Black Christmas — A Fresh Look at a Horror Classic

One of my favorite podcasts that gets me through the workday is Killer POV . It’s comprised of three incredibly rad horror industry insiders – Fangoria’s Rebekah McKendry, FEARnet’s Rob Galluzzo, and Inside Horror’s Elric Kane – who have turned me on to a lot of cool films in the last several months. I can’t recommend it enough.

In a recent episode discussing Christmas themed horror, they had AJ Bowen on as a guest, who said something to the effect of being somewhat jealous of anyone who has never seen Black Christmas, considering its classic status and importance and influence on the genre. I can relate, as I’ve personally had the experience of sitting down with someone who had never seen Halloween or Halloween 2 and introducing the franchise to them for the first time. Watching them see one of my favorites through fresh eyes was a major thrill.

So, it is with this post that I can say to AJ Bowen, today, you have reason to be jealous. I’ve been a life-long horror fan and I like to think I’ve been around the block a little bit, but there have been a few classics, cult or otherwise, who for whatever reason, have fallen through the cracks for me. I can’t explain how or why, but I’ve just never gotten around to seeing some of them.

I’ve decided to do something about that, starting here and now. So, with this post, I’m creating a new feature on the site — HORROR CLASSICS THROUGH FRESH EYES. The purpose of this will be to apply what I’ve learned through 20+ years of horror fandom to not only catch up on some stuff I should have seen a long time ago, but to also make a few observations that hopefully, once in a blue moon, may be somewhat fresh – or at the very least, interesting for folks who are already well familiar with this material.

With Christmas being less than a week away, let’s not waste any more time on the preamble and get down to it for the first edition with something I finally had the pleasure of sitting down and watching today for the first time ever: Black Christmas.

Of course, I’ve heard quite a bit about this over the years, but only knew the bare bones — slasher film, takes place on Christmas, lots of pretty girls. Literally, that’s all I knew. It wasn’t until the credits rolled just a few hours ago that I found out that Margot Kidder and and John Saxon were even in it. So, this thing was full of pleasant surprises all around.

I’m not going to waste too much space here summarizing plot. I’m going to guess anyone reading this is already familiar, and if you’re not, I’d recommend watching it before you read this. I might get a little spoilery before it’s over.

I’m basically just going to hit some highlights and discuss some observations that hit me as I went along. First off, the language. And by that, I mean, the fact that the characters weave obscenities like a fine art. I’m not usually taken aback by a few adult words, but I did chuckle a little at th­­­­e fact that the first words of dialogue spoken are, “Who left the goddamn door open?” You just don’t expect that kind of language from Lois Lane.

Just when you get used to it, the girls get their first call from the killer. After Multiple Miggs gets finished discussing how he’d like to get to know them, the virginal one of the group, Clare, heads upstairs to become the first victim.

I particularly enjoyed her death and it was the first time in which I noticed how the film makes creative use of diegetic sound, punctuating her appearance in the frame with the sound of both the killer singing and a church bell in the next scene. It wasn’t groundbreaking, but was incredibly well done.

Probably the best use of creative diegetic sound came later in the film in this shot, when the group is looking for Clare, who’s been missing for quite some time by this point.

frame

In the preceding shot, Peter, distressed about the trouble in his relationship with Jess, smashed the inside of his piano, the sound of the struck strings vibrating into this shot. You can’t hear what’s happening on the inside of the house, but what you do hear is an effective combination of those strings, a dog barking, and a distant siren. The combined effect really works to help build the dread and intensity regarding the hunt for Clare.

It also somewhat breaks the rule that we’ve all become used to of the sweetest, virginal girl in the bunch ending up as the Final Girl. At this point, all bets were off, and while I was guessing it was going to end up being Margo Kidder’s character, Barb, I still had no clue.

I certainly didn’t expect it to end up being Jess, played by the unbelievably beautiful and talented Olivia Hussey. I thought early on that her storyline with Peter would only be a minor subplot, and I kind of liked it that way. I like that this serious, adult pregnancy drama was woven into what could easily be written off as a slasher film that just also happened to have a lot of genuinely funny comedy worked in. The revelation of this painting made me laugh a little more than I probably should have.

painting

There is so much going on in this thing. Jess and Peter’s storyline kind of felt like it could have easily been its own movie, and one that I wouldn’t have mind seeing.

Jess

She really stands out here and has an exotic, otherwordly quality. I looked her up, thinking that there had to be something I’d seen her in or eventually would, and I wasn’t disappointed. I then remembered her from the old Romeo and Juliet production that everyone was required to see in high school and was pleasantly surprised to see that she also played Norma Bates in Psycho IV: The Beginning. I’ve only seen the first one, and I’m thinking I need to tackle the series for a future review. Robert Galluzzo, of the aforementioned Killer POV, actually directed a celebrated documentary on the series, The Psycho Legacy. I’m looking forward to catching that as well.

A few other points of interest: I found the cinematography to be very smooth and economical. Not a shot was wasted, but at the same time, Reginald H. Morris (also responsible for Porky’s and A Christmas Story) really knows how to stylishly move the camera. He effectively takes our attention where he wants it with a dash of flash, without it trying to seem flashy, if that makes any sense at all. I’m also seriously digging the composition in shots like this.

fireplace

Another highlight is John Saxon, playing Lt. Ken Fuller. It’s fun to go into this blind – for one, not knowing he was even in it, and for two, not knowing he’d play such a similar part as he does in the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. Seeing all the influences and genre conventions this sets up at this point in the game makes me look at what came later in a whole new light.

And now we’re most definitely getting into the territory of discussing something about the film that I’m sure has been discussed by a million times before I decided to tackle it, and I’m sure much more thoroughly. I don’t have much new to add here, but I’m going to mention it anyway:  The obvious example of Black Christmas‘s influence on John Carpenter’s Halloween. An argument could be made that without this, films like When a Stranger Calls and Halloween may not have even existed, or at least not in the way that we know them. Even after only seeing this once just this afternoon, it was a lot of fun to notice where Carpenter drew from it in terms of the POV device, plot structure, cinematography, and oh yeah, AHEM:

laurie and jess

Bottom line: I’m glad I finally knocked this one out, and I think it was a good way to kick off this new feature. I haven’t read good things so far about the remake, but I’m still going to see it soon anyway. From what I understand, Andrea Martin (Phyl) actually has a small part in it. I can only dream that she still has that damn haircut. God, I love the ’70’s.

If you’re reading this and you have any suggestions for any horror classics, cult or otherwise, that you think I may not have seen and would like for me to take a stab at, let me know in the comments. You’d be surprised what’s fallen through the cracks. It gets a little embarrassing.

MY FAVORITE SPOOKY CHRISTMAS PRESENTS

I mentioned a couple posts back that I was going to try squeeze as much content as I could in between now and Christmas, and tonight, I’m vowing to do just that. THE BIG DAY is less than a week away, people. We’re in the home stretch. Don’t pretend that it didn’t sneak up on you too.

I’m waiting on one last present to show up in the mail (this year was a major online shopping one for me) and as soon as that’s here and under the tree, I will officially be done with all my shopping, which brings me to the topic of tonight’s discussion.

PRESENTS! Surprising no one, my penchant for the spooky started early. If there was a weird or creepier version of something, that was the one I always gravitated toward. Castle Greyskull? Sure, it’s cool, but Snake Mountain was where it was at. Judy Bloom? Try Goosebumps. The Monster Squad over Goonies (I still stand by that), and if I was a young girl now, you better believe I’d be all over those damn Monster High dolls.

So, when it came to some of my Christmas presents, my parents knew which way I swung and how to inject some horror into the holidays. Look, I’m not going to pretend that someone else doesn’t do this a lot better, but I’m giving it a shot anyway. Imitation and flattery and all that crap. So, here are some of MY FAVORITE SPOOKY CHRISTMAS PRESENTS.

CARNIVAC

Carnivac was part of Transformers’ Pretenders Line. Launching in 1988, later in the Generation 1 run, it was a time when Hasbro was willing to throw just about anything at the wall to see what would stick. The Pretenders were comprised of a tough outer shell that served to trick humans into believing that what they were looking at was a tall human in a space suit instead of a robot basically hiding inside of a giant metal overcoat. Next, they took things a step further and introduced the Pretender Beasts. One of those was Carnivac, a Decepticon that transformed from a robot mode to a wolf mode inside of ANOTHER WOLF MODE. Well, wolf shell, but you get my meaning.

Yeah, I could have asked for Wheeljack or Huff that year, but come on. It’s a double-wolf-robot killing machine. Keep in mind, the purpose was to blend in with the Earthlings, so of course it’s bigger than any wolf in existence, talks, and wears what appears to be a saddle with a giant damn gun mounted on it. Great job, fellas.

MY PET MONSTER

There isn’t much I can say here that hasn’t been expounded upon by better bloggers than me all over the internet. If there’s anything that will get your nostalgia boners going, it’s this little guy. He was technically meant to appeal to both boys and girls, and I guess he did, but I’ve always seen him as basically an acceptable reason for a boy to sleep with a stuffed animal, but be respectable about it. No one can accuse you of being a baby if the toy you’re sleeping with has fangs and breakaway handcuffs.

I have a specific memory attached to this guy and it involves me slightly cheating here. I’m going to fess up and say that even though this is a Christmas centric post, I actually got him on Easter. In fact, he’s solely responsible for me (quick, cover your kids’ ears) figuring out that there was no Easter Bunny. Every year, EB would leave me an Easter basket laying on the living room floor in front of the TV to find when I came downstairs. One day, I hit the jackpot and old Monsty was propped up inside of it. I LOST MY SHIT. You have no idea how long I’d been asking for one. EB had finally come through. I’ll admit, I was kind of playing along for that last year or so, waffling on whether or not I still believed in him (Santa had not quite been ruined for me yet), but this one restored some hope.

Until I found his box and receipt in the kitchen trash about 8 minutes later. Real smooth, Mom. Real Smooth. I’ve long since lost him (the handcuffs probably disappeared about 42 minutes after first picking him up), but he’ll always be one of my favorites, and probably one of yours.

MAD SCIENTIST DISSECT-AN-ALIEN

Oooooh, this is a good one, and a little more obscure. I can’t remember when I first found out about it or even asked for it. I only remember somehow being aware of it and dying to have one. The Mad Scientist line is fantastic and I never understood why it didn’t get more attention. It’s still kicking today and churning out some good stuff, mostly involving slime, but not quite with the charm of allowing me at the age of 8 to be a certified surgeon.

The premise was simple. You lay out a plastic mat full of loads of cool illustrations of body parts, pry open his chest, and remove plastic organs covered in slime for innards and blood. What is not to love about this? I have a very specific memory of sitting at the kitchen table and my mother threatening me with certain death if I got one drop of that crap on her table spread. It would have been absolutely worth it.

Death Game – A Fun Little Home Invasion Story

death game cover

DISCLAIMER: PLOT SYNOPSIS AND MILD SPOILERS AHEAD

‘Tis the season for gift giving and this is the story of how I found a fairly obscure one. Back in the days when all we had to rely on was a TV Guide to tell us what we were watching, I grew up with a handful of scenes in my head from movies I caught on TV a few times as a kid, but I couldn’t tell you the names of any of them. I lived for the chance to maybe catch that one weird cult film I saw on a Saturday afternoon once…you know, the one with the black car that drove out of the desert and killed people, magically repairing itself whenever it was damaged? Turns out it was just The Car. But, it took years for me to find that out.

And that’s what brings us to Death Game . This time around, it wasn’t me doing the searching; it was my dad. For years, I’ve been listening to him describe some wild movie he caught on TV once and he could only loosely remember the plot and one key scene. He didn’t have a clue about the title or who starred in it, but said he wouldn’t rest until he found this thing again. Recently, after quite a bit of searching online, I finally managed to find it, buy it, and watch it. I can’t wait to see his face light up when he unwraps this next week.

Let’s dive in. Death Game is a fun little Grindhouse-y home invasion film released in 1977, directed by Peter Traynor and starring Seymour Cassel, Sondra Locke, and Colleen Camp. Cassel stars as George, a man left home alone in a fairly nice two story house on the good side of town who is left alone one weekend on his birthday when his wife and kids are suddenly called away to tend to some other family business.

In one of the better introduction scenes of an antagonist that I’ve seen in a while, we first meet Locke and Camp’s characters (“Jackson” and “Donna” respectively) when they arrive on his doorstep during a rainstorm. The cinematography, cutting back and forth from him lounging inside to them lurking around outside, combined with a couple flashes of lightening, giving us brief glimpses of them, works perfectly to set them up as being an exterior predatory threat. The brief ominous mood is paused when he invites them in to dry off and warm up. There’s quite a bit of light, playful conversation wherein they say they’re lost on their way to a party. At some point, they both make their way into the bathroom and after being in there for a while, he checks on them only to find both of them nude in the tub.

It’s at this point that this thing makes a hard left turn into the nearly x-rated. What follows is essentially a Skinemax level threesome in the tub, complete with the grooviest, most 70’s porno soundtrack you’ve ever heard in your life.

The next morning, the three settle down for an awkward breakfast wherein the girls start to engage in slightly odd behavior, changing their story about where they’re trying to go, and somewhat taunting George. Realizing last night was a BAD IDEA, he drops them off somewhere out of town. It’s during the breakfast scene, ensuing argument, and drive out of town that we get the first real glimpse that these girls are, at the least, a touch unhinged.

Upon returning home, George finds that the girls have somehow BROKEN BACK INTO HIS HOUSE. The third act then kicks in, with an extended torture sequence lasting the night involving the girls killing a delivery man, tying George to a bed, destroying the house, and staging a mock trial.

While cult favorite Colleen Camp is as stellar as usual, Sondra Locke, IMO, stole the show here. Her large eyes, wide smile, expressions, and severe features further exemplified her predatory nature. She looked and sounded like a crazed hyena on the hunt, while oozing insane sexuality. She is incredibly striking and firing on all cylinders here.

Her performance actually reminded quite a bit of Sheri Moon Zombie’s Baby Firefly from The Devil’s Rejects to the point that I wonder if Death Game was an influence. I haven’t found any research to suggest that she or Rob Zombie were directly inspired by it, but I have to believe they are at least aware. Even her shrill giggle is pure Baby through and through.

The film opens with a graphic mentioning that it is based on a true story, and while there is no hard evidence to back that up, it does have many echoes of the Manson murders, which occurred only eight years before the film was released. In addition to Baby, I picked up a few traces of Susan Atkins (as portrayed by Nancy Wolfe in 1976’s Helter Skelter) in Locke’s performance.

The film’s not perfect by any means. It was shot with a meager budget, has some unnecessarily long sequences that just feel like padding, and nearly all of Seymour Cassel’s dialogue was obviously redubbed, sometimes poorly and out of sync. The transfer I saw was from the one basic DVD release that it’s been given, but the graininess only supported its Grindhouse feel, so I didn’t mind. Films like this aren’t pretty and aren’t meant to be seen in high def.

If you’re looking for a good, rainy night in with a fun, low budget home invasion flick, I recommend Death Game. For a double bill, I’d pair it with Helter Skelter, or hell, even Spookies if you want to stay low budget and just go into a different direction, further into the absurd.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

Because Hollywood just can’t help itself, Eli Roth is actually remaking Death Game into a new film titled Knock Knock, slated for an October 2015 release. It stars Keanu Reeves and will also feature Colleen Camp (presumably in a much smaller role this time). She also shares a producing credit. Now that I’m officially a Death Game fan, I will definitely be staying on top of the Knock Knock news and post some updates here. In the meantime, check out these screen grabs from Knock Knock. Enjoy!

knock knock 1knock knock 2

knock knock 3knock knock 4

knock knock 5

Just Resting…

I’m going to go ahead and attempt some half-assed apology here. Clearly, Retro Ghouls and Shocks’s first Halloween was a little…underwhelming. I have no decent excuse to offer other than the day job and life in general have kicked my ass the last couple of months. The stupid irony of it is, I’ve gotten A LOT done, but just had no time to write about it.. I hosted The Dark Entries: Goth Radio 2014 Halloween Show, I hung out with Bill of Veggie Macabre (Bill did the Halloween Show with me! Seriously, guys, you should really listen to it), Brian of Review the World, and Ben of The Juggernauts Cave. We recorded a lot of content and you can see some of it at their sites, which I would highly recommend, as they’re some of the coolest sites on the web.

But, the good news is, I DO have loads of new stuff coming up. I’m going to try to toss off at least one post this weekend and then the kick it into high gear. Halloween was a little bit of a bust on the writing front, but I’m not letting it happen again for Christmas. I’m actually planning a little staycation for about a week and a half soon, and brother, if I can’t get it done then, then there’s no hope for any of us.

No, the site’s not dead. Just resting. We’ll be back at it very soon, whole-assed and everything.

sleeping skeleton