Angst (1983) An artsy German slasher about an unhinged madman (Erwin Leder) who’s released from prison and immediately goes about terrorizing a family at a remote country estate. There’s way too much exposition involved in the killer’s backstory, with endless, ham-fisted psychological motivations behind his slaughter – but we already know he’s a psychopath from the first scene. Technically ahead of its time and featuring some impressive, dizzying camera work that’s since been mimicked to death, this is filled with too many uninteresting characters and predictable shocks to recommend it. C
Effects (1979)Life imitates art in this well-intended but meandering mystery about a group of working class Pittsburgh filmmakers making a low-budget horror movie in and around a house in the Pennsylvania countryside. Personalities clash and reality is blurred when the movie starts to resemble a snuff flick. A clever concept and smart characters (several discuss their favorite kills in horror movies) are unfortunately wasted on dull execution and a rather annoying performance from Joe Pilato (Day of the Dead). Tom Savini supplied the special FX but they aren’t enough to lift this out from its dusty plot trappings. C
Grotesque (1988) A dumb but undeniably entertaining shocker about a young woman (Linda Blair) whose visit to her family’s mountain house is interrupted by a gang of murderous punks, who in turn are set upon by Blair’s deformed, revenge-fueled cousin. Things get complicated when cousin dies and Blair’s uncle (Tab Hunter) steps into his son’s shoes. Sort of the Diet Coke version of Last House on the Left with more of an emphasis on cheap exploitation than emotional investment in the characters. Despite being in small roles, the presence of Blair, Hunter, and Donna Wilkes gives the lowbrow production an air of respectability, but only just. The double twist ending has to be seen to be believed. B–
Happy Holidays! With the Christmas season upon us, I decided to write about a myriad of holiday horror flicks that I usually watch (or avoid) every year. In order, from my favorite to least favorite, here is a list of yuletide horror movies ranging from classics to holiday turkeys. (I did not include any of the Silent Night, Deadly Night movies as they are all thoroughly reviewed in a separate post. You can find the link below!)
Krampus (2015) A dysfunctional family celebrating the holiday together is menaced by a Christmas demon and its curse, which is accidentally summoned by the family’s youngest boy after he loses faith in the season. After an uneven first 20 minutes that essentially play like a mini-remake of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the film kicks into high gear and delivers a crackerjack tale of monsters and survival as the family is bombarded by all manner of creatures, including a 15-foot-long jack-in-the-box with a mouth full of sharp teeth. Director and co-writer Michael Dougherty understands the mechanics of such a movie and keeps the pace moving briskly, while the cast is spirited and likable, including Toni Collette as the harried mom. B+
Black Christmas (2006) An energetic and gory remake of the classic original, with the pretty coeds of a large sorority house menaced by an escaped mental patient (Robert Mann) and his equally demented sister, both of whom enjoy plucking out the eyeballs of their victims. Fans of the 1974 film might not like director Glen (Final Destination) Morgan’s comic book handling of the material, and while the story structure is a mess, it’s still an immensely enjoyable splatter-fest. B+
Blood Beat (1983) An obscure supernatural slasher about a small family spending Christmas in rural Wisconsin, who find themselves in danger when the bloodthirsty spirit of a samurai warrior is accidentally summoned by a psychic friend. This takes too long to get moving and is plagued with unnecessary subplots (two characters are psychic!), but once the paranormal stuff kicks in, this is an enjoyable, nonsensical myriad of oddball aesthetics and dream-like structure. Writer/director Fabrice-Ange Zaphiratos admitted to being on drugs at the time he wrote the screenplay, which explains a lot. B
Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) A surprisingly enjoyable low budget psycho-thriller about a maniac killing people in and around a country estate (which holds a dark past), and later calling would-be victims in hushed tones, pontificating about the crimes – a plot point later used in Dressed to Kill. Stiffly acted and at times a bit slow, this is nonetheless a good little flick with well-written characters and a dense atmosphere. The use of the killer’s POV predates Black Christmas, and a plot twist 30 minutes in is genuinely shocking. Look for Andy Warhol superstars Ondine and Candy Darling in a flashback. Definitely worthy of rediscovery! B
To All a Goodnight (1980) Taking its cues from both Halloween and Black Christmas, this low-grade slasher has a sorority house terrorized on Christmas break by a killer wearing a Santa outfit. Jennifer Runyon is the virginal, Laurie Strode-like character while everyone else is essentially just killer fodder. Suspense and surprises are replaced in favor of gore, with a couple of juicy splatter pieces supplied by ’80s FX wizard Mark Shostrom (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3). Not the greatest slasher around, but it’s charming and the spirited cast keeps things moving. This also gets points for predating Silent Night, Deadly Night by four years. B–
Silent Night (2012) A small town is terrorized by someone in a Santa costume killing those who’ve been naughty in this cheerfully bloody remake of Silent Night, Deadly Night. Although the script is filled with uninspired characters and mundane situations, the violence and action are packed in, with the particularly brutal death of a woman in a wood chipper (perhaps in a nod to Fargo?) a highlight. The dime-store atmospherics are obvious, but that shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying this harmless bit of entertainment, no matter how lapsed in logic it may be. Keep an eye out for Donal Logue as a perverted department store Santa. B–
Home for the Holidays (1972) Joseph (Psycho) Stefano-penned television chiller about four sisters who are summoned to their sick father’s estate at Christmastime, where claims that his new wife (Julie Harris) is slowly poisoning him. Not long after arriving, the women are stalked by someone in a rain slicker, carrying a pitchfork. Could it be the “evil” stepmother, or does someone else have an insidious agenda? A good cast, including Sally Field and Jessica Walter, help elevate this above its mediocre melodramatics, as does slick direction from John Llewellyn Moxey (The Night Stalker). C+
Deadly Games: Dial Code Santa Claus (1989) A young boy (Alain Musy) obsessed with Rambo-like action movies must protect his home and elderly grandfather (Louis Ducreux) when a maniac (Patrick Floersheim) dressed as Santa breaks into their house on Christmas Eve. This spirited French film predates Home Alone with its booby trap scenarios, and although it has several fun moments the overall effect is unfortunately bogged down in the film’s flashy visuals and kooky concept, muting a lot of its impact. C+
Don’t Open till Christmas (1984) Someone in a mask is slaughtering Santas on the streets of London in this dopey yuletide slasher. Not nearly as entertaining as the same producer’s Pieces, this is riddled with stupid characters – with perhaps the first protagonist couple who are both panhandlers! – and unbelievable situations, but its overtly sleazy atmosphere mixed with a cheery Christmas vibe creates an undeniably unique slasher flick experience, even if it’s a dumb one. As with most Euro-slashers, this lacks the charm and zest of its American counterparts. C
Christmas Evil (1980) Those expecting a fun splatter flick in the vein of Silent Night, Deadly Night will be disappointed in this existential melodrama about a mentally scarred factory worker (Brandon Maggart) who snaps at Christmastime and goes on a killing spree. Not nearly as entertaining as it sounds, this is too dull and dry to be of any interest, with flat, unexciting direction from Lewis Jackson and a hammy performance by Maggart. C–
Better Watch Out (2017) A babysitter (Olivia DeJonge) is tied up and terrorized by her infatuated charge (Levi Miller) and his friend on Christmas Eve in this juvenile, run-of-the-mill potboiler. Riddled with cliches and extremely predictable twists, it’s all photographed in over-saturated colors and high-gloss lighting, making it feel more like a very long commercial for Abercrombie and Fitch than an actual movie. The cast is annoying (especially Miller, who’s awful) and the screenplay a joke. Zero scares, zero suspense, zero interest. Better watch at your own risk. D
Black Christmas (2019) A new remake that feels tired, this ultra-modern take is so far removed from the classic Bob Clark film it’s a wonder why the filmmakers even bothered with the Black Christmas name. The plot (a sorority is targeted by a cloaked killer during the Christmas break) is rendered pointless by the halfway point because of the overbearingly pretentious excesses the screenplay piles on; it’s more concerned with aggressively annoying characters than story. It’s the kind of hollow script (by Sophia Takal and April Wolfe) that thinks feminism is female characters using the word “bitch,” when it’s nothing more than fake sentiment created merely to seem hip. A bloodless, lifeless Christmas turkey, this gives new meaning to the term lowest common denominator. It’s also an example of the classic saying: if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. F
Pledge Night (1990) During hell week a frat house is stalked by the murderous spirit of a ’60s hippie who was accidentally killed during a frat prank years earlier. A surprisingly fun little flick, this start off as an Animal House-type romp and halfway through turns into an over-the-top splatter comedy in the spirit of Evil Dead. While technically unimpressive and sporting a bit too many Freddy Krueger moments, this has plenty of low budget charm and a good cast. The movie’s sense of humor helps, as do a few homoerotic scenes (including the “cherry race”), and male frontal nudity, something rarely seen in the horror VHS era. B
Silent Night (2021)An end-of-the-world satire about a stiff upper lip British family spending their last Christmas together before civilization is deemed extinct by a deadly toxic cloud (the result of mass pollution) enveloping the planet. A good cast (Keira Knightly, Matthew Goode, Annabelle Wallis, Lucy Punch, and Jojo Rabbit‘s Roman Griffin David) helps keep the uneven screenplay afloat, especially when scenes unexpectedly shift gears from light-hearted comedy to bleak horror. Knightly is endearing, young David, as the moody family doomsday prophet, is thoroughly annoying, and the ending leaves a lot to be desired. C
Stephen King’s Thinner (1996) One of many King adaptations that came in the wake of Pet Sematary, in which an overweight, revered mob lawyer (Robert John Burke), as well as a few of his colleagues, are cursed by an old Romani man after the accidental death of his sister. Harmless but rather ho-hum in terms of execution, this does have a good performance by Burke and some clever make-up FX by Oscar winner Greg Cannom. In the end you can’t help but wish there was more meat on these bones. C+
Welcome to a new feature on Matt’s Horror Addiction: VERSUS. Versus takes one film and presents two opposing opinions in head-to-head reviews with my friend and horror movie aficionado, Frank Pittarese. We’ll explain why we loved and hated the same movie, and you can decide who’s right!
As Christmas break gets underway, a mysterious someone stalks the women of a sorority house, secretly killing them one by one. At the center of the storm is the troubled Jess, who might be closer to the killer than she even suspects. While her friends vanish (and the body count rises), Jess begins to feel more and more targeted. Can she survive the night, even as the police try to protect her?
From the opening shot of the colorful light-strewn sorority house accompanied by a quiet rendition of “Silent Night”, to the surprisingly bleak ending, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas is one of those movies that always casts a spell whenever I watch it. It’s a special kind of horror film. It can appeal to the traditionally non-horror viewer with its murder mystery angle, but it also appeals to the horror fan because it’s clever and scary and knows how to get under your skin. It successfully takes the bright and cheery feel of the holiday season and turns it on its head.
Right after the opening scene, establishing the looming sorority house as the center of the impending doom, we get a startling POV shot of the killer. Although Silent Night, Bloody Night used a similar POV gimmick two years earlier, here it feels more embedded into the plot: the identity of the killer is of no importance to the story and the less we see of the character (and through his eyes) and creepier the set-up. What is important, and what Clark wisely sets up quickly, is the cast of characters, all of whom are smart, likable, and have vastly different personalities, something later slasher flicks would ignore. The characters include Barb (Margot Kidder), the sexually empowered loudmouth, Phyl (Andrea Martin), the mousy best friend, Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman), the house mother and functioning alcoholic, Peter (Keir Dullea), the high-strung boyfriend, and Jess (Olivia Hussey), the headstrong (and non-virginal) final girl. As with the best of horror, we sympathize and relate to these characters and want to see them survive.
What screenwriter Roy Moore understood (and what many later horror movies never grasped) is that it’s well-written, sympathetic characters that fuels the suspense. Sure, it’s fun to watch dumb teens and hunky frat guys getting their throats ripped to shreds. What makes it scary is when we don’t want to see them get hurt. While thrilling, and often funny, the script also deals with heavy issues not usually found in horror movies during its time of release. And, although not the first movie to feature the “killer is in the house” urban legend, it is the first to utilize the scenario to its fullest effect. Grade: A–
Okay, I know I’m supposed to love this movie. EVERYONE loves this movie. It ticks all the right boxes: It’s a slasher film! It inspired Halloween! It’s Christmas horror! It’s directed by Bob Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things Clark! But I just don’t love it. To be fair, I don’t hate it — it’s just that too many things keep me from connecting with it.
The spine of of the film is solid. There IS a good story there. It’s shocking, at times, and the last ten minutes are exciting. The cast is (mostly) terrific. Marian Waldman as housemother Mrs. Mac steals every scene she’s in, Margot Kidder stands out as the brash Barb, and Andrea Martin’s Phyl is just plain endearing. But…BUT…then there’s Olivia Hussey.
The whole movie rests on Hussey’s shoulders. Her character, Jess, is the one around which all the action flows, but she’s distractingly bad in this (full disclosure: I think she’s distractingly bad in everything). Her performance creates a blockade between me and the enjoyment of this film. It’s compounded by the character having legit, dramatic scenes where Hussey’s flaws are even more pronounced. I can’t worry about Jess if what I really want is for her to be killed off so other characters can shine.
Cutaways to the police investigation stall every hint of suspense and drag out the film’s already slow-moving pace. The prolonged tracing of obscene/threatening phone calls is a torturous interruption, as we shift focus away from the house — and the danger — time and time again. Too much footage is devoted to the development of a red herring, one which might make sense for the characters, but which is implausible for the audience, all for the sake of a final act shocker. These things drain the film’s energy. I get impatient.
This was my third viewing in six years’ time. I keep hoping it’ll click, but it doesn’t. Again, there IS a good story in there, somewhere — but the execution leaves me wanting more. Grade: C
Versus will return in 2022!
Frank Pittarese is a Brooklyn comic book editor and horror movie buff. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter.
Corruption (1968) When a renowned surgeon’s (Peter Cushing) skin grafting experiments fail on his self-centered fiancee’s (Sue Lloyd) burnt face he’s pressured into using “fresher” test subjects by murdering random women and stealing their heads. A surprisingly violent rip-off of the French film, Eyes Without a Face, this is one of many post-Psycho British slashers that arrived in the late ’60s and features some particularly nasty murder set pieces, and a fun, semi-looney performance by Cushing. Only a ridiculously ludicrous ending puts a dent in an otherwise fun movie. B
Night Terror (1977) After witnessing a murder, a housewife (Valerie Harper) is stalked by a psycho while driving through a patch of remote highway in this fun but slight TV movie. Harper (Rhoda) is typically sympathetic and there’s some suspense throughout, but the script gets a little too bogged down with uninteresting side characters and a dated subplot that paints Harper as the “hysterical” wife to her more “reasonable” husband. Worth checking out for the TV horror movie enthusiast. Aka Night Drive. B–
The Thaw (2009) Sort of a remake of the excellent X-Files episode, “Ice”, this places a small group of scientists in the middle of the Arctic and threatened to be exposed to a prehistoric, flesh-eating parasite emanating from a melting glacier. The movie starts slow but builds an effective atmosphere of doom and manages to create some suspenseful situations. Stock characters and predictability keep this from being truly good, but this is still a marginally enjoyable bugfest. B–
Are You in the House Alone? (1978) A teenage girl (Kathleen Beller) begins receiving threatening notes and phone calls from a stalker after she starts dating the popular guy in school. When her concerns are dismissed by friends and teachers her defenses are lowered and the secret admirer moves from calls to physical attacks. Not the slasher movie the title makes it sound like but more of an After School special dealing with rape and victim blaming, and while the mature themes are interesting this is too stuck in its formulaic TV-movie rhythms and fills most of the runtime with mundane family squabbles and the love lives of teenagers (who cares?). A good cast (including a young Dennis Quaid) helps, but only just. C
Dark Mountain (2013) Stop me if you’ve heard this one: three filmmakers venture into woodsy terrain to make a documentary about an apparently haunted section of land and are never heard from again. Super generic in terms of found footage story structure and character development (several scenes are lifted right out of The Blair Witch Project) and with a sloppy, inconclusive mythology that builds to a frustratingly vague climax. C–
The Empty Man (2020) Terrific adaptation of the graphic novel about a retired cop (James Badge Dale) investigating the disappearance of his neighbor’s daughter (Sasha Frolova) and discovers that she may be part of a doomsday cult that worships an otherworldly entity known as the Empty Man, which can be summoned forth to destroy lives. Overlooked upon its initial release, this is a good film with a well-crafted screenplay (by director David Prior), tightly written characters, and a dark, unsettling atmosphere that gets under your skin, especially during the creepy first 20 minutes. Only its unnecessarily long 137 minutes hinders the movie of its full potential. B+
Demented (1980) After suffering a traumatic sexual attack by four men, the mental health of a housewife (Sallee Young, Home Sweet Home) downward spirals until a break-in at her house causes her to snap and go on a killing spree. While not as gruesome as I Spit on Your Grave this movie is trying for the same revenge scenario, but the psychology behind the narrative (not to mention Young’s performance) is unconvincing. The final 30 minutes does offer some cheap, bloody thrills. C
The House That Jack Built (2018) Typically artsy but undeniably arresting viewing from Lars Von Trier, this chronicles 12 years in the life of a methodical serial killer (Matt Dillon) as he goes about slaughtering over 60 people in particularly gruesome ways. Although overlong (152 min. runtime) and a bit too heavy-handed with its psychoanalytical narration, this is good stuff with a particularly chilling and complex performance from Dillon and a visually impressive climax. This gets points for going to dark places most psychological thrillers wouldn’t dare to. Definitely not a film for everyone. B
X-Ray (1982) In order to keep her in the hospital, a killer falsifies the test results of a young woman (Barbi Benton) and murders anyone who comes into contact with her. Routine slasher flick with characters making stupid decisions – such as running passed an emergency exit and hiding behind a curtain to evade the killer – but it’s a polished production, features a likable character in Benton, and has some decent splatter. Just ignore the plot holes and you might enjoy yourself, especially during the bonkers climax. B–