Festive Chills Part 1

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It begins with A Christmas Carol. No, you won’t be needing hats and scarves, nor sheet music, this isn’t a horror themed X-Factor. Some would say there is enough horror on ITV of a Saturday evening without need for that. No, ‘Tis ( did you like that? You can never have too many ’tis’s’ in an article about the festive period. Who knows, there may be a ‘Twas coming along soon!) the Charles Dickens literary classic that starts us on our sleigh ride. In 1843 A Christmas Carol was released into the world, and it’s effects are still felt today. Following on from Scrooge’s Christmas Eve encounters, Victorians couldn’t get enough of spirits, ghosts and ghouls from Dickens, and those that followed his lead. By the early 20th Century the tradition of reading ghost stories at Christmas was well established, with M R James’, arguably the greatest writer of the form, tradition of reading his latest tales to students in his rooms at Oxford as a Christmas treat.

But, this isn’t a literature review, so we don’t want to give you that! Although Scrooge may well make an appearance later…and quite truthfully if tv plays/films were within the remit of this article then several of the BBC’s Ghost Stories For Christmas productions would find themselves taking up major positions on the Festive Fright list. ( ‘Tis inevitable that they’ll get a look in though).

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When looking for some festive frills, it soon becomes clear that there are three fairly distinct types:

  • Films where Christmas is integral to the plot.
  • Films which take place around Christmas  but quite frankly, the film could take place at any time of the year.
  • Films that feature in some way, shape, or form…a Killer Santa!

This little retrospective doesn’t claim to cover everything, but hopefully will give those of you tempted to experience a Christmas genre movie or three this year, one or two ideas on what to seek out, and just as importantly, what to avoid.

Let me warn you, the likes of Nightmare Before Christmas, and Gremlins, whilst superb Christmas fare, will not be getting their skeletal fingers, or midnight feasting claws into this article.

The remit here is more to remind you of lost classics, introduce you to some festive frights you may never have heard of, and finally, but no less importantly, which murderous Santa’s do you give a wide berth to. After all, no one wants to be tucked up in bed on Christmas Eve watching Santa Claus Versus The Zombies (2010). Not unless you want to risk choking on a stollen.

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Think what your parents would think.

“I’m afraid there’s no easy way to say this ma’am’ your son has been found dead in bed on christmas Eve…my deepest condolences…”
“Nooooooo! Why? Why? He was so young!”
“Well, he was 67-”
“It’s no age… what ,…what happened officer?”
” It would appear that Larry was watching… ‘Santa Claus verses the Zombies’-”
“NOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
“-While eating a traditional German bread like fruit cake, commonly made with yeast, flower, and water, dried fruit and marzipan…”
“Stollen?”
‘We have no reason to believe he didn’t purchase it legitimately ma’am…”

Hey, please yourselves. This is how my head works…

So, pull up the worn leather arm chair, pour yourself a stiff one (stop it now!), a brandy ( egg nog if you must), plop your most comfortable slippered feet up onto a footstool, and settle down for tales that chill the blood, freeze the marrow, and remind you of the most disturbing truth of all. As the end of yet another year draws nearer, you, like us all, are another step closer to becoming a spirit, or ghost yourself. So, if    the door knocks beware…it may be your mortality knocking.

On the other hand it may just be another killer Santa… There are lots of killer Santa’s.

Right, Twas the night before Christmas….

So, where shall we start? No, not the killer Santa’s. Later! Trust me there’s more of those than you can wave a stick at.

Well, we could start in 1901 with the first film adaptation of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (1901). But to be honest I’m none to sure if it’s available commercially, or that many readers are in a rush to pop into the early years of silent movies. So, unless Mike has a film challenge for literary adaptations, 1900-1910,(He does have some wild and wonderful challenges, plus at the speed he’s watching the works of the late 20th, early 21st century cinema, then he may soon be watching two strip technicolor, silent movies, and the more esoteric, but thankfully not yet), then I feel we shall leave that, perhaps for another year?

Truth be told when most horror film fans ( certainly those of a certain age. of which I am one) think of Christmas horror films as having started with either, Tales From The Crypt (1972), or even further back with Dead Of Night (1945). That these two films remain firm favourites after so many years is by itself testament to their effectiveness. But, that these two films remain festive horror favourites is even more surprising when you realise that both films are anthologies, and that in each case only one story is explicitly set at Christmas. So, unless someone objects, these two low budget chillers from two of the UK’s most loved studios, (Ealing and Amicus) filmed over a quarter of a century apart, are where we shall begin…

Let us return back to 1945. To a victorious but broke Britain, where everything is still black and white, and a very special, rather influential little film is about to be released.

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DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)

During the war, WWII that is, Britain banned the production of horror films. Those in positions of power deemed that there were enough real horrors in the world, to add to them with homemade terror films. Whilst Hollywood continued to churn out latter day Universal Monster movies, and many Poverty Row studios made cheap horrors, often with Lugosi and other ‘name’ but short on funds stars, Britain got on with defending the free world. Of course come the end of the war in Europe the ban was lifted and horror returned to the cinema.

Ealing Studios were quick to put into production the first ever portmanteau, multi story horror film with a framing device. Many critics would say it is still the best of that sub genre. While multi story anthology films had been being released since the silent era, they had predominantly been dramas. Assembling a team of directors (an idea that has returned to prominence in recent years with titles such as V/H/S 1,2,& 3, Theatre Bizarre, Chillerama, and The ABC’s of Death 1 & 2 all returning to the original model.), rather than the Amicus (and others) single director for the whole film idea which became prevalent from the 1960’s onwards. The directors Ealing lined up included stars and up and coming directors. The five stories and the wrap around linking story format that DEAD OF NIGHT follows became the predominant model for such films during the next 50 years or more. Whether merely by Vincent Price voice-over as in Roger Corman’s Poe anthology, Tales of Terror (1962) to the evilly mischievous animated comic/live action wrap around of George A. Romero’s Stephen King piece, Creepshow (1982), some 20 years later. The ‘wraparound’ model from this film was the template of much that followed.

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In the film an architect arrives at a country house only to experience the strongest sense of déjà vu.  He begins to predict what will happen next with surprising accuracy. To test his premonition and to entertain themselves the family begin to recount stories of supernatural encounters they, or people they know have had. But the architect predicts every twist and turn, and he gets the distinct impression something terrible is about to happen.

For the purpose of this piece we will concentrate on the Christmas story, which is helpfully called, Christmas Party. This story focuses on a 14 year old girl at a Christmas party an a big old house, she plays hide and seek with the other, much younger children. While looking for the best hiding place she discovers a room with a bedridden boy. This is a slow burn, atmosphere piece, and to be truthful there are no great scares, but the lighting and cinematography create odd less of atmosphere.

Truth be told this is far from the best of the tales on offer within DEAD OF NIGHT, but it creates an unease, a shiver up the spine. While watching this, one can imagine Guillermo Del Toro using the  hide and seek idea as a starting point for one of his ghostly offerings. Elsewhere the films more famous stories, including probably the first of that still popular sub-genre, ‘the haunted mirror film’ and more so Michael Redgrave’s tour de force as the ventriloquist battling wills with his ventriloquist dummy, Fats. For a generation ( or 3!) who watched this as a child on TV, this dummy was the Annabelle doll (Conjuring (2013) style, not rubbish spin off….) of it’s time. The wrap around story  acknowledges this by resurrecting Fats for the demented climax.

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So, whilst Christmas Party isn’t a highlight, it gives the rest of the ghostly tales the feel of a Christmas film, of course the whole ‘ghost stories told at Christmas’ feel helps enormously in the wrap around. It was only when I started to write this that I realised that I’ve probably watched this film every Christmas for the last decade or more. As a taster to the festive season you could do far worse.

Ealing criminally never repeated the template again, in fact it would be twenty years before the model was fully returned to in Amicus’s Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965). It began a series of profitable anthology films for Amicus that would reach a pinnacle in 1972 with our next film, with another genre creating piece. One that would later be resurrected to introduce a series sharing the name of the film…

To be continued… (with extra Killer Santa’s!)

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Keep an eye out this December as the Real Reel Scares team revisit and review some classic (and not so classic) Christmas Horrors!

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