Tuesday 8 December 2020

Scary Christmas round up of (mainly) new horror movies: Reviews of The Nights Before Christmas (UK/Canada 2019), Let it Snow (Ukraine/Georgia 2020), Black Christmas (USA 2019), Unholy Night (Canada 2019), Happy Horror Days (USA 2020) and Why Hide? (UK 2018)

Normally this post would be a seasonal Supermarket Sweep (see 2018 and 2019's roundups here and here), but my usual outlets have been a bit mean with the seasonal swag this year. So I've cast the net a little wider and rummaged around to bring you some Christmas fright flicks which are either new or that I haven't yet covered.

The Nights Before Christmas NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 (UK/Canada 2019: Dir Paul Tanter) Back in 2017, UK producer/director Tanter made a film entitled Once Upon a Time at Christmas, of which this movie is a direct sequel; but don't worry, you don't need to have seen the first one to understand what's happening, because not only do you get flashbacks to that movie, but the events in OUaTaC are frequently referred to.

Set four years after the first movie, various survivors of the killing spree have left the area, either voluntarily or via victim relocation schemes. Courtney (Keegan Chambers), whose character was in the first film, but played by a different actor, is still in mourning for Joe, murdered by the Santa killers. Courtney's father catches up with her, now living in New York. But dad becomes the first victim of a new wave of terror perpetrated by the killers from the first movie, 'Santa Claus' (Simon Phillips) and his accomplice 'Mrs Claus' (Sayla de Goede). 

Natalie Parker (Kate Schroder) is the FBI Agent who works out pretty quickly that Mr and Mrs Claus are back in town. Meanwhile Doctor Monica Mudd (Jennifer Wallis), who is Courtney's psychiatrist, was also the shrink treating the killing couple, whose real names are Nicholas Conway and Michelle Weaver; they met at an asylum, which allows me to slip in my 'there ain't no sanity clause' line. Mr and Mrs Claus catch up with Mudd at home, and murder her daughter Becky (Anne-Carolyne Binette) who's been upstairs doing a striptease for her boyfriend. The FBI apprehend Michelle, who has attended Becky's funeral, but its not long before she's escaped and the crazy pair are running rings around the cops, and continuing their murderous plan.

Tanter's film is incredibly frustrating. It looks fantastic; the photography is first rate. Canada stands in for the USA (like the first film) and its snowy forest scenery provides a dramatic backdrop to the action. But there's a problem; there isn't a single original idea in the film (although 1991's The Silence of the Lambs is clearly a big influence, with the Parker character standing in for Clarice Starling) so while it looks great, it's actually pretty boring. A 105 minute run time doesn't help. 

Casting wise gravel voiced Phillips keeps losing his American accent and de Goede visually channels Harley Quinn from this year's Birds of Prey but with the psycho cutie mannerisms of Sheri Moon Zombie; it's pretty grating. Elsewhere Kate Schroder looks awkward in her role, not helped by a pitiful cliché ridden script; but there's a drinking game to be had for every time a character mentions the killer's naughty or nice list; "It's like an actual list!" Again and again. Not very good then.

Let it Snow (Ukraine/Georgia 2020: Dir Stanislav Kapralov) Three years before the events in the movie, a prologue shows two snowboarders crashing into a young girl on the slopes and fleeing the scene; the girl dies. Three years later it's Christmas, and two Americans, cocky Max (Alex Hafner) and sensitive Mia (Ivanna Sakhno), book into the same resort near where the incident took place. Both are free snowboarders, and Max is looking forward to some fun on the infamous Black Ridge, but Lali, the unsmiling, creepy receptionist (Tinatin Dalakishvili) tells them that it's been closed off, and not to try and access it because people have disappeared there.

On their first day as they prepare to take a helicopter to their chosen location, they see a corpse in a body bag being taken to the hotel for identification; the body is that of a man, seemingly left for dead on the Black Ridge. He's yet another casualty of the mountain. As they fly past the area Max and Mia see a cross. The pilot tells them that some say the ghost of the dead girl haunts the Black Ridge and kills tourists.

With this rather good setup in place, the film proceeds to go downhill rapidly (pun intended). Max and Mia are attacked by a black clad rider on a snowmobile (they have failed to notice a hand sticking out of the snow while boarding past it). Mia recovers to find Max missing; she catches up with him only to see him being towed away by the snowmobile. The driver then lets off a small bomb which causes an avalanche, in which Mia gets trapped. And thus the movie sheds itself of anything approaching the supernatural and becomes a lame slasher movie crossed with a survival story, a sub genre very popular last decade, you may recall.

Let it Snow is set in and around the ski resort of Gudauri in Georgia (an actual place, so perhaps not the greatest bit of advertising for it). As you might expect, the scenery is stunning, and photographed beautifully. But many of the action scenes are confusingly shot and often very brief, making the film feel bitty. There some very good individual scenes, and Sakhno is put through her paces to quite a gruelling extent, but as a whole Let it Snow is a terrible mess, and most will be able to spot its final reveal coming from a very early point. A fairly shaky feature debut from Kapralov; his intentions may be good, but his execution is very far from it.

Black Christmas (USA/New Zealand 2019: Dir Sophia Takal) I'm not exactly sure why Takal and co-writer April Wolfe chose Bob Clark's 1974 movie as the jumping off point for a very loose adaptation which says some interesting things about gender politics. But I'm kind of pleased they did.

It's Christmas and the students of Hawthorne College (named after its founder, the racist, sexist patriarch Calvin Hawthorne) are preparing for the holidays. Well most of them. A bunch of girls from an all female sorority house, who for one reason or another aren't travelling home, are preparing for the annual 'Orphans dinner'.

Chief among them is Riley (Imogen Poots) who is in recovery after she was sexually assaulted by one of the students, Brian (Ryan McIntyre). Riley's complaint after the attack was not handled well; it was deemed that she was complicit and Brian escaped punishment. The incident leaves many of her friends bitter and angry, not least Kris (Aleyse Shannon) who is waging a one woman war against all forms of oppression; starting with a petition against one of the lecturers, Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes) for his refusal to stop teaching the works of 'old white men' in his classics class (a rather good scene has him quoting Camille Paglia in an attempt to dismiss feminist critique of male language; he's a condescending so and so). The girls put on a revue show, with Riley standing in at the last minute, and the highlight of their set is a blistering put down of the male hegemony on campus. Which of course infuriates the boys.

But, as numbers dwindle in the houses, they reduce further courtesy of a black cowled figure (or is it figures? It seems to be everywhere at once) who's offing the girls one by one. Riley witnesses a ritual involving some of the guys and the bust of Hawthorne (which Kris successfully campaigned to have removed from college grounds). Is this in some way connected with the murders? Well yes and no.

The very on point themes of male oppression and millennial anger underpin a lot of what's happening here. The Kris character personifies much of this tension. "They're classics," she says of the choice of authors in Gerson's English class. "But they're not mine." But Black Christmas is also about Riley's journey back from victim to heroine; at one point she goes looking for one of her friends and finds her about to be forced into having sex with one of the frat boys. Riley quietly stays in the room, silently forcing the boy to leave; it's a great scene.

Takal's nods to Clark's original film pop up now and again; the infamous dirty phone call scene turns out to be a bad connection with the mum of one of the missing girls, and the 'plastic bag' murder is recreated, but this time over the head of one of the oppressors. I can see how a lot of people wouldn't have liked this movie; its politics are not subtle and it's a very 'triggery' film, to use current parlance. But I really liked Takal's reboot. Yes it's a PG-13 horror movie and yes it's been designed with a certain demographic in mind, but it worked for me.

Unholy Night (Canada 2019: Dir Chris Chitaroni, Kristian Lariviere and Randy Smith)
 It's Christmas and lonely Lilly (Jennifer Allanson, who like a lot of this movie's cast, were in Lariviere's entertaining 2018 flick Hens Night) is a put upon nurse whose ward manager is just a big meanie, ordering her around something rotten. Lilly, who struggles with self image issues, doesn't make a stand. She gets assigned to a older patient, Mr Iblis (Jim McDonald), who's nearing the end of his life. He has with him a scrapbook, the contents of which he discloses to Lilly, in the form of two stories. 

The first is 'Christmas with the Cannibals.' A young couple, John and Iris, very much in love, are travelling over to Iris's parents; it's the first time John has met them. To take the pressure off Iris suggests they have some 'shrooms, which means that they're pretty baked when they arrive. Iris's family are decidedly odd, and John's high means that he's occasionally hallucinating. But he certainly isn't seeing things when he finds a freezer full of body parts in the basement. Yes, Iris's family are cannibals (a fact she obviously hadn't previously disclosed). John attempts escape but it seems the whole town, including a police officer - and Iris's ex - is in on the act; John's protestations about cannibalism fall on deaf ears.

The second story, 'Drunk Dead Debbie', concerns a group of women who, while putting together an audition tape for a TV dating show, learn of the legend of 'Drunk Dead Debbie'; the Debbie in question was a shy office worker whose colleagues pranked her by getting her drunk at an office party (the prank backfired as Debbie choked on her own vomit and died). As a result, the story goes that if you look in a mirror and say 'Drunk Dead Debbie' three times, Debbie will come back from the grave. So they do. And she does. And a rather nasty end awaits them all.

The final story is also a conclusion to everything we've seen so far. Lilly gets off her shift, and goes home to her hideously overbearing mother, who has clearly systematically put her daughter down her whole life, including a ritual of locking her in a cupboard every Christmas Eve. Well Lilly's about to undergo an epiphany, as she finds out exactly why her mother locked her up, discovering her true self for the first time. And it ain't pretty (it also explains the prologue to the film). 

This modestly budgeted ($20,000 and that might be Canadian dollars) sort of compendium movie might be very rough round the edges, but I really liked its shoestring inventiveness. It's not hugely funny but it has an anarchic feel and everyone looks like they had a great time making it. 

Happy Horror Days (USA 2020: Dir Various)
Well if you thought the last movie was low budget, try this one on for size. Bit of a cheat including this because of the nine short films that make up the feature, all of which refer to American holidays, only one of them relates to Christmas. Watching this was a bit like viewing a shorts programme; some were ok, some were awful and/or incomprehensible; and all round Happy Horror Days was fairly uninspiring. Anyhow, this is what's included.

New Year's Eve; 'Father Time' - a pregnant woman learns that far from being a benevolent old soul, Father Time resurrects himself every year in the body of the new year's first born. And guess whose waters break with five minutes to go until midnight?

St. Patrick's Day; 'Becoming Patrick' - baffling short short in which a boy is abducted, tortured and returned to his family as, well, Saint Patrick. No, me neither.

Easter: 'Forty Winks' - a lively but difficult to interpret film in which a woman refuses to observe the no meat eating observance of the holiday and turns into a sleepwalking potential killer who eats the family dog and threatens her husabnd, who ties her up.

4th July: '4th July' - a very nasty little film. Two trailer trash white racist MAGA types, a man and a woman, break into the house of a black couple. The black guy is raped by the white man while the MAGA couple let fly with the N-word. Worse is to come, and just when you think there's going to be retribution, the white racist cops arrive. Jeez.

Labor Day: 'Labor Day' - a pregnant woman becomes stuck in a time loop, where it's forever Labor day, and her birth experience becomes more bizarre the more times she re-lives it. But is she actually pregnant in the first place?

Halloween; 'Candy' - a couple move into a home in the hills, vacated in a hurry by the previous owners who have left all their stuff. The home has problems including a leak in the ceiling and a thing in the shed, but more problematically the hills are alive (at least the foliage is) and nature claims the couple via strangling creepers. So that's what happened to the last owners!

Thanksgiving; 'Cranberry Sauce' - a short moral tale. A woman has only enough money to buy a tin of cranberry sauce (required by her mother) or cigarettes. She chooses the fags but when she encounters an entity in a tunnel, who won't let her pass, she goes back to the shop and swaps the cigs for the tin; a much more effective weapon against the entity.

Hanukkah; 'Hanukkah' - Crystal, a gold digging young woman, is getting set to fleece older guy Soloman over dinner at his house. Unfortunately Soloman's wife returns to celebrate Hanukkah, and the stage is set for a rather difficult, and murderous dinner.

Christmas; 'Merry and Fright' - at the Anderson's Christmas party, Bob decides to tell a story about two generations of killer Santas, father and son.

Why Hide?
aka Christmas Presence (UK 2018: Dir James Edward Cook) A group of friends are off to the country to stay with Rose McKenzie (Charlotte Atkinson), who has rented a house for the Christmas holiday. It's Rose's first Christmas without her father; her twin sister Daisy disappeared when Rose was 10, and her mother subsequently died of a broken heart. Her friends consist of new age-y Anita (Lorna Brown) and her bickering husband Marcus (Mark Chatterton), and would be writer Samantha (Elsie Bennett) and her partner, cheese obsessed (Welsh) valley girl Jo (Orla Cottingham); Samantha has just switched to women. Bitchy fashion designer, Hugo (William Holstead), makes up the party. 

As they settle in, the tensions within the group become manifest. Anita pretentiously sees herself continuing a family tradition of healers and mystics. McKenzie holds forth about the pushing of the LGBTQ+ agenda, and Hugo utters a string of sotto voce putdowns aimed at everyone in sight; it could be a long first evening. But when Hugo dishes out his presents early because he has to leave the next day, his gifts to the group - prototypes of a new range of underwear he's developed, the 'Why Hide?' range (crotchless skimpies, basically) - trigger a drunken photoshoot which breaks the ice somewhat. Later that night a drunk Anita dances in the house grounds, summoning spirits.

The next morning Hugo goes missing after seeing something on the edge of the grounds. Has Anita conjured something forth unknowingly? The rest search for him, and find that his car (with tyres slashed) and clothes are still around. Hugo's body is later found. When the rest try to ring for emergency services, the phone has been cut off. Some time later McKenzie finds Hugo tied up in a cupboard, still alive. So who is the body in the kitchen? It's Hugo too. McKenzie twigs that something supernatural is going on which directly links to her missing sister; her friends, and McKenzie herself, are all in grave danger.

Why Hide? (I preferred the Christmas Presence title although this isn't really a Christmas themed movie per se) starts off a little like Abigail Blackmore's 2019 movie Tales from the Lodge, with a group of not quite friends gathering in a country house and facing danger. It takes a little while for the evil - in this case a shape shifting entity - to expose itself, so along the way we get a lot of spooky red herrings. The budget doesn't allow for a full on final reel (although there is a fiery finish, ending up with a pun on Boxing Day), but when the movie shifts up a gear it's quite fun. Whether you like the early scenes banter between a group of people, who don't like each other that much, getting pissed and opening up is a matter of taste. Jo and Hugo get the best lines but after a while the snark starts to grate. I've seen this movie twice now and it's a strangely comforting home grown horror pic, well photographed and with enough content to survive a second watch.

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