Category Archives: Horror

Frightfully amusing: 10 horror comedies for Halloween

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 31, 2015)

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The nightly news is horrifying enough…so here’s ten funny ones. Alphabetically:

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Bubba Ho-Tep – This 2002 tongue-in-cheek shocker from Don “Phantasm” Coscarelli could have been “ripped from the headlines”…if those headlines were from The Weekly World News. In order to enjoy this romp, you must first unlearn what you have learned. For example, JFK (Ossie Davis) is still alive (long story)…he’s now an elderly African-American gentleman (even longer story). He currently resides at a decrepit nursing home in Texas, along with  Elvis Presley (midnight movie icon Bruce Campbell).

The King and the President join wheelchairs to rid the facility of its rather formidable pest…a reanimated Egyptian mummy (with a ten-gallon hat) who’s been lurking about waiting for residents to pass on so he can suck out their souls. Lots of laughs, yet despite the over-the-top premise, Campbell’s portrayal of “Elvis” remains respectful; even poignant. Davis also nails that sweet spot; he embraces the inherent camp of his “JFK”, yet  retains the dignity of its namesake.

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Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter – “What he doesn’t know about vampires wouldn’t even fill a flea’s codpiece!” This unusually droll Hammer entry from 1974 benefits from assured direction and a clever script by Brian Clemens, one of the creators behind The Avengers TV show. Captain Kronos (Horst Janson) and his stalwart consultant, Professor Hieronymus Grost (John Cater) are called upon by a physician to investigate a mysterious malady befalling residents of a sleepy hamlet…rapidly accelerating aging.

The professor suspects a youth-sucking vampire may be involved…and the game is afoot. Along the way, the Captain finds romance with the village babe, played by lovely Caroline Munro (*sigh*). The film was released at the tail end of Hammer’s classic period; possibly explaining why Clemens seems to be doing a parody of “a Hammer film”.

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Delicatessen– Love is in the air…along with the butcher’s cleaver in this seriocomic vision of a food-scarce, dystopian “near-future” along the lines of Soylent Green, directed with trademark surrealist touches by co-directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children). The pair’s favorite leading man, Dominique Pinon (sort of a sawed-off Robin Williams) plays a circus performer who moves into an apartment building with a butcher shop downstairs.

The shop’s proprietor seems to be appraising the new tenant with a “professional” eye. In Jeunet and Caro’s bizarre universe, it’s all par for the course (and just wait ‘til you get a load of the vegan “troglodytes” who live under the city). One particularly memorable and hilarious sequence, an imaginatively choreographed lovemaking scene, stands as a mini-masterpiece of film and sound editing.

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Eating Raoul– The late great Paul Bartel directed and co-wrote this twisted and hilarious social satire. Bartel and his frequent screen partner Mary Waronov play Paul and Mary Bland, a prudish, buttoned-down couple who are horrified to discover that their apartment complex is home to an enclave of “swingers”. Paul is even more shocked when he comes home from his wine store job one day and discovers Mary struggling to escape the clutches of a swinger’s party guest who has mistakenly strayed into the Bland’s apartment.

Paul beans him with a frying pan, inadvertently killing Mary’s overeager groper. When the couple discovers a sizable wad of money on the body, a light bulb goes off-and the Blands come up with a unique plan for financing the restaurant that they have always dreamed of opening (and helping rid the world of those icky swingers!). Things get complicated, however when a burglar (Robert Beltran) ingratiates himself into their scheme. Yes, it’s sick…but in a good way. Just wait until you meet Doris the Dominatrix.

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Ed Wood– Director Tim Burton and his favorite leading man Johnny Depp have worked together on so many films over the last 20-odd years that they are surely joined at the hip by now. For my money, this affectionate 1994 biopic about the man who directed “the worst film of all time” remains their best collaboration. It’s also unique in Burton’s canon in that it is somewhat grounded in reality.

Depp gives a brilliant performance as Edward D. Wood, Jr., who unleashed the infamously inept yet 100% certified  trash classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space on an unsuspecting movie-going public in the late 50s. While there are lots of belly laughs, none are at the expense of the off-beat characters. There’s no mean-spirited intent here; that’s what makes the film so endearing. Martin Landau steals his scenes with a droll, Oscar-winning turn as Bela Lugosi. Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette and Jeffrey Jones also shine .

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I Married a Witch– Clocking in at 77 minutes, Rene Clair’s breezy 1942 romantic fantasy packs in more wit, sophistication and fun than any ten modern “comedies” you’d care to name put together. I’ll tell you what else holds up pretty well after 70 years…Veronica Lake’s allure and pixie charm. Lake is a riot as a witch who re-materializes 300 years after putting a curse on all male descendants of a Puritan who sent her to the stake.

She and her equally mischievous father (Cecil Kellaway) wreak havoc on the most recent descendant (Fredric March), a politician considering a run for governor. Lake decides to muck up his relationship with his fiancé (Susan Hayward) by making him fall in love with his tormentor. All she needs to do is slip him a little love potion, but her plan fizzes after she accidentally ingests it herself. And yes, hilarity ensues.

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J-Men Forever!– Woody Allen may have done it first (What’s Up, Tiger Lily?) and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 troupe has since run the concept into the ground, but Firesign Theater veterans Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman did it best with J-Men Forever. I am referring to the concept of re-appropriating footage from corny, no-budget B-films and re-dubbing the soundtrack with comic dialogue. I’ve been a devotee of this film since it aired on the USA Network’s after hours cult show Night Flight back in the 80s (alright, raise your bong if you remember that one).

The creators had a sizable archive from the old Republic serials to cull from, so they were not restricted by the narrative structure of one specific film. As a result, Proctor and Bergman’s wonderfully silly concoction about saving Earth from a nefarious alien mastermind called “The Lightning Bug” benefits from quick-cut editing, perfectly synced with their trademark barrage of one-liners, puns and double-entendres, all set to a rock‘n’roll soundtrack. “Schtay high!”

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No Such Thing– Director Hal Hartley’s arch, deadpan observations on the human condition either grab you or leave you cold, and this modern Beauty and the Beast tale is no exception. TV news intern Beatrice (Sarah Polley) is sent to Iceland to get an exclusive on a real-life “monster” (Robert Burke), an immortal nihilist who kills boredom by drinking heavily and terrorizing whomsoever is handy.

After her plane goes down en route, her cynical boss (Helen Mirren) smells an even bigger story when Beatrice becomes the “miracle survivor” of the crash. The Monster agrees to come back to N.Y.C. if Beatrice helps him track down the one scientist in the world who can put him out of his misery.

The pacing in the first half is leisurely; dominated by the Monster’s morose, raving monologues, set against the stark, moody Icelandic backdrop (I was reminded of David Thewlis’ raging, darkly funny harangues in Naked). Once the story heads for New York, however, the movie turns into a satire of the art world (a la John Waters’ Pecker), as the couple quickly become celebrities du jour with the trendy Downtown crowd. Obscure, but worth a look.

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show– 40 years have not diminished the cult status of Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s stage musical about a hapless young couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who have the misfortune of stumbling into the lair of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) one dark and stormy night. O’Brien co-stars as the mad doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Riff-Raff.

Much singing, dancing, cross-dressing, axe-murdering, cannibalism and hot sex ensues-with broad theatrical nods to everything from Metropolis, King Kong and Frankenstein to cheesy 1950s sci-fi, Bob Fosse musicals, 70s glam-rock and everything in between. Runs out of steam a bit in the third act, but the knockout musical numbers in the first hour or so makes it worth repeated viewings.

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Young Frankenstein– Writer-director Mel Brooks’ 1974 film transgresses the limitations of the “spoof” genre to create something wholly original. Brooks kills two birds with one parody, goofing on James Whale’s original 1931 version of Frankenstein, as well as his 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein.

Gene Wilder heads a marvelous cast as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced, “Franken-schteen”) the grandson of the “infamous” mad scientist who liked to play around with dead things. Despite his propensity for distancing himself from that legacy, a notice of inheritance precipitates a visit to the family estate in Transylvania, where the discovery of his grandfather’s “secret” laboratory awakens his dark side.

Wilder is quite funny (as always), but he plays it relatively straight, making a perfect foil for the comedic juggernaut of Madeline Khan, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman (“Blucher!”), Terri Garr and Kenneth Mars, who are all at the top of their game. The scene featuring a non-billed cameo by Gene Hackman is a classic.

This is also Brooks’ most technically accomplished film; the meticulous replication of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory (utilizing props from the 1931 original), Gerald Hirschfeld’s gorgeous B & W photography and Dale Hennesy’s production design all combine to create an effective (and affectionate) homage to the heyday of Universal monster movies.

Blu-ray reissue: Twin Peaks: the Entire Mystery ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 9, 2014)

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Twin Peaks: the Entire Mystery – Paramount Blu-ray (box set)

Who killed Laura Palmer? Who cares? The key to binge-watching David Lynch’s short-lived early 90s cult TV series about the denizens of a sleepy Northwestern lumber town and their twisted secrets is to unlearn all that you have learned about neatly wrapped story arcs and to just embrace the wonderfully warped weirdness. The real “mystery” is how the creator of avant-garde films like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet managed to snag a prime time network TV slot in the first place…and got away with it for two seasons! Paramount’s Blu-ray box set sports vibrant transfers and crisply re-mastered audio tracks. Extras include the “international” cut of the pilot episode, and the “prequel” feature film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. All  extras from the DVD “gold box” are ported over, with new bonus material.

Vampire weekend: Byzantium **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 13, 2013)

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Stop! Or my Mom will bite: Arterton and Ronan share quality time.

In my 2010 review of The Wolfman, I pondered why people continue to be so fascinated by human “monster” characters like vampires and werewolves in literature and film:

I suppose it’s something to do with those primal impulses that we all (well, most of us-thank the Goddess) keep safely locked in our  lizard brain. Both of these “monsters” are  predatory in nature, but with some significant differences. With vampires, it’s the psycho-sexual subtext; always on the hunt for someone to penetrate with those (Canines? Molars? I’m not a dentist). There is a certain amount of seduction (or foreplay, if you will) involved as well. But once consummated, it’s off to  the next victim (no rest for the anemic).

And there’s certainly no rest for world-weary single vampire mom Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her teenage vampire daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). In fact, both women at the center of Neil Jordan’s neo-gothic fantasy Byzantium are looking pretty bone-tired. You would too, if you were 200+ years old.

Having to pack up and move to a new town every few months can also be quite draining; Clara’s “job” as a streetwalker, while providing a handy conduit to lure her victims, is not the ideal career choice for anyone to wants to keep a low profile. Also not helping is Mom’s unreserved tendency to leave Grand Guignol crime scenes in her wake for the local constabulary to contemplate. In stark contrast, the more demure and contemplative Eleanor employs a relatively compassionate feeding method (be advised that it’s no less unpleasant to watch).

Eleanor’s sensitivity hints at a poetic soul; telegraphed from the opening scene where a discarded page from her private journal flutters from a high window and is picked up and read by a passing stranger. Eleanor’s wistful voice over assures us that she knows that we know that she realizes the havoc she and her mother have been wreaking for two centuries is evil and wrong. She yearns to tell someone her story; she’s a serial killer that wants to get caught.

Mother and daughter settle in to a new coastal town (the windswept Hastings locale lends itself well to the sense of melancholy and foreboding). Clara, ever the opportunist, finds a pushover-a lonely, kindly bachelor named Noel (Daniel Mays) who has inherited a run-down hotel called The Byzantium. Clara soon converts the vintage inn into a brothel (giving unsuspecting Noel a stay of execution). In the meantime, Eleanor’s ever growing compulsion to share her dark family secrets comes to the fore when she meets a young man (Caleb Landry Jones) and begins to fall in love.

The director, best-known for character-driven noirs (Angel, Mona Lisa, The Crying Game) and emotionally shattering dramas (The Butcher Boy, The End of the Affair) is actually no stranger to the supernatural, beginning with his 1984 sophomore effort (and one of my Jordan favorites) The Company of Wolves. He graduated from werewolves to vampires a decade later with one of his bigger box office successes, Interview with the Vampire (although critics were more divided). He even gave horror comedy a shot in his uncharacteristically limp 1988 offering High Spirits. And his 2009 drama Ondine weaved in a few elements from  Irish fairy tales.

Even discounting the fact that I am not particularly enamored with post-modern vampire flicks to begin with, Byzantium still left me feeling ambivalent. On the plus side, Jordan wrests compelling performances from his cast (consistently one of this strongest suits). Arterton exudes a volatile intensity and earthy sexiness that’s hard to ignore, and Ronan’s offbeat moon-faced loveliness and expressive, incandescent eyes give her tragic character an appropriately haunted, ethereal quality.

The problem, I think may be with Moira Buffini’s uneven script (adapted from her own play). While it remained focused on the mother-daughter dynamic, it held my attention. But whenever it veered into the somewhat incoherent backstory involving a cabal of male vampires who have been shadowing the women since the early 19th Century, they lost me. Then there’s the raging river o’ blood sequence (c’mon…how many times must we rip off The Shining?!) and the Bat Cave of Destiny (my name for it)…at any rate, it all becomes needlessly busy and muddled. Maybe I’m ol’skool, but just give me Bela Lugosi in a chintz cape, and I’ll bite.

SIFF 2013: Cockneys vs. Zombies **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2013)

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“Oi! Zombies!” This may be “damning with faint praise” but Matthias Hoene’s “splatter comedy” Cockneys vs. Zombies pretty much delivers all that its title implies. In a setup reminiscent of the British sci-fi classic Quatermass and the Pit (although any similarities abruptly end there) London construction workers inadvertently stir up an ancient crypt best left undisturbed…sparking a zombie apocalypse in the East End. Although I liked this much more when it was called Shaun of the Dead, it does have its moments. The funniest bit has an old gent with a walker handily outdistancing a zombie pursuer.

Blu-ray reissue: Forbidden Zone ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 30, 2012)

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Forbidden Zone – Arrow Video Blu-ray

Picture if you will: an artistic marriage between John Waters, Max Fleischer, Busby Berkeley and Peter Greenaway. Now, imagine the wedding night (I’ll give you a sec). As for the “plot”, well, it’s about this indescribably twisty family who discovers a portal to a pan-dimensional…oh, never mind. Suffice it to say, any film that features Herve Villechaize as the King of the Sixth Dimension, Susan Tyrrell as his Queen and soundtrack composer Danny Elfman channeling Cab Calloway (via Satan), is a dream for some; a nightmare for others. Directed by Danny’s brother Richard. Arrow Videos’s Blu-ray includes an absorbing “making of” feature, plus a choice of seeing the film it its original B&W or colorized version (although be warned that either way you look at it, it’s over the top).

SIFF 2012: Thale ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 9, 2012)

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Thale is an economical but highly imaginative sci-fi/horror thriller from Norwegian writer-director Aleksander Nordaas that plays like a mashup of The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  While on the job, two friends who work for a crime scene cleanup business stumble upon what appears to be a makeshift laboratory in a bunker beneath a remote farmhouse. Despite initial appearances, and the fact that the homeowner is most decidedly dead, it is not wholly “deserted”. Imagine their surprise. Not to mention what they discover in the freezer (*shudder*). Creepy, thrilling, generously tempered with deadpan humor and definitely not for the squeamish. This is the latest entry in what seems to be a burgeoning (and exclusively Scandinavian) horror sub-genre: The Mythological Norse Creature Feature, which would include Beowulf and Grendel, the 2011 SIFF hit Trollhunter, and Rare Exports.

SIFF 2011: Trollhunter ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2011)

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Like previous entries in horror’s “found footage” sub-genre,  Trollhunter features an unremarkable, no-name cast; but then again you don’t really require the services of an Olivier when most of the dialog is along the lines of “Where ARE you!?”, “Jesus, look at the size of that fucking thing!”, “RUN!!!” or the ever popular “AieEEE!”.

Seriously, though- what I like about Andre Ovredal’s film (aside from the surprisingly convincing monsters) is the way he cleverly weaves wry commentary on religion and politics into his narrative. The story concerns three Norwegian film students who initially set off to do an expose on illegal bear poaching, but become embroiled with a clandestine government program to rid Norway of some nasty trolls who have been terrorizing the remote areas of the country (you’ll have to suspend your disbelief as to how the government has been able to “cover up” 200 foot tall monsters rampaging about). The “trollhunter” himself is quite a character. And always remember: while hunting trolls…it’s best to leave the Christians at home!

Wolves, lower: The Wolfman **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 13, 2010)

Inga: Werewolf!

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein:  (startled) Werewolf?!

Igor There.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein:  What?

Igor (pointing) There…wolf. There…castle.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein:  Why are you talking that way?

Igor:  I thought you wanted to.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein:  No, I don’t want to.

Igor:  (shrugs) Suit yourself. I’m easy.

 -from Young Frankenstein.

 Why are people so fascinated with the concept of vampires and werewolves? I suppose it’s something to do with those primal impulses that we all (well, most of us-thank the Goddess) keep safely locked in our  lizard brain. Both of these “monsters” are  predatory in nature, but with some significant differences.

With vampires, it’s the psycho-sexual subtext; always on the hunt for someone to penetrate with those (Canines? Molars? I’m not a dentist). There is a certain amount of seduction (or foreplay, if you will) involved as well. But once consummated, it’s off to  the next victim (no rest for the anemic). In criminologist terms, vampires are serial date rapists…so why  do people find that sexy?.

Werewolves, on the other hand, are much less complex. They are spree killers, pure and simple (“He always seemed like such a sweet, quiet guy. Until the full moon.”) With them it’s all about the ripping, and the slicing and the dicing.

Vampires are quite self-aware of their “issues”…but they can’t stop doing what they do. They have highly addictive personalities-which is an element a lot of people can identify with on some level (with me, it’s chocolate…and yes, you may call me Count Chocula).

Werewolves, on the other hand, generally have no cognizance of their actions, until perhaps after the fact. They have true schizophrenic personalities, which I think makes them the scarier creatures. I suppose that even those of us who are not homicidal maniacs can relate on some level (“I did what last night? Jesus, I’ll never get that drunk again!”). Werewolves scare us because they remind us of the duality that exists within all human beings; after all, Hitler and Gandhi walked the planet at the same point in history.

My favorite “monster movies” don’t necessarily involve characters literally shape shifting into wild beasts. One example is Jean Renoir’s 1938 thriller La Bete Humaine (reworked by Fritz Lang as the 1954 film noir Human Desire) with the great Jean Gabin as a train engineer plagued by blackouts, during which he commits horrendous crimes, usually precipitated by sexual stirrings. And who can forget Elvis’ immortal line from Jailhouse Rock, after an uninvited advance: “Ah… sorry, honah. It’s just the beast in me.”

You know what “they” say-it always comes in threes; especially in Hollywood, where the studios have recently been on a Victorian kick. As of this weekend, we have Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman snapping away in theaters, on the heels of Sherlock Holmes and The Young Victoria. Basing their film on the eponymous Lon Chaney Jr. classic, director Johnston and screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, who adapted from Curt Siodmak’s 1941 script, have re-imagined a few elements, but are fairly faithful to the original.

The film opens with a vintage Hammer Studios vibe. It’s England, 1891. There’s a full moon, an old dark manor, and (wait for it) a fog on the moor. A terrified man is fleeing from an unseen bestial horror, as fast as his Wellingtons can carry him. Not fast enough.

Local myth attributes a recent spate of these brutal killings to an elusive  creature of unknown origins. The villagers are a superstitious lot, believing they have been cursed; naturally, the nearest group of Gypsies is suspected. This is the milieu that an American actor named Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) finds himself in when his brother’s mysterious disappearance precipitates a return to his boyhood home and a wary reunion with his estranged father (Anthony Hopkins).

Lawrence has not returned at his father’s request, but rather at the urging of his missing brother’s fiancée (Emily Blunt). The elder Talbot’s misanthropic demeanor has not exactly endeared him to his neighbors either, and when an inspector from Scotland Yard (Hugo Weaving) arrives to investigate, they happily cast their suspicions in the direction of the Talbots. Through fate and circumstance, Lawrence becomes suspect #1, and a dark family history unfurls.

Was this a necessary remake? 69 years seems a respectful moratorium. Johnston’s film does evoke the mood and atmosphere of the original; it’s fitting homage to Universal’s classic horror era (which also includes wonderful creature-less chillers like The Scarlet Claw, my personal favorite of their Holmes series). The transformation scenes are genuinely creepy, and creature effects master Rick Baker’s prosthetic work is aces. Danny Elfman’s gothic score fits in nicely.

On the down side, despite the impressive cast, no performance stands out; even hammy Hopkins seems oddly detached. While I can appreciate that Del Toro was trying to “internalize” the inherent tragedy of his character, he never gets to develop it fully-which could be due to the rushed narrative in the second act. There are some interesting peripheral characters introduced (like a Gypsy seer, played by Geraldine Chaplin, who we don’t get to see enough of these days) but again, they are ultimately given short shrift.

Fans of old school Gothic horror will fare best. While the film has graphic violence, it stops  this side of gratuitous (unlike the odious “torture porn” genre, which has given horror movies a bad name). With a sharper script and more plot development, they could have had a minor cult item. But for the time being, Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Boris Karloff can continue to rest easy.

Naughty and not so nice: Rare Exports ***1/2

By  Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 25, 2010)

It’s official. I now have a new favorite Christmas movie. John Carpenter’s The Thing meets Miracle on 34th Street in Finnish writer-director Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a wickedly clever Yule story that spices up the usual holiday family movie recipe by folding in generous dollops of sci-fi, horror, and Norse legend.

The twist here is that our protagonist, a young boy named Pietari (Onni Tommila) not only believes that Santa Claus is, in fact, real, but that he is buried just beyond the back 40 of his dad’s reindeer ranch, where American archeologists are excavating a mysterious promontory. After bizarre and troubling events begin to plague Pietari’s sleepy little hamlet, it looks that Santa may have just been “resting”. And if this is the mythical Santa Pietari suspects, then he is more Balrog than eggnog…and is best left undisturbed.

The director also works a sly anti-consumerist polemic into his narrative. Pietra’s dad (Jorma Tommila) and his fellow reindeer hunters-who are more chagrinned that the saturnine Santa is threatening their livelihood by slaughtering all the reindeer than by the fact that he is also methodically kidnapping the village children and spiriting them away to an undisclosed location, manage to capture him, and then demand a “ransom” from the corporate weasel who, for his own nefarious reasons, is funding the dig.

In the meantime, a legion of Santa’s nasty little “helpers” are running amuck and wreaking havoc. Pietari, the only one keeping a cool head, just wants to enjoy Christmas with dad-even if he has to transform into a midget version of Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness to rescue the children (and save the farm, in a manner of speaking).

There’s nothing “cute” about this film, yet it’s by no means mean-spirited, either. It is an off-beat, darkly funny, and wholly original treat for moviegoers hungry for a fresh alternative to the 999th lifetime viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story. Speaking as someone who lived for many years within a day’s drive of the Arctic Circle, the film also perfectly captures the stark beauty of midwinter in the far Northern Hemisphere; especially that unique dichotomy of soothing tranquility and alien desolation that it can bring to one’s soul. And for god’s sake-let Santa rest in peace.

Blu-ray reissue: The Night of the Hunter ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 11, 2010)

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The Night of the Hunter – Criterion Collection Blu-ray  (2-disc)

Is it a film noir? A horror movie? A black comedy? A haunting American folk tale? The answer would be yes. The man responsible for this tough-to-categorize 1957 film was one of the greatest acting hams of the 20th century, Charles Laughton, who began and ended his directorial career with this effort. Like a great many films now regarded as “cult classics”, this one was savaged by critics and tanked at the box office upon its initial release (enough to spook Laughton from ever returning to the director’s chair).

Robert Mitchum is brilliant (and genuinely scary) as a knife-wielding religious zealot who does considerably more “preying” than praying. Before his condemned cell mate (Peter Graves) meets the hangman, he talks in his sleep about $10,000 in loot  stashed on his property. When the “preacher” gets out of the slam, he makes a beeline for the widow (Shelly Winters) and her two young’uns. A disturbing tale unfolds. The great Lillian Gish is on board as well. It’s artfully directed by Laughton and beautifully shot by DP Stanley Cortez.

Criterion has done their usual voodoo with a gorgeous transfer. The 160-minute companion documentary nearly overshadows the feature. It was meticulously assembled over several decades by its director, who had access to a stash of disorganized rushes and outtakes from the film (that almost got tossed by Laughton’s widow). Laughton liked to keep the camera rolling between takes, which turned out to be a serendipitous choice for the benefit of future film scholars and movie buffs, because it is pretty amazing footage.