The one in which I don’t hate Magic Mike XXL

Admittedly, I know I can be a little intense about things. It’s something I’ve actively worked to change, you know, rather than saying I listened to three Tindersticks albums in a row while making french onion soup for one and then watched “Les Hautes Solitudes” and found it both engaging and alienating and…. trails off  I just say my weekend was “really good, how was yours?” Thing is, I can’t help all of of the dumb shit I like, but, sometimes, when the moon is just so in the sky and I’ve had most of a mid-price Pinot Gris and it’s a Sunday and I’m tired… well, I decide – maybe I’ll watch a really dumb movie, write some jokes, and ultimately use it to frame my thesis which is: I Don’t Think I Relate To Film Right Now.

Tonight was just such a night. Wherein – I set out to answer the big questions, that is, can you watch Magic Mike XXL without seeing the first film? Are you going to miss major narrative developments coming in at the second chapter? Also, why is this movie nearly two full goddamn hours long? Suddenly, a buddy texts: he’s going to Macs in pajama pants – is this a new low? Can’t say, I’m 15 minutes into Magic Mike XXL and even deeper into a bottle of wine, I’m in no place to adjudicate anyone’s life choices.

Now is a good time to mention that there were times during the viewing of this film where I was definitely looking at pictures of people who have unconventional house pets and I did no further research on this film, so any forthcoming errors can be attributed to the following.

So anyway, the film opens on Channing Tatum who has some kind of moving business. I assume, a la Showgirls, that he left the glitz and glamour of male stripping behind in the first film because he’d rather have a moving business. He wears a suit and shows up to what he thinks is a wake, and I think – oh shit, is this a wake for an old stripper buddy? Is he going to get back into stripping because of a gaping hole in the male exotic dancer world and this movie is going to be really sad?

Nah. It’s not really a wake, it’s a pool party, there’s some dude junk and these are apparently his buddies from his old stripper days. I wonder if I’ll be able to make it through this movie. A cursory viewing of this scene tells you essentially all you need to know about his stripper buddies. We aren’t watching real people, we’re watching the suggestion of characters. There’s boy band eyebrow guy, older Ron Perlman guy, large junk guy, guy who isn’t attractive enough to strip (emcee guy), and a stringy haired, puka-shell wearing motherfucker who wants to open up a probiotic yogurt truck. (There’s a subplot here that doesn’t pay off – we find out Puka Shells works in an ice cream joint at the mall for market research – the idea that Puka Shells quits hocking Baskin Robbins in order to earn stripper cash for his probiotic yogurt truck is the strangest, saddest hipster Tom Waits tale I’ve ever heard.

The gang is heading to some kind of male stripper expo, because of course. Our hero, Channing Tatum heads home for some late night welding, when suddenly, Ginuwine’s “Pony” comes on his trial version of Spotify. He starts to do a sexy R&B dance.

It’s fascinating and bizarre. First of all, I start thinking about Gene Kelly, and all of the times I’ve watched Gene Kelly dance in musicals. Gene Kelly, less refined, less graceful than someone like Fred Astaire. Gene doesn’t glide, he stomps – he’s an athlete. But he’s operating in musical world. It isn’t like Channing grinding into a workbench. This scene is designed because it knows we’re watching. I think its supposed to be sexually titillating  but then, I can’t gauge this – I’m a poor metric. For me, it’s approximately as arousing as finding out there’s going to be at least a 45 minute wait at the walk-in clinic and sitting down with three outdated issues of Good Housekeeping. It’s like trying to listen to a podcast on the bus when an elderly lady with one of those grocery suitcases tries to talk to you about how rainy it’s been.

(I consider, briefly, the last time I found a film character really, truly attractive. Easy. Sam Shepard in Volker Schlondorff’s Voyager. Shepard plays a repressed, literate, 1950’s engineer who approaches life with clinical detachment, almost dies in a plane crash, and accidentally has a sexual relationship with a daughter he didn’t realize he had – SPOILER ALERT. Additionally, wears nice suits, seems like he’d be sensitive about literature.) -That considered, I am not the target for Magic Mike XXL’s sexuality, but then again, it may also be hard to separate this from its inherent homoeroticism. It’s a firm 7 on the Top Gun scale, folks.

Interestingly: Magic Mike XXL leans into this idea early, with a scene in a roadside drag bar. Mike and co. seem pretty into drag shows, and eagerly embrace the parallels between drag and male exotic dancing at a beach party after the fact. Also featured – a scene where Mike hits on a girl (Amber Heard, the non-love interest), and they talk about contemplative beach urination. Again, unexpected choices from Magic Mike XXL.

WAIT I skipped ahead. That late night welding dance reminds Mike that he should go along to the big dude stripper expo because – I suspect this has something to do with the first film – his lady love said no.

Consider: Mike is rejected romantically, probably has hurt feels, rejoins the wiener bus with his best pals, bound for male exotic dance glory.

Tl:dr – Magic Mike XXL then turns into a road movie with only the barest semblance of plot. Unexpectedly, I find myself appreciating – nay, almost enjoying, a movie without nuance. Not only that, Magic Mike XXL gets… weirdly surreal. I’d almost call it the El Topo of summertime male exotic dancer blockbuster stagette movies. But before I get to that, I should say that there’s an important scene, I’d call it the Thematic Exposition Scene, where the junk patrol discusses how they should do different routines, because, the old routines aren’t true to who they are artistically, maaaan. Ritchie, do you even want to be a fireman? Do you even like the Kiss song “Hotter Than Hell”? These are the timeless questions we ask ourselves daily, only with fewer Village People characterizations and not so much 70s stripper jams. More like, our lives and the choices we’ve made. Similar, though.

Anyway, road movie. At some point, Emcee ends up in the hospital – they need an new person to announce that some dudes are going to be gyrating. No problem though – like the rest of Magic Mike XXL, this isn’t an actual obstacle. Anyway, the pectoral possee ends up in some strange southern country club ruled by a former stripper (Jada Pinkett Smith, who’s, like, way good in this movie.) It’s this moody, blue and red oasis of slow takes of raucous women looking to be entertained by men like some kind of… non-explicitly-sexual brothel? My main read on this scene was power. A group of white dudes walk into a business run by a black woman where other black women are entertained by black men and realize their schlocky act won’t cut it. That they are privileged is a foregone conclusion, and it’s not something the scene dwells on. Rather, it’s a vehicle to explain to the ab consortium that they’re in the business of female pleasure, and, uhm, this business is killing it. 

Later, they end up at some Southern ladies night as unplanned parlour entertainment. Again, this scene is dominated by another woman – Andie MacDowell, centre-framed and all-powerful. This scene goes down, interestingly, without dancing specifically but primarily with conversation. Suddenly, I wonder what the hell kind of dumb movie I’m watching. I mean, it is a dumb movie, but it’s a curious one. It embraces its dumbness and also overcomes it with scenes like this that are subtlety a bit more interesting than they need to be.

Eventually, the sultans of staff end up at the big male stripper expo, quite without any rehearsal of their fancy new routines. The male stripper expo is run by yet another ex-stripper (Elizabeth Banks) who has some sexual chemistry with Pinkett-Smith, along as the new Emcee. She is another female in Magic Mike XXL land who worked in the exotic dance industry, has now harnessed that experience into a lucrative business. Heard re-surfaces as an occasional stripper in a bi-sexual phase that’s currently focused on women. That’s cool, the movie respects this. Here we have three attractive ex-stripper characters who we never actually see dance. 

We see the routines, the movie ends abruptly without any major character realizations, and I’m left feeling weirdly thoughtful about Magic Mike XXL. Magic Mike XXL presents an oddly reframed feminism, by assigning typical filmic “female” traits to male characters, without shying away from their relatively dumb bro-ness. Perhaps, there are some smart people behind this film, who understand the fantasy of adult entertainment in a way that I clearly don’t. I mean, gosh, a lot of the core scenes in Magic Mike XXL aren’t geared towards me – I enjoy art galleries and going for ice cream by myself. But Magic Mike XXL manages to be a summer stagette movie, a movie that apparently goes for the libido of both straight women and (unapologetically) gay men alike but also – this movie understands what the real hook here is. It is, dare I say, about an exchange of power between women and men, and men embracing vulnerability. Yes, there is something cloying about Magic Mike XXL’s surrender of power – this idea that women get off primarily on validation from males, on being called goddesses and queens (Magic Mike XXL manages to share this term gracefully with the gay community). But it’s not to say there isn’t some truth in these symbolic gestures that the film displays. Mike was rejected, big junk guy just wants to find someone to marry, like some big, gross, Cinderella story, and our central female characters are busy making money, getting off, and being interested in other women.

I mean, don’t go into this movie expecting a grand rumination on gender politics and libido. If that’s what you’re looking for, this ain’t it. But, for what it’s worth, I watched Magic Mike XXL for the opportunity to check out mentally and make fun of it and all I got was this lousy blog entry about how it wasn’t bad.

 

 

 

 

 

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SHITTY GOLDEN AGE MUSICAL: Carousel, 1956

Even though I wrote a few paragraphs on Drugstore Cowboy and a comparison of Groucho in Monkey Business and Groucho in Horse Feathers, neither seemed quite right for my triumphant return to movie blogging. Inspiration hit only this weekend, when I had the misfortune of catching Fox’s stupid 1956 musical CAROUSEL.  I have a lot of feelings on it, which I will now share in exhaustive detail.

My Facebook relationship status on musicals would be “It’s Complicated.”

There’s a few I unabashedly love – Cabaret (especially the stage version, that second act is a bruiser), Sound of Music (although watching this as an adult on blu-ray brings up two interesting observations – Christopher Plummer is starting to look a little long in the tooth and his contempt for this film is almost tangible), the Gene Kelly oeuvre, and, you know, White Christmas because it’s just not Christmas unless I pretend not to be crying during “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep”. However, usually it’ll occur to me in passing that I’d like to luxuriate Technicolor and Cinemascope, in frothy and unsatisfying narratives, and maybe enjoy some immaculately choreographed dance sequences. And then the musical will start, and I’ll remember that I don’t really like musicals, and then I’ll sit through it uncomfortably because I rarely turn off a film once I’ve started it, and leave the theatre two hours older.

I forgot about this on Sunday, when Carousel was playing for the Cineplex classic film series. I figured I’d catch it, knowing I’d probably end up sitting through Salo: 120 Days of Sodom again later that evening. I wanted to watch something blandly life affirming, and look at this poster – I really thought this would do it for me:

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Friends, I was wrong. Salo may even been more life affirming (although I did skip over the feces breakfast scene – that’s been burned into my brain from the first time I saw it and there’s only so much shit eating you need to watch in your life). Carousel is abjectly terrible. It has approximately three things going for it: Shirley Jones (previously known to me only as Mom Partridge) is stunning, it  contains some of Rogers and Hammerstein’s most evocative songs about seafood, and “What’s The Use Of Wond’rin” is the prettiest song you’ll ever hear about staying in your shitty dead end abusive relationship because you agreed to a long time ago when you were charmed by a charmless carousel operator who argued about starting a relationship with you and then tried to get you to buy him beer. I’m hesitant to call it a 1950’s musical theatre Springsteen song only because it’s way too goddamned depressing and at least guys in Springsteen songs make an effort to be gainfully employed.

I could write a review but really, merely telling you what happens in Carousel will say infinitely more about the film than any conclusions I could draw independent of it.

I will recount the plot to spare you the anguish of watching it yourself.

The movie opens with Billy Bigelow (Gordon MacRae,either a poor man’s Robert Mitchum with more energy or a bargain basement Kirk Douglas) in heaven or something. By the way, heaven looks kind of like a 90’s ad for Thierry Mugler’s Angel perfume. You can hear the tinkling sound of crystal stars and almost smell the dewy smell of chemical chocolate and the stink of patchouli, the scent of strippers from the midwest and that girl who went to everyone’s high school with clumpy Maybelline Great Lash eyelashes and demarcation on her jawline from wearing foundation two shades darker than her skin tone… (Sorry, overly personalized Thierry Mugler tangent.)

…Anyway, Billy’s in heaven or something, or at least at the administrative desk, where he is told that the bastard daughter of his surviving wife is having trouble. Although he has waived his right to go down to earth for a single day (this is something we allegedly get after dying, which seems anti-climactic and sadly mundane, like THE ACADEMY AWARDS followed directly by… The Barbara Walters Aftershow), he now wants the opportunity but first must tell his life story.

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Don’t worry, this isn’t a Frank Capra-esque story of self sacrifice and the quiet strength of the human spirit. It’s a story about how Billy Bigelow was a total piece of shit to everyone around him for years and then died because he slipped on a pile of crates while trying to commit a robbery. This would never have happened to Mitchum or Douglas. At least they could’ve pulled off the robbery.

We then see Billy at the height of his power, as a carousel barker who yells at girls to ride the carousel. He puts his arm around Julie Jordan (Shirley Jones, who can do a lot better) who’s riding the carousel with her friend Carrie. Carrie is blonde and therefore stupid. The carousel, by the way, is owned by the middle-aged Mrs. Mullin, the only female in Carousel to command any kind of respect, even if she is tarted up like a Madam and portrayed not as a successful small business owner but as an insecure old crone, incurably infatuated with her employee.

Mrs. Mullin gets angry that Billy puts his arm around Julie and calls both girls sluts and bans them from the Carousel. I’m not shorthanding that at all – she actually calls them sluts and there’s just no room for slutty slut sluts on her carousel. Billy then quits his job to show the girls that he does what he wants and that no one puts Billy in a corner, and then hits them up to buy him beer. Carrie sings a song about how her beau is a nice guy even if he does smell like fish due to working on a herring boat.

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Later that evening, Billy and Julie are talking and Julie runs into her boss at the mill who threatens to fire her if she’s not back soon, because as we now know from five minutes ago, Julie’s propriety and chastity is seriously questionable because she rode a carousel and is now talking to a man when it’s dark. Not twenty minutes into the film, and we’ve marginalized women for being jealous and condemned them for being harlots, because they’re merely existing while being desirable.

It should be noted that I am no great champion for political correctness in art and media. As a rule, I don’t believe art is responsible for promoting a social agenda. If we’re watching critically, I think we can all tell the difference between content and intent, and hey, you’re a big lady – I think we can trust the viewer with the power of deciding whether or not art has merit, and whether or not it aligns with your personal morals and values is of varying importance for everyone. All of that being said, Carousel is some misogynistic shit, folks. This is well above its status as a mid-50’s relic, where we might encounter some routine misogynistic characters. No, Carousel is deeply misogynistic in the fabric of its very construction. For me, this makes it merit-less for first being poorly-written tripe and second for being offensive and demeaning to women, men, and people who work on herring boats.

And, back to the film. Billy and Julie sing a song arguing about their desire for each other and whether they’re in love. This is pretty standard musical stuff – people meet, are instantly in love, but in Carousel, we have no honeymoon period with these characters. Like Miley Cyrus circa 2010, Billy can’t be tamed, he’s just not the marryin’ kind, he’s more into being surly and unemployed. Still, Billy and Julie end up married and living off of Julie’s cousin.

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Billy is bitter that he can’t get a job (and by the way, he does have offers, he’s just to good to work on a herring boat because as we know from earlier, he’s highly qualified due to carny work). Oh, and the town is all a twitter about Billy because he beat Julie during an argument because he is full of testosterone and ignorance and is insecure about having small equipment. (The last part I inferred but I think it goes without saying.) The town is also all a twitter about June, which I can totally get behind, and the whole company sings “June Is Busting Out All Over” and for a moment I feel like I’m watching a blandly life affirming musical, and I, too, feel excited for spring which momentarily alleviates the depression I’m feeling from watching this film.

Mrs. Mullin offers Billy his job back if he leaves Julie, and Billy is momentarily swayed by recapturing his former glory as a guy who yells at girls at a carnival, before his full time job became beating Julie and waiting for her to bring him dinner. But then, Julie comes back with (his dinner), and the news we’ve all privately been dreading… SHE’S PREGNANT!

Billy’s totally stoked on this, drunk on the knowledge that his super awesome genes will be continuing in the world, and sings a song on the beach about how his son (who he will name after himself, obvs), will be THE BEST and he’ll be strong and tough and he won’t let his Mom make the boy a sissy and he might be president or a heavyweight champ and then it occurs to him that it might be a girl… No matter, she’ll be pretty and all the boys will want to get with her (this is the jist of the real song by the way. I can’t make this stuff up.) However, Billy realizes that if it is a girl, he’ll have to provide for her, because no one wants to get with girls who are poor and she can’t provide for herself. Everyone knows that. OH, the song also has super creepy lyrics about how dozens of men will pursue her but no one woos her away from her Dad and when she gets hungry every night she’ll come home to her Dad because whatthefuckseriouslywhyamiwatchingthis.

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So Billy, who suddenly cares about being male provider guy and his jailbird friend, the awesomely named Jigger Craigin decide to rob Julie’s old boss at the mill (remember from a few paragraphs ago? The boss who fired her for seeing her talking to a man after dark?) during a big ol’ town clambake. I don’t know Billy, wouldn’t it just be easier to just get a goddamned job? Like, say, the one you were offered by Carrie’s fiancee not ten minutes ago in the film’s running time?

There’s a song about how great it is to eat seafood – which I can totally get behind, and then a scene where we can all laugh at Carrie for being stupid and gullible, and then a song about how nice guys make terrible partners and everyone should date abusive macho men – THIS IS REAL YOU GUYS I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP – and then the aforementioned song “What’s The Use of Wond’rin”, where Julie contemplates the futility of her life and relationship while all the townswomen look on, presumably in similar relationships. Except for Carrie, of course, who’s fiancee is homely and probably bad in bed and a source of ridicule for having a great job and being nice, but he still shames her for being stupid and gullible when men antagonize her. Such is the world of Carousel.

Predictably, because Billy hasn’t displayed any aptitude for anything other than being a total piece of shit, the robbery goes bad and Billy accidentally stabs himself with his own knife after slipping on crates. Where’s his virile manly aggression and focus now? Julie cries because she was always too afraid to say she loved Billy and now she’d never have the chance. I contemplate leaving the theatre but I’ve spent $6.99 and want to see how much worse this will get.

Answer: a lot worse.

Fifteen years later, Billy has birthed the attractive blonde daughter who all the boys wanna mouth kiss just like he had always dreamed. However, everyone makes fun of her for being fatherless and poor. Oh no! Just like he feared! Billy goes back to earth to “make amends” and discovers that the land of the living will only see them if he wants them too. For a moment, I wish we were in a reverse “It’s A Wonderful Life” parallel universe where Billy gets to see that everyone would be better off without ever knowing him.

It should be noted that Billy’s daughter Louise is “just like him”, which means she is defiant and rebellious, she’s going to run off and live a wild life as an actress! However, Louise is still a woman and this is Carousel, so the moment a fifteen year old neighbor mentions marriage, she’s totally into that idea too.

The way Billy “makes amends” is by talking to Louise, about himself. Louise says her mother has lied to her about her father being an awesome carousel barker with good intentions who died honorably, and that the townspeople have set her straight. However, they agree he was handsome, and Billy feels good about himself. Then he offers Louise a crystal star from heaven because everyone knows that’s how you make things right with women. Bitches love dinky plastic stars.

If you’re still with me, it is very important you read the following, because this is it! This is the big moment! Billy is going to make amends with his abandoned daughter, finally proving to his family that he’s changed, that he cares, that the 90-some minutes I personally have spent watching this awful movie is all worth it and… he gets angry and slaps her hand.

That’s it?

That’s all you’ve got for me, Carousel? That he has fifteen years up in Thierry Mugler heaven for self reflection and personal growth and he did FUCK NOTHING with it? He’s the same abusive jackass from earlier?

But wait, there’s more. Louise tells her Mom that a strange man hit her but… it didn’t feel like a slap… it felt… like a KISS. (Was Phil Spector super into this movie or something?) And, isn’t that strange? Julie looks off into the reflective distance and says knows exactly how that feels, apparently reliving the memory, both misty and water-coloured, of when her beloved husband Billy beat her while she carried his child.

WHAT.

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There are no words. We can just sit and share the moment of a mother and daughter getting all moony eyed about being hit by a husband and father.

Billy shows up at Louise’s graduation and while the kindly town doctor drones on about how you are not the mistakes of your parents and you can hold your head up high and not be afraid of the dark and a bunch of other platitudes, and Billy then tells Louise that she should believe the doctor. However, Louise can’t hear him because he’s invisible and mute, so as a character and in the story arc, Billy is affecting NOTHING. Literally all he did to make amends was agree that he was handsome, try to give his daughter a star and then hit her. Him agreeing with advice being given by a townsperson in front of his daughter means ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. It has no effect whatsoever.

Except Carousel doesn’t know this. Carousel plays this moment seriously. This is Billy’s big redemption, but the story doesn’t realize that in its very design, we are seeing that fifteen years of afterlife growth has changed nothing about this character. He stands to the side and his ‘loved ones’ figure things out themselves, alone, making Carousel somewhat more depressing and nihilistic than Salo, which I inevitably did end up watching later that day. At least Salo comes by its nihilism honestly, instead of Carousel which is blissfully oblivious of how rotten it is, Trojan-horsing an insidious ode to male machismo and domestic violence on an unsuspecting audience who expected a bunch of singing and dancing at a carnival.

Oh, and in this scene we see widow Julie, wearing her hair in a bun to show that time has passed, all glassy eyed and sentimental, in the afterglow of the knowledge that the ghost of her husband hit her daughter earlier that day, because angels really do walk among us, and when we go to the great Thierry Mugler ad in the sky, we may have the opportunity for one special day back on earth to take care of our unfinished business. So that our fatherless daughter may experience that very special rite of passage in every girl’s life, when your father hits you for not being grateful for all he’s done for you. Namely, fertilize your mother’s egg, then die, leaving your Mother penniless and alone.

Then the end title comes up.

The fuck did I just watch, 20th Century Fox?

How weird was it then, to end up watching Salo later that evening, forever tying the two films together in my mind? Salo was just as nauseating and horrifying as I remembered, but at least Salo is intelligent in its obscenity, sincere in its intention to provoke. Carousel demeans its audience with inanity and champions sexism and domestic violence under a thin veil of choregraphy and DeLuxe Cinemascope 55, hurting the audience more with its unctuous pandering than Salo does with its high-minded filth. Either way, you’re consuming shit.

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DEATH GAME, 1977

hqdefaultApparently I go away and the wordpress editor gets super tiny. I can only see five lines! I feel claustrophobic. Anyway. Today, I got wind of that Eli Roth has directed a remake of Peter Traynor’s screeching 1977 home invasion flick Death Game. The remake is called Knock Knock (cute), and stars Keanu Reeves, Young Missus Roth, and another Cuban model.

I can’t really claim that this is a major affront to my sensibilities – Death Game is no great lost classic – in fact, in good conscience, I can only really recommend it to the most devoted of trash-hounds. But is anyone truly less suited for a good old, down-and-dirty 70’s exploitation remake than Eli Roth, who’s studied at the feet of the most ardent of genre nostalgia appropriators, Quentin Tarantino?

It’s true, I’m not an Eli Roth fan. I get that he’s a genuine film fan, but that does not a horror master make. (Remember the 80’s, when the title “Horror Master” meant something?) Roth has yet to prove himself capable of making a film of any real quality. Hostel is a reasonably titillating premise mired by poor craftsmanship and the inability to maintain atmosphere or tension. Cabin Fever is boring. Also, Roth comes off as an insufferable blowhard when he discusses Hostel in relation to Abu Ghraib – it’s that kind of self-referential egotism that threatens vintage exploitation pictures and all we love about them.

Although to be fair, I did have an extremely vivid dream once that I was married to Eli Roth and I remember we were quite happy. We lived in a really nice camper van with a kitchen table that was also an aquarium and I wore a lot of high-waisted pants and hair kerchiefs. However, I discussed my marriage with my dream-friends, who were all like, “Leah, you have to tell him how much you hate his movies. It isn’t fair.” And dream-me was more interested in keeping the peace. Symbolic? I don’t know, I may just have wanted to keep the aquarium table.

Picture 002Anyway, Death Game sort of tries to advocate a higher purpose (family life good, crazy lesbian hippies, bad? Topical post-Charlie Manson stuff) but mostly it’s shrieking spectacle that opens with George (Seymour Cassel, who really doesn’t want to be in this movie so drastically that he couldn’t even be arsed to dub his own dialogue) playing romantic croquet with his wife on his birthday because he’s affluent and happily married. Then the wife gets called away, leaving George at home, alone, on his birthday. But not for long – soon enough Jackson (Sondra Locke) and Donna (Colleen Camp) show up at his door. They’re lost, they’re drenched from the rain, they just want to use his phone.

The girls are on their best behavior – they fawn all over George and his swell hi-fi, they flatter him, they end up making-out with each other in his jacuzzi tub. Here’s one of Death Game’s signature scenes – the super awkward threesome scene! I’m talking out of context close-ups and constant cross-fades. I’m talking 70’s porn music – heavy on the jazz flute. I’m talking Seymour Cassel’s Charles Bronson mustache. If you’re a dude of a certain age, I’d love your input – would this scene have been erotic in the 70’s, or is it actually supposed to be the beginning of George’s nightmare? Because it’s certainly the beginning of mine.

Death Game, in fact, would fit nicely in a Hot Girls Gone Wrong film festival – wherein moustachioed jackasses think they’re going to bang the hot girl but instead end up in a whole pack of trouble. I’d include Don’t Bother To Knock and probably a bunch of other films that I would name if I had more energy/less wine.  Death-Game-Colleen-Camp-2a

Come for the threesome, but stay for the torture. Here’s where Death Game really shines. It’s not a particularly well-made movie, and by the third time you hear the “Good Old Dad” song, you’re about ready to torture yourself, but Death Game is stuffed to the gills with genuinely off-kilter moments. Locke and Camp turn into shrieking hellions, demented little girls, parodies of the fantasy women they were at the beginning of the film. They hold a mock trial, paint their faces, they dump milk on the restrained George, the kill a grocery delivery boy, and then zero in on a surprisingly shocking ending (though not for the reasons you may think).

This is what we tend to lose in remakes – a present sense of chaos. More than likely, the violence will be streamlined, the intent of the girls will be clear-cut and purposeful, the film will have an agenda. Making a shameless piece of a trash cinema with some deeply weird moments? Ain’t no one got time for that anymore. You can’t go back from all that self awareness. There’s something charming and reassuring about the C-grade exploitation films of yesteryear. Remade and repackaged for the modern audience, we lose that low-budget honesty, and end up with a lot of middling, mean-spirited preaching.

I don’t know, I’ll probably go if I can be guaranteed roughly the same amount of jazz flute and that someone will dump a bag of flour on Keanu Reeves’ head.

New Year’s Evil, 1980

You know how everyone has one genre they’ll pretty much always watch? Some folks will watch every blockbuster summer movie. Some folks will watch any screwball comedy. I’m sure there’s even people who watch Maid In Manhattan every time it’s on TV (which is CONSTANTLY, amirite?). For me, it’s slashers (and film noir). Any time, any place, any decade – even bloodless 90’s slashers. I’m partial to the 70’s and 80’s, but if someone’s chasing someone else with a knife (or an axe, or a chainsaw, or a sickle), regardless of quality, I will see that story through. What can I say, slashers and I go way back to high school, and like Michael Myers, high school love never dies. New-years-evilThis brings me to New Year’s Evil, a firmly middle-of-the-road offering from the 70’s/80’s slasher boom. The popularity of Halloween opened the calendar for a horror film for nearly every holiday, each executed with varying degrees of success. I think Ash Wednesday and Yom Kippur remain open, and incidentally, I’ve always wanted to write an Easter horror called THE EGGSECUTIONER. Terror Train may be the higher caliber New Years film, but New Year’s Evil is not without abundant low grade charms.

New Year’s Evil has a moderately novel concept – a psycho who calling himself “Evil” (“Not bad. Eeeeeeeevvvill.”)  dials into a – wait for it – a Midnight Special-like live telecast which is counting down the top “new wave” songs of the year – saying that he will kill one naughty girl for each of the time zones. He tells this, by the way, to immaculately coiffed and awesomely named BLAZE (Fonzie’s girl Roz Kelly), who greets this disturbing news by removing her spiked dog collar, as one does when receiving upsetting news, and contacting the police, while remaining on air and introducing a slew of second-rate 80’s rock bands.new-years-evil-3

Who is Evil and why isn’t he killing anyone in the Alaskan or Hawaiian-Aleutian time zones? Well, we know the answer to the first question – he’s Kip Niven, easily the best part of the picture, playing an unmasked killer who we actually spend a fair bit of time with, and the answer to the second question, well geez, he’s only one guy trying to deal with New Year’s Eve traffic, give him a break. Since he has an hour between murders, it isn’t exactly suspenseful, but it’s amusing watching him dress up in disguises (moustache Hollywood guy is my favorite), romance a nurse in an insane asylum, cart around a boombox to record the murders, and smother a girl with a bag of weed. (Weed kills, you guys. Obviously.) newyearsevil3

The twist at the end is borrowed and the score rips off a number of well-known slashers (the Friday the 13th ah-ah-ah-ahs specifically), but if you’re looking for a thick slice of 80’s cheese, you could do a lot worse.  The hair! The music (New Year’s Evil has a SIGNATURE SONG)! Blaze’s would-be soap star son! The nylons-and-lipstick scene!  Even Evil’s misogynistic rant about why he went on the killing spree is pretty benign and hilarious, which he delivers dressed in his finest costume – a spiffy white tracksuit.

An AnotherNightIn approved way to ring in a trashtastic New Year!

Black Christmas, 1974

You guys, it’s 2015. HAPPY NEW YEAR. Hope you had a pleasant new years day! Mine was pretty busy, what with all of that laying around in a satin romper and long socks drinking tea and eating a sizeable number of rice cakes with peanut butter while listening to that Songza playlist 70’s Slow Dance. Kind of my favorite thing right now. While I was busy trying to decide whether “Beth” is a good song (it’s like the lowest stakes, least-powerful power ballad, doesn’t that count for something?), I figured I might as well talk about something I unequivocally love about the 70’s, which is of course, BLACK CHRISTMAS.

indexThere isn’t much I can say about Black Christmas that hasn’t already been said – it’s a template, it’s brilliant, it’s a hell of a movie, they have a booze wreath,  it’s kind of seminal – which is why I’ve decided to just give a list which is as follows. This is by no means exhaustive, obviously pretty much everything in Black Christmas is awesome.

THINGS THAT ARE AWESOME ABOUT BLACK CHRISTMAS

BLACKXMAS0161. The Billy cam is super malevolent.

Of course we’re all aware of the POV Serial Killer movie shot – it’s always effective, even in terrible movies. Being watched is never going to be not scary (I’m intentionally leaving that double negative in), but in Black Christmas, Billy’s POV is noticeably unsteady and off-kilter. The young Michael Myers POV in Halloween is iconic and embodies the bland nature of the stabbing of Judith Myers. The point of view of a blank-faced child killer is chilling, but you just can’t beat the down-home shock of an out-of-control psycho on Christmas.

BLACKXMAS0652. Margot Kidder

What a gift to 70’s horror Margot was. Fresh off of De Palma’s Sisters, she’d go on to appear in Amityville Horror and The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (whatever, I liked it). Her role as Barb in Black Christmas is one of her best loved horror roles. Whether she’s telling off boring old Claire or ruining Christmas dinner by discussing turtle sex or trying to get minors to drink alcohol or spelling fellatio, she’s consistently a joy to watch.

BLACKXMAS0873. The phonecalls.

Black Christmas just turned 40. Let’s face it – a lot of things that are 40 years old don’t quite hold up. Captain and Tenille’s marriage. Paul Anka’s “You’re Having My Baby” (you guys, that shit was number 1. I like Paul Anka but that song’s terrible). (Try as I might to come up with a film example, it’s difficult, 1974 was a  golden year for film). Anyway, Billy’s phonecalls to the girls are still as shocking, bizarre, and terrifying as ever. Not to mention infectious. The fellow and I can’t sit through Black Christmas without wailing “LIKE HAVING A WART REMOVED” or “WHAT YOUR MOTHER AND I MUST KNOW IS” at least a few times. And as many voices as Billy uses on the phonecalls, there is only one phrase he says in a regular speaking voice – “I’m going to kill you.” Goddamn right, Billy. Goddamn right.

BLACKXMAS0644. Claire’s Dad’s  (James Edmond) Concern Face

I don’t know, I just like it.

BLACKXMAS0665. When Keir Dullea destroys the piano. Keir Dullea in general.

First things first Keir Dullea, as Jess’ dickish pianist boyfriend Peter has his work cut out for him – he’s a jerkface, he doesn’t respect her choices, he’s selfish, and rather than that slimy green cable-knit turtleneck sweater he might as well be wearing a shirt that says I’M A PSYCHO KILLER. He also happens to be innocent, so, in the end, the world lost a mediocre classical piano player. Anyway, when he beats the piano to death to vent frustrations, he echos the dissonant piano-banging in the score, both explicitly (he’s capable of physical violence) and subliminally reinforcing to us, that he’s guilty. And if that wasn’t enough to convince us, that checkered blazer is fucking sleazy. See, that’s just good film-making.

BLACKXMAS0136. That Christmas tree is terrifying.

BLACKXMAS0827. The Canadian-ness.

As a horror fan first and a Canadian second, I have a soft spot for the the low budget horror films of the 70’s and 80’s that were shot in the Great White North. See, the 70s and 80s were a good time to make movies in Canada – a tax law called the Capital Cost Allowance made it so investors in Canadian-made films could defer taxes until the movie started turning a profit. A pile of classics were made here – some set in Canada, but many trying to pass Canada off for somewhere else (New England was a popular choice). Black Christmas is ambiguous about where exactly it’s supposed to be, but retains some charming Canadiana – there’s hockey, Art Hindle charmingly talks about taking Claire “oot” (we don’t actually talk like that except for when we do), and the two fellows who come to the door, enthusiastically offering to help the girls and then bragging excitedly about being included in a police investigation which is off-putting in its friendliness. Screenwriter Roy Moore is also Canadian, basing the script on a series of murders in Quebec.

BLACKXMAS1158. THE PHONECALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE/The Unicorn Death

There’s a reason the urban legend of The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs has endured – it’s really, really scary. In my babysitting days, I’d be up late with my knapsack of mostly horror videotapes and scare myself with the very idea that someone might be upstairs.  It’s horror at its cleanest and most pure – you’re at home where you feel safe. And someone else, a stranger, is there too. Give that some honest consideration and try not to piss yourself.

I haven’t spent a ton of time with the deaths in Black Christmas because they’re all universally great, but the hyper-stylized, death by glass unicorn scene never gets old. As a unicorn enthusiast, it’s a home run.

BLACKXMAS1139. When Jess goes back upstairs

When Jess goes back upstairs in an attempt to save her friends – this is not an act of stupidity to move the carnage forward. This is an act of bravery. Also, and rather unlike the virginal final girls to follow, Jess is not only a thinking, feeling, sexual being who wears a wooden crucifix around her neck, Jess is getting an abortion. She has plans in life and no one’s going to change her mind – she has autonomy over her body  AND she’s a goddamn hero. Party on, Jess.

BLACKXMAS13310. No resolution

So Black Chrismas ’06, right? What a festering shit bucket of a movie that was. Literally, Black Christmas ’06, you had one job, and managed to avoid the essence of what made the original so great. (Billy likes to kill sorority girls because really bad jaundice and incest. SNORE.)  In the end, we can speculate about who Billy and Agnes are, but we don’t truly know. And in the meantime, we leave Jess alone in the house with the killer after beating the wrong guy to death in the basement. The phone rings and rings, and we’re left with the grim realization that people die. Horrible things happen, and evil doesn’t take a holiday. John Saxon can’t help us, and neither can Santa Claus. A black Christmas indeed.

I forgot to mention the eye and the fact that Billy’s a screamer when he chases after Jess, but whatever, there’s ten things and I spot a glass of sparkling wine with my name on it.

Christmas Evil, 1980

Christmas-Evil-PosterCan’t a guy just be super into Christmas and keep tabs on the neighborhood children and punish inconsiderate coworkers without being chased around by a torch-baring mob, Frankenstein-style?

Such is the eternal question of Lewis Jackson’s 1980 Holiday opus, Christmas Evil (also known as You Better Watch Out and my personal favorite, TERROR IN TOYLAND). This beauty stars Fiona Apple’s Dad, Brandon Maggart, sadly cheated out of the 1980 Oscar, as Harry Stadling; toy factory employee, big brother, and Santa enthusiast.

Harry sees Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
Harry sees Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

Young Harry’s trouble begins when he attempts to see Santa one fateful Christmas Eve. He sees Santa all right – it’s his father all dressed up and groping his mother. CONFUSION. Harry runs upstairs, shatters a snowglobe, and cuts his hand on the glass. Blood on the snow. Kind of his life motif.

In the present, adult Harry works kind of a bullshitty position at the Jolly Dream toy factory and, in his off hours, lives in a crazy Christmas hoarder house. He sleeps in his Santa costume and spies on neighborhood children, making a list (and presumably checking it twice) of good children who do chores and play with dolls and bad children who read Penthouse and talk back to their Mothers.

Later, Harry consents to work on the assembly line to help a co-worker who can’t make it to work and then catches the co-worker at a bar. At the grim company Christmas party, Harry watches a video from the President of the company who, from a beach, promises that if production increases, he will donate toys to the less fortunate children at the State Hospital (famous stock footage of Geraldo Rivera’s big exposé on Willowbrook State School, incidentally). He also meets George, the new hot shot at work. At around this point in the film, who knows whether it’s the realization that everyone exploits him or believes him to be a schmuck, or maybe just the excitement of the impending holiday season, but Harry becomes fully unglued, believing he’s the jolly man himself, and begins to action his big Christmas-ageddon. It is the latter half of the film that leads me to lovingly refer to this movie as the more festive Taxi Driver. SPOILERS AHEAD!

Christmas-Evil-14

Harry steals some toys from work and drops them off at the State Hospital. He leaves the asshole kid, Moss Garcia, a bag of dirt and offs some smug preppies at a midnight mass. He replaces toys his long-suffering younger brother was planning to give to his children with improved toys from Harry’s own collection. He exacts revenge on the co-worker who took advantage of him. He shows up at a random company Christmas party and is treated like a hero. So, more or less what Santa would do in an evening if he was a little more Old Testament.

His delusions now turned up to 11, Harry ends up being chased by a mob of angry parents. In an art-filmy ending, Santa Harry eventually ends up flying over a bridge in his sleigh-painted van, to either his death or possibly back to the North Pole – we’ll never know. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

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Lewis Black’s singular vision for Christmas Evil (not his first choice of a title), was that of a black comedy, but Brandon Maggart’s nuanced performance pushes the film closer to a measured character study of madness. He’s quite the slice of life, a banal, hard-working middle-ager who embodies the goodwill of not just the season but also humanity, and his journey to punitive Santa killer is an interesting one. Significant shots of Harry primping in the mirror reference Peter Lorre’s sublime performance as Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s singular M. It’s a worthy homage; Harry Stadling has more in common than Travis Bickle or Frank Zito than he does with Jason Voorhees. Not to say Christmas Evil is of quite the same calibre as Taxi Driver or even of Maniac, but Maggart’s humanity and touch of melancholy makes it a more emotionally involving experience than you may expect from a film with the tagline “Better watch out, better not cry, or you may DIE!”

santas

If you’re looking for a Christmas double feature, Christmas Evil pairs nicely with Silent Night, Deadly Night – Christmas Evil’s dingy mid-life crisis turned surreal murder spree vs SNDN’s slasherific aesthetic offers two quite different killer Santas with a superficially similar premise.

Before I leave you with the remainder of your holidays, here’s a little wisdom from Harry Stadling, (remember, just because Christmas is over, doesn’t mean Santa’s not… watching.) – “Respect your mothers and fathers and do what they tell you. Obey your teachers and learn a whole lot. Now if you do this, I’ll make sure you get good presents from me every year. But if you’re bad boys and girls, your name goes in the ‘Bad Boys & Girls’ book, and I’ll bring you something – horrible.”

Straight up ahead – things I love about Black Christmas and 1980’s other big calendar killer – New Years Evil.

And hey, if we don’t speak before then, have a happy new year, ‘kay?

Silent Night, Deadly Night, 1984

So starting a new blog in December, with all the busy-ness and celebrations and general merry-making was probably overly ambitious, but, oh well, there’s enough Christmas horror for at least a few years, I’ll be happy if I get the big three done this year! On to the film. 215px-SilentnightdeadlynightFor some reason, 1984’s Silent Night Deadly Night, captured the hearts and minds of the good God-fearing people all over this great nation more than any other killer Santa movie. And by ‘captured’, I mean, infuriated and incensed. Parents and critics were pissed. Hey, blame the ultra-conservative 80’s. People definitely didn’t want to see a sweet, innocent young boy repeatedly and systematically traumatized ’til he grows into a strapping young All-American dreamboat who then goes on a murderous rampage on Christmas. Or maybe they just didn’t want to see Santa impale a topless girl on a stag head. How much did everyone hate this movie? I recommend you-tubing Siskel and Ebert’s on-air review of it. (Shame! Shame! Shame!)

But now we know better, and can fully enjoy Silent Night Deadly Night not just for its camp or supposed shock value, but for being a solid slasher with some genuinely great moments. Oh yeah, I said it. I meant it. And I’m here to represent it.

Night-2-590x321At the top of the film we have a family on the way to visit catatonic Grandpa at an institution. Ma and Pa leave our hero, young master Billy in a room with Grandpa. Alone with Billy, Gramps is suddenly totally lucid and warns Billy that Santa doesn’t just give out presents, he PUNISHES those who are naughty, and if Billy sees Santa, he’d better run. By the way, every time someone in Silent Night Deadly Night says the word “punish” or “punishment”, it always sounds like it’s in capital letters.

Billy is suddenly terrified of Santa (and now old people too, presumably), and his fears are confirmed when Billy’s parents decide to pick up a random Santa on the side of the road on their way home. Santa, fresh off of holding up a convenience store, only wants to kill Billy’s Dad and – presumably, rape his Mom, but it isn’t so much a rape as it is a perfunctory 80’s horror tit shot. You just can’t make a horror movie without one.

SILENT_3Flash forward to a few years later, Billy grows from a wide-eyed child to a homely ginger kid and he and his baby brother (who will one day grow into internet meme fame as GARBAGE DAY guy), are carted off to an Catholic orphanage. Mother Superior is of the opinion that Billy doesn’t so much need to heal from the horrific trauma of seeing his parents killed by Santa Claus, he should just ignore it, and any residual anti-social behavior should be disciplined away. She also dispenses with some good advice for raisin’ up your child – “When we do something naughty, we are always caught and then we are punished. Punishment is absolute, punishment is good.” Stick that on your cross-stitch.

Freeze-frame on ginger Billy wanting to be a good kid. Fast forward to years later, where Billy pretty much grows up to be Ken.kenNice Sister Margaret, the Dr. Loomis of the picture sets him up with a job at Ira’s Toys. SNDN then launches one of its most sterling moments: the Billy working girl montage. Billy lifts kids up to reach the high shelves, he punches his time-card, he straightens books while the boss nods – “Way to straighten those books, Bill!”, Billy opens a box with a box cutter (FORESHADOWING), douchey employee offers him J and B, and he holds up a carton of milk (“No thanks – today I’m having MILK!”), and then… Billy goes a bit green seeing the Christmas banner, possibly feeling PUNISH rising in his chest. The whole montage is perfect.

See, Billy is basically functional 11 months out of the year, but things start going rapidly downhill when his Boss forces him to play Santa. He’s a sweaty, nervous Santa but the more he threatens squirmy children with punishment the more compliant they are, so maybe he’s not that bad of a Santa after all. Screenshot-07_large

Shit gets real at the company Christmas party, when douchey J and B co-worker guy (poor man’s Joe Pesci) tells Billy’s love interest (that is, the girl he has shame boners over), that he has a special present for her and he has to give it to her in the back room. Just so you know, ladies, when a gross guy wants to give you a Christmas present in secret, it’s going to be his wiener, and you don’t want it.

The moment we’ve been waiting for finally happens – Billy snaps and strangles poor man’s Joe Pesci with Christmas lights. He then finishes off the rest of his co-workers – they’re drinking, they’re sinning, they fall under xmas PUNISH code. Whoa, what’s a real bow and arrow doing in that toy store?

silent-night-deadly-night-choking-christmas-lights
NOO! JOE PESCI!!!

He moves on to a residential neighborhood to dispose of aforementioned topless girl and her boyfriend. I should mention, it’s not just any topless girl, it’s b-Scream Queen Linnea Quigley! Here you get to see her in one of SNDN’s more classic moments – Quigley wearing nothing but short-shorts and antlers through her abdomen. Merry Christmas everyone!

SNDN’s other classic holiday-themed death is -spoiler, by the way – headless tobogganing. Essential. By the way, this shit out-grossed Nightmare on Elm Street on its opening weekend.

Well, it all ends up back at the orphanage, where more children are traumatized on Christmas and tragic and misunderstood Billy meets his untimely end. That is, Bill is misunderstood by the other characters, not us – we’ve had a good 45 minutes of exposition preceding the eventual holiday blow-up.

Controversy? What Controversy?
Controversy? What Controversy?

Occasionally, SNDN isn’t quite sure of the movie it’s supposed to be. It’s both a dead serious treatise on what precisely would cause someone to dress up like Santa Claus and kill a bunch of people, you know, aside from just for funsies because that’s lazy storytelling (and pretty much the premise of the extremely loose craptacular 2012 rehash), as well moments of intentional humor and camp. The filmmakers are obviously well aware of the implications of having a clean-cut young man stalk around in a dirty Santa suit demanding PUNISHMENT for babysitters who are having sex on pool tables that don’t belong to them.

Other than helpful Billy montage and the obvious holiday themed deaths, there’s also a great scene of Billy (Robert Brian Wilson, who I maintain is actually quite good in this), interrogating a little girl about whether she’s been good this year and then gifting her a bloody box cutter. Here’s where Silent Night Deadly Night gets itself absolutely right – the image is powerful, the scene is malevolently tense and yet – resolves with a wonderful, horrific absurdity. Little children unconditionally believe in the goodness of Santa Claus. Little children are poor judges of character. So, incidentally, are Billy’s parents.

silent-night-deadly-night-2What, exactly, is the central thesis of Silent Night Deadly Night? Post-traumatic stress disorder should be healed through non-judgement listening and behavioral therapy? That people do evil shit regardless of the season of goodwill towards your fellow man? That teaching children to trust that an all-knowing super-being enters their home on a single evening to lavish them with material goods if they’ve acting appropriately is kind of a strange concept? That the system can and does fail, leaving mass tragedy and misfortune in its wake? Maybe. Or maybe it’s simply that if a kid sees his parents killed by Santa Claus, he’s going to need some therapy, stat. And that I’ll remember fondly any movie with a headless body on a sled.

Oh, and it features this timeless Christmas carol, which unfortunately never took its rightful place as a Christmas standard.