Masters of horror in Manchester, Grimm Up North, have brought together a fortnight of Christmas Spooktactular’s at The Dancehouse. The first saw two movies: Christmas Evil and V/H/S. Let’s see how they fare..
In Christmas Evil, toymaker Harry Stadling is emotionally scarred as a boy when he sees Santa (his father dressed up), groping his mother. Throughout the rest of his life, the toymaker tries to make the Christmas spirit a reality. He becomes obsessed with the behavior of children and the quality of the toys he makes. When he is met with hypocrisy and cynicism, the resulting snap causes him to go on a yuletide killing spree..
Proclaimed as one of the best Christmas movies, Christmas Evil (or You’d Better Watch Out as it is also known) has some very good moments, and some unintentionally hilarious ones. Opening with a very twee family Christmas, we are quickly exposed to a new level of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus – a defining moment for Harry, and a exceedingly bizarre one to send him on a spiral of devastation.
Brandon Maggart’s Harry is a complex figure, much more complex than you would expect of what is, a 2-dimensional film. Director Lewis Jackson only allows us snapshots of Harry’s life. A impression of a fractured, if not broken man, is built up. Constantly belittled by his fellow colleagues and his brother (a pre-Walking Dead Jeffery DeMunn), you know he will snap – the question is when. More creepy is the books he obsessively keeps with the names of good and bad girls and boys.
Maggart puts in a unusual performance. At times achingly surreal, and at other times astonishingly deft, it is a bizarre pitch to put the character at, and not entirely successful. The script works for the audience to sympathise with Harry, but the performance doesn’t entirely follow through. Fortunately, his victims are so one-dimensional and rotten to the core, that it isn’t difficult to root for Harry to bump them off.
There are some wonderfully juxtaposed images in the film. Santa’s workshop becomes a creepy den with dismembered dolls and toys hauntingly littered around like corpses. A dream-like sequence where Harry delivers all the liberated toys like a seasonal Robin Hood to a nearby childrens hospital is particularly effective. But then, equally as bizarre is a (I presume) unintentionally hilarious sequence where Harry tries to fit down the chimney of a colleague to murder them and instead gets stuck. This mashing of Christmas imagery with horror is a major success of the movie. One scene where Harry (dressed as Santa) berates a group of children is particularly chilling given you don’t know what his mental state is.
Things do fall apart towards the end of the movie. The neighbourhood picking up their flaming torches to chase down Harry is a strange image not in keeping with the faux-Christmas tone elsewhere.
Christmas Evil succeeds in being the complete anti-Christmas movie. If you can look past the dated style, at its core Christmas Evil has a compelling character study of what happens when a little boy fails to grow up. Disjointed in places, it is packed to the rafters with a array of distorted seasonal images that, in the right hands, would still be unsettling today. As it stands, Christmas Evil is like one of those patchwork advent calendars. Enjoyable in places, but a let down in others.
In V/H/S, a group of misfits are hired by an unknown third party to burglarize a desolate house in the countryside and acquire a rare tape. Upon searching the house, the guys are confronted with a dead body, a hub of old televisions and an endless supply of cryptic footage, each video stranger and more inexplicably terrifying than the last..
I spent a good portion of the film sat uncomfortably in my seat for V/H/S. it took me a while to figure out what the problem was. I realised, a bit too late perhaps, just how unlikeable nearly all the characters are. The central team sent to retrieve the VHS of the title become so dissociated from the audience within the first ten minutes that the audience no longer cares whether they live or die. Breast-exposing, up-skirt shooting idiots, why do I need to care about a group of characters in their late twenties intent on trashing premises like delinquent teenagers?
The objectification of women is also something that is troubling to me. When they’re not the monsters, they portrayed as sexual vessels. Whilst this in itself is nothing new especially in horror, it is a shame that there isn’t a single female character of strength in the entire film. The unfortunate Emily in ‘The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger’ is the only anomaly here. Genuinely a victim of the amazingly sick circumstances that happen to her, it’s just a shame she has to been seen getting her breasts out on Skype.
Like a long lost relic from a bygone age, V/H/S reminds us of that age of video in the influences on the vignettes which include The X Files; Blair Witch; and Paranormal Activity (the first one naturally). Whether or not this is a good thing will strongly depend on your liking of the above. For me, it felt desperately unoriginal. Retro? Certainly. Effective – much less so. There wasn’t enough development of the central ideas in here to make V/H/S something special.
Despite the flaws, there are some scares to enjoy, and some stirring performances. Hannah Fierman’s haunting Lily is a highlight of the ‘Amateur Night’ sequence. Her mantra of ‘I like you’ is at once highly disturbing yet sensual, and her pleading, hypnotic stare is the icing on the cake of the best performance in the film. Also enjoyable is the villain in “Tuesday the 17th” which nicely plays around with the VHS source as it appears like a tracking error on a tape – never quite in focus.
Uneven, and disappointingly patchy, V/H/S overall, fails to live up to the hype heaped on it. It is fairly relentless with the horror and gore, and doesn’t shy away from some particularly grisly outcomes. But in terms of story and plot, it feels like a bygone relic rather than trying to bring something new to the table.
Thanks to Grimmfest for providing a quality night of entertainment with the assorted activities on offer in addition to the screenings on the night. You can catch premieres of When the Lights Went Out and The Corridor on Friday 21 December at The Dancehouse on Oxford Road. More information is over on the Grimmfest website.