Krampus (2015)

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When it comes to seasonal horror fare, Christmas is starting to give Halloween a run for its money, even if you don’t count deranged Santas stalking overbaked adolescents.

Michael Dougherty’s Krampus qualifies as first-rate family entertainment capable of engaging several generations of house pests. It’s got suspense and a bit of gore, but not much actual violence. Think of it as more dark urban fairy tale, or perhaps a Scrooge variation conceived by Tim Burton. (I even watched it with a sensitive friend to make sure it passed the brutality test.)

Like the Dickens’ tale, Krampus is appropriate for the whole clan because of the valuable lessons it imparts. When young Max (Emjay Anthony) is forced to spend another holiday with his cretinous cousins, his increasingly bad humor brings down the wrath of the titular Yuletide deity, an angry “Anti” Claus who will bloody well give you something to cry about, if your Christmas spirit is found wanting.

In other words, he takes instead of gives.

Soon, his family’s snug suburban home is a frozen wasteland with menacing snow men appearing in the yard, setting the table for ol’ Krampus and his hideous helpers to work some dark magic.

A spirited cast, led by Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation), Toni Collette (United States of Tara), David Koechner (Anchor Man) and Alison Tolman (Fargo) work some magic of their own, giving expert comic performances across the board. The movie certainly qualifies as a dark comedy, but the characters reveal surprising depth and decency.

Co-writer and director Dougherty shows a firmer hand with heroism here than he did with either of the X-Men features on his resume.

Like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder, RIP), Krampus relishes in the teaching of lessons to naughty kids and their clueless parents. All the petty griping, selfishness, and stupidity gets shoved aside as survival becomes the season’s hottest gift idea.

Exists (2014)

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A found-footage entry from director Eduardo Sanchez, the guy who first cashed in on the genre with The Blair Witch Project. I thoroughly understand the financial motivation for using GoPro cameras as the primary source of footage; it’s a helluva lot cheaper than film. And let’s face it, handheld and body mounted cameras give the action a heightened sense of urgency, particularly during the inevitable flight through the forest sequence.

Unfortunately, it’s also distracting and all but challenges the viewer to account for every shot. Sorry, but there are instances in Exists when it becomes nearly impossible to convince yourself that Brian the stoner (Chris Osborn) somehow has access to more cameras than NBC. There. I said it.

The plot is pure boilerplate, as five young adults (one of whom is Dora Madison Burge from Friday Night Lights and Chicago Fire) decide to party at Brian and Matt’s (Samuel Davis) family hunting cabin in the untamed wilds of Texas. That would be the same cabin that their uncle used to live in, until something frightened him away. So yes, by all means, let’s go see if we can figure out exactly what that might be.

The answer is Bigfoot/Sasquatch, who’s enjoying a bit of a resurgence as a movie monster, apparently fully recovered from family friendly piffle like Harry and the Hendersons, that reduced him to kiddy comic relief. In Exists, he’s a vengeful critter, looking to put a hurt on the punks that ran over Little Squatch.

Sanchez opts for a more traditional (and confrontational) approach than is used by Bobcat Goldthwaite in his meditative Willow Creek, another recent Bigfoot-gone-bad film. That means there’s an actual body count here, and that we are treated to several good looks at the beast, whose makeup is well above average.

As we watch another clutch of adolescent interlopers hide and flee, there are sufficient scenes that generate an actual fright response, so I’m giving Exists a modest recommendation that should not be mistaken for overwhelming enthusiasm.

Afterthought: Does Bigfoot eat people? I think he probably should. It’s scarier that way. Who’s gonna run away from a furry herbivore?

The Houses October Built (2014)

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Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I’m the kind of meatball what thinks that life (aka, all the loud shit going on during the waking hours) is an endless learning opportunity.

Simply by not having our heads snagged in our own b-holes, we can hopefully evolve into something that isn’t eaten by bobcats or swindled by kids selling magazine subscriptions.

I sincerely believe if you’re a reasonably intelligent ordinary citizen, you should be able to keep up with your personal narrative to the extent that you can see when your own shitty decision-making is making things unbearable. That is my belief.

Why is this such a struggle for the cast of horror movies and The Houses October Built specifically? Because it’s written that way. It’s our cross to bear so that we can see the trap springing merrily shut.

Armed with digital cameras, four dudes and a woman named Brandy hit the open road in a recreational vehicle looking to document America’s scariest Halloween haunts. They head south, following hideously costumed hillbillies from one trauma-inducing spook house to the next, until they end up in New Orleans.

Strange and disturbing occurrences are routine along the way, including confrontations with hostile carny folk and vehicular infiltration by creeping intruders. Anyone with the common sense of a deer smelling a fire in the wind would have hightailed it to the nearest blue state, but the four dudes and Brandy push onward. Sad, really. I wonder who found the footage?

The cast is also billed as the crew. Not quite sure what’s up with that, but I would like to congratulate director Bobby Roe, because The Houses October Built is one scary-ass movie.

Way more effective than The Blair Witch Project. Witches aren’t scary. People are scary. Especially in those parts of the world where it gets dark super fast and the scarecrows come to life.

Animal (2014)

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No, it’s not the Rob Schneider movie. That would be too depraved even for me.

Welcome to another episode of We’re A Bunch of Dipshits Who Went Camping. Two couples and their gay friend go for a hike, get lost in the woods, and are pursued through the pines by some kind of super-powerful apex predator. The creature itself is the best part of Animal, and frankly, it deserves a better movie than this tedious time waster.

The beast is close to human size, really fast, agile, and powerful. It appears to be equal parts rodent, reptile, and canine, and must have been fasting recently, because this thing is first in line at the human flesh buffet, barely slowing down to nosh on one victim before another lands in his lap. Put him on a plate son, you’ll enjoy him more.

Predictably, things bog down when the campers discover a fairly majestic log cabin to hide in, one that already has a trio of trapped hikers, including former Kevin Smith co-star Joey Lauren Adams. That’s when these idiots turn on each other and reveal long-simmering secrets that have no bearing on the action whatsoever, but do fill a tidy bit of time.

Animal is not awful, but when you introduce a badass creature that piques the curiosity, we want to know a little backstory, like, what the hell is it and where’d it come from? This information is not forthcoming, but while we’re twiddling our thumbs in the cabin, we do find out that the studly Jeff (Parker Young), who has long since had his head removed, may have once had a hookup with Sean (Paul Iacano), much to the chagrin of Mandy (Elizabeth Gillies), the hot Final Girl.

Come on, people! Priorities!

Frankenstein’s Army (2013)

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OK, this bad boy rocks.

If you haven’t seen anything worth inviting into your Netflix queue lately, Frankenstein’s Army is a brilliant remedy.

What we have here is a disturbing Weird War tale with steampunk accoutrements fitted into a “found-footage” frame, with a visual aesthetic that’s bold and nightmarishly distinctive.

In the waning days of World War II, Russian troops are streaming into Germany, wreaking havoc along the way. One such unit is accompanied by Captain Dimitri (Alexander Mercury), a cameraman making a documentary about these “heroic” soldiers.

While holed up in a bombed-out village, the group discovers a church converted into a mad scientist’s lab and are soon set upon by the most outré pack of Nazi zombie-robot-monsters I’ve ever seen.

Frankenstein’s Army is a Czech/US/Netherlands co-production filmed in the Czech Republic, which perhaps goes a long way toward explaining its unique appeal.

A hearty shake of my flippers goes to director and story man Richard Raaphorst, who hits a horror home run his first time at bat.

Admittedly, the lengths needed to preserve the found-footage premise become increasingly (and purposely, I think) absurd as a 70-year-old Soviet movie camera is able to capture pristine audio while getting tossed around like a Samsung at a frat party.

But Raaphorst is a filmmaker with vision: his nimble mind invents extraordinary beings, and like Dr. Frankenstein (Karl Roden), he has the ability to bring them to life.

He’s clearly not just another fawning acolyte of Sam Raimi or Tim Burton—if anything, his work reminds me of England’s once-reigning madman, Ken Russell.

Take it from me, Frankenstein’s Army is some very fresh hell, indeed. Highly recommended.

Stitches (2012)

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Come on, send in the clowns already!

In this case, the horrific harlequin is none other than Richard “Stitches” Grindel (Ross Noble), a kid-hating misanthrope who lives in an old school bus on the outskirts of town.

After a fatal encounter with a party of very naughty children, the vengeful jester rises from his clown grave to seek bloody revenge. My hat is off to Irish writer-director Conor McMahon (From The Dark, Dead Meat), who has fashioned a frenetic visual fun-house of grotesquery that rivals Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive in both gushy gore and belly laughs.

Like most clowns, Stitches is down on his luck and needs to occasionally tap the lucrative birthday party circuit to keep his kinky girlfriend in hooker shoes.

Sadly, the brats attending Tommy’s party are narcissistic sociopaths suffering from ADD, and instead of being treated to an inspiring afternoon of professional buffoonery, they torment the miserable merrymaker to death!

Tying his clown shoes together results in a face-plant into the dishwasher where a carelessly placed carving knife awaits.

Frankly, these little turds deserve to die horribly, and they do, in a rash of over-the-top impalings, gougings, and decapitations that follows in the wake of Stitches’ sinister resurrection ceremony conducted by his malevolent clown brethren.

If you only see one movie about a zombie clown this year, make it Stitches. You’ll be glad you did.

Night of the Demon (1957)

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Let’s dispense with the chit-chat and get down to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Whether you see it as Night of the Demon (the full-length British feature) or Curse of the Demon (the American version with 12 minutes edited out), you’re in for a sweet ride.

Based on the M.R. James short story “Casting the Runes” this black-and-white creep-a-thon is required viewing in the horror canon—and if your tender sensibilities can’t fathom a scary movie without a shower scene or diced camper, then I suggest you move on.

Generic 1950s leading man Dana Andrews stars as John Holden, an American psychiatrist and skeptic, who travels to England to expose “devil cult” leader Julian Karswell (Niall McGinnis) as a fraud.

The problem is, he isn’t one, and soon Holden realizes the avuncular Karswell has slipped him a piece of paper with a powerful curse on it. (I think it translates as “Hey demon, please mangle and mutilate whatever sorry sack of shit has the misfortune to be in possession of this here paper. K? Thanks!”)

Karswell coolly informs Holden that he will be taking a dirt nap in three days, prompting the spooked shrink and his comely sidekick (Peggy Cummins) to race around the English countryside in search of a solution.

Credit the skills of veteran director Jacques Tourneur for creating a true atmospheric classic. Demon, as well as previous films such as The Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and the noir masterpiece Out of the Past (Robert Mitchum’s best movie?) demonstrate Tourneur’s finesse with camera angles and his juggling of light and shadow to create menace.

The apocryphal story of Demon concerns the studio’s decision to have an actual demon appear at the beginning and end of the film, contrary to the wishes of Tourneur.

IMHO, it would have been a fine movie without it, but I appreciate the effort to give viewers a nightmare they can take home with them. It’s really not a bad demon; I’ve seen much worse.

Werewolf: The Beast Among Us (2012)

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If, like me, you viewed the Hugh Jackman vehicle Van Helsing as mere brain-dead spectacle, then be of good cheer. Werewolf: The Beast Among Us is an efficient example of how to perform genre gene splicing without relying on a bombardment of cheesy CGI to impress the yokels in the third row.

It’s sort of a rollicking Eastern European cowboy version of John Carpenter’s Vampires with a few wink-worthy nods to Jaws, steampunk fashion and the original Wolf Man—including a reprise of Maria Ouspenskia’s famous gypsy poem (“Even a man that’s pure of heart/And says his prayers by night…”).

Somewhere in the dark forests of Transylvania, in the latter part of the 19th century, a merry band of werewolf hunters rolls into a village currently under siege from members of the lycanthrope community. But, as several characters knowingly declare, “this is no ordinary werewolf!”

The hunters are led by taciturn gunslinger Charles (Ed Quinn) and the swashbuckling Stefan (Adam Croasdell), and aided in their quest by local lad Daniel (Guy Wilson), a medical student working for the town doctor (Stephen Rea). As the nimrods close in on an exceptionally wily werewolf, the townsfolk begin to realize that there is indeed, a “beast among us.”

Perhaps due to its obvious budget limitations (Hello, it’s filmed in Romania!), director Louis Morneau pumps up the fun factor and relies on a capable supporting cast (Rea, Stephen Bauer, Nia Peeples) to tell this ripping werewolf yarn.

The hunters are a posse of cool killers, especially Kazia (Ana Ularu), who fries her foes with a makeshift flamethrower and Fang (Florin Piersic) who takes a bite out of crime with his silver choppers. The werewolf CGI isn’t particularly inspired, but Morneau wisely lets a guy in a suit handle the closeup carnage when limbs are torn off and guts are gushing.

A genuinely pleasant surprise.

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

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The real title of this Yuletide bloodbath should have been Billy Never Had a Chance. I mean, come on! Here’s a kid who’s already been spooked by his evil/senile grandpa into being afraid of Santa Claus, who then watches his parents get slaughtered by a stickup man dressed as St. Nick. Then he’s shipped off to an orphanage where a cruel Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin) beats him for watching a couple engage in sexual congress (in an orphanage?) and then forces him to sit on Santa’s lap. He’s not even 10 years old yet! How the hell did they think he was going to turn out? Our cookie-cutter approach to mental illness is so lame.

Fast-forward 10 years and Billy the ticking time bomb (Robert Brian Wilson) is now a handsome, strapping young man—with a job in a toy store. Yeah, what with his mom and dad getting iced by Santa and all, he probably should have reviewed his career options a bit more thoughtfully, but I guess he needed the money for a new bike or something. Inevitably, Christmas rolls around and Billy’s nerves are a trifle frayed, as visions of the holly jolly fiend bombard his every waking moment. And for the piece de resistance, his drunken store manager (Brit Leach) makes poor Billy pull Santa Claus duty for the legions of snotty moppets that descend on the store like locusts on Christmas Eve. Like I said, he never had a chance. Hell, I’d have gone on a killing spree for having to entertain the brats, even without Billy’s tragic backstory.

Yes, it’s a ham-fisted and lurid psychodrama with plot developments you can see coming from miles away, but director Charles Sellier made sure that Silent Night, Deadly Night doesn’t scrimp on the spectacle essentials (i.e., blood and boobs). And in its painfully obvious effort to illustrate why this traumatized kid becomes an axe-wielding killer, we are forced to relive those horrible formative years right alongside Billy—which is far and away the most horrifying aspect of the movie. Suck it, Mother Superior!

Let’s face it: You really can’t miss with an evil, murderous Santa Claus. Maybe they should have called it Portrait of Santa as a Young Maniac.

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1973)

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This oddball entry was the last movie in Hammer Films’ Frankenstein cycle that starred the incomparable Peter Cushing as the most infamous mad scientist of all. Judging by the sets and the sketchy monster makeup, it was certainly a low-budget affair, but for sheer audacity and inspired lunacy, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell deserves a place alongside better-known examples of Hammer/Cushing greatness like Curse of Frankenstein and Evil of Frankenstein. Seriously, give it a chance.

Young surgeon Simon Helder (played by bored Sting lookalike Shane Briant—by far the most emotionally blasé mad scientist that I can recall) is sentenced to an insane asylum for experimenting on corpses and discovers that the man in charge is none other than his mentor in madness, Victor Frankenstein (Cushing). Together they make use of body parts donated by expired inmates and fashion a creature that resembles a simian drag queen version of George “The Animal” Steel. The pitiful “monster from hell” does very little to earn such a fearsome sobriquet, and it’s really up to Cushing in a foppish blond wig to carry the movie—which he does admirably.

Seldom has this dignified and methodical actor behaved in such a delightfully giddy, unhinged manner. When his plans for the monster—which include mating it with his beautiful mute assistant (Madeline Smith)—come to light, even the normally listless Helder is forced to acknowledge, “But surely you’re mad.” To which Cushing’s doctor replies without missing a beat, “Yes, perhaps. But I’ve never felt more elated.”

Despite the low horror quotient, veteran director Terrence Fisher doubles down on the atmosphere, including a fairly excruciating brain-transplant sequence that gives Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell some much-needed shock value. It’s no triumph, but for acolytes of Cushing and the Frankenstein oeuvre, it shouldn’t be missed.

Note: The monster is played by none other than David Prowse, who would ascend to immortality as the man in the Darth Vader suit in a series of films conceived by George Lucas.