Saturday 18 December 2021

Scary Christmas Round Up of New (ish) Holiday Themed Horror Movies 2021: Reviews of The Advent Calendar (France/Belgium 2021), Red Snow (USA 2021), Puppet Killer (Canada 2019), Black Friday (USA 2021), Christmas Zombies (USA 2020) and Silent Night (UK 2021)

For the fourth year running, here are some reviews of Christmas/holiday themed movies to inspire some seasonal watching.

The Advent Calendar aka Le calendrier (France/Belgium 2021: Dir Patrick Ridremont) Eva Roussel (Eugénie Derouand), an ex dancer now paraplegic following a road accident, is hardly living her best life, stuck in a crappy insurance job with an equally crappy boss intent on belittling her and hiring others with a view to forcing her out of the business. Her father has Alzheimer's and her stepmother is pretty awful too.

Her friend Sophie (Honorine Magnier) gifts her a wooden box from Germany, a handcrafted advent calendar with 'the miracle of Christmas' written on the front, 'Dump it and I'll kill you' on the back, and a set of rules governing its use. Each of the locked doors must be opened at midnight, with a sharp rebuke from the box if Eva doesn't comply. Inside the box a trickster demon lurks, just waiting for the latest player to open door number one.

Some of the boxes contain chocolates, others objects or messages like "to cure hurt, destroy what hurt you" and "Jesus said to the cripple, get up and walk". Eva gradually understands that the box is exerting a force on her which allows her to control her environment. When she influences a rapey trader guy to die in a car crash, following a disastrous double date with Sophie and her latest beau, she also gets him to send a link to his phone stock market app, which immediately starts bringing in the Euros for her. But Eva also realises the Advent Calendar might have a higher, and deadlier purpose; to help her walk again.

Ridremont's modern fairy tale follows the 'be careful what you wish for' moral of Jacobs' 'The Monkey's Paw' story but the logic is skewed; Roussel is offered a miracle at huge cost, and it's the realisation that her dream of walking again could be realised, and the human cost of that dream, that turns her from an angry and embittered woman into something much darker.

For my taste The Advent Calendar is a little too tricksy to satisfy, but there's no doubting that it's a clever, uncomfortable film and Derouand turns in a fine, anguished performance which grows darker - and richer - as the film progresses.

Red Snow (USA 2021: Dir Sean Nicols Lynch) Struggling horror author Olivia Romo (Dennice Cisneros) is spending Christmas in a Lake Tahoe cabin, left to her by her late mother. In truth Olivia, broke and with her ‘Twilight’ style undead novel ‘Touched by a Vampire’ not setting the publishing world alight, she’s left to spend the holidays alone while the book’s rejection letters stack up.

When a bat flies into a window of the cabin one night, Olivia is minded to rescue the thing from the snow and restore it to health. Leaving it overnight in the garage, the following morning she is surprised but more than a little delighted to see that the bat, which was actually of the vampire variety, has changed back to naked male form in the rather buff shape of Luke (Nico Bellamy).

But when Julius King (Vernon Wells), a private investigator, turns up at the cabin, he’s in search of three vicious vampires, of which Luke is the most dangerous. Olivia finds it hard to reconcile the rather friendly guy she has in her garage with the concept of a murderous bloodsucker, but when Luke’s friends Jackie (Laura Kennon) and Brock (Alan Silva) turn up, she sees a different side of the vampire she thought was going to be useful in helping fine tune the details of her novel.

Red Snow is a comedy that raises smiles rather than belly laughs, and if you don’t warm to the kooky Olivia you may find it hard work. But it’s well cast and the snowy scenery is a bonus. There are some great lines (Luke describes the movie Nosferatu as the Birth of a Nation for his kind, and likens the pigs blood procured for him, rather than the human plasma he requires, as the difference between “craft beer and warm piss”): it’s also surprisingly gory and the effects are good for something that was probably pretty small budget wise. And Timothy Lynch’s soundtrack does a lovely job of sinistering up some Christmas standards; honestly you’ve never heard ‘The Coventry Carol’ sound more chilling.

Puppet Killer (Canada 2019: Dir Lisa Ovies) At first glance, Lisa Ovies’ debut directing feature shares a similar setup to Ben Holt’s Benny Loves You; both date from 2019 (Ovies’ film is only now getting a UK release) and concern childhood attachments to a puppet with murder on its mind. Coincidence, surely?

As a child young Jamie, a horror movie obsessed little boy, has a tough time. Losing his mother to cancer, he’s now caught in the middle of heightened bickering between dad and his new wife, with only a bright pink puppet (a favourite of his mother’s) for company. Bickering has escalated to separation status, and as Jamie’s stepmother makes arrangements to leave the family home, she is knifed to death by an invisible assailant; the body is whisked away and she is deemed to have gone missing.

Ten years later Jamie, now a young student (and in audacious bit of casting, his part is played, not by a teenager, but 50 year old Aleks Paunovic, possibly a nod to all those teen slasher movies where the students are actors in their 20s and 30s) has gathered his schoolfriends together for a weekend at the home where he grew up, now abandoned.

Once they arrived the gang settle in for the usual blend of beer, drugs and pre marital sex, with Jamie more keen to access a stash of VHS tapes in the basement and organise a horrorthon. But the movies aren’t the only thing from the past that’s rediscovered. His pink puppet is also unearthed, and before long somebody, or something, is offing the partying kids.

You have to take a pretty big leap of faith to go with the plotting of this frequently hilarious homage to/send up of classic horror movies. But it wins because the script is smart, the cast are great value, and the puppet gets all the best lines. It’s often pretty gory too; the addition of filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soskia about half way through, in a plot device which intrigues rather than annoys, displays not only their acting chops but a film which isn’t afraid to chuck everything into the mix. Good work.

Black Friday (USA 2021: Dir Casey Tebo) It’s Thanksgiving (which Americans always conflate with Christmas) and the superstores of the USA are preparing for, as one worker puts it, the “friggin’ vultures” who queue outside at silly o’clock to snap up those Black Friday bargains.

Over at We Love Toys store manager Jonathan Wexler (a bowtie and cardigan sporting Bruce Campbell) is preparing his workers for the busiest night of the year. The staff include Ken (Devon Sawa), who is pissed that he has to work on the night of the holiday while his kids get to have a slap up Thanksgiving dinner at home with his ex-wife and her lame boyfriend; tough final girl in waiting Marnie (Ivana Baquero), with whom Ken is having a bit of a thing despite being twenty years older than her; cleanliness freak Chris (Ryan Lee); employee of the month Anita (Celeste Olivier); and uber bossy bitchy team leader Brian (Stephen Peck).

But this shopping event is going to be rather different. In a neighbouring warehouse a gigantic blob, presumably alien but unexplained, overcomes and mutates some of the workers there. And by the time We Love Toys is open for business the whole district has been overwhelmed with infected shoppers. And they’re headed for Jonathan and his team.

“There’s something wrong with the shoppers” remarks a character at one point, which is probably the understatement of the year. Director Casey Tebo (who seems to have cut his teeth directing Aerosmith promotional videos) has great fun pitching the mutated hordes (well twenty or so of them anyway, the budget’s pretty slim) against the disparate and disgruntled staff of the toy store, who predictably overcome their differences, utilising pretty much anything in the store in the fight against the infected townsfolk.

The practical effects are the star here, a homage to DTV 1980s latex FX classics (and the Dawn of the Dead nods are clear and present), and if the script and overall narrative are sometimes a bit scrappy and inconclusive, the film is saved by some dry performances and an increasing sense of mayhem, building to an impressively fiery climax.

Christmas Zombies (USA 2020: Dir Ashley Hays Wright) OK, here's what you need to know. Ashley Hays Wright is, and I quote, "a home school mother of three daughters...married to David Owen Wright, an 'actor' (my inverted commas)...a multi talented craftsman with many gifts from God". So the Wright family, good Christian souls all, decided to add to their skillset the art of filmmaking, as 'Wright Family Films'. And boy did they go at it, with thirteen shorts, TV slots and features completed in 2020. What, with a pandemic raging, I hear you cry? Fear not, pilgrim, for the Wright family make all their movies at home, and the cast are, you guessed it, mainly members of the Wright family!

So now we're all caught up, let me introduce you to Christmas Zombies, one of the lamest, most atrocious films I've brought you in all the four years of this seasonal post (although have a read of the user reviews on IMDb, particularly the one who writes "I am sure the people that rate this low are upset that this was not a film full of blood, foul language, nudity or the usual horrible things in these type of films." Yep!

On the night before Christmas, dad (David Owen Wright) reads a story to his three daughters (Cadence, Scout and Jaina Wright). Ostensibly it's 'The Night Before Christmas' but dad changes it, narrating instead the story of 'Snuffy' (also dad Wright) a disgruntled elf who gets kicked out of Santa's workshop by Big Red himself and wages war against Santa with an army of robot zombies.

At 66 minutes this feels a lot longer. Through a combination of green screen and video editing, Mr and Mrs Wright do at least manage to make it look like there's a full cast, instead of the family and a couple of hangers on in multiple roles. But oh god it's so terrible. I mean, if their mission was to make a good, clean, family film which won't offend the congregation of their local church, but you have no talent at comedy or even telling a story properly, then this is what you get. On a more sinister note, Snuffy's revenge and the combined opposing forces of the North Pole relies on a proliferation of guns, most of which don't seem to be real, but even so, I'm going to guess that a family whose kids are home schooled to protect them from 'adult content' are possibly well stocked in the gun department. Awful and just a little sinister then (but for all the wrong reasons).

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021 Silent Night (UK 2021: Dir Camille Griffin)
 And so we end this year's coverage with, if not a classic film, an odd and very moving one.

Nell (Keira Knightley) and her husband Simon (Matthew Goode) are hosting a Christmas day get together, at their huge house in the country, for a group of old friends, a quirky mix of vaguely posh people whose affability suggests we're about to watch a witty social comedy; and indeed swirling strings on the soundtrack signify the lightheartedness and opulence of the setup.

But there are some chinks in the overall levity. One of the guests, Sandra (Annabelle Wallis) has splurged her daughter Kitty's (Davida  McKenzie) university fund on an expensive party dress, and Nell's own kids, Art (Roman Griffin David, JoJo Rabbit) Hardy (Hardy Griffin Davis) and Thomas (Gilby Griffin Davis) are collective potty mouths."God we're getting old," says Nell to one of the group, James (Sope Dirisu); "were getting old," he corrects her.

For this is a party with a difference; it's an end of the world bash. A toxic cloud, the results of global warming, is moving around the globe, killing the world's population. The UK Government have provided a human solution for its people; a pill which kills instantly. Nell and her friends and kids have gathered to take the pill together before the cloud arrives, saving them from an agonising death by poisoning. 

But as the movie progresses and the toxic cloud slowly approaches, doubts are expressed about the veracity of the tablet; also James' 15 year old gilfriend Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp, daugher of Johnny and Vanessa Paradis, celeb fans) is pregnant and having second thoughts about joining them in the pill popping party.

Silent Night feels a bit like Richard Curtis remaking Lars von Trier's 2011 movie Melancholia. There's an off feeling about the whole thing (and not in a bad way), which gradually transforms into full on pathos. The disclosure of secrets among the group, which in any other film would be the dramatic climax, here occurs half way through the movie but becomes inconsequential; these people have bigger concerns than human frailty. And while the details behind the catastrophe are only hinted at, one character opines: "We should have voted Green..fucking Conservatives".

This really is quite an extrordinary film, strange but unusually truthful, shot through with mordant humour: and if the final piece of music, Lorne Balfe's beautiful reworking of the carol that provides the film's title, doesn't move you, then nothing will. 

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