With Lady Pam De Graff
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY: M. Night Shyamalan
FEATURING: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunaganl, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger
TAGS: mystery, horror
RATING: 5 PINTS OF BLOOD
PLOT: Two youngsters find something terribly amiss when they make a first time visit to their estranged grandparents in this Hansel and Gretel/Red Riding Hood update.
COMMENTS: An Internet search for M. Night Shyamalan invariably returns the deliberate corruption, "M. Night Shamalamadingdong," a play on words from the title of a '60's pop song parody in the 1978 comedy, Animal House. It's the humor of a cynical, jaded audience which considers itself much too hip to be taken in by the director's unconventional plots (and some say) predictable twist endings. Of the 6 horror/sci-fi films M. Night shot up to After Earth (including Devil, Lady in the Water, The Village, Signs, and Unbreakable), all are arguably flawed by logic holes, yet all are engrossing and totally watchable. There's just something about M. Night's filmmaking that pulls us in, luring us into suspending disbelief no matter how cynical and jaded, or sophisticated we think we are.
"something" is hard to pin down. Maybe part of it has to do with Shyamalan's use
of his native Philadelphia locations which offer us scenery which is visually
different from tired LA settings. Or maybe it's that while Shyamalan's movies
are conventionally filmed, his production technique is unique in a way which
makes him seem to subtly thumb his nose at rigid Hollywood formulae. An
example of this can be found in Shyamalan's eschewance of jump scares. When a
lead is creeping through the dark in a tense situation, no off-camera stagehand
throws a cat at her, accompanied by a ridiculous feline shriek that no cat we
know has ever uttered.
Instead, M. Night gives us red herrings, but not pointless ones. They build tension. In The Visit, teenage Becca's (Olivia DeJonge) disturbingly peculiar grandmother (Deanna Dunagan) repeatedly entices her into an oversize oven. We're sure Becca is going to be tomorrow's roast. It's an eerie point in the story about youngsters visiting the grandparent's they've never met -way, far away out in the woods. Their sprawling, rustic, wood plank farm house is right out of a Grant Wood painting, as are "Nana" and "Pop Pop" (Peter McRobbie). Simple, practical, isolated from the electronic world of mass produced culture, their agrarian lifestyle revolves around the simple things; crops, homemaking, county fairs, and farmers' markets. They seem to be from another era. Pop Pop could easily be the planter in the painting, American Gothic. The only thing he's missing is the sharp pitchfork.
Or is he? Because something's not quite right around Pop Pop's and Nana's homestead. Increasingly during Becca and younger brother Tyler's (Ed Oxenbould) visit, there's a churning undercurrent of repressed menace, which isn't helped much when the duo observes a concerned neighbor visit the farmhouse, but never sees her leave.
So it's with trepidation that we observe Nana gently coerce Becca into an oven. It's no ordinary oven. True to the colonial style New England homes which were built around a massive heat block -a cluster of oversize, back-to-back cooking fireplaces which heat the entire dwelling -Nana's oven is big. Really big. Big enough to bake a baby hippopotamus. And according to Nana, it always needs cleaning. Especially in the murky far reaches.
Nana urges Becca to climb all the way in and "get back there, all the way back,"
we're just wating to hear the heavy oven door latch shut behind her with a
resounding thunk. It doesn't happen the first time. But like the principle of
"Chekhov's gun" (to paraphrase, "A gun introduced in the first act (of a play)
must be fired in the third.") you suspect Nana is only building Becca's
confidence, and Becca will soon be compelled into the oven again. What will
happen next time?
Story elements like this keep us guessing. Morbidly. And that's the fun of an M. Night Shyamalan movie. There are tons of these elements and they don't all pan out, but they build tension, a lot of it. The kinds of things we imagine they will lead to are in keeping with the nature of the conundrum in which the protagonists find themselves. This isn't a gimmicky waste of our time, because M. Night's thrillers, whether they weave a sci-fi or supernatural tapestry, are at their hearts, always mysteries.
Granted, Shyamalan's scary movies aren't traditional whodunits, with
strategically placed clues dotting linearly unfolding events, and laying a
logical path for a sleuth to pursue. Instead, these are twisted riddles, both in
sequence and essence. M. Night unveils ghastly situations to which there might
be no decent boundaries. The director plunges his protagonists, and us right
along with them, into enigmas of dread and terror. Those aforementioned red
herrings we encounter along the way only heighten our fear and accentuate M.
Night's bizarre situations. It's akin to a literary adage explained by Stephen
King in his non-fiction, Danse Macabre;
"Nothing is so frightening as what's behind the closed door. ... You approach the door in the old, deserted house, and you hear something scratching at it. The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she ... approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten- foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. 'A bug ten fee tall is pretty horrible,' the audience thinks, 'but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall.'"
So while not every unsettling encounter in M. Night Shyamalan's stories is pertinent to foretelling the conclusion, they spur our grisly imaginations. M. Night confirms that this is one his cinematic goals in a recent interview about The Visit with the website, BloodyDigusting.com: "Something that’s frightening to a viewer triggers their sense of the unknown. It could be little things… a noise in another room, even a job offer or a commitment to a relationship. All of those things can trigger an unknown fear factor." That's the key to why the filmmaker's scary movies grab our attention. When you're thrust into the middle of a mindboggler, you can't easily gauge the significance of disturbing developments. It's not until you have all the puzzle pieces that you can discard the chaff and figure out how many feet tall the bug behind the door will be. Given Shyamalan's characteristic twist endings, it may well turn out to be not a bug at all, and even if it isn't a hundred feet tall, getting to that door itself is half the terror, and half the fun.
You can also stream this movie on Amazon...HERE!
CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY (2015) Canada
WRITTEN BY: Jason Filiatrault, James Kee, Sarah Larsen, Doug Taylor, Pascal Trottier
DIRECTED BY: Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban, Brett Sullivan
FEATURING: William Shatner, George Buza, Rob Archer, George Buza, Corinne Conley, Alan C. Peterson
Tags: Christmas, portmanteau, possession
RATING: 5 PINTS OF BLOOD
PLOT: Christmas brings tidings of good cheer -and blood squirting horror, in this florid, lively, and occasionally lascivious quartet of stories about possession.
COMMENTS: If you like horror anthologies, then you'll enjoy this Canadian movie for its four grim and gruesome blood tide...er, I mean Yuletide yarns. Count Gore De Vol teases me for listing the country of origin on horror films when they're from Canada, but I do so because I think Canadian horror movies are at least consistently decent, and sometimes even great. What's better, they're rarely ruined by a marketing effort to make them overly conform to stock convention, to be family friendly, or to make them goofy in a Disney-esque way (think Drag Me To Hell.) For A Christmas Horror Story, the writers come to us from the Darknet TV series, and the directors hail from the Canadian Ginger Snaps movies. They bring their affinity for chillers to A Christmas Horror Story, evoking a colorful array of wicked creatures and twists on holiday lore. You'll notice that this film's fictitious setting is the town of Bailey Downs, the location namesake of both Ginger Snaps and Darknet.
Canadian chillers being reliably fun to watch, A Christmas Horror Story is no
exception. The movie lacks the sophistication and serious edginess of British
'60's and '70's portmanteaus like Dr. Terrror's House Of Horrors (1965), or
Robert Bloch's Asylum (1972), but it's well-produced and colorful enough to be
worth your time. You'll find A Christmas Horror Story to be blackly comical
rather than darkly satiric. It's tongue-in-cheek, with touches of campiness here
and there in the tradition of TV horror such as Tales From The Darkside, or
HBO's salacious Tales From The Crypt.
A Christmas Horror Story's umbrella tale - the micro-yarn which binds together and introduces each sub-entry -is unconventional because it's more of a premise than a developed story. William Shatner plays a troubled radio host who expresses drunken holiday sentiments and makes awkard Christmas references to past local tragedies which provide segue-ways into the four Bailey Downs Christmas tales. Unlike most anthologies, the quartet of stories are interspersed, rather than individually presented. We see the beginning of each one in turn, then the middles, and so on. Each segment is about a different form of possession. The characters' back stories are connected, but not the stories themselves.
In A Christmas Horror Story, hormonal student reporters digging into a year old boarding school holiday murder try their hand at investigative journalism. When they trespass on campus over Christmas vacation to break into the still sealed off crime-scene, they become unwitting sexual vessels to the institution's shuttered, sordid history.
A family trespasses on a private estate to steal a holiday evergreen, but it's a poor choice all around. The landowner is guarding a nasty secret, and their young son returns with a lethal dose of Christmas spirit.
A henpecked dad drags his dour wife and impudent teens to visit an unpleasant, estranged Aunt with whom he attempts a reconciliation, only to run afoul of an enigmatic figure who channels murderous Krampus, the avenging Anti-Santa.
In the fourth yarn, Krampus infiltrates the Santa's workshop. What could be worse? He takes control of Santa's helper elves and they become obscenity-spewing, flesh gnawing Zombies, that's what! But this is no ordinary Santa and we're in for a self-referential surprise, when A Christmas Horror Story's provocative ending zips us full circle to the movie's umbrella premise.
A Christmas Horror Story runs the gamut from sinister to gruesome. Carnal and visceral, with over the top thrills and genuine chills, it offers fun holiday horror for viewers weary of It's A wonderful Life and other tired Christmas re-runs.