Special Edition: The History of the Holiday Horror Film By Shawn McKee

Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella A Christmas Carol is as familiar as the holiday itself. As a quintessential story of redemption, it’s hard to imagine a world before Ebenezer Scrooge. Roughly a hundred years later, director Frank Capra delivered a similar redemptive tale with the Jimmy Stewart classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

Both stories had elements of darkness within their exploration of humanity, but neither delved into the murder and mayhem of the Christmas slasher films that followed. It was only a matter of time before Santa Clause became a serial killer, which audiences would get their first glimpse of on screen in the brief “And All Through the House” segment in the 1972 film Tales From the Crypt.

The1970s and 80s introduced a decidedly macabre take on the holiday genre. Nonetheless, these films exhibited a certain charm amid their profitable nihilism. It was a special time and place, where young filmmakers thrived in merging horror tropes with the holidays, long before Tim Burton arrived on the scene. One of the earliest examples of this twisted trend began with the aptly titled Black Christmas, a horror film that remains frightening to this day.

Black Christmas (1974)

Director Bob Clark played a pivotal role in launching the slasher genre with this tense, atmospheric film that entirely lives up to its reputation. Initially dismissed by critics, the movie has since gained a deeper appreciation for its artful cinematography, serious themes, and stark horror. Clark helped shape the prototype slasher film with a level of quality not often associated with the genre. There have been two worthless “name only” remakes, largely unrelated to the original plot.

The story involves a group of sorority girls being harassed by an unseen psycho who may or may not be known by them. Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Kier Dullea round out the talented cast, with some other familiar faces in the mix. As the murders continue unabated, we never learn the identity of the killer, which was something rarely, if ever, seen before. Black Christmas heavily inspired John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), which led to the slasher boom of the 80s. Not content with one genre, Bob Clark later went on to direct the cherished holiday classic, A Christmas Story (1983).

Ralphie’s childhood quest for a Red Ryder BB gun is quite different than anything seen in Black Christmas, and it’s a testament to Clark’s versatility. Writer Jean Shepherd’s humorous, semi-fictional accounts of growing up in the 1950s is about as far from a slasher film one could get. Both films, in my opinion, can be appreciated on different levels. Clark cemented two equally enjoyable holiday classics for generations to come.

Olivia Hussey is terrorized in a scene from Black Christmas (1974).

Silent Night, Deadly Night (Part I-V)

The abundance of slasher films throughout the 80s weren’t without controversy. Bloody, elaborate special effects were often removed, following a merciless MPAA crackdown. In short, fans were left with tedious buildups to off-screen kills, amid other frustrations.

These films were seen as an affront to decency by parents and religious leaders alike, and maybe they were right. But nothing angers gore-loving teenagers more than censorship. I can attest to that. One movie, Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), earned special derision from critic Roger Ebert, who called the profits from the film “blood money” in his heated review. He may have had a point as well. Horror movies, in general, are driven by profit. Violence sells, especially when it’s holiday themed.

Silent Night, Deadly Night continued the psychological tropes first introduced in Christmas Evil (1980). In both cases, traumatized, disturbed men unleashed their fury on society, dressed as Santa Clause. I’m still amazed that Silent Night, Deadly Night garnered five sequels, rendered unrecognizable by the fifth installment. The first film remains the best one, and the lengths they went to extend the series are a riot.

The initial outing tells the story of Billy Chapman (Robert Brian Wilson), who witnessed his parents’ murder at the hands of a Santa Clause-costumed killer. Chapman’s subsequent attempts at a “normal life” are derailed when he takes a job as a mall Santa and predictably snaps. It’s a straight-forward slasher that contains a certain depth to its portrayal of an orphaned child, doomed to the failures of the system.

The movie was pulled from theaters, following an outrage campaign in response to its commercials portraying an ax-wielding maniac dressed as Santa Clause. Simpler times, indeed. The shameless sequel presents forty minutes of footage from the original film through flashbacks recited by the brother of the original killer.

Ricky Caldwell (Eric Freeman), our demented lead, supposedly remembers everything about his brother’s descent, even though he was an infant at the time. All of this was intentional. Due to the first movie being pulled so quickly from theaters, the producers didn’t think anyone would notice if they “reassembled” the first film into a sequel. In the end, we were given an enjoyably bizarre suburban rampage, containing the brief but immortal “Garbage Day” segment. The movie is trash, but earnestly tries to breathe life into a pointless endeavor.

Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out (1989) is an anemic straight-to-video concoction, featuring a girl with psychic powers inexplicably linked to the killer, ala Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988). Back then, plenty of films shamelessly stole from the Brian De Palma’s masterful Stephen King adaptation Carrie (1976). It’s a movie so dull and boring, that it completely earns Ebert’s ire from the first installment.

The best thing that could be said about Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1990) is that it tries to be something completely different, even while copying Rosemary’s Baby (1969). It’s a cult movie, directed by the talented Brian Yuzna and starring the legendary Clint Howard. A young, ambitious reporter gets intertwined with a deadly witch cult. There’s plenty of mystery and intrigue that’s as enjoyable as a fourth entry can be. I appreciate their attempts to change things up, even if it has nothing to do with the original. It does take place during Christmas, allowing the cynical holiday tie-in to continue.

They weren’t even trying for consistency by the time Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991) rolled around. This bizarre entry features a deranged toy maker, as promised, portrayed by Mickey Rooney. My explanation of the plot wouldn’t do it justice, but it’s worth seeing out of morbid curiosity. In retrospect, I give it even more credit for shifting away from the source material. It’s the most ridiculous Christmas-themed movie you could see outside of Santa Clause Conquers the Martians (1964). One thing is for certain, Silent Night, Deadly Night films are less disturbing than the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, which still ranks as the most traumatic viewing experience of all time.

Since then, there has been an explosion of sorts of modern Christmas horror films, including a loose Silent Night, Deadly Night remake simply titled Silent Night (2012), as well as Krampus (2015), A Christmas Horror Story (2015), and Red Christmas (2016), among others. Each of these tried to put their own unique spins on the holiday horror genre, and all with varying results. But the above-named earlier films will always remain the go-to’s for anyone searching for true fright during the Christmas season.

Film Review: Halloween Kills (Miramax/Blumhouse Productions/Universal Pictures)

By: Jesse Striewski

I can’t honestly say I was impressed at all with the last Halloween film released in 2018; not only was it derivative and borrowed heavily from previous entries that it supposedly ignores (it was essentially a redux of 1998’s H2O), it asked us to accept far too many idiotic and implausible situations and concepts; from giving Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) a daughter other than Jamie Llyod from parts 4-6, to the fact we’re supposed to believe that Michael Myers is somehow remembered as a great notorious figure (sure, we know who he is as an audience, but if we’re supposed to ignore the events from all of the sequels actually happened, wouldn’t he just be some guy who killed a few people decades ago, and not as revered of a murderer?). And then there was that ridiculous plot twist with the doctor assuming the role of Michael Myers for a second (don’t even get me started on that).

For a brief moment, I was actually intrigued and lost within the onset of Halloween Kills; the flashback sequences tackling aspects from that fateful Halloween in 1978 were admittedly interesting at first. If the whole film could have just somehow stayed in that reality, maybe something could have been salvaged here. But things quickly become a joke, and the updated treatment of the late Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis in these flashbacks are some of the most insulting scenes ever put on screen.

And despite having the returning Curtis paired with other series alumni from earlier films such as Charles Cyphers as Leigh Brackett, Nancy Stephens as Marion Chambers, and Kyle Richards as Lindsey Wallace, it does zero to add to this dying series. Even having Anthony Michael Hall portray the character of Tommy Doyle from the first film was as out of place as it gets, and by the time it gets to the point of him leading an angry lynch mob through a hospital, chanting “Evil dies tonight,” it felt as though I was watching a parody of the Halloween films, similar to the likes of Sharknado. There’s no drama left for any of the characters to have, just mean-spirited intentions spewing awful dialogue.

The worst is how certain elements are treated; Myers is now an even more ruthless killing machine than ever, torturing his victims mercilessly in some of the most brutal fashions imaginable (at one point he repeatedly stabs a victim with multiple knives even after killing them). Any sense of suspense is taken away in place of more blood and gore in hopes of appealing to the lowest common denominator (and yet that’s somehow supposed to be better for us to see on screen than the gratuitous nudity once so prevalent in these films that has been replaced by by mindless bloodshed?!). The reason The Shape was so menacing to begin with in the original films was not because of the quantity of outrageous kills on the screen, but the motivation behind it.

But judging by the audience reaction on opening night, small details like these are trivial matters to them at best, and do not matter to them one bit. Where there should be screams during kills, there was plenty of hootin’ and hollerin’ instead. Even the most mundane situations were enough to invoke unfounded laughter (a woman picks up a wine bottle to defend herself?! What a hilarious concept!). But it quickly became clear I’m very much alone in not accepting these trashy new dumbed down incarnations.

The flimmakers could have actually done something different with the material here. Hell, it would have been better had they even took the route of 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch (the best film in the entire series in my opinion, yes, even more than the original) and introduced an entirely new concept, instead of beating this dead horse of a storyline into the ground for so long. But director David Gordon Green has taken this franchise into unforgivable territory ALMOST as atrocious as the Rob Zombie remake films. But until we stop embracing regurgitated garbage being spoon feed to us like this, they will continue churning out soulless entries as long as we continue accepting them. We deserve better than this. Yes, evil really should die, along with this entire franchise (and yet, we still have at least one more film to endure next year).

Rating: 1/5 Stars

Interview with Actress Dee Wallace By Jesse Striewski

By all accounts, actress Dee Wallace should need little to no introduction. In the world of horror films, she’s regarded as one of all-time top scream queens, appearing in such classics as The Howling (1981), Cujo (1983), and Critters (1986). But of her nearly two-hundred acting credits, she will perhaps forever best be known for her role in the 1982 Steven Speilberg blockbuster E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Last week, I had the chance to speak with Dee over the phone from her California home, where I was honored to ask her about many of said previous films, as well as her more recent, inspiring work in the self-help field.

And I was lucky enough to catch her just at the right time; at the very start of our conversation, Wallace informs me with glee; “I’m heading out to do a film, so you’re my very last, good little thing I get to do before I hop on a plane!” I also wanted Dee to know how much I had learned about her prior to our interview while doing background research, to which she delightfully chuckled before proclaiming, “That’s funny, everybody says that! Well thank you for doing your research!”

One of the first things I wanted to know was what made Wallace decide to step into the world of motivational speaking. She tells me; “Well, when you’re called, you have to answer that call! That’s the best way I can put it. Really when I look back on my entire life, it’s all lead up to this. I used to get messages when I was a little girl – which a lot of kids do. Then later in life when I met Christopher (Stone, Dee’s late husband), he and I got involved in a philosophy called conceptology, and we studied that for a couple of years. Cut to later in life; when he died, I basically dropped to my knees and said, ‘I don’t want to be a victim or angry.’ And the first message I got literally within seconds was to ‘use the light within you to heal yourself.'”

She continues; “So I’ve kind of been expanding on that ever since. I had the largest acting studio in LA at the time, and I would start getting downloads about stuff, and they were always right-on. So then families began wanting to work with me once they saw my students lives’ were changing, and now here I am 30 years later with clients all over the world. I’m quite an oxymoron, actually; half my life I do horror films, the other half I try to teach people how to deal with fear (laughs)! But it’s pretty empowering work, I can tell you that. It’s definitely changed my life!” Dee also hosts a worldwide radio call-in show discussing many of these subjects, which airs online every Sunday at 9am PST.

By now I felt like it was as good a time as any to finally segue into her film career, and I wanted to know if the horror genre was something Wallace had pursued personally, or if it had more or less ‘found’ her. She tells me; “It definitely found me! That genre is one of the easier ones to get started in when you’re beginning your acting career. Ironically, the first film I ever did was a religious one called All the King’s Men – and then I booked The Hills Have Eyes – which again, it sort of explains the dichotomy of Dee, here! (laughs). But I love doing emotional work, and the horror genre gives you the opportunity to do that better than many others. It found me, and then I found out that I loved it!”

I was curious what it was like stepping back into the Critters film series last year when Dee appeared in the fifth entry, Critters Attack! (her first time returning since the 1986 original). She informs me; “It was a lot of fun. My first question for them was ‘are you doing the Critters CGI?,’ because if they were I wouldn’t have done it, and I think the fans would have been disappointed. But I read the script and met with the director, and I got to go to Cape Town, South Africa, so how bad could it be?!” (Laughs). I was also curious if Dee had kept up much with the various other sequels in the series, as well as the other long-standing horror franchise she had kicked off the original with (The Howling). She says; “Yeah, I was kind of like, been there, done that (laughs). Especially with The Howling series, they just had a different quality that didn’t really fit with who I am.”

I also wondered if it was odd for her at all to step into the role of a villain for the 1996 film The Frighteners. She says; “Oh God, I had so much fun doing that! I love to explore all of the different sides of me, and the psyche, and I just loved that arc of going from the little victim, to becoming the killer towards the end!”

Dee has also done a number of films with director Rob Zombie (who, coincidentally, I had also interviewed when I first got into journalism), and I always wondered how that relationship had originally developed. She explains; Well, “Rob loves to work with older, established, actors. He came after me for Halloween, and then he wrote the part of Sonny for me in Lords of Salem. And more recently he wanted to know if I would do this tough gal-type for 3 From Hell. He just always brings me interesting things, and doesn’t lock me into the same cubby holes a lot of people want to put me in.”

Knowing by now Wallace has probably been asked every question under the sun about her legendary role in E.T., I wanted to ask her something that perhaps she hadn’t heard before. So, I simply inquired what it was like to re-visit such a classic film all these years later. She tells me honestly; “I still cry, I still laugh. As we all know it’s just a magical movie, and has become a part of our consciousness. I never get tired of it, or talking about it – and I can’t say that about all of my movies (laughs). It opens hearts and reminds people of what’s really important, and we just need a lot more of that these days.”

And lastly, with Halloween just around the corner, I wanted to know if Dee considered E.T. a ‘Halloween’ movie. She replied; “It’s an everyday movie! It crosses all of the years, and all of the holidays, no matter what time of year it is!” Oh, and as far as that movie Dee was setting off to film? She leaves us with a cliffhanger; “I wish I could tell you what it is, but I can say it’s part of a franchise that hasn’t been visited in awhile, and I think fans are going to be very excited!” I can however say to check out the short film Stay Home, which Dee produced during the quarantine (check it out on Bloody Disgustings website today!).