Coming up with a theme for articles and reviews sometimes comes as a matter of circumstance. For example: It being December, I happened to watch 1959’s St. Nick vs. Satan flick SANTA CLAUS, which then keyed me into a bunch of Christmas horror reviews. That culminated in looking at BLACK CHRISTMAS, on Christmas day. Natural enough, right? Other times, themes develop from something that just pops up in my life, for example, Barbara Crampton’s birthday. That event inspired me finally to write a review of RE-ANIMATOR, which in turn has led me to a series of non-Romero zombie reviews that I’ll continue with the New Year. Another example was my brief Devil’s Ride series. That one developed from the death of my 1996 Rav-4.
I don’t think I could have come up with two more diverse themes than Christmas horror and automobiles from Hell. Outside of Santa using a sleigh for transport, there’s just about absolute zero connection between the two. None of the three demonic cars stories I wrote on took place during Christmas, and two of them had desert settings. But I liked writing about Santa’s odd trip through movies, especially during the holiday season. And I had to write about cars, to exorcise my frustration and sadness about my own car situation.
Following Santa was easy. Netflix Instant had a whole column of Christmas movies for streaming on my Xbox. Most of them were typical holiday fare, with a slew of anthropomorphic animals and about a dozen variations of Scrooge stories. The recent Robert Zemeckis version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL may have been the creepiest thing I watched, given that motion capture is just unnatural. The best pleasure I got was watching EMMET OTTER’S JUG BAND CHRISTMAS, which held the same joy all these years later. But even with Scrooge’s ghosts, those flicks don’t really qualify as DE material. Watching Santa battle Satan, however, fit the bill.
SANTA CLAUS is a trippy movie, with devils in tutus, disappearing potions and from Arthurian legend the wizard Merlin himself. The soul of poor Lupita is in a tug-a-war between Santa and Lucifer, and there’s a race to get Santa back to his castle on time. All this, and it starts off with a 10-minute musical number with representatives for all the children of the world. Mexican madness at its absolute best, and surefire fodder for MST3K. Its horror aspects are light at best and loopy, and I figured if you hadn’t seen it, you owed it to yourself to give it a shot.
I wasn’t as kind on SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS. The title alone should tell you not to bother, as it gives away the ending. But nothing before then is worth watching either. Two kids outwit a polar bear, a robot and green-painted Martians who are pissed off that Santa doesn’t cater to their kids. Santa’s main weapon is his lame bag of jokes, that includes one with a punch line about “Martian-mallows.” At least SANTA CLAUS kept me interested. This flick has long dry spells, and never interested me in the conflict or the plot. If it had been made by hyped up Mexicans, perhaps it would’ve been a better flick.
In these flicks, Santa is clearly the good guy, out to save Christmas for the children of the world. In the 1980s, there was a paradigm shift in Christmas horror. Following the path set in a segment from 1972’s TALES FROM THE CRYPT, Santa suddenly became Psycho Santa, out to murder and turn the holiday into a bloodbath. Whether he was just a madman on the loose in CRYPT, an obsessed neighbor after B-movie hottie Debbie Rochon in SANTA CLAWS, or the shattered man who as a child saw his mom and Santa getting sexy with his mom in CHRISTMAS EVIL, the results were always the same: unhinged sanity and death.
The most famous example of this would be the first SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT, which we didn’t cover at DE, because I don’t own a copy and couldn’t borrow Mike Cucinotta’s in time. That flick generated so much controversy with mothers’ groups, who feared it would ruin the Santa myth for their kids, that its distributor pulled it from theatres. To which I say, a) it’s an R-rated movie, so these precious kids shouldn’t be watching it in a theatre anyway, and b) what an act of cowardice from a spineless distributor. I haven’t seen SILENT NIGHT since it was on cable back in the 1980s, but I remember it being a sleazily made, cheapie slasher, just like so many non-Santa killer flicks of its day. I have, however, seen the first sequel, which uses about 60% of the movie in flashbacks (as a clever way to get material from the first flick into other countries where it was banned, as Mike astutely informed me over dinner at a Chinese buffet). The sequel is a disjointed mess, with a guy screaming about how it’s ‘garbage day!” Three others followed. None of them generated any controversy.
Oddly enough, mothers didn’t get on their soap boxes over CHRISTMAS EVIL, which presents a similar scenario and preceded SILENT NIGHT. It’s not quite as silly or audacious, but it has basically the same plot. Chad reviewed this one, and loved it. I watched it a few years back on Fearnet.com; for me, it worked better as a commentary on a man falling apart than a slasher. But then, I’m not a big slasher fan, so that would shade my view.
The best of Christmas horror has nothing to do with Santa at all. Bob Clark’s BLACK CHRISTMAS is a great slasher, noted almost everywhere for its influence on the whole subgenre. It’s a creepy tale about sorority sisters ready to head home for the holiday, and a killer hiding in the house out to stop them cold. The snow, the isolation and the use of phone calls all create a chilling atmosphere and an interesting whodunnit that never gets an answer. The iconic image of a girl with a plastic bag over her dead head as she teeters back and forth in a rocking chair is powerful. Normally, I never would have done a BLACK CHRISTMAS review during December, especially not on Christmas day. But being a divergent thinker sometimes has to concede to what logically makes sense, so I posted my glowing review on December 25. If you haven’t seen BLACK CHRISTMAS, you should, even as we’re closing in on the New Year. It’s still winter, and I promise I won’t tell anyone.
If you were looking for something to heat you up this winter, then the Devil was at home on DE too, and he was ready to ride. I bought my Toyota Rav-4 back in September, 1998. At that time, it had 48,000 miles on it and was two years old. The day I picked it up, I never had any inkling that it’d be 13 years and 200k+ miles of my own before I said good-bye to it. I’m 39 now, so I had that car for one out of every three days I’ve been alive. For the last 5 years or so, every time something went wrong with it, I was ready to part ways. But a few hundred dollars, and it kept on going. It refused to die, and continued to be the greatest point of continuity in my existence long beyond when it should have. Six months ago, when it started giving me major engine troubles and was leaking oil in gouts, I surmised the end would come soon. I had no idea it would come on my way to a Christmas party back on the 4th of the month. I’m still looking for a new set of wheels, which feels absolutely surreal to me, a month out. It absolutely sucks not having a car of my own, especially when I have to go between two jobs and depend on my dad and brother, who share one Pontiac. Frustration, annoyance, and dejection over loss of a constant in my life have driven me to the point of almost losing it dozens of times in the last month, and having to borrow money (something I’m never comfortable with) is just one more problem, when I’m working two jobs just to try to break even.
So I did what writers always do: I wrote about it. Only instead of writing fiction, I wrote reviews. While enjoying an asiago bagel with cheese at the Panera by my night/weekend job, I ripped through Richard Matheson’s “Duel,” a powerful short story that established the plot for all Devil’s Ride stories. Protagonist Mann is on a business trip when he innocently passes a fuel truck. What he never guessed was that the truck is an automobile from Hell. As he tries to get to his appointment across the desert, Mann finds himself in conflict for his life against the truck and its unrevealed driver. Matheson does what he does best here, placing an ordinary man in an unordinary circumstance. The reader gets to observe Mann as the tension heightens and he loses it in slow stages. Sure, Steven Spielberg’s TV film was great, but you really owe it to yourself to read the source material if you never have.
Then came two auto from Hell films, one preposterous, one great. I suspect Stephen King may have copped the idea of his novel Christine from THE CAR, but even if he did, his conceptualization is far superior to the earlier film. THE CAR takes a superb cast and has a custom Lincoln torment them in the craziest ways. This is one angry automobile, which flips over cars, drives through a kitchen and kills cyclists, cops and anyone who happens to be on the road. One place it won’t go is on holy ground, where if you find it at the gate, you can feel free to taunt and ridicule it. As with BLACK CHRISTMAS, the film gives no identity to its killer. I only watched this flick because my car had died; well, that and it’s the only horror flick I ever heard my best friend Fasano say he loved. Which says something about his taste in horror. Approach with caution as it may bonk you on the head if you get too close. This is one wonky flick, and I can only recommend it if you enjoy the extremely silly and watching talented actors in a movie where they have no place being.
Compelled by my car situation, I moved on to CHRISTINE. I’ve only read parts of the novel, but years ago on the long, bizarre weekend of Fasano’s wedding, I caught the flick on basic cable and fell in love with it. This is one underrated Carpenter flick, with Keith Gordon as Arnie Cunningham leading a talented cast and transforming from nerd to Hellraiser, all for the love of a 1957 Plymouth Fury. In Carpenter’s deft hands, with a solid script by Bill Phillips, the movie serves as a rare King adaptation that is not an embarrassment.
CHRISTINE really works best as a statement on Americans’ love affair with the automobile. Sure, they’re utilitarian vehicles that get us place to place. But on the whole, we love to drive, the freedom it offers us to head out to the driveway, take on the open road, and go wherever we want. It’s a liberating thing that walking just doesn’t offer. I’ve heard plenty of people call cars “sexy,” as well. Some of the finer models have all the muscle of a bodybuilder male, and the sleek curves of the goddesses of the screen. As Gordon discusses on the commentary and in the featurettes, Arnie’s love for Christine is sexual, as is hers for him. Taken to its limits, this forms a love triangle between Arnie, Christine and his girlfriend Leigh. Cars can be our lovers, our best friends, our most reliable compatriots. We depend on them just as much as we depend on the real people in our lives, sometimes more so. I don’t know just how healthy our obsession with cars is. Maybe I can get back to you on that once I get a new car.
Santa’s sleigh and the Devil’s Rides are on totally different planes, but in the horror world, they can lead us to the same places. Danger abounds when you hear sleigh bells or horns, so if you step outside and see a classic Plymouth parked next to your chimney… run like Hell. And no matter how tempting, don’t drive.
Check out Christmas horror here:
Read about the Devil’s Rides here: