Thursday, November 26, 2015

Baby It’s Cold Outside - Winter Fear Edition

For those of you not living in the Deep South, it’s that time of year when the skies turn grey, the leaves all blow away, and Jack Frost comes dancing along to bite your nose off. In other words, it’s Winter! And, of course, Winter means Christmas is coming. Both of these things are surprisingly good for horror film settings.

You can set horror during the Christmas season and get things like BlackChristmas or Silent Night, Deadly Night, but more often than not you get offerings full of either camp or fail. But winter, or the cold weather, along with Christmas gives us a lot of fun choices for some chilling horror marathons. In no particular order…

1) The first film we need to unwrap is the already mentioned Christmas classic, 1974's Black Christmas. Black Christmas (AKA Silent Night, Evil Night) was a cheerful Canadian offering in the slasher genre. As a matter of fact, many consider this 1974 offering to be one of the first real slasher films of the modern genre, delivering scares with a concept and execution as barebones and as simple as can be. You have a somewhat crazed killer who hides in an attic of a sorority house, a bevy of sorority girls, a worried parent, ineffective law enforcement figures, and a few buckets of blood along the way to provide that traditional Christmas red with. Depending on who you ask, the film is sometimes discussed as having been inspired by a real event, a series of killings in Quebec that took place around the holiday season, while others simply attribute the story’s inspiration to the classic urban legend of the Babysitter and the Man Upstairs. Either way, the movie is a nice little Christmas horror.

The basic story is as follows. It’s Christmas time and a disturbed man climbs up into and then hides in the attic of a sorority house. Some of the sorority girls are still there and having a Christmas party. Our killer decides to play games with the girls and makes strange and disturbing calls to the sorority house. One by one the girls are picked off, their paranoia about who might actually be the killer leading them to some unfortunate decisions. There’s also the loving father who is barely helped by the local police who all turn out to be totally inept. The ending actually leaves the door open for future stories of Christmas Fear.

Black Christmas has no budget, few stars that are recognizable outside of genre, and no real bells and whistles in its presentation. It is however an enjoyable little Christmas slasher film that can be found on various streaming services, seasonal cable programming, and affordable DVDs and Blu-Rays.

2) Another joyful, cold weather offering comes to us in the form of a criminally overlooked little film from 2010. Frozen (No, not the Disney film.) While not reinventing the horror wheel, it takes us down that other path of horror- survival. Through a series of events and not so great choices, our main characters find themselves in a bad place. That place is on a chairlift at a mountain ski resort after the system has been shut down, the lights have been turned off, and all the workers and other skiers have gone home until the next weekend. Suspended high above the ground and far from either safe end of the lift system with bitter cold and frostbite setting in, their choice becomes risking life and limb to escape the situation they find themselves in or face certain death by staying where they are.

It’s well acted, there are some tense scenes, and the directing is pretty sharp. Again, there’s no crazy man with a machete chasing our main characters around the woods and no supernatural terrors at work here. This is that other genre in horror; man battling the elements for his very survival. If you like that kind of thing, this is a film for you.

Odd horror/metal connection trivia moment: Horror and Metal creator Dee Snider lent his voice to the film as the man who is heard announcing that the last chair has run through the lift. The film snagged him because he was visiting his son Cody who was the director’s assistant. Cody can also be seen in the film as a background extra at the lodge. He’s the one wearing (What else?) the Twisted Sister t-shirt.

3) Okay, it’s old, the budget is nothing compared to what most of you are used to these days, and the FX are showing their age and then some, but I have to throw in one of my favorite classic Hammer Horror films here. 1957’s Abominable Snowman  plays with the legend of the Snowman of the Himalayas with classic horror style and enjoyable results. Hammer veteran Peter Cushing anchors the film as the scientist with a conscience who takes part in an expedition to find the legendary beast. Forrest Tucker plays the hunter leading the expedition who obsesses with bringing in the ultimate trophy dead or alive. One by one the band of explorers and hunters fall to the elements, to their own paranoia, and to an adversary that might be more than just the mindless animal they thought that they were hunting.

Spy fans should keep an eye out for a young Robert Brown in the cast. Fans of the 80’s Bond films will recognize him as M.

4) One story, two movies based on that story made decades apart, and enough storyline and storytelling differences that you could watch both in the same night and not really feel like you just watched the same thing twice. Come on, it’s got to be obvious that I’m talking about The Thing.
Both films keep the setting in the frozen wasteland of the Antarctic. This provides a better than average horror movie explanation for why the potential victims don’t just get the hell out of Dodge at the earliest opportunity. It also keeps the action in confined spaces and creates a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia- although much more so in John Carpenter’s version than in Howard Hawks’. Both films deal with an alien invader who can reproduce itself so as to in time create an army, although Carpenter’s creature was truer to the original story’s alien threat.

Indeed, Carpenter’s adaptation is far closer to the source material in many ways, but the original, with its cold war flavoring the storytelling, is every bit as enjoyable. Oddly, or not so oddly given some of Carpenter’s storytelling choices in that period of his career, despite being far closer to the source material over all, it’s the Howard Hawks version that is closest to the source material in its final moments. Carpenter’s adaptation ends on a much darker note than the final moments of triumph found in the original story and the Howard Hawks film. But, again, playing into the Cold War vibe, his ending is still less upbeat overall than the source material’s ending.

In the original story, the alien ship had crashed on Earth 20 million years earlier. So, by the end of the story, the defeat of the alien invader brings no worry of invaders still to come. In the Howard Hawks adaption of the story, the crashing of the ship is a very recent event, and the ending of the film warns us to keep watching the skies.

And here’s another adaptation, a radio play, if you’re interested.

5) For those who think that interesting J-Horror is a relatively recent development, 1964’s Kwaidan should dispel that misconception rather quickly. Kwaidan is actually a series of separate stories based on classic supernatural tales. The one that fits into our mold here is The Woman in the Snow. This is actually a story that’s been told and retold across various entertainment mediums over the years as well as in various languages and cultures. It’s a simple story that you should recognize from even a short description
A young woodcutter is stranded in the woods by a terrible snowstorm. Desperate and near death, he is approached by a supernatural spirit who offers to save his life. She makes but one condition for him to live up to in return for this act. He can never tell anyone about their meeting or of her saving his life. And, well, you probably know the rest.

Kwaidan is not groundbreaking. The stories are all from the classic ghost story mold and familiar to almost everyone no matter where they’re from. It is however a beautifully shot film and The Woman in the Snow is a beautifully told version of this tale. A word of advice if you go looking for a copy of the film though. A number of American releases drop the proper name and spell it Kaidan. There is a 2007 Kaidan that is not the same thing. For those willing to wait, a new Blu of Kwaidan drops at the end of this month in one of the few (Only?) uncut remasters seen on video store shelves in the states. 

6) Larry Fessenden wrote, directed, edited, and plays a role in the Ron Perlman starring The Last Winter
Put a bunch of people up in a remote Alaskan base just outside the Arctic Circle and watch as they all go slightly insane for reasons that may or may not be what either they or you believe to be the cause. It’s a little eerie, nicely atmospheric at points, and enjoyable enough; especially for fans of either Perlman or Fessenden.

7) Dead Snow. Do I need to say more? Well, okay…

Dead Snow is a fun little bit of snow covered horror from Norway. A group of young friends head out for a fun filled vacation and find themselves regretting not having gone to the beach instead. While frolicking about in the snow and having all sorts of fun, they go and find the local spooky old man who chastises them for not knowing the local history before basically telling them the story of how they’re all about to die.

See, the Nazis had control of the area some decades earlier, and, being Nazis in a horror film, they acted in their normal, ruthless, evil, sadistic ways. They were eventually driven off and up into the dark, forbidding mountains. It was there, in that area, that they disappeared. Oh, and there’s a curse and all that jazz.

Guess what our curse does? You guessed it. We get Nazi zombies and a fight for survival that has its fun moments and a wee nod to The Evil Dead.

There’s also a Dead Snow 2 on the market worth tracking down if you like the first one.

8) This one is, like with The Thing above, actually two films because, no matter how much the “Remakes Always Suck” crowd likes to whine on about remakes, both films are excellent. Your preference for which film you will want to watch will likely be based on how much you dislike subtitles. The films are Let the Right One In and Let Me In.  

This is a wonderful little entry into the vampire genre and probably one of (or two of) the best vampire films to come along in years. A young boy is new to the area and finds himself the target of bullies. He finds support in the form of a young girl who he feels a strong and growing attraction to. The problem? She’s just a wee bit older than she looks. Then there’s her thing for human blood that comes with that whole being a vampire thing.

Word of warning: If you go after a used or rental copy DVD of Let the Right One In on the second hand market, check the back of the box. You want to avoid copies that merely list the film as having subtitles in English and hunt for the copies that specifically state that the DVD has the theatrical version’s subtitles. The original U.S. prints of the DVD had a different set of subtitles than were seen in theaters, and the things were just horribly done. It was a lazy translating of sentences in some cases and it junked a lot of story nuance.

9) This one catches a lot of undeserved flack and bombed at the box office. That failure was likely due in very large part to one of the worst ad campaigns I had seen in years where the film was portrayed as a straight up comedy. Certainly, as anyone who has seen it will attest, there are moments of dark humor in Ravenous, but it’s not the goofy comedy that ad after ad suggested prior to release.

Set in the mid-1800s, just after the Mexican-American War, Ravenous is a nice little tale that plays with the legend of the Wendigo and the cannibalistic curse it brings with it. Ravenous is not the greatest horror film ever made, but it’s far from deserving of being an obscure bomb that most passed up because of a bad ad campaign and the appearance from that campaign of the film being a David Arquette comedy vehicle.

Excellent performance by Robert Carlyle, better known to many now as Once Upon a Time’s Rumpelstiltskin.

10) Speaking of the Wendigo, Larry Fessenden pops up on the list again with Wendigo. All I’m going to tell you about this film is that you have to watch it to enjoy it. By that I mean that you don’t put this one on in the background and do other things until something on screen makes you focus once more on the story. This is actually a very interesting and well put together little film with a lot of little details on the screen and a carefully crafted mood and atmosphere. Find a copy, sit yourself down, and actually watch the film.

A few more worth watching or rewatching-

And for my buddy Sean, these guys

Jerry Chandler is a serious horror geek with a lifelong love of trying to find books and movies that can scare the spit out of him. When not watching and reading horror, he can sometimes be found helping to make horror with his filmmaking family in NC, Adrenalin Productions. He loves Halloween slightly more than Christmas, and almost as much as Dragon Con. When not writing here, he can be found at his other homes on the web by looking at his own blog, his Twitter, and his Facebook.   

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