Black Christmas (2019)

I was excited when I heard Blumhouse was going to remake BLACK CHRISTMAS considering the respectful way they were able to help the HALLOWEEN franchise up on its feet and send it in a well-received and fruitful direction. Then the trailer popped up online and my faith buckled a bit because it looked sorta drab and it couldn’t stop telling on itself. I refused to give up the ghost entirely though because I recalled how I judged the 2006 remake too harshly at first and then went on to learn to love its various charms and ignore its bizarre missteps. Well, it turns out the ill feelings the trailer left me with were sort of prophetic. After an enjoyably retro campus-slasher opening, it manages to be sufficiently entertaining for some time only to careen full force into a stupendously silly conclusion. I wish I could say its fearlessly off the wall wind-up rendered it goofy fun but since it spends much time gnawing serious issues early on, it feels more like self-sabotage.

This modern take got a lot of grief online for daring to be clear about its feminist viewpoint. As someone who grew up thinking the Bionic Woman was way cooler than the Six Million Dollar Man, I don’t really understand how female empowerment ruffles fan-boy feathers. I don’t believe BLACK CHRISTMAS does itself any harm by simply laying its ideas/ammo on the table, I just wish it was a surer shot when it came to taking down its adversaries. I very much enjoyed seeing professional contrarian Camille Paglia taken to task (she was a customer at my video store and truly the most atrocious individual I’ve ever encountered of any gender) but I felt some cringe when it came to the handling of the main character’s past rape. Riley (IMOGENE POOTS) is fortunate to have a championing support group but I have to question the thoughtlessness of her gal pals badgering her to preform a parody of “Up on the House Top” with jokey lyrics addressing date rape in front of her very rapist. One of her chums even tells her “you won” afterwards which I found even more bothersome (though that may have been the intention). Later when we find out what’s actually causing the rash of murders, it renders the culprits somewhat inculpable and I’m not sure how I felt about that either. I guess that I dug that it talked the talk but felt that it walked the walk rather clumsily (plus I feel like I’ve seen the rallying finale done way better in countless episodes of BUFFY.)

On the plus side, POOTS is impeccable. She somehow breathes pure life into uneven material and it’s easy to find yourself caring about her fate. There’s also more than a few moments that successfully conjure up the atmosphere of a classic eighties slasher and it’s clear director SOPHIA TAKAL and co-writer APRIL WOLFE have genuine affection for such films. It’s almost sad to think how much better the movie could have been if it just spoke its mind and drove straight ahead rather than making a u-turn into the supernatural zone. I suppose we’d still have to deal with its glaring seams. As nicely orchestrated as much is, there are large ragged chunks crammed with awkward voiceovers and an over reliance on flashbacks to clarify important plot-points. I don’t mind the PG- 13 rating (I’ll always be grateful for my G-rated teen experience with ‘82s ONE DARK NIGHT) but this film’s editing almost physically hurts as it strains to show just enough and has to snap away just when you’re getting a splinter of visual information.

Gripes aside, there’s no way around the fact that I have a serious soft spot for Christmas set horror films and BLACK CHRISTMAS (‘19) was at least kind enough to toss me plenty of snow, twinkling lights and even a crystal unicorn cameo. Could I grow to enjoy it like the last redo simply for being its own faulty, semi-original self (not sure how “original” a movie can claim to be when it involves that evil catch-all, black goo)? It’s possible, I guess (especially if an R-rated version materializes). I did dig a fair share of the ride and even when it’s tripping over its own feet, it’s at least thought provoking. As for now, I’ve got to call out its wobbly nature. I certainly didn’t hate it as much as the audience member who stood up at the end and declared that it was the “worst movie ever.” I thought that particular naysayer was a bit over the top but I do applaud her for voicing her opinion.

Trauma-Scene:: Amityville 3-D (1983)

Hear me out. I have to get this off my chest and I swear I’m not (totally) crazy.  I’m not a fan of a silent house. If I’m not listening to music, I like to have a TV running in the background to keep my negative thoughts at bay. More often than not, I have my lil’ idiot box tuned to COMET TV because that joint is most likely to air something my speed. During the month of November, COMET aired a double-dip of AMITYVILLE 2: THE POSSESSION and AMITYVILLE 3: THE DEMON/3-D at least 4 or 5 times and I always seemed to find myself catching bits and pieces. Let me say first that AMITYVILLE 2: THE POSSESSION continues to blow my mind with how good it is. It’s genuinely scary and creepy (even when watched during the day), I adore DIANE FRAKLIN forever and I honestly think it’s the best possession film ever made besides THE EXORCIST. Furthermore, I’m totally entranced by the score and I think it has some of the most creative camera work this side of THE EVIL DEAD. The scene where we get a POV shot from a floating demonic spirit that stalks and ultimately ravages and enters a writhing body (the practical make-up effects are phenomenal too) I still find incredible to behold.

AMITYVILLE 3-D, of course, is another story. It’s just not very good overall. You can kind of feel it fighting to convince itself it’s not a sloppily cobbled together cash-grab/also-ran but it’s never entirely convincing. I’m also not down with giving the vaguely haughty TONY ROBERTS the responsibility of carrying the movie as a lead (especially when the charming CANDY CLARK was right there and would have been way more appealing). It doesn’t help that the special effects range from competent to cringe-worthy and that the most impressive 3-D bit involves a wayward Frisbee. Having said all that, I must admit that there is one scene in AMITYVILLE 3-D that truly gives me resilient heebie-jeebies and leaves me with a vague melancholy ache. Just being real. Critics and audience members alike have every right to rake this flick over the coals but I’ve got to defend this one bubble of effectiveness in the questionable stew.

Suuusssaaan! I could hear that familiar voice coming from the TV in the other room and I know it’s time for that scene again and yeah, I just felt a sting of sad dread. I’m stuck in a loop and this will happen forever. Here we go again: mother Nancy Baxter (TESS HARPER) hears the front door of the Amityville house open and investigates. She sees her daughter Susan (LORI LOUGHLIN) in the foyer inexplicably soaking wet from head to toe. Susan turns to her mother looking almost confused, smiles knowingly then heads up the stairs. “Why are you wet? What happened?” Nancy asks but she is ignored. She starts getting irritated, “What’s the matter with you?” Meanwhile, outside Dad is returning home with groceries and sees that there is some trouble down by the lake. An accident has happened. Mother yells irritated, “Answer me!” as daughter goes into her room and closes the door in her face. At the same time, Dad has rushed to the dock to see what the hubbub is about and it’s Susan…dead (as semi-predicted by a makeshift Ouija board earlier)! She somehow fell out of the boat and drowned!

Mother Nancy hears the ambulance siren. She runs to the lakeside and is told what happened but she can’t accept that the dead girl before her is Susan; it’s impossible because she just left her upstairs in the house! Maybe TESS HARPER is just a great actress or maybe I have some kind of chronic empathy disease but I’m pained by her every word as she angrily rejects the reality in front of her. She runs back up and through the house wildly bewildered calling her daughter’s name to no avail. As she leaves Susan’s empty room the camera lingers on a smiling doll on the bed. John tries to break through Susan’s refusal to accept events but he can’t. In a later scene in a trashed kitchen, we’ll learn Nancy has absolutely no intention of “moving on” and accepting what has happened. She doesn’t believe that other people’s perceptions of events are more valid than her own. She refuses to attend the funeral that, like the boating accident, the audience will never see.

I absolutely get that AMITYVILLE 3 is a lesser film in the franchise (though far from the worst) but something about this sequence resonates with me on an emotional level. I so understand the desire to carve out an alternate reality in your head when life throws you an unacceptable whammy. I also think that in the entire series this is a rare instance that reads like a traditional ghostly occurrence rather than a demonic event. There’s almost an M.R. JAMES tone for this brief little interlude before we get back to rubber monsters jumping out of wells (it’s rather ironic that this flick’s most powerful moment of horror required no special effect beyond drenching a character in H2O). Maybe it’s not enough to elevate the entire affair but I have to respect any horror movie unafraid to look at the cold randomness of death and the uncomfortable psychological ramifications. Anyway, I like the idea that a not great movie can carry within it a pretty great and effective scene (brief as it may be). That might not be the consensus but it’s my version of reality and I’m sticking to it.

Traumafession:: Rob S. on a Three Dog Night-mare

Hi, guys! This is truly my favorite site. Keep it going forever, please! I have a Traumafession for you that I’d be surprised if no one else my age could relate to. When I was growing up in the 70’s, my parents had an extensive album collection that I would browse through from time to time and one of their favorite bands was Three Dog Night. There was an album of theirs called Hard Labor with a really bizarre and horrifying cover. It was a picture of a hospital operating room with some kind of weird mannequin/alien being with bird-like feet giving birth to a record album with a roomful of attending medical staff crowded around. At least that was the original album cover before the record company made them cover the lower third of the album with a huge plastic Band-Aid…..which made the image even more mysterious and frightening!

That cover with the Band-Aid was the source of many a nightmare when I was a kid….but, of course, I still had to look at it when I felt particularly daring. The image on the back of the album wasn’t much better, depicting the “mannequin/alien” thing on a carousel. Whoever thought that was a good image to slap on the band’s cover was on some pretty good drugs! That cover has always stayed with me, I included here the original cover, the back cover, and the Band-Aid cover that scarred my fragile psyche.

Knives Out (2019)

Murder mysteries are the kissing cousins of horror flicks. KNIVES OUT is particularly horror adjacent thanks to the presence of eternal horror queen JAMIE LEE CURTIS and the always game for terror dipping TONI COLETTE. If that’s not enough to pique your interest, this baby delivers a majestic mansion, autumnal atmosphere, a couple of corpses and even a random spider crawling on someone’s face. Whoever thought of releasing this splendid whodunit right in time for the Thanksgiving holiday is my new best friend. I’m currently planning on watching it every year on Turkey Day because even though it offers zero in the cranberry sauce department, it features family members squabbling, dead leaves cascading about and the warmest looking sweaters. Better still for my holiday needs is its presentation of Linus Van Pelt-level sincerity ultimately foiling unfettered greed and privilege.

Unfortunately for this post though, this is the type of movie I think you should see knowing as little as possible about. I guess the basic set up is fair game so here it is: A wealthy mystery writer is found dead after a birthday party attended by his family. At first it looks like a suicide but of course, it isn’t and everyone who attended said party becomes a suspect. There. That’s all I’m going to say except (no spoilers); KNIVES OUT cuts with perfect precision and it’s one of those rare movies that keeps getting better and better as you watch it, every single turn of the screw makes the overall puzzle richer and more satisfying. I have my fingers crossed that DANIEL CRAIG’s southern sleuthing character Benoit Blanc appears in more movies than James Bond. Actually, the entire cast is stellar from the impressive newbies to the long-familiar folks showing off sides you’ve rarely seen.

I really don’t have much more to add than do yourself a favor and go see KNIVES OUT. Perhaps the strangest aspect of my experience with this movie is that I thoroughly enjoyed watching it in a packed movie theater. This is very unusual for me! I usually like to see movies as alone as I can possibly be but for some reason this movie made me feel a communal connection toward my fellow audience members who seemed to be having as much fun with it as myself. It actually cured me of my ever-expanding misanthropy for at least its full runtime! Nope, I wouldn’t change a hair on its lovely head. It’s wickedly clever, truly suspenseful at times and it says so much without loudly grinding an axe. KNIVES OUT is so satisfying it left me feeling like I’d just finished a masterful meal (and I’m looking forward to the day when I can watch it back-to-back with 2019’s other CLUE-esque twisted family gathering READY OR NOT).

Traumafession:: Dustin in Minnesota on Southern Gothic Country Music

Hey there Trauma fans! I have a traumafession from my youth involving country music. I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, and my dad played in numerous local bands, both rock and country music. Because of this, my parents had a massive collection of vinyl. Some of it freaked me out, particularly three songs that I guess you could classify as southern gothic.The first was The Legend of Wooley Swamp, performed by the Charlie Daniels band, in which some local white trash (as described in the song) beat a swamp-dwelling old miser to death to collect his fortune, only for him to have his post-mortem revenge as they drowned in quicksand while making their escape. (Interestingly enough, I pictured the swamp looking the one where The Legion of Doom lived inside their Darth Vader’s head-shaped spacecraft)

The second was Kenny Rogers‘s song “The Hoodooin’ of Miss Fannie DeBerry,” in which the narrator recalls a woman from his youth who would walk down a road barefoot speaking in tongues and come home crying late at night. It is revealed she had gained immortality through a deal with the Devil, and that she might use it against the listener.

The third freaked me out to a lesser degree – “Somebody’s Knockin'” by Terri Gibbs, in which a woman sings that the Devil has come to her door to seduce her. It wasn’t the lyrics that freaked grade-school me out so much as her haunting voice and the thought of the Devil on one’s doorstep.
While these songs freaked me out, I was fascinated by them nonetheless, as they were a musical bridge between religious tracts I would sometimes come across and the nightmare-inducing horror comics I would buy at the drugstore. And yes, these songs sometimes had the same effect if I listened to them shortly before bedtime, conjuring images of swamps, revenge, voodoo, and the Prince of Darkness in my ten-year-old mind.

Dustin in Minnesota