would have you believe it's a very sparse small town, where your neighbor is a mile away or whatever. Since it wasn't shot in MA I assume they just picked a random name from the Big Book Of Massachusetts City Names rather than check to see which ones looked like the town in their movie. If you're a MA resident, think more Western Mass, like Sunderland or something - that's what their "Arlington" is like here. It doesn't really matter to the plot or anything, but it amused me as a former resident who now lives in LA - if you're faking LA somewhere you'll get caught instantly, but I bet most Bloody Night viewers figured it was pretty accurate.

Due to its public domain status, the movie is a budget pack staple, and while I guess there's an edition from Film Chest that is pretty good (albeit still full frame), the odds of a proper special edition are slim. Director/writer Theodore Gershuny and most of the cast (Patrick O'Neal, John Carradine, James Patterson, Walter Abel, etc) are dead; Mary Woronov is the only one of note still around, and she divorced Gershuny sometime after this movie's completion so my guess is her memories of the experience aren't fond (then again, maybe they'll make for an amazing commentary). I just compared the one on Amazon Prime Instant to the one on Youtube and Amazon's is much better (the Youtube one matches up with my memory of the Chilling Classics version; I'd have to dig it out to be sure and I assure you I won't be bothering to do that), so if you're a Prime member you'll be fine with that rather than shelling out money for a DVD that's probably not much better, if at all (the reviews claim it's merely better than they've seen; no one's exactly calling it demo quality material). Either way, give it a look if you're not in the mood to rewatch Black Christmas this year. The proto slasher elements alone make it a must see for fans of the sub-genre, but unlike some others, it's got more value than merely being a curiosity. As busy as I am, I'm glad I gave it another chance.

What say you?


Lord Of Illusions (1995)

DECEMBER 21, 2014


I was a bad horror fan in the late summer of 1995, skipping Clive Barker's Lord of Illusions in theaters during its brief, not particularly successful run. On the weekend it opened, I opted to see Desperado instead, as my horror fan status was eclipsed by my "Oh hey Quentin Tarantino is in this!" excitement (ironically, QT would provide a quote on the Illusions DVD box), and the next week school started and my trips to the movies became less frequent while I got back into the swing of things. But while it's a shame for the movie's fortunes (my matinee dollars could have surely changed it from dud to smash!), there is a silver lining: I've never actually seen the truncated theatrical version of the film. When it came to VHS (!) it was the director's cut, and that's the one that's on this new Blu release from Scream Factory.

...and this was only the 2nd time I watched the film.

Yeah, I'm as shocked as you are. Somehow even though I've always known it was compromised I managed to see Nightbreed two or three times over the years (until Scream Factory fixed that as well), but I just never found the time for a 2nd go around with Harry D'Amour until now. It's a testament to Barker's ability to leave an impression that despite the fact that it's nearly 19 years later, I still remembered certain scenes in detail (the opening in particular) and even a few plot points, such as the fact that Swann's death was staged and that he was discovered by D'Amour after attending his own funeral. The various KNB-addled prosthetics were also crystal clear in my mind, though Fangoria might deserve credit for that one; if memory serves Illusions was the cover story on the first issue that I bought as a guy who planned to get it every month (up until then I just bought random issues when it had a topic I was highly interested in).

So what do I think? Well it might only be my 3rd favorite of the films Barker directed, but it's still a pretty damn good movie. Pitched as "Chinatown meets The Exorcist", I think the central mystery doesn't QUITE compel as well as it should (Angel Heart did the "supernatural meets noir" thing better, in my opinion), since Harry's role in it is largely circumstantial - he doesn't really get full on invested in it until the 3rd act. And apart from possibly Swann's non-death (which shouldn't be, since Kevin J. O'Connor was 2nd billed and anyone who saw the trailer would know there was more to his role than could have been seen prior to his death) there aren't a lot of surprises or twists to the mystery; it's pretty obvious that this guy Butterfield is trying to resurrect Nix and is going after the people who killed him in order to a. get revenge and b. find Nix's body. Large parts of the narrative would occur whether Harry was there or not, so in that respect it could be a bit stronger.

However, crossing these particular genres is a tough thing to do, and kudos to Barker for succeeding. I mentioned Angel Heart earlier, and there aren't really a lot of other options; Cast A Deadly Spell (and its sequel) are among the very few others. It's not surprising that it's a rare beast; a mystery by design is going to be rather talky, with a lot of exposition dumps - the very opposite of what a horror film is often trying to do, which is show not tell. So they don't exactly complement each other as well as, say, mixing comedies and dramas. And I love that Barker gave himself an even bigger challenge - he was working from his own short story, but not adapting it to the letter. The characters are the same (though Valentin, Swann's creepy assistant, was a demon in the story and more of an ally to D'Amour throughout) but the plot is fairly different. Swann's really dead, the plot mostly concerns his corpse, and there is no mention of Nix or any cult. Basically, if Barker didn't write the script himself, fans would be livid that some hack had bastardized their story.

Oddly, even though it's only 60 pages or so, it would have worked as a feature as is, so maybe someday someone will adapt it more traditionally. Since Valentin and D'Amour are teamed up trying to accomplish a task with people on their tail, instead of Chinatown it can be "Midnight Run meets The Exorcist", a movie I'd definitely want to see. On the commentary, Barker never really explains why he significantly overhauled his own work; I can only assume that he had the Nix idea as its own thing and got the idea to add his pre-existing character of Harry D'Amour to the proceedings (he DOES mention, on the making of, that Harry entering one of his stories even surprises HIM sometimes), but this major revision does explain the rather odd setup of a cult leader who is also a magician - the two worlds needed to connect and I guess that's what he came up with. It works OK enough; Nix isn't a major character in the movie anyway (he's really only in two sequences, the opening and the climax) so it's easy enough to forget the odd way we're brought into this world by the time the main plot kicks into gear.

But that brings me to what I considered the biggest revelation I had while watching: Barker is a phenomenally good director. Since Hellraiser was so low-key and Nightbreed a studio product that was compromised early on, it's hard to gauge his skills as a filmmaker from those two alone; after all he was working from solid source material of his own design. But here, he's basically telling a whole new story for the first time while balancing two very different genres, and he does a damn good job at it. Again, the mystery elements aren't exactly Raymond Chandler-esque, but even with all the talk he keeps the pace up (it's 121 minutes long but only felt like 90 to me), and gives us a wide variety of interesting characters - any one of them could have been the lead in a story. In fact he gives us so many intriguing types that he doesn't even have time for all of them; I mentioned Nix is only in two scenes, but that's twice as many as Vincent Schiavelli's pretentious illusionist that Harry fucks with - I would have loved more from him (plus I just miss Schiavelli in general). And Butterfield is just as creepy as Decker; he doesn't have a mask but for some reason while I think it's kind of alluring on a woman, heterochromia (two different colored eyes) creeps me out on dudes.

My only other gripe I could have made in 1995 - the CGI FX are decidedly CD-ROMish, and that's being polite. The fire serpent is OK, but that origami thing and some of the other visions are just terrible, and having the film on a pristine blu-ray doesn't do such moments any favors. They don't overwhelm the film like a few other 1995 horror films (Hideaway, anyone?) but for a movie that's all about making people believe in illusions, I sure wish they could have done a better job with these sequences. Then again, origami-man shares his scene with Famke Janssen, so even if it was Jurassic Park level photo-real it'd still pale in comparison to one of the finest visual effects ever created.

There's a surprising amount of vintage bonus material on the disc, most of which was from the special edition laserdisc - so much that Scream didn't really have to add much to it. Barker's commentary is fantastic, dividing his time equally between production info, the themes of his script, and general thoughts on horror itself, making it a must listen even if you hate the movie for some reason. Only near the end does he kind of run out of steam and occasionally just narrate the on-screen action or take pauses, but for a solo commentary on a 2 hr movie that's to be expected. There are three deleted scenes of minimal value (with forced Barker commentary drowning out the dialogue), and a fluffy vintage making of for your nostalgic pleasure. But the real perk is an hour long documentary that was newly created/edited using the existing behind the scenes footage and EPK interviews. It's a solid look at the film's production, with minimal repeated insight from Clive and priceless set footage - I particularly liked watching poor O'Connor patiently hanging on a wall (for the scene where Nix slams him into it; he's got some sort of rig attached to his back to keep him suspended) while the DP and camera operator argued about lenses.

The only all new material is an interview with storyboard artist Martin Mercer, which I found to be pretty interesting. It's not often they get to talk at length about their role, and Mercer touches on something that I never really considered - his job could find him at odds with the film's DP, as part of storyboarding is framing and specific camera movements, which is the other guy's job. But storyboarding can be a crucial element in securing a green light for a film, and that's the sort of thing that happens before a DP is hired anyway (for the record, he says that on this particular film he didn't have any such issues, just something he's encountered on other shows). We get to see some side by side comparisons of his frames with the finished product, always the least interesting special feature in the world to me so I just fast forwarded those parts until he started talking again. It's a bummer they couldn't get Clive or any of the actors to talk about the film in retrospect (might be the first SF release to lack a new interview with one of the actors), but since the wealth of this material was previously unreleased, it's still a good reason to upgrade from the DVD (the all new transfer is another perk). And for completionists' sake, the theatrical cut is offered on a 2nd disc, so you can enjoy the movie without two of its best scenes (both in cars, oddly; one is Valentin driving D'Amour to the funeral, the other is D'Amour driving Swann to his house) and also without the film's most disturbing sequence: the cult members getting ready to go to Nix's compound, after killing their families.

I hate that Barker never directed another feature; I assume his health problems played a part in it, but with two box office disappointments in a row (and more compromise than he was comfortable with, though he doesn't seem as frustrated by Illusions' cuts as Nightbreed's, presumably because he got to present his preferred version almost immediately, albeit on video) it's not likely he'd have much luck within the studio system again anyway. The independent scene would/should have embraced him if he was up for it, and perhaps someday he will be. He's certainly provided filmmakers with a wealth of material to draw from (I would LOVE a feature of "Son of Celluloid", personally), and post-Hellraiser he's had pretty decent luck with other people adapting his work (Dread, Midnight Meat Train, and obviously Candyman are all worthy adaptations; Book of Blood is the only non-sequel stinker that I can recall). But with Lord of Illusions he proved that he can deliver even when drastically changing from the source material, and I think we'd all prefer that if someone were to revise his prose, then there's no one better to do it than Barker himself.

What say you?


The Pyramid (2014)

DECEMBER 7, 2014


If you skipped As Above, So Below this year because you were waiting for The Pyramid to satisfy your urge for a movie about a bunch of explorers getting stuck in a tomb with only their video cameras to protect them, I have some bad news for you: you chose wrong. While no classic, As Above was a hell of a lot better than this silly Syfy level movie, and the constant deja vu did it no favors, since you've seen this done better already; it'd be like if Deep Impact came out AFTER Armageddon. Before I saw it I was confused why Fox was only putting the movie out on 580 screens since it had a couple of names (Alex Aja produced, American Horror Story staple Denis O'Hare stars) that would seemingly make it an easy sell, but by the time I was over I had to wonder why it was going theatrical at all.

At least, theatrical in 2014. If this was 2001, I'd totally get it. The horrible CGI on the movie's creatures would make Mummy Returns fans feel right at home, and they actually play a nu-metal song over the end credits, like just about every movie from Dimension's late 90s/early 00s heyday. If not for the fact that last year's social unrest in Egypt played a (minor) part in the movie's plot, I'd actually entertain the notion that it was something that was shot years ago and was being dumped now to settle a bet or something. I mean, it's not the worst movie I've seen theatrically this year (Jinn, Ganzefeld Haunting, Cabin Fever 3... hell it might not even be bottom 5, which used to mean little but with the baby I only go to the movies like 2 or 3 times a month), but it was just so damn stupid at times, with a shocking lack of any real suspense (and a horrible ending), that even those moments that work don't really help in the long run.

Two of those moments involve out of nowhere deaths, or, to be more accurate, out of nowhere injuries that lead to deaths. In one, a giant piece of rock crushes the leg of one of our heroes (I use the term lightly), which made for the movie's best jump scare. The other could have been a Sam Jackson in Deep Blue Sea level moment, but they chicken out of letting the character die right away - instead he survives a bit longer in order for one of the other characters to film his death (with night vision camera) and provide some more exposition for good measure. In fact, now that I think about it, just about ALL of the movie's six characters (two documentary jerks, three science types, and a soldier) sort of die twice; they suffer what appears to be a mortal injury only to hang on for a bit and die later. One even survives being buried in sand! It happens so often that the film lacks any punch; not only do we eventually realize that the filmmakers (or their producers) don't have the stones to follow through on anything daring, but also means that when someone actually DOES die it's a nothing moment, as we've already expended our sympathy the first time around.

It's funny, one positive thing I noted during the movie, fairly late into it, was that for once the "We're filming everything because we need the camera's light" excuse made sense, as it really WAS pretty dark around them. There's a thing in many horror movies that we just have to accept/figure out for ourselves, which is that the DP is showing us more than the characters can see, making them look a bit ridiculous as they hold their hands out in front of their face and walk slowly around a room/cavern/whatever we can see perfectly well. Here, most of the time it was more or less blackened out... except for when the damn Anubis shows up, looking like a PS1 cut scene in some shots. Suddenly there's an off-screen light source or something, letting us take in every detail of this poorly rendered laughingstock of a villain. If they were smart they would have turned the brightness/contrast DOWN making it darker than it was to begin with, hiding the blemishes of their CGI monster that must have taken anywhere from 4 to 5 minutes to render.

The reliance on bad CGI results in a pretty hilarious continuity error, too - one character is attacked by the mummy cats (yep), who are all CGI and are making CGI wounds all over her. Maybe someone just realized how terrible they all looked, because after the attack is over, the other characters race over as he/she is dying (this is their second death, of course - they were first seemingly killed by falling on some spikes) and all of the wounds/blood are completely gone. It's very rare I notice a continuity error in a movie even if it's the 3rd or 4th time I've watched it, so to see something on my first viewing is pretty telling at how sloppy and uninvolving the film was. It's also rare I feel bad for an actor, but just based on my limited exposure to Denis O'Hare (basically AHS, which I've only liked two seasons of, and a cameo in Town That Dreaded Sundown) I know he deserves better than this.

This review took over a week to write; I saw it on its opening weekend and today (Thursday the 18th) is probably the last time it'll be in a first run theater. If the point of a review is to advise folks whether or not to see it, I've completely botched the job as it's too late to matter. However, since it's basically a Syfy movie it might play better at home, so when it hits VOD and you're in the mood for something that feels a decade older than it is, and it's cheap enough... no, even then you should watch something else. Even if it's free, there are just so many better options, and it's not even bad enough to really sink your teeth into and laugh at. It's just bland and forgettable, which to me is the greatest sin.

What say you?


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