Category Archives: film

Movie reviews. Genre commentary.

Sinister Claus: A Tradition of Terror at Christmas

Santa Claus can be just as dangerous as he is generous. Take, for example, RARE EXPORTS (http://www NULL.rareexportsmovie NULL.com), a 2010 Finnish horror film that Roger Ebert called “an original, daring, carefully crafted film,” in which reindeer herders find their Christmas holiday made nightmarish by a murderous supernatural being resembling old Saint Nick.

Christmas Evil (1980)
It’s Christmas 1947, and the girls who have been bad are in trouble.

YULETIDE MURDER MOVIE MAYHEM

A tradition begun in the 1970s with BLACK CHRISTMAS — the story of a psychopath stalking sorority sisters during the holiday season — yuletide murder movie mayhem had its heyday among the slasher flicks of the 1980s with titles like CHRISTMAS EVIL (the first to feature Santa himself as serial killer) and TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT, and the franchise launching SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT.

After a relative lull in the 1990s, the new millennium saw the release of SANTA’S SLAY and foreign imports, like the aforementioned Finnish effort, as well as a 2011 Dutch entry simply called SINT (a.k.a. SAINT).

With almost forty films in as many years, the sub-genre of horror at the holidays is oft-overlooked by those who study cinema. Whether merely meant as crude attempts to capitalize on cultural mash-ups, or revealing something more sinister in the human condition, these movies, regardless of quality or taste, are inherently subversive. They invert our expectations of familiar icons and imagery, replacing joy with terror. Goodwill with paranoia. Peace and tranquility with dread and anxiety.

DREADING CHRISTMAS

But why? Are filmmakers, consciously or not, taking the piss out of Christmas because, in modern times, the season has meant for many the rise of status anxiety in an ever expanding culture of commodity? Is the promise of instant gratification reinforced by media and merchandising too overwhelming for many? Perhaps the pressure-release valve often provided by the horror film helps to stave off the depression, disappointment and stress experienced by many during the holiday season.

Though the belief in increased suicides during the holidays is just a myth, stress — at any time of year — is reported now by 22% of Americans (http://www NULL.apa NULL.org/news/press/releases/stress/2011/final-2011 NULL.pdf) — and depression, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario (http://www NULL.ontario NULL.cmha NULL.ca/fact_sheets NULL.asp?cID=3965), is more frequently reported. Films that depict psychopathic Santas or holiday killers may therefore serve as an outlet for those left cold by the trappings of Christmas. But this argument is somewhat reductive. Fear of Santa certainly precedes the cinema.

Part jolly old elf and part malicious imp, the Santa Claus of popular imagination can be scary. He is a man dressed strangely, behaving oddly, and his form of greeting — “ho ho ho” — can be downright disturbing.

FATHER CHRISTMAS AND THE RANDY MAN OF THE GREEN

A far cry from the 4th century saint and bishop of Myra to which he is tied, Santa Claus is an amalgam of many a myth and much mirth: colorful, plump and full of life and vigor, he is the giftgiver Saint Nicholas, the Dutch Sinterklaas, the caricature drawn by Thomas Nast, and the nocturnal visitor of Clement Moore’s 1823 poem (http://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/17135/17135-h/17135-h NULL.htm). He’s been used to sell everything from cigarettes to toy guns to Coca Cola.

An Amorous Santa from the cover of Puck Magazine (1905)
An Amorous Santa from the cover of Puck Magazine is more lothario than saint (1905)

But Santa Claus, by any name, is considerably more akin to pre-Christian notions of the Green Man — a figure that is equal parts celebratory and dangerous — than he is to any Christian saint or Madison Avenue pitchman. And it is in the folklore of the Green Man that the origin of Santa as sinister may lie.

Who is this Green Man? Though a term coined only as recently as 1939 in an article entitled “The Green Man in Church Architecture (http://www NULL.jstor NULL.org/discover/10 NULL.2307/1257090?uid=3739864&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101497212201),” the motif of a wild man tied to vegetation and the cycle of growth, death and rebirth is found in many cultures. A good-natured, bacchanalian figure, the Green Man is welcome in most cultures. He represents the return of “the green” to the world following the year’s darkest day in December (the time of “Yule” among Germanic peoples). and, as Jack-in-the-Green, a sprite of sorts that leads May Day celebrations.

Wild and free as he is, however, the Green Man also has a darker side. His freedom means a lack of inhibitions. A willingness, desire and capability to do as he pleases. At his extremes, he could even be cast as the Christian Devil, argues Mary Neasham in her Spirit of the Green Man (2007) (http://books NULL.google NULL.com/books?id=9Lz7oE3if4wC&pg=PA15&lpg=PA15&dq=the+green+man+as+fear+danger&source=bl&ots=VGlu4aAX9_&sig=luW7DVdu6CSrGs3OnWsiNueweRA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=SXfNUJbYMdGA0AH1xIAo&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=the%20green%20man%20as%20fear%20danger&f=false) for he is”an acknowledgement of the powerful forces of nature” and a “reminder that we ignore these [forces] at our own peril.”

In Great Britain, Greek, Roman and Germanic influences converge over time to take the pre-christian construct of the Green Man, fuse him with pagan celebrations, and form the figure of Father Christmas;  figuratively (if not literally) Father Christmas springs from the Green Man. He is life. He is the return of the Sun. His lore is thus inexorably tied to Christmas and its trappings. A secular figure who shares with Christ the personification of a return of light and life to the darkness.

It should be no surprise to anyone that Christian holidays were superimposed upon, act as a substitution for or simply coincide with pagan festivals. However, cultural anthropologists, Jungian psychologists and even some historians now argue that the transition of pagan to Christian in both the west and east was not sudden; it was stretched over centuries, and the lines of transition are blurry. The date of Christmas, for example, December 25, is set in 274 by the Roman emperor Aurelian to commemorate Dies Invicti Solis (the Day of the Invincible Sun); Aurelian takes his inspiration from the eastern cult of Mithra. But there are some scholars (including an Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College (http://www NULL.touchstonemag NULL.com/archives/article NULL.php?id=16-10-012-v)) that believe that Aurelian, hostile to Christians, may have been imposing a pagan celebration over a date already established by the early Church. However its evolution — the overlap and transitions of pagan to Christian or Christian to pagan — were shaped over centuries.

Some would argue the process is still ongoing, if only on a subconscious level. And that it’s healthy. The Yin and the Yang. For the good of society, we may actually need to secularize religion on occasion or, conversely, find the divine in what is otherwise creations of man. Or both. It’s all in the way you look at things.

 

The Ghost of Christmas Present by John Leech, 1843
The Ghost of Christmas Present by John Leech commissioned by Dickens for A Christmas Carol, 1843

WHAT THE DICKENS?

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) (http://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/46/46-h/46-h NULL.htm) is a fixture of modern Christmas tradition. Dickens, a man who struggled with his faith — most likely taking inspiration from Washington Irving’s depictions of Christmas traditions in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819-1820) (http://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/2048/2048-h/2048-h NULL.htm) as well as renewed interest in all things Christmas during the Victorian period (including cards and Christmas trees) — writes his classic tale of a bitter, spiteful man who learns to embrace the Christmas Spirit without ever mentioning the birth of Jesus.

Secular images of Christmas abound, and though Christ cannot be found in A Christmas Carol, the Green Man is arguably there in the figure of the Ghost of Christmas Present.  Though never mentioned as such by Dickens, this ghost is equal parts Bacchus, Father Christmas and Santa Claus.

The second apparition to appear to Scrooge, The Ghost of Christmas Present appears as “a jolly giant” with a “cheery voice” and “sparkling eye”; he is bedecked with objects often associated with Santa: a holly wreath and shining icicles. But this ghost, unlike the old man with a white beard, is certainly much younger — more virile and full of vigor. With dark brown curls, “long and free,” the Ghost is quite unlike Santa. He wears a fur-lined green robe (that Dickens’ illustrator, Charles Leech, first made red, curiously enough) with a scabbard (but no sword) at his side. His feet are bare.

While not quite the white-bearded, rosy-cheeked Santa known to Americans, Dickens’ ghost and Father Christmas are certainly connected (if only in the contemporary and modern reader’s mind by his demeanor and clothing). What a strange turn, then, that Dickens uses the ghost to show Scrooge one of the more disturbing images in the entire tale (yes, worse than Scrooge’s own death!); these are the haggard and wan children hiding behind the folds of the ghost’s green robe: the boy, Ignorance, and the girl, Want. Withered, like spoiled fruit never to grow strong, these are Man’s children. And the boy literally bears a mark of doom.

This juxtaposition of joviality, excess and good humor with man’s inhumanity to man is intentionally jarring. The Ghost shifts from comforting companion to an uneasy, potential threat. For he carries with him the truth of ugliness in the world. As Green Man, he is Neasham’s reminder that “we ignore these [forces] at our own peril.”

M.H. Abrams, in his seminal book of literary criticism The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (1953) (http://archive NULL.org/stream/TheMirrorAndTheLampRomanticTheoryAndCriticalTradition/MirrorAndTheLamp-Abrams#page/n0/mode/2up) offers a simple paradigm as art either holding up a mirror or a lamp to society. The mirror reflects the real world. The lamp illuminates. And while Abrams was effectively using the metaphor to discuss the radical shift in art ushered in by nineteenth century romanticism, it is interesting to place A Christmas Carol under Abrams’ critical lens. Writing on the cusp of the end of the Romantic period and the beginnings of later nineteenth century realism, Dickens may have effected a melding of the two schools: a Romantic Realism of sorts. For in the Ghost of Christmas Present, especially, Dickens both holds the mirror that shows ignorance and want while offering a romantic view of Scrooge’s salvation and subsequent passion to change the world for the better.

And so it becomes clear that darkness and light are bridged by such a figure as the Ghost of Christmas Present. And so it is that darkness and light, death and rebirth, despair and hope are at the heart of the folklore and mythology that mix across time and cultures to produce a Green Man. A Father Christmas. A Santa Claus.

But dichotomous nature of such a figure makes many uncomfortable. As far back (or recently, depending on your perspective) as the seventeenth century, Puritans in both the old world and new hotly debated the celebration of Christmas; should a solemn observation of the birth the Savior become an excuse for drunken frivolity? (for more, see Chris Durston’s article “Lords of Misrule” in History Today (http://www NULL.historytoday NULL.com/chris-durston/lords-misrule-puritan-war-christmas-1642-60)) Over four-hundred-and-fifty years later, the same debate continues. “Keep Christ in Christmas” is an oft-used phrase on everything from bumper stickers to billboards; but to some, many of the traditions of Christmas — with deep pagan roots — mean Christ is there in name only.

OLD NICK / SAINT NICK

A Green-Robed Santa (late 19th century postcard)
A green-robed Santa may be off-color in more ways than one (late 19th century postcard)

To have Santa Claus a symbol of Christmas means embracing all aspects of the amalgam that he is.  Born of the wild and the green, he is beyond Christian, but has been tamed and tailored to fit the Christian tradition.

For many, the dual nature of Santa Claus is acceptable. Most of us welcome his Dionysian abandon while respecting the ever-watchful Saint — perhaps because this dual nature is exactly what we aspire to and/or fear within ourselves.

Take sainthood to its limits and you approach godliness. The all-giving acts of the selfless. Old Saint Nicholas.

Take wild abandon to its extremes and you become an animal. The all-consuming acts of the selfish. Old Nicky.

 

Hammer Time

Equal parts horrific, dated, gothic, stately and sometimes silly, Hammer Horror (http://www NULL.hammerfilms NULL.com/) is a brand like none other in the world of genre cinema.

Founded in 1934, but known primarily for its horror films of the  60s and early 1970s, Hammer all but collapsed into obscurity in the 80s and 90s, only to be gloriously resurrected recently with the infusion of new investors and the success of Let Me In (http://www NULL.imdb NULL.com/title/tt1228987/) (the English language version of Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In) (http://www NULL.lettherightoneinmovie NULL.com/)along with the spooktacularly atmospheric Woman in Black (http://www NULL.imdb NULL.com/title/tt1596365/) starring Daniel Radcliffe.

For children of the 70s who spent their Saturday afternoons behind closed doors, glued to the tube while others played out in the terribly bright sunshine, Hammer films were the stuff of dark secrets — the cinematic equivalent of Playboy magazines hidden under the mattress. Hours were spent staring at blood run red and breasts laid bare.  This wasn’t your grandparents’ Dracula: no Bela Lugosi staked off-screen with a anti-climactic thud. This was the towering threat of Christopher Lee, writhing in agony as Peter Cushing’s vigorous Van Helsing pulls a Douglas Fairbanks, and with one great leap, yanks the drapes that strip the flesh from the vampire Count, exposing a toothy skeleton, one that pops and fizzles before dissolving into dust.

Tame by today’s standards, Hammer Horror kept the British censors busy with X certificates for decades. At it worst, the studio could be and, in fact, was accused of poor taste (even exploitation). But at its best, Hammer re-interpreted — even re-invented — many of Universal’s classic monsters for more modern, mature audiences. Dracula. Frankenstein’s monster. The Wolf-Man. The Mummy. Re-imagined. Made more menacing. All in vibrant color. Crimson wounds gushed. Dark green forests loomed. And flesh? Skin tones of the scantily clad Hammer stable of beautiful women lit up the screen.

Still, what made Hammer films all the more memorable — immortal even — was that good always triumphed over evil. The nihilism that so saturated genre film in the post-Vietnam period that followed Hammer’s heyday was as much a world away as the amalgam of unnamed eastern-European towns that were so often the settings of many of Hammer’s greatest films. A handful of them are explored in detail below; their trailers are included in a YouTube playlist (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/playlist?list=PL9BH9hQ8rtdUbkVxapaOk9MhPQO02rdWm):

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The first of Hammer’s gothic horrors is also its first foray into re-imagining Universal’s monsters. Also the first pairing of director Terence Fisher (http://www NULL.imdb NULL.com/name/nm0279807/) with actors Peter Cushing (http://www NULL.imdb NULL.com/name/nm0001088/) (as the Doctor) and Christopher Lee (http://www NULL.imdb NULL.com/name/nm0000489/) (as the monster). Here, Hammer would establish its trappings: castles, costumes and a decidedly British sensibility that at the same time never existed yet was always there. Cushing’s charisma is captivating. And Terence Fisher, who would go on to make four more movies with both Cushing and Lee, sets the tone for every Hammer Horror film to come.

The Horror of Dracula, British Quad Poster
The Horror of Dracula, British Quad Poster

Dracula (U.S. title Horror of Dracula) (1958)

Lee’s Dracula is aristocratic, powerful and sexual. He would go on to play the Count more times than any other actor (10 total; 7 for Hammer), but no performance is more (un)dead “on” than Lee’s first. The aforementioned ending, with Dracula crumbling to dust, may very well be the best ending of any vampire film ever made.

The Mummy (1959)

Another successful reboot by Hammer directed by Terence Fisher and starring actors Peter Cushing and Christoper Lee, The Mummy is the least radical of Hammer’s overhaul of classic monsters, but its mashup of Universal’s many mummy plotlines (primarily The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb) coupled with a very modern attitude regarding respect for antiquities makes it more than the standard moan and stomp fare.

Curse of the Werewolf, French Poster
Curse of the Werewolf, French Poster

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Loosely based upon Guy Endore’s seminal novel The Werewolf of Paris (1933) and far superior to any of the Lon Chaney Jr. movies — from sets to cinematography to a gripping performance by an overzealous Oliver Reed — Curse of the Werewolf curiously did not spawn a franchise for Hammer. The studio’s only experiment with lycanthropy, it remains one of the better werewolf movies ever made (the best, of course, being An American Werewolf in London).

The Gorgon (1964)

While not the best of director Fisher’s work with stars Cushing and Lee, The Gorgon is interesting for its odd choice of monster from mythology that turns the villagers of a middle-European town to stone. Ignore the sillier scenes where it’s clear that the lady is wearing a wig of rubber snakes and enjoy the creepy atmosphere and solid performances, once again, from Cushing and Lee.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)

Christopher Lee’s return to the role that made him famous finds the actor with nary a line of intelligible dialog nor a foil as compelling as Van Helsing; still, the formula works.

Plague of the Zombies (1966)

Two years before George Romero gave new, um, life to the genre, Hammer produced a zombie picture with something uncharacteristic for the studio: a political message — one of the aristocracy abusing and exploiting the working class. Oh, and it’s scary, with iconic images of limbs erupting from the ground.

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

Directed by Terence Fisher. Based on a Dennis Wheatley novel. Scripted by Richard Matheson. Starring Christopher Lee (in what he considered to be one of his best roles). About a satanic cult. Culminates in the evocation of the Angel of Death. What more could any Hammer fan want?

The Vampire Lovers (1970)

Inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla and the first of three Hammer films to feature the Karnstein family of vampires, The Vampire Lovers made overt the sexuality that was always at the core of Hammer’s vampire films. Relaxed rules by the British censor and changing attitudes towards sexuality as the 1970s began meant all bets (and clothes) were off.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, French Poster
Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, French Poster

Starring the exotic, erotic Ingrid Pitt (http://www NULL.imdb NULL.com/name/nm0685839/)* as Mircalla / Carmilla, Vampire Lovers has an ethereal quality that can be attributed to the film’s director, Roy Ward Baker (http://www NULL.imdb NULL.com/name/nm0001928/). But it’s the soft-core lesbian scenes that most find memorable.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

If Vampire Lovers opened the door for Hammer to explore the intersection of horror and sexuality, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde broke through its wall. While at times silly (from the immortal power of female hormones to some of the film’s promotion via trailers and posters [EXCEPT the cool French poster shown here), it stands as one of Hammer’s most original offerings. From its script (which incorporates both Jack the Ripper and the body snatchers Burke and Hare) to its oddly look-a-like stars Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde ultimately succeeds because — as he did with The Vampire Lovers — director Roy Ward Baker plays the sexual themes, for lack of better words, straight.


No studio before or since more radically redefined gothic horror than Hammer. Though their reach may have exceeded their grasp, Hammer’s producers, directors, writers and actors pushed the limits of what horrors could be explored in cinema while still retaining that magic of film that is created when more is left to the imagination than on screen. By the mid seventies, audience tastes towards more explicit (Texas Chaninsaw Massacre) and big budget horror (The Exorcist) found Hammer scrambling to find its place. Ultimately, the studio stopped making as many features, explored other genres (kung-fu and urban thrillers among them), turned briefly to television, and then, finally, went into receivership.

The brand, however, survived, and with its recent successes among 21st century moviegoers, the “studio that dripped blood” (a title of a 1987 Hammer Films documentary) may possibly be back with a vengeance.

Fans can only hope.


Those wishing to explore the world of Hammer films further will find the following books invaluable: Marcus Hearn’s The Hammer Vault: Treasures from the Archive of Hammer Films (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/The-Hammer-Vault-Marcus-Hearn/dp/0857681176) along with The Hammer Story (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Hammer-Story-Marcus-Hearn/dp/1845761855/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1350808353&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Hammer+Story), also by Marcus Hearn with Alan Barnes (including a foreword by Christopher Lee).

For the die-hard Hammer fan, there’s also Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Hammer-Films-Unsung-Heroes-Behind/dp/0955767024/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1350808382&sr=1-1&keywords=Hammer+Films+Unsung), a limited edition by Wayne Kinsey (with a foreword by Barbara Shelley) that goes into great detail about the many people that comprised “the team behind the legend.”

All titles are available from Amazon.com (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com) (along with this blogger’s book of fiction (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Little-Knives-Twelve-Horror-Supernatural/dp/0595319653/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1350808433&sr=1-1&keywords=little+knives)). Excuse the shameless self-promotion.