Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Cult-Movie Review: Krampus (2015)

For horror movie lovers, Michael Dougherty’s Krampus (2015) is a holiday present wrapped up with a bow. 

It’s a delightful, caustic, emotionally-resonant horror movie that feels like a throwback to a bygone era. It’s a (most welcome…) relic from age when audiences more easily or readily allowed fantasy and humor to inform the genre.

Of course, the great arc of movie history involves a push away from the theatrical and artificial towards the naturalistic and realistic.

I don’t waste too much thought mourning this shift in my favorite genre, and I enjoy many modern horror movies tremendously. And yet, at the same time I cannot help but note that so many are, well, humorless, or lacking real imagination.   The genre I grew up with took fantasy and imagination as the starting point.

Today, too many new horror films feel that they must justify their realism, instead of entertaining us with fantasy, laughs, and screams too.

Not so with Krampus.

The film feels very much like a throwback to the era of Gremlins (1984), for example, with its commentary on Christmas, and its quasi-comedic monsters.  The demonic helpers in this film -- who count ambulatory gingerbread men among their number -- straddle the line between terror and comedy quite adroitly.

For about ninety percent of the film, Krampus is also delightfully cutthroat and vicious, in much the same way that one would apply that descriptor to Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971).  

Bad children and bad adults get punished for their nasty behavior, and there’s no looking back or second guessing their grim fates.  One mean-spirited kid who guzzles soda from the bottle at a holiday dinner table gets lured up the chimney by a gingerbread cookie, and then dragged off to the underworld in chains.

It’s true that Krampus’s conclusion backs away from this delightfully mean-spirited approach a little bit, but then, delightfully, the film reconsiders the walk-back in favor of an ambiguous ending that could be read in a number of ways.

I suppose what impressed me most about Krampus was its perpetual sense of imagination. A central scene in the film is a spectacularly shot-and-edited but unconventional flashback.  This scene plays like a Christmas TV special from the 1960s, and yet is spooky and fun at the same time.

On a cerebral level, Krampus also clearly boasts a point or purpose. The film’s opening montage and characters remind us that we often live, today, in an ugly, materialistic culture. And yet, by film’s end, Krampus’s protagonists are all putting their differences and material desires aside for the things that are important -- like family -- and I liked the optimism and heart of that statement.

A visit from Krampus could clearly spoil any holiday season, but this cinematic version of the scary myth is an absolute cause of celebration and revelry if one is an aficionado of the horror film.

“It’s Christmas. Nothing bad is going to happen on Christmas.”

The Engel family prepares for another harried, exhausted Christmas holiday at home.  

Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah’s (Toni Collette) son, Max (Emjay Anthony), has been in a fight, and Sarah’s sister, Linda (Alison Tolman) is visiting with her obnoxious husband, Howie (David Koecher) and their four children.  Meanwhile, Tom and Linda’s daughter, Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) is obsessed with her boyfriend, Derek.

Linda’s family arrives, and with a surprise additional visitor to boot: surly Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell). A family dinner goes awry when Linda’s kids steal Max’s letter to Santa Claus and mock him for it.

Fed up, Max rips up the letter to Santa, unwittingly summoning St. Nick’s dark, ancient reflection, a demon called Krampus.

The next morning, Krampus has trapped the family and its house in a grim winter wonderland, replete with creepy snowmen.  

Then, the evil being lays siege to the house with his monstrous minions. Among them are fanged teddy bears, murderous toy robots, cackling gingerbread men, and even a hungry jack-in-the-box.

Omi (Krista Stadler), Tom’s mother, has her own unique history with Krampus, and is able to warn the family of the dangers it now faces.  

She recounts a story from her youth, one in which a lack of the Christmas Spirit brought Kramus to her village, and resulted in her entire family being dragged to the underworld.

“He and his helpers did no come to give, but to take.”

Krampus’s critique of a 21st century Christmas begins right out the gate, with the opening montage. 

We watch as zombie-like crowds pour into a store -- Mucho Mart -- and begin fighting each other over the best deals.  There is rioting in the aisles, the constant passing of paper currency (in close-up) and views of children fighting in the store. The faces of the consumers are horrific, seen in close-up, and in slow-motion photography.  

The impression is clearly that Christmas has, in this age, become a crass and ugly season about the pursuit of material wants.

What makes this montage all the more caustic and effective is that it is scored with a nostalgic holiday tune: Meredith Wilson’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” sung by Perry Como.  

The song hammers home the scene's point. It makes the scene drip with droll and wicked irony.

Today, this is exactly what Christmas does look like to too many people.  It’s about having things; about getting things, about owning things.  

It’s not about, in the words of Omi, “sacrificing,” or giving to others. 

Not long after this montage, we see talking heads on TV debating the “War on Christmas,” another divisive aspect of the modern holiday.  The spirit of the holiday -- about giving and love -- is absent not just in terms of the violence and material desire the film showcases, but regarding the hostility with which we view those who are different from us.  We're all Americans, and yet we seem to hate one another. We can't even tolerate that someone might celebrate the holiday in a different way than we do.

That’s actually a key point of the film.  

The two sisters in Krampus, Sarah and Linda, come from opposite political views. Howie and Linda are Republicans who want to talk gun ownership at the dinner table, deny global warming, and who, when faced with “free gifts,” say that the recipients must be for “Democrats.”  

Sarah, by contrast is a somewhat holier-than-thou liberal, and one who can’t really tolerate the fact that others boast different traditions (in terms of food and behavior)

All the details of our red state/blue state divides are on display in Krampus, but I love the movie’s process of (murderous) attrition, because it galvanizes the attention of both families.  

Before long, the conservatives and liberals are working together to survive.  

The inescapable point? It doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican, Krampus notes, because both types of Americans love their families, and want to protect their children. Part of “rediscovering” the Christmas spirit involves loving those who don’t believe exactly what you believe, and yet, finally, are your blood.

There’s nothing to focus one’s attention on the important thing like a giant, horned demon with a Santa beard and penetrating, deep-set eyes. 

I love and admire the film’s depiction of Krampus too. There’s a fantastic shot, set during a blizzard, wherein Beth runs for her life in the foreground of the frame while Krampus -- this huge hulking thing -- shadows her moves in the background, leaping from rooftop to rooftop.  

And when Krampus makes his entrance at the Engel hearth, he cracks the fireplace, and emerges hunched over. When he rears up and extends to full height, it’s a terrifying moment. Krampus is one scary dude.

I respect, as well, the way that Krampus attempts to defy convention by engineering awful demises for the film’s children and family members. 

A jack in the box swallows a child whole (sneakers last…).  

The aforementioned soda guzzler gets yanked up a dark chimney.  

Aunt Dorothy encounters a pack of gruesome, masked elves and is forcibly ejected from the family living room..  The film and filmmakers have terrific fun with the twisted Christmas imagery, and the deeply disturbing winter wonderland background too.

Some will see the film’s resolution -- set over the pit of Hell -- as a cop-out.  I admit that was my first thought, as well.  

But the film’s final imagery suggest a not-so happy or clear-cut ending.  

Either the family is now a Christmas decoration in Hell, or at the very least, Krampus will be watching the Engels to make certain they remain true to the spirit of Christmas, and don’t relapse into their conspicuous consumption or participation in the partisan divide.

I prefer the second alternative there, because it honors Max’s choice in the last act. 

Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the lad acts according to the best “spirit” of Christmas, showcasing self-sacrifice and personal responsibility for his actions.  He doesn’t blame others for his unhappiness, or love things more than he loves the people in his family.  To adopt a cliche, he comes to understand the real meaning of Christmas.

When I look back at a film like Gremlins (1984), I think of the humor, the scares, and the heart embodied in its text.  

Krampus possesses all the same virtues.  

The scenes with the attacking Gingerbread Men boast the same wicked ingenuity you might expect to find in the works of a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi. I’m glad the film doesn’t strive too much to be “real,” and makes room for such silly boogeymen.

For me, Krampus is the whole, twisted horror package, and I loved every sharp-edged, fantastic minute of it.

Movie Trailer: Krampus (2015)

Monday, May 02, 2016

Ask JKM a Question: Biggest Toy Disappointment of Childhood?

A regular reader named Frank asks:

"John, I am a longtime toy collector just like you are, and I just have to know the answer to this question. What was your greatest toy disappointment as a child?

I will tell you mine. 

It was the Flash Gordon Rocket Ship from Mattel that you have covered on your blog before. It sprung a leak on Christmas Day and no matter what I could never get it to inflate again, even with the patches provided!"

Frank, are you trying to bring up bad memories?

Just kidding, that's a fun question. 

I'm sorry to read about your experience with that inflatable rocket. One key disappointment of that particular toy is that with just a little deflation, the wing tips and nose (with orange laser attachment) start to droop.   

As you know, I love the toys of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, even though some are disappointing in terms of design and durability. 

For example, it still bugs me that Mattel's Space:1999 action figures don't wear the correct color uniforms.  But I wouldn't call that design flaw my greatest disappointment.

Right now, the biggest disappointment that comes to mind is Mego's action figure lines from 1979: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and The Black Hole. 

I loved and collected -- and still love and collect -- these figures, but they were not durable at all. 

Their thumbs would break off, for instance, after light play, and all their joints were held together by this ugly metal pins. 

As I recall, it was all too easy for the figures' arms and legs to just snap off those pins, leaving kids with no recourse but to attempt to glue the figures back together.

And then, sometimes, on really bad days, the figures would just blow apart, when the black rubber band holding them together in the middle snapped.

I think I may have told this story before, but I remember seeing Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979) in movie theaters, and then my parents taking me to Toys R. Us afterwards to get a present.  I was able to buy two action figures from the movie: Buck and Twiki.  

Man, that was the greatest experience for a nine year old kid.

Then, after the toy store visit, my family went carpet shopping.  I was playing with Buck and Twiki in the carpet store, when the Buck Rogers figure broke.  

I'd owned it for less than a half hour, and been playing with it for about five minutes. I couldn't believe it.  I begged my parents to go back and buy another one, but that was a no go.

That was the most disappointing toy experience of my youth, that I can recall. 

Sadly, the experience of those Black Hole and Buck Rogers figures breaking like that repeated over and over again over the next several years, but the vast majority of them survived at least a decent amount of time before breaking.

But poor old Buck died in one day.

I would love to post some reader stories about toy disappointments from childhood.  If any readers would like, e-mail me your story at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com, and I will post them here over the next several days...

Don't forget to ask me your questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Guitars

A guitar is a stringed musical instrument that can be played via strumming or plucking. A guitar may be acoustical, or electric.

And a guitar is also the go-to-instrument for cult-television characters throughout history.

For example, young Will Robinson (Bill Mumy) -- space pioneer -- plays a guitar and sings Greensleeves in an early episode of Lost in Space (1965-1968), “There Were Giants in the Earth.”

One of the most haunting episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), similarly, involves a folk guitarist, Floyd Burney (Gary Crosby), in “Come Wander with Me.” He becomes trapped in a never ending song with ever more disturbing new verses.

In Space: 1999’s (1975-1977) “Black Sun,” the buttoned-down Main Mission Controller, Paul Morrow (Prentis Hancock) reveals an artistic side when he is seen in his quarters quietly strumming a guitar.  Tanya (Suzanne Rocquette) asks to share the music with him.

A guitar also shows up in the short-lived Otherworld (1985). In this series about an alternate world, a teenagers from a suburban American family, the Sterlings, introduce rock-and-roll to the other world, in “Rock and Roll Suicide.” Trace (Tony O’Dell) is the duo’s guitarist.

One of the twentieth century sleepers awakened in the 25th century and brought aboard the Enterprise-D in the Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) episode “The Neutral Zone” is a country-western singer, and thanks to Data (Brent Spiner), ends up with a guitar to pluck.

Charlie Pace (Dominic Monaghan), a band member from Drive Shaft, ends up -- mysteriously – with his guitar while stranded on the island of Lost (2004 – 2011).

Young, doomed Beth (Emily Kinney) on The Walking Dead (2010 - ) is seen to play a guitar on at least one occasion during the AMC series’ run, though a guitar also ends up in Glen (Steven Yeun’s) hands on more than one occasion, early in the series catalog.

Other cult-TV guitar players include Will Marshall (Wesley Eure) in the Land of the Lost (1974-1977), Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Greg Brady (Barry Williams) on The Brady Bunch (1969-1973) and Keith Partridge (David Cassidy) on The Partridge Family (1971-1974).

The Cult-TV Faces of: Guitars

Identified by Hugh: The Twilight Zone:"Come Wander with Me."

Identified by Hugh: Lost in Space: "There Were Giants in the Earth."

Identified by SGB: Gilligan's Island.

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: "The Way to Eden."

Identified by Hugh:The Partridge Family.

Identified by Hugh:The Brady Bunch.

Identified by Will Perez: Space:1999: "The Troubled Spirit."

Identified by Hugh: Land of the Lost.

Identified by Chris G.: Otherworld: "Rock and Roll Suicide."

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek:The Next Generation:"The Neutral Zone."

Identified by Hugh: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Not Identified.

Identified by Hugh: Lost.

Identified by Will Perez: The Walking Dead.

Identified by Hugh: Doctor Who.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Advert Artwork: Mission: Impossible (Barbara Bain Edition)

At Flashbak: Star Wars Drinking Glasses (From Burger King)

This week at Flashbak, I remembered the age of Star Wars Drinking Glasses (from Coca-Cola and available at Burger King).

“One unforgettable Star Wars original trilogy collectible came straight from your local Burger King restaurant. 

Beginning in 1977, and continuing in 1980 and 1983, the fast food giant sold (with a regular drink) large Star Wars drinking glasses.

These over-sized glasses were emblazoned with colorful images and even character descriptions from George Lucas’s universe.

For Star Wars, for instance, there were four glasses a fan could collect: one for Luke Skywalker, one for Darth Vader, one for Han Solo and Chewie, and one for the droids, C3PO and R2-D2.  On the back of the glass -- penned inside a transparent R2-D2 outline drawing- -- was a character sketch.

For instance, Han and Chewie’s glass reads that Chewbacca “is the two hundred year old giant wookie who co-pilots the Millennium Falcon for Han Solo. His awesome towering appearance and calculating co-pilot capabilities complement Solo’s confidence and reckless action in the face of attack by Empire forces.”

For The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, Burger King released four more beautiful glasses. 

Yoda and Boba Fett both premiered in this set (on the Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader glasses, respectively). Meanwhile, Billy Dee Williams’ scoundrel Lando Calrissian had a glass devoted to his character, and the droids appeared (again) on the fourth of the glasses. In this case, the description on the back of the glass was inside a weird sort of cup/straw read-out, and not an R2 outline.

For 1983’s Return of the Jedi, the final film in the trilogy, set-pieces and locations were favored over characters.

For instance, one glass illustrated the Sarlac Pitt and Jabba’s skiffs in the deserts of Tatooine. Another showcased Jabba’s palace (and featured an image of Leia in her slave gear).

The third glass introduced the Emperor in his Death Star throne room, and the fourth showed C3PO, treated as a deity by his furry captors, in the Ewok village…”

Please continue reading at Flashbak.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Blackstar (1981) "Search for the Starsword" (September 12, 1981)

In “Search for the Starsword,” a volcanic eruption rocks Sagar, and monstrous Lavalocks -- fierce minions of the Overlord – emerge to steal the Star Sword, interrupting a picnic between Mara, Klone, Blackstar and the Trobbits in the process.

The Lavalocks attack the Trobbits and get the sword, but Blackstar isn’t out of the game yet.

We learn a bit more about the characters and world of Blackstar (1981) in this second episode of the series. 

For instance, John Blackstar is categorized as a “rebel who stands against the Overlord,” suggesting that the Overlord represents established authority.  The Overlord is not merely a factional leader of outcast from society (as Skeletor might be described on He-Man.) Rather, he is the Establishment; the real power on Sagar. 

Another scene also suggests this fact. We briefly see the Overlord in a room surrounded by a menagerie of creepy life-forms or aliens. These are his retainers, one might conclude, and he is holding court.

We also learn that the Overlord’s over-arching quest seems to be to unite the two pieces of the Star Sword – Power and Star.  If he does so, we must assume he would become incredibly powerful.

We see, as well, in “Search for the Star Sword” that one of Mara’s many powers involves “the power of prophecy,” to see what is bound to happen. She is very reminiscent of Ariel on Thundarr: The Bararian (1980 – 1982).

This episode also finds a lot of action for the Trobbits, and the little red-skinned, white haired denizens of the planet. It is intriguing to realize that The Smurfs (1981-1989) were introduced on Saturday morning the same year as were these little tree hobbits, but that the Smurfs took off in the pop culture.  Blue gnomes won out over red ones!

Next week: “The Lord of Time.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "Revolt of the Power Men." (December 29, 1979)

"Too long Ming has held my city and people captive," King Vultan notes solemnly in this chapter of Filmation's Flash Gordon (1979-1982) series, numbered 15.

Yes, the worm is turning, and the final battle is nearing. For the last several chapters, Flash has been gathering allies. Not just Vultan and Barin and Thun. He has also recruited leaders from Frigia, Tropica and the like.

"It is time for action," Flash agrees, noting that the rebellion needs "an edge" against Ming the Merciless, and that the edge may well be Sky City, the domain of Gordon's "feathered friend."

Flash, Barin, Thun and Vultan thus determine to re-take Sky City, unaware that Ming has dispatched his chief lieutenant, Captain Erzine, to capture Aura and Dale and to make the latter his bride.

In this section of the episode, as the women are kidnapped, there's a lovely view of the interior of Ming's dome-shaped hanger bay, and it's an impressive design (and shot), as a warship in Ming's fleet is lowered into the chamber, surrounded by docked vessels.

Meanwhile, Flash joins up with Ergon, leader of the Power Men, on Sky City. The campaign to capture the city goes badly, however, and a stray blast hits the power generator.

The city plunges out of the sky, but Ergon realizes before it is too late that the failed anti-gravity beams can be fed directly into the energy matrix, or some such thing.

In the end, Sky City belongs to the Allies. Is this the equivalent of re-taking Paris in World War II?  Perhaps.

"A good day's work," is how Flash describes the battle before determining that now the fight is between Ming and him. He heads off to Mingo City -- and is promptly captured and frozen by Ming the Merciless.

One episode to go.

Next week: “Ming’s Last Battle” (for Season One, anyway…).

Friday, April 29, 2016

Cult-TV Movie Review: Satan's School for Girls (1973)

All considerations of quality aside for the moment,  a conscientious reviewer has to give Satan's School for Girls (1973) some pretty serious plaudits over that incredible title. 

But then again, Satan's School for Girls comes to us from the great age of TV-movies; when they boasted colorful and memorable monikers such as Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), or A Cold Night's Death (1973). 

As the title makes abundantly clear, this made-for-TV movie was also produced during the rarefied age of  1970s Devil film: the wonderful spell between Brotherhood of Satan (1971) and The Exorcist  (1973).

Specifically, this Aaron Spelling TV-movie first aired on September 19, 1973, and later earned a reputation, according to The New York Times, as one of the most "memorable" made-for TV horrors of the disco decade.  It was even re-made in the year 2000, with Shanen Doherty in the lead role.

The original Satan's School for Girls stars scream queen Pamela Franklin (And Soon the Darkness [1970], Legend of Hell House [1974]) as Elizabeth Sayers, a young woman investigating the apparent suicide of her beloved sister Martha. 

To that end, Elizabeth masquerades as a new student at Martha's former school, the exclusive and 300-year old Salem Academy for Women.

Elizabeth enrolls immediately in two classes: Behavioral Psychology with creepy Professor Delacroix (Lloyd Bochner) and an art class with hunky Dr. Clampett (Roy Thinnes). In the latter class, Clampett urges the female students to "hang loose" and remember that everything in life is both "illusion and reality." 

Elizabeth soon befriends several students, including resourceful Roberta Lockhart (Kate Jackson), popular Jody (Cheryl Ladd) and the troubled Debbie (Jamie Smith-Jackson).  Debbie, in particular, appears afraid...and has painted a creepy portrait of the dead Martha trapped in what appears to be an old cellar.

Elizabeth locates that ancient cellar in her very dorm, Standish Hall, and learns from Roberta about a creepy local legend; about eight Salem witches who were hanged in a cellar just like that

After Elizabeth discovers that Debbie has also committed suicide, she investigates the files in the office of the Headmistress.  She learns that all the students at the school have been orphaned; just as Elizabeth herself has been orphaned.  She also learns that student files on Debbie and Martha are missing...

Then, late at night, when the power goes out, Dr. Clampett evacuates the campus save for Roberta and Elizabeth.  

In the dark, quiet loneliness of the cellar, Satan soon makes his play for eight young, impressionable and father-less souls to replace the ones he lost in Salem all those years ago.

"I welcome what man rejects," he tells his would-be acolytes with open arms

And he's reserved a spot just for Elizabeth...

Now, I'm not quite old enough (but almost old enough!) to remember Satan's School for Girls from its original transmission  Rather, I first saw it sometime in the early 1980s in weekend syndication.  I probably saw it when I was eleven or twelve, and it has stayed with me ever since.

And now, after watching Satan's School for Girls again, at least I have a better understanding of why that's the case.

The movie, released on DVD by an outfit called "Cheezy Movies," looks like a relic from another lifetime. The TV-movie is simple, straight-forward and even innocent in a weird sort of way by today's standards. 

Yet some of the horror moments really do get the blood pumping.  This is a major accomplishment, because it's clear the movie was made for next to nothing.  There are no real visual or make-up effects to speak of, and almost the entire film takes place in just four of five interiors.

But Laurence Rosenthal's steroidal musical score works over-time to build shivers and anxiety, and director David Lowell Rich does an effective job keeping to the basics. Many scenes have been shot entirely at night, or in the dark, Gothic passages on the campus. Thunder roars on the soundtrack, lightning crackles, and heavy doors creak regularly.  The fear expressed here -- simply -- is of being alone at night, in the darkness, and wondering if something malevolent might be hiding in the impenetrable blackness close-by. 

Nothing more complicated than that.

Yet it's amazing how many modern horror movies forget that it is the simple things that scare us the most.  A basement in the dark.  A storm at midnight.  The intimation of the diabolical.  

The performances -- much like the narrative -- are oddly naive and almost child-like  But if you're willing to buy into the movie (and it helps if you have some nostalgia for it), Satan's School for Girls unnerves in a very efficient, very 1970s fashion.  You want to giggle and assure yourself that a cheap TV-movie effort like this couldn't possibly bother you.

But just try watching it alone in the dark.  At night.  The cheesiness sort of evaporates and you find yourself in the midst of this very sincere, very straight-forward and eminently creepy tale.  Everyone involved really committed to it (just look at that actress screaming for her life in the photographic still near the top of this post!) so what the hell is our excuse for not doing likewise, right?

And, if you dig just a little under the surface of Satan's School for Girls the movie actually features some interesting  ideas.  It's a movie about girls who don't have fathers, and who try to find a father figure in either Professor Clampett or Professor Delacroix.  Clampett urges the girls to "condemn nothing" and "embrace everything" -- the 1970s equivalent of "just do what feels good," and Delacroix treats the students like rats in a maze; hoping to awake them from their "passivity" should they ever encounter real "terror."

If you've seen the film, you know which of these guys is really the Devil in the disguise -- either the liberal artist or the paranoid psychologist -- but the push-pull between the clashing philosophies at least gives the viewer something to think about between scenes of screaming ingenues.

Satan's School for Girls is worth a curiosity viewing just for the cheeky title (as well as the bizarre opening sequence in which Martha grows terrified -- terrified I tell you! -- at the  sudden, unexplained appearance of not one, but two strange old men). 

But more than that, if you let yourself buy into the premise of this 1973 made-for-TV movie, you might just get a good schooling in old-fashioned terror.