Friday, December 2, 2016

Silent Night, Deadly Night

Silent Night, Deadly Night
Charles E. Sellier Jr.

At a young age, Billy Chapman (Robert Brian Wilson) witnesses his parents murdered at the hands of a drunk madman in a Santa Claus suit. Billy and his brother Ricky are sent to an orphanage, where under the iron fist of Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin), Billy is further traumatized. Billy gets a job as a stock-boy at the age of 18, and finally snaps after being forced to put on a Santa suit for a holiday party. After murdering his co-workers, Billy steps out into the cold night to dispense punishment upon the ‘naughty.’

By 1984, the slasher movie was hitting its mainstream peek. On November 9th, two slasher films were released, one would go on to be a worldwide cultural phenomenon, the other would cruise by on a notorious reputation more than anything contained within the film. Both films would launch numerous sequels and a remake. One of those films was A Nightmare on Elm Street. (1984), the other, Silent Night, Deadly Night.

"Ya, gotta couple of blubs out ther.....urrrk."
Interestingly, Silent Night, Deadly Night would outgross A Nightmare on Elm Street during their opening weekend. Although killer Santa Claus movies were nothing new by this point (Christmas Evil (1980), Tales from the Crypt (1972)), Silent Night, Deadly Night boasted a particularly memorable ad campaign with an axe wielding Santa climbing into a chimney. Couple this with the moral crusades against horror in the 1980s, and the film arrived hot with controversy. Critics condemned it, the film was censored, banned, and eventually pulled from theaters. The idea of a murderous Santa Claus was thought to scare children too much, even though no children are harmed at any point in the story. Compare this A Nightmare on Elm Street, which centers on a child murderer who would later go on to be a cultural icon and celebrity in his own right.

So the question remains, was Silent Night, Deadly Night worth all this controversy?

The answer is:  Not especially.

"Hey, wood paneling doesn't grow on trees, you know!
At its core, Silent Night, Deadly Night is a gritty and bleak story about a young man’s descent into madness. The holiday trappings feel cheap and flimsy, and all the characters are one-dimensional. There is an air of hopelessness throughout the film, even the kills that are supposedly ‘fun,’ such as a sledding decapitation, are played out with a kind of grim remorselessness. Walking into the movie, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking you are going to be seeing something very subversive. Possibly a story of a Santa who isn’t above taking an axe to naughty girls and boys. Instead we are given a standard psycho-sexual backstory for a killer set within a holiday theme, something we’ve seen done better in things like My Bloody Valentine (1981), and Black Christmas (1974).

Is Silent Night, Deadly Night worth watching? I’d say yes. Even though it is an unexceptional holiday slasher movie, it does occupy a unique spot in horror history as one of the most reviled films of the early 1980s. Silent Night, Deadly Night is a movie that does tap into the dark underbelly of despair that you can find around in the holidays, just don’t expect to enjoy the experience.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Not of this Earth

Not of this Earth
Jim Wynorski

Mr. Johnson (Arthur Roberts) is an odd man dressed in a dark suit who comes to Dr. Rochelle (Ace Mask), in search of a cure for his unusual blood condition. It seems his blood is literally evaporating from his body. To this end, he has hired a nurse, Nadine Story (Traci Lords) to give him regular transfusions of fresh blood. The truly remarkable thing about Mr. Johnson, is he is in fact an alien who has a habit of stalking the night for young woman to zap with his strange eyes. He then relieves them of their blood via a machine that he has enclosed in a silver suitcase.

This 1988 remake of Not of This Earth (1957) allegedly exists because director, Wynorski bet Roger Corman that he could remake Corman’s 1957 original for the same budget (adjusted for inflation), the same script,  and under the same time constraints. The primary difference between the 1988 and 1957 versions is the inclusion of quite a bit of female nudity and, of course, adding Traci Lords to the cast who was looking to distance herself from her controversial porn career.  Beyond that, it is virtually identical to the original. Interestingly, by playing out the original script with much of its dialog unaltered and juxtaposing it with a more modern exploitation sensibility, it creates a much more campy atmosphere, as opposed the more straightforward narrative of Corman’s version. This campy attitude gives the movie it’s own personality, otherwise it might just feel like a pointless exercise in duplication.

Bruce Vilanch in a role that will surprise you.
Traci Lords imbues Nadine Story with an amusing sassy attitude, she’s not required to really stretch herself in the role, but this isn’t the kind of movie where that is expected. Arthur Roberts does what he can with the odd aloofness of the alien, Mr. Johnson, but I never felt he was particularly menacing. He does manage to evoke a little sympathy for a creature that is driven by circumstance rather than malice. The real star of the movie is Lenny Juliano as Jeremy, Mr. Johnson’s ex-con domestic help, who brings just the right balance of fun and sleaze to his roll, and it looks like he’s having a great time performing it in the process.

Special effects are simple and kept to a minimum, which works just fine for a story the is far more about character than gloopy alien effects.  The music is similar, a simple serviceable synthesizer score that does what it should with a minimal of fuss. These elements are a perfect emulation of Roger Corman’s no-frills ethos.

"For the last time, I am not interested in taking your temperature."
The 1988 version of Not of this Earth is a real oddity of a remake, it is virtually identical to the original, but manages to forge it’s own identity with just a few minor changes. It’s a lightweight exercise in exploitation and camp that ends being a lot of fun. Don’t go into this film expecting any more than that and you will be pleasantly surprised.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Plan 9 From Outer Space

Plan 9 from Outer Space
Ed Wood

Plan 9 from Outer Space is often touted as ‘The Worst Movie Ever Made.’ I think even the most causal perusal of films like, The Creeping Terror (1964), Heavy Metal Massacre (1989), or the entire output of Jerry Warren, demonstrates that this is patently untrue. Plan 9 from Outer Space is filled with flaws, but there is an undercurrent of passion running through it. The charm of Plan 9 is in watching a small film reach for big things and constantly fail, but never stop trying. That is the key that elevates it from parody movies that try to deliberately ape its shortcoming for comedic value. Those kinds of films want to be little more than a few laughs, Plan 9 generates bathos from striving to be more than it is. Ironically, it has become more, the film is now ingrained forever as part of the cultural landscape. This is no small part due to the rise of VHS and Tim Burton’s portrayal of Ed Wood’s life in Ed Wood (1994).

"We really should have called each other about what we wearing to work today."
Flying saucers are spotted over Hollywood! One particularly nasty customer lands near a graveyard where it resurrects a recently deceased woman (Vampira) and her husband (Bela Lugosi). These zombies kill police detective Clay (Tor Johnson), who also rises at the behest of the aliens.  Local squared jawed hunk, Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott) investigates, only to discover that aliens are raising the dead to warn us away from developing the ultimate weapon, the Solaronite bomb, which is capable of destroying the universe. Things kind of go downhill for everyone shortly after that.

Taking more than just a cue from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Plan 9 wants to discuss the threat of atomic war and mankind’s self-destructive tendencies. Where The Day the Earth Stood Still uses a somber formalism, Plan 9 employs stilted actors and almost incomprehensible dialog. Although the film, Ed Wood, would have us believe that the director was earnestly serious about everything that happens in the film, I would say the opening and closing narrations by Criswell i.e., “And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future,” lead me to think he at least had enough self-awareness to inject some knowing humor into the story.

Tor Johnson has a vision of starring in The Beast of Yucca Flats in the future.
There is a lot of fun to be had in watching Tor Johnson and Vampira stumble around menacing some cops. There’s even some joyful subversion in seeing the dull straight-as-an-arrow hero get shown up by the much more melodramatic and sympathetic alien, Eros (Dudely Manlove). The wobbly sets, the hubcap UFOs, the mountains of stock footage are all pretty common elements in low budget SF, but here they manage to mix with the odd acting and dialog in just the right way to make something that is sublime. Plan 9 from Outer Space is a weirdo masterpiece. Thank you Ed Wood Jr.

“You know, it's an interesting think when you consider... the Earth people, who can think, are so frightened by those who cannot: the dead.”

Friday, November 11, 2016

Not of this Earth

Not of This Earth
Roger Corman

When people picture the typical 1950s science-fiction invasion film, it usually involves a square jawed male lead, an initially independent but soon swooning female, and some kind of threat that may come in the form of a rubber suit or giant insect. The characters are simple, the plot is simple, and it’s all neatly wrapped up by the end of the movie. Not of this Earth bucks all these trends and delivers a perfect low-budget gem.

A strange man by the name of Paul Johnson (Paul Birch) arrives in town and hires a nurse, Nadine (Beverly Garland) to attend to him. Mr. Johnson wears dark glasses at all times and is adverse to loud noises. Mr. Johnson also has a habit of killing people by revealing his strange white eyes, which destroy the brain of anyone who looks upon them. Johnson is a being from a planet called Davanna. After a devastating nuclear war, Johnson’s race has developed a blood disease. Human have similar blood and they look ripe for conquest, if Paul can stay one step ahead of the police.

"I need every issue of Butt Frenzy you have... for uh, research."
Not of this Earth keeps its villain center stage for most of the movie, and manages to make him sympathetic in his own way. Johnson is driven by his condition and desperate to discover a cure for his people. His actions, as violent as they are, seem more driven by necessity than malice. He has a strange manner of speaking that belies something cold underneath the seemingly human form.
Beverly Garland is given another strong role in a Roger Corman production, Nadine is self-reliant and brave. She’s more than willing to dig in and try and figure out the mystery of Paul Johnson, and even confront him if need be. She is a far cry from often sidelined female roles that plagued 1950s (and to this day, sadly) genre films.

There is plenty of humor sprinkled throughout the film, to the point it borders on being a black comedy. The best comedic moments are delivered by the always enjoyable Dick Miller, who takes a turn as a hep-cat vacuum cleaner salesman who knocks on the wrong door. He even manages to break the 4th wall a little before his inevitable demise. In lesser hands this moment might be a bit too much, but Miller makes it work.

Worst hair replacement system ever.
This is not a very long film, and it gets down to business right away, only slowing down  the action to deliver some tantalizing background on the planet Davanna and its current state. We later learn that Johnson is perhaps not the only Devannan on Earth, and that leads the way for an ambiguous ending implying things aren’t resolved yet.

Taping into the myth of vampires, alien abduction, Men in Black, and the fear of nuclear war, Not of this Earth is an exciting b-movie with a lot more intelligence than it’s exploitative title and poster would have you believe.

Friday, November 4, 2016

31 Days of Halloween 2016

31 Days of Halloween 2016 Wrap-up

This year I collaborated with food blog,  Really Quite Tasty, who provided snacsk, recipes, and product reviews that complimented some of the movie selections. For the films, I tried to sample a pretty broad swath of horror, old to new, classy to trashy.

Best Movie: Cat People (1942)
Worst Movie: Zoombies
Biggest Surprise: Driller Killer
Weirdest Movie: Hellions
Favorite Really Quite Tasty Treat: Rattlesnake Bread

13 Ghosts
Cat People (1942)
 Death Curse of Tartu

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Driller Killer

Blue Sunshine



Track of the Moonbeast

The Pyx

The Beast of Yucca Flats

I Bury the Living


Night Ripper!

Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

Cat People (1982)

The Killer Shrews

The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow

Return of the Killer Shrews

Laid to Rest


Curse of the Cat People

Evil Toons


The Woman Eater

The Conjuring 2

Terror in the Swamp

Little Shop of Horros (1986)

House of Wax

Monday, October 31, 2016

31 Days of Halloween 2016 - Day 31

House of Wax
André de Toth

Professor Henry Jerrod (Vincent Price) is a brilliant wax sculptor. His partner, Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) wants him to concentrate on making more lurid and violent sculptures to draw in the crowds. The Professor wants nothing to do with this, and eventually Matthew resorts to setting the museum on fire to collect the insurance money. A year later we meet Jerrod who was caught in the blaze, now confined to a wheel chair and has lost the use of his hands. He plans on reopening his wax museum with the help of protégés. The displays are to show violence and recent crimes. Meanwhile a shadowy figure stalks the streets of New York dispatching people and stealing bodies.

House of Wax was an early 3-D feature and a huge hit at the time. It’s an extremely entertaining movie, anchored by Vincent Price’s performance that is by turns, sympathetic, sinister and unhinged. The 3-D element of the film works marvelously, both in using it to create a sense of depth with the sets, and the occasional gimmick of tossing things at the audience. The story may seem a wee bit simple today, but the journey is never anything less than a joy to experience. There is plenty of humor in the middle of the film, but House of Wax is first and foremost a horror film and it relies on the creeping menace of a shadowy assailant and the occasional shock of death to drive that home. This is an fantastic film and well worth time to seek out and revisit.

Happy Halloween from Outpost Zeta!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

31 Days of Halloween 2016 - Day 30

Little Shop of Horrors (Director’s Cut)
Frank Oz

Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) introduces the perfect thing to save the ailing Mushnik flower shop, an unusual plant he has dubbed Audrey II, after the co-worker he pines for, Audrey (Ellen Greene). The plant does the trick and starts to attract business, but there is a cost. The plant requires blood and more than that after it begins to grow larger. Audrey II beings to speak (and sing), luring Seymour down a dark path that begins with the death of Audrey’s abusive boyfriend/sadistic dentist, Orin Scrivello, DDS (Steve Martin). As the bodies start to pile up, it becomes evident that Audrey II has more in mind than helping  out a skid row flower shop.

The musical remake of Little Shop of Horrors is well known and well-loved film (deservedly so). For years, there has been discussion of the originally filmed ending, and it wasn’t until a recent Blu-ray release that that ending was available and presented as it was initially intended. In complete opposition to the happy ending of the theatrical release, the new ending is apocalyptic. Much like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), there is an encroaching darkness the overwhelms the comedic elements by the end. Tonally, I think it works, but the final demise of two loved characters is absolutely pitch black. It does drive home the ‘horror’ part of the title, which gets a little lost otherwise.  The final doom laden sequence featuring giant Audrey IIs rampaging through New York is wonderful in how well it is staged. It’s over the top, but never played for laughs.