Saturday, December 23, 2017


Some people in this country seem to believe there is a war being waged against Christmas just because some folks say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  As if decorating a coffee cup with non-specific, festive winter imagery rather than a Christmas tree was akin to declaring "ha ha, your religion is stupid!"  Stand down, Christmas Warriors, you’re a bit high strung.  Claiming that Christmas is under attack is like claiming there is a movement to outlaw breakfast, it’s not happening.  America is probably the most Christmasy place on Earth, and it’s only getting Christmasier.  Forget the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas decorations are out right after Halloween.  Not everyone celebrates Christmas, but no one can escape it.  No one is fighting against it because rational people have better things to be offended by.  Saying “Merry Christmas” holds as much weight as saying “Have a nice day.”  It’s great if you mean it, but no one really cares if you don’t.  

Incidentally, no one ever whined about “season’s greetings”.  People have been saying that forever.  It's just as non-specific as Happy Holidays, and it doesn't make any sense.  Are you some kind of seasonal ambassador?  Winter sends its regards, and Spring is so sorry it missed your birthday last month.  But I digress. 

Throwing in a few nondenominational pleasantries and inclusive decorations doesn't amount to a war, it’s barely a disagreement.  If you want to see a war on Christmas, take a look at the 1984 Santa slasher DON’T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS to see how it’s done.

The Capsule:
Someone is bringing seriously unhappy tidings to the Santas of London this Christmas.  From seedy Santas, to upper crust St. Nicks, this unhinged Grinch is taking them all down in very unpleasant ways.  Scotland Yard is on the case, and Inspector Harris (Edmund Purdom) is pulling his hair out looking for clues.  Could the killer be Cliff (Gerry Sundquist), the no account boyfriend of Kate (Belinda Mayne), whose rich daddy got a spear to the skull when dressing up for the Christmas party?  Perhaps it’s the intense reporter, Giles (Alan Lake), sowing seeds of distrust in The Yard?  Or is the killer a cop, like Detective Sargent Powell (Mark Jones), who matches the witness’ physical descriptions a little too well?  As the investigation creeps along, the jolly fat corpses start to pile up.  Someone is definitely going to be on Santa’s naughty list this year, if any of them survive the season.

DON’T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS is an odd duck.  For one thing, it’s set in contemporary London with a British cast and crew, which is unusual for this subgenre.  The Britishness lends an air of class and respectability to the production, which it absolutely does not deserve.   The movie is pure sleaze all the way with nude photo shoots, peepshows, and back alley sex.  Yet, somehow, filth seems a little more palatable when it's Piccadilly Circus vs. Time Square.  

For a movie clearly capitalizing on the holiday themed slasher craze, this one has the distinct vibe of an Italian giallo.  The identity of the glove wearing killer is concealed until the final act, the murders are frequently shot through the killer’s POV, and there are ample red herrings to go around.  Early American slashers, like BLACK CHRISTMAS and the first FRIDAY THE 13th used similar elements, but this movie’s generous helping of sleaze and sex makes it really fit the giallo mold.    

It is the only Christmas slasher I know of where, instead of dressing up like Santa, the killer goes after Santa.  Now, you have to admit that's a cute twist, but it leads the film’s most obvious question.  If it is widely known that a killer is exclusively targeting people wearing Santa costumes, why the holly jolly fuck would anyone go out dressed like that?  It’s not like a Santa outfit is required attire for most people, and even those who are being paid specifically to be Santa don’t have to walk to work in character.  It’s more straightforward than the JAWS thing. Your safety is pretty much guaranteed by staying out of the ocean.  This would be like going to a beach where the shark only eats men wearing red and white striped Speedos.  Do people even like dressing up as Santa?  None of the dozens of Santas roaming around London appear to.  They are all either complaining about it or drunk.  Seems like this would be the perfect excuse for you to put your foot down and say, “Boss, this year I am not going to be Santa on account of possibly getting horribly murdered.  Plus, I hate children.”

Yet, there is a non-stop parade of red suited victims.  It’s funny that this came out the same year as SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT.  That movie was heavy on the setup, leaving the short (but memorable) killing spree to the last act.  DON’T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS hits the ground running and does not let up until the very end.  The killer runs through Santas like they were coming off a conveyor belt.  These guys have such poor survival instincts that not only do they wear “murder me” suits, but most of them are drunk.  One poor Santa is chased by angry, bike stealing punks, escapes a dog attack, and then is offed by the Santa killer.  London is a rough town for a jolly old elf.

The Santa murdering is not only numerous, but rather brutal as well.  One fellow catches a spear in the back of the head, sending the blade poking out of his mouth (just as he blew one of those paper party horns, which is a cute touch).  A chestnut vendor has his face shoved into the hot grill and is left there to go up like a torch.  One is beaten to death with a spiked glove and his friend gets his eye gouged out with a broken bottle.  Even the simple stabbings are particularly juicy, blood spurting as if the victims’ bellies were truly full of jelly.  One poor bastard is relieving himself in the department store bathroom when he unceremoniously gets his candy cane lobbed off.  This motherfucker HATES Santa. 

For a killer with such a specific focus, his victim selection criteria are incredibly confusing.  For instance, when he comes across a model wearing a Santa robe (and nothing else) for a sexy photo shoot, he lets her go unharmed.  I guess he is a traditionalist, only a man can be a real fake Santa.  However, he has no problem killing a woman in the company of a Santa.  In one sequence, a drunken Santa is chased into the London Museum of Torture, where he bumps into the lady curator.  After a tense game of cat and Christmas mouse in between the ghoulish exhibits (the movie got some extra production value by shooting in the real museum), the Santa bumps into the corpse of the lady curator just before being offed himself.  Going by the killer’s rules, if the Santa and the lady had just switched outfits, they would have both survived.

Part of the reason this movie is so thoroughly insane is because it was just as much of a mess behind the camera.  Edmund Purdom, who played Inspector Harris, agreed to be in the movie only if he could direct.  Since he was the biggest name attached to the picture (he played the dean in PIECES!), the producers agreed.  Turns out that directing was not all Purdom thought it would be, and he quit.  So, softcore director Derek Ford was brought in to replace him.  And then fired two days later.  Editor Ray Selfe wound up finishing it, after Alan Birkinshaw re-wrote the script and much of the footage was reshot.  I think it is safe to call it a “troubled” production.

That chaos is obvious throughout the movie, as the story careens all over the place.  Main characters are introduced, forgotten about for long stretches, then unceremoniously killed off.  One minute Kate suspects Inspector Harris of being the man who killed her father, the next she is flirting with him.  Why is Cliff concerned the nearby beat cops are going to think he is gay for making out with a woman?  Why does Caroline Monro, the leading woman from MANIAC and STARCRASH, randomly show up in a singing role?

Whole plot points go nowhere.  Scotland Yard sets up a sting using undercover cops dressed like Santas (the Christmas equivalent to cops in drag pretending to be prostitutes), but I can’t tell if that ever really happened.  Were all the Santas killed from that point on supposed to be cops?  Your guess is as good as mine, even if you haven’t seen the movie.  

The ending is almost indescribable.  Was it all a dream?  Was only the last scene a dream?  Is the killer dead or alive?  Shrug.  It cuts to someone waking in a panic, and then goes directly into a flashback.  The flashback does not involve the person having the flashback.   And it contains my all-time favorite motivation for the killer’s unquenchable homicidal urges.  [Ridiculous Spoiler]  When he was a child, he walks in on his dad having sex with some floozy…wait for it… while dressed as Santa!  Goddamn it, parents, lock your bedroom doors!  If ‘80s horror movies teach us anything, it is that children are guaranteed to become raving sociopaths after seeing that kind of trauma.  I didn’t catch why he waited forty years or so to start his holy crusade against Father Christmas, but I’m sure he had his reasons.

I know this makes DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS sound like a bad movie, and it really, truly is a bad movie, but a thoroughly fascinating one.  It's more schizophrenic than the killer.  And it is the real deal.  So to all the Christmas Crusaders out there, until someone is roasting your chestnuts over an open fire, shut the hell up about your War on Christmas.

C Chaka

Friday, December 15, 2017

Monster Hangover – COLOSSAL

Science fiction has always excelled in the use of metaphor.  Classically it was used by storytellers wanting to tackle taboo subject matter that could never be talked about directly, like racism, religion, or authoritarianism.  Sure, this guy is an alien, but he’s really an immigrant.  People are being replaced by evil plants, but the plants are really communism.  That sort of thing.  These days, though, with relaxed censorship and an open social discourse, we can tackle pretty much any topic or taboo head on.  Does that make metaphor less relevant?    If we already have DANCES WITH WOLVES, do we really need AVATAR to turn everyone blue and throw in dragons and machine-guns and shit?  The answer, of course, is yes.  All movies are better with dragons.  Plus, metaphors are fun.  They can add gravitas to a silly concept or lighten up a heavy subject.  Sometimes, though, your metaphor about the unintentional consequences of irresponsible behavior can get away from you and end up destroying a bunch of buildings in downtown Seoul, Korea.  Because that’s just what happens in Nacho Vigalondo’s sweetly absurd relationship/kaiju movie, COLOSSAL.

Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is at a low point.  She lost her sweet writing gig for being a touch too sarcastic.  Her successful, boring boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens) kicked her out of his Manhattan apartment for being a boozy lay about.  Now she is forced to move back to her parent’s vacant house in her small New England hometown.  Things look up when she runs into her childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who offers her a job working at his bar.  Gloria is slowly-very slowly-putting her life back together when she realizes she has a strange connection with the mysterious, giant monster who has been attacking Seoul, Korea lately.  It always appears at the same time, just as she is wandering drunkenly through a playground on her way back from the bar.  Turns out that the colossal kaiju is somehow linked to Gloria, and every action she takes in the playground is disastrously mirrored halfway around the world.  Gloria is horrified, but when the increasingly controlling Oscar learns that he has his own avatar in Seoul, he sees the chance to be the big man he’s always dreamed of and keep Gloria by his side for good.

This wonderful little film brings together two of my favorite things, kaiju and drinking.  And a strong female lead.  Probably should have used that one instead of drinking.  To be honest, though, there is much more drinking going on than kaiju action, and Anne Hathaway’s Gloria is pretty awful for the first half of the movie.  Not awful in a mean way, awful in the enjoyable, train wreck sort of way.  The heart of the movie is watching her take slow, awkward, incredibly destructive steps toward being strong. 

Hathaway is as close to perfect casting as you could get.  She has a knack for playing likable, multi-dimensional women who can’t quite get their shit together.  She embodies Gloria’s emotionally adrift boozer to a tee, from her just enough to be cute without requiring any effort hairstyle, to her pricelessly immature facial expressions.  We can’t feel that sorry for her ending up back in her childhood town, forced to crash in her parent’s empty house. One, because it is all her own doing, and two because, as downward spirals go, this is a slow and gentle ride.  She still has a place to live, if uncomfortably, and enough money and sympathy to survive.  Her drinking isn’t so much a crutch against the pain as it is a distraction from her directionless life.  What else was she to fill up her time with?  

This is because Gloria’s problem isn’t alcohol, it’s men.  Intentionally or not, Gloria wears a sign on her back that says in blinking neon “SAVE ME”, and there is always a seemingly proper gentleman ready to swoop her off her feet and sort out her life for her.  In a way, drinking is a defense mechanism, putting a barrier between her and the overly controlling jerks she attracts.  

Compared to Gloria’s hot mess, the men start off looking great.  Take Dan Stevens, or as he’s better known, that guy from Downton Abbey.  Tim seems to be the reasonable one in the beginning.  Who can blame him for kicking Gloria out of his apartment?  She can’t even keep her lame excuses straight after being caught sneaking in after a night of drinking with her vapid party friends.  He puts his foot down for her own good, and remains stern when she calls up, drunk and rambling about a monster attack on the other side of the world.  Once he gets wind that she may actually be pulling her life together without him, he suddenly lays on that apologetic British charm.    

Oscar is the worst.  Literally, demonstrably, the worst.  He starts off looking great.  He’s the grounded one, a responsible adult running a modest business.  Just the guy to guide Gloria to the right path.  If this were a romantic comedy, he would be the Patrick Dempsey type, the sort of boring square that stands up in the end and, in a moving little monologue, accepts the girl just as she is, flaws and all.  This ain’t that kind of movie.  Underneath all the friendly support and awe shucks charm is a manipulative, self-loathing prick who needs to control everyone in his pathetic little orbit.  Oscar is just the man Gloria needs to show her she doesn’t need a man.

Not only is Oscar a smooth operator, he has an ace up his denim sleeve.  He owns a bar, and alcohol is Gloria’s kryptonite… if kryptonite made Superman really silly and forget stuff instead of killing him.  Oscar exploits Gloria’s weakness like a pro.  He doesn’t push, he just provides.  A beer here, a futon there, little things to make her feel indebted.  He fills her empty house with second hand furniture that he claims she asked him for, knowing that she was too plastered to remember if it’s true.  He has weaponized generosity.

He’s so subtle about it, Gloria may have gotten completely sucked into his little trap if her vice hadn’t manifested in the most unsubtle way imaginable, a giant, city destroying monster.  She is horrified at the idea that she might be the cause of all the devastation, and even more so after a drunken experiment confirms it.  Oscar, however, just sees it as another way to manipulate her into staying close.  Once he discovers his own kajiu, he completely drops his nice guy facade, especially when the world clearly labels the giant robot as the villain of this monster drama.  

Oscar blackmails Gloria into hanging around, under the threat of daily robot rampages.  He feels no empathy for the hundreds of innocent people he could be killing with his childish tantrums.  Interestingly, Oscar’s obsession with Gloria doesn’t seem to be physically motivated.  His goal is more about keeping her as trapped and unhappy as he is, company for his misery.  He gets jealous when she has a drunken hook up with his handsome but totally useless friend, Joel (Austin Stowell), and when Tim shows up to woo her back.  Even then, though, he acts less like a romantic rival and more like a possessive bully on the playground.  Which is how the whole mess got started.  

The best fight in the movie isn’t between the massive avatars, it’s between two average humans.  After a battle of wills in Gloria's house, Oscar is determined to punish her for defying him. When he makes a break for the magic kaiju park, Gloria tries to stop him by turning all his gifted furniture against him.  She smashes him with a chair, drops a bookcase on him, and tries to squash him behind the giant TV.  He has to leap out of a second story window to get away from her.  Once they reach the park, the struggle takes an unpleasant turn.  Oscar sucker punches her and forces her to watch as stomps around, causing untold destruction on the other side of the world.  Things would have gone differently if she'd shown up packing an ottoman.

In the end, it all comes down to Gloria doing what she has spent her whole life avoiding, taking responsibility and fixing her own problems.  I love the moment when she calls Tim as she is walking into Seoul’s surprisingly populated kaiju boxing ring.  At first it seems like she is reaching out to profess her love in case her plan ends badly, but really it’s just to call him out for being a controlling knob and to dump him for good.  One down, one to go.

Scientifically speaking, the final face off with Oscar is preposterous, but so is the very nature of the movie.  Anyone expecting anything remotely realistic at this point is watching the wrong movie.  As metaphors go, though, it is immensely satisfying.  She shows her lifelong bully to be the sad little man he always was, and she does not let him down easy.  His choice of last words, which Gloria shouldn't have been able to hear, but seems to understand anyway, seals his fate.  The movie may play fast and loose with physics, but unfortunately for Oscar, gravity still applies.

Well, maybe there is one bit of realism in the end.  As Gloria victoriously strolls through the shell shocked city, she comes across a sympathetic ear to tell her crazy tale.  Before she begins, the woman--a bartender--asks if she would like a drink.  Gloria pauses, gives her a look of steely determination, and sighs.  Of course she wants a drink.  Of course she's going to continue to screw things up.  And yes, possibly knock over a few more buildings by accident.  She'll get her shit straightened out eventually, with no assistance from men or giant robots required.

C Chaka