Friday, December 24, 2021

Awful Advent #13: Scrooged (1988)

Welcome to Awful Advent: a countdown of 13 Holiday Horror movies for the 13 days before Christmas

For this year’s final entry, it's the best version of the original holiday horror story, Scrooged!

Frank Cross, the youngest network president in history, is visited by 3 ghosts while he’s trying to oversee a live production of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

It’s Bill Murray in Richard Donner’s Scrooged! I don’t need to tell you what it’s about. This needs less explanation and summary than Gremlins. It’s “A Christmas Carol” transposed to the 80s and in a very novel way. We’ve seen the Christmas Carol format get used in all sorts of TV shows as well as countless straight adaptations, but, as far as I know, this is the only one that is an adaptation that has within it an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.”

I first saw this movie on TV in 1992 the week my family got our dog. She was a Dalmatian puppy that I stumbled across while at school. The breeder had her in a little red wagon and, since my mom was coming to pick me up and I knew she liked puppies, I went to find her to show her the dog. When she saw her, my mom said, “All right, we’ll get you the dog.”

Which had not been my intent. I just wanted to show my mom a puppy because she liked puppies and now I had a decade's worth of responsibility ahead of me.

Regardless, she became my dog and lived with me and my family until she died in my arms, twelve years later, from kidney failure the morning she was scheduled to go to the vet to be put down.

That first weekend, when watching Scrooged, we had a massive snow storm and were alternating between watching the movie and watching the snow accumulate outside the patio doors. Inevitably, the dog had to go out so, rather than attach her lead as we normally would, we just let her run out into the snow. She ran to the edge of the half-buried deck and then *poofed* into the snow bank that had grown against it. Then we saw her deleriously hopping out of the snow only to fall and be consumed by another drift.

I don’t actually like Christmas. Much like Charlie Brown, I never feel the way I’m “supposed” to feel, something well-articulated by Leon Thomas of Renegade Cut. But when I think of what Christmas could be, the feeling I’m wanting from the holidays, it’s that quiet coziness and the ephemeral moment that you can’t recognize as special until after the fact.

Scrooged is, even without that memory, a good movie. It’s a melodramatic horror comedy that manages to hit all the notes. Yes, the jokes are funny and the ghosts—especially the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Future—are scary. More notable, though, is how successfully it handles Frank's emotional arc. Murray was anxious that the story wouldn’t be believable. Not only would this massive scumbag be transformed by the events of the day but that the audience would believe in that transformation. What makes it work, the reason his absolution is possible is that he doesn’t change. He’s instead reminded of who he is.

When you look at his experience with the spirits, he doesn’t get shocked by anything. Instead he’s reminded that what happened to him wasn’t okay (Past), that what’s happening just outside his purview is not what he wants (Present), and that his actions are leading to consequences he couldn’t anticipate (Future). His breakdown/monologue at the end is emotionally affecting, but I’d argue the bigger moment is when the Ghost of Christmas Present leaves him in the sewer with Herman’s frozen body.

Frank was indifferent to Herman at the shelter, actively annoyed even, but didn’t want harm to come to him. Finding him there, saying, “Jesus, give me a happy ending here, Herm, c’mon man,” is the reality of Frank coming out, the moment it’s clear that he doesn’t want things to be as they are. He still needs the third spirit to push him into recognizing that he can do something about it. It’s also a real turning point in the movie. The jokes fall off a bit from that point. Yes, there are still gags and the sequence with Bobcat Goldthwait is very funny, but Frank stops being so quippy. That’s the moment he starts taking all of this seriously.

I love this movie. It’s one of my favorite movies—not just favorite Christmas or holiday horror—straight-up favorite movies. And I never even dove into how the original story is itself a holiday horror story, that the arguably quintessential Christmas story is itself a ghost story.

The movie’s great, it’s amazing, never stop watching it.

5/5 raspberries blown on bellies

Scrooged is available for purchase or rental from various online services.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Awful Advent #12: Krampus (2015)

Welcome to Awful Advent: a countdown of 13 Holiday Horror movies for the 13 days before Christmas

For this year’s penultimate entry, a boy’s waning belief in the spirit of Christmas summons not Santa, but his dark counterpart, Krampus!

Max gets into a fight during the nativity play with a boy who tells the first graders Santa doesn’t exist, Max's family is stressed out at the thought of their in-laws coming for the holidays, and those in-laws are aggressively mean to him. In a fit of pique, Max tears up the letter he’d written to Santa and throws it out the window only to see the pieces float away into the sky. The next day, a blizzard descends upon his neighborhood, the power cuts out, and strange snowmen appear in the front lawn, harbingers of the monsters yet to come.

Krampus is an odd duck. It’s a big-budget holiday horror film, which is rare enough, and it draws upon the ironic, hipster-ish Christmas icon, Krampus. Of course there’s a real Krampus tradition and folklore, but that’s not the role it has in English-speaking holiday celebrations. It’s moreso the icon of the anti-Christmas brigade: those exhausted by the holiday’s insistence upon itself and who fail to identify with the Grinch or Scrooge since they both succumb to that all-consuming spirit. So me and similar jackasses who look for movies where Santa is as likely to be the purveyor of presents as a purveyor of fear.

Krampus approaches Christmas with the right attitude: the holiday sucks and it’s a burden we all endure for inexplicable reasons. We open with a slowed sequence of people being awful in a store. This sequence is what Black Friday needed, but never had: customers are yelling at each other, abusing staff, and getting tased. The sequence, and credits, end with Max, our hero, in the midst of a fight during the nativity play. At home, he’s chastised by his parents for getting into a fight and we learn that the mother’s sister and her family are coming for the holidays—something no one is happy about.

And here’s where the movie starts to fall apart. I mentioned in regards to Dead End that we need to start from a place of joy, or at least be able to see what that joy could be, to have hope in a horror movie. To put it another way, the bad thing needs to be the monster, not the life we’re looking to return to.

Krampus, however, starts with Christmas being miserable, Max’s family being indifferent—when not irritable—to each other, and then the extended family arrives—loud, boorish, and engaged in general assholery. It feels like the movie is trying to do a upper-middle-class liberal vs working-class conservative family thing—the visiting family arrives in a Hummer loaded with ammunition while Max’s family lives in a house that “looks like Martha Stewart threw up”—but to no real purpose. All it gives us is people being shitty to each other in unentertaining ways (except for Aunt Dorothy played by Conchata Ferrell whose every line is a delight).

The characters have some moments of redemption, but they come at the wrong time or don’t pay off. For example, Max writes a letter to Santa Claus. He’s too old to believe in Santa, but it’s something done as a ritual. Like getting eggnog or watching Miracle on 34th Street, this is what Max does to center himself and focus on what’s important in the holiday season. He asks Santa to, basically, make things like they were: let him be friends with his sister again, let his parents fall in love again, make things less desperate for his aunt and uncle. In these stories, the revelation of the letter’s contents is supposed to come somewhere in the late second/early third act as it inspires the characters to become their better selves. Here, it gets stolen and read out loud during the first dinner after the aunt and uncle have arrived so it doesn’t inspire anything. Instead, it’s the letter that Max rips up which then travels to Krampus. Sure, him destroying the letter represents his abandonment of those hopes and is the inciting incident, but I just don’t feel it.

Another issue is that Max is supposed to be the main character, but we generally leave him alone after he tears up the letter. His dad and uncle really take center stage and they’re the ones who have to face down the monsters that serve Krampus.

The monsters, by the way, are fantastic. The design, not just of them, but of everything is really well done. I remember seeing this in theaters and being struck by the sound design. Granted, you’re not supposed to notice the sound design. Like editing, when it’s done right, you don’t notice it at all. However, I was aware at how much I felt immersed in this wintry nightmare the first time I saw it. I felt literally cold.

I just wish it didn’t leave me feeling metaphorically cold.

The easy comparison is to Gremlins: it’s a Christmas movie with small cute monsters murdering people. So it’s disappointing that we get, comparatively, so little of the monsters and so few setpieces as notable as the ones in Gremlins. Instead there’s a lot of mood—dread, darkness, and waiting—without payoff. Something burrows through the snow and tries to drag the uncle away until dad shoots it. They have to keep the fire hot to prevent anything from coming down the chimney. Writing that makes this sound like a Christmas twist on Tremors (which is now all I want for Christmas).

So much of the movie is about the downtime. As these characters interact, and you’d expect them to resolve their differences and grow as people, which they do. A little. We get to see mom and dad have a nice, albeit brief, conversation that suggests things are getting better between them, and the dad and uncle come to have a kind of grudging respect for each other, but I never buy into it and neither does the movie. That’s not what the movie’s interested in. It’s interested in Krampus and his cadre of monsters, but never gives us enough time with them.

It’s so strange to discuss the movie this way because it’s never bad, on any level, but it never quite hits the mark either. It’s worth watching as part of a holiday horror marathon or just on its own, but it also feels like a one-and-done. I don’t think I’ll be returning to this in the future.

3/5 chimney-dangling kinder-snatching Krampus chains

Krampus is available for purchase or rental from various online services.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Awful Advent #11: Elves (1989)

Welcome to Awful Advent: a countdown of 13 Holiday Horror movies for the 13 days before Christmas

For this year’s eleventh entry, Grizzly Adams faces off against incestuous Nazi science to prevent the apocalypse in Elves!

A trio of young women dubbing themselves the “sisters of anti-Christmas” try to hold an ad hoc ritual in the forest, but one of them accidentally cuts herself. Her blood awakens a long-slumbering elf that proceeds to seek her out to enact a decades-old Nazi plot. The only person who can protect her is a recovering alcoholic ex-detective working as a department store Santa.

No holiday horror marathon is complete without some Santa sleaze, and that’s the best word to describe this movie. For example, the main character catches her brother peeping on her while she’s changing. He, an actual child, says, “You got fucking big tits and I’m going to tell everyone I saw.”

At another point, this young woman is sitting on Santa’s lap where he leans in and whispers, “Santa said ‘oral’” while rubbing her leg. Shortly thereafter, the weird Nazi elf stabs him to death. In the dick.

Obviously, there’s a lot to recommend this movie just on the level of batshittery. It’s not good by any standard. Dan Haggerty half whispers, half mumbles all his lines, we never get the kind of gore you’d really expect from a movie like this, and the whole thing feels silly. In fact, it feels like it’s walking the edge of being safe-for-television until the mom strips down and takes a bath. Plus, you have a lot of f-bombs and just general weirdness.

I mentioned in the Joe Bob Ruins Christmas review that he’s good at giving both the context and production details of a movie and I’d really like his take on this one. The movie leaves you gobsmacked and just asking, “how?” at each and every moment. How did any of this seem like a good idea?

The movie is profoundly stupid, nigh unwatchable, and then it throws you an incest curveball, but it’s also a movie I’d recommend for those very reasons. It has a terrible puppet, campy professors, and Dan Haggerty staggering in from nowhere to start beating a man. It’s 100% the kind of dumb Christmas horror you want to watch with friends while drinking beer and eating pizza or to have playing in the background of a holiday party. It is, of course, not something to watch in and of itself or on its own merits. It has no merits. It is, however, a treasure. Or maybe a turd. Either way, I’ll gladly leave it buried for someone else to find.

2/5 salacious Santas stabbed in the jingle sack

Elves is currently unavailable through any official platform

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Awful Advent #10: Dead End (2003)

Welcome to Awful Advent: a countdown of 13 Holiday Horror movies for the 13 days before Christmas

For this year’s tenth entry, a bickering family drives down a never-ending road in the first movie this year to live up to the name “Awful,” Dead End!

A family on their annual Christmas trip to their mother’s house take an alternate route. As time passes, they seem to get no closer to their destination, they start arguing with each other, get harried by a woman in white, and begin to be murdered in sudden and inexplicable ways.

This is one of the worst movies I watched this year and I watched every Howling, Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street movie in October and November. This may be better than Howling VII: New Moon Rising—the definition of “barely a movie”—but I’d actually recommend that for its delirious badness. This is just nothing.

We start with a family of five crowded into an SUV driving down an old country road. Ray Wise, Laura Palmer’s father, is driving so we know everything and everyone will be fine.

Of course not. Everyone’s bickering to begin with. They’re all on the way to visit the mother’s side of the family and dad doesn’t want to go because the food is always bad, the younger son is directing homophobic insults at his sister’s boyfriend, and no one wants to be there, especially us.

This is a trope I noticed emerging in early-2000s horror when I was doing that franchise watch. Through the 80s and 90s, movies opened with an introduction of the deadmeats having fun. The killer becomes a threat not just to them but to their broader joy and ability to live normally. Even the Nightmare movies, which start with someone being harried by Freddy, show the kids’ lives as good things that proceed to fall apart the more Freddy intrudes. The worst of those films tried to make the deadmeats unappealing so that you'd celebrate their inevitable deaths at the hands of Jason or whoever, but the kids are still enjoying themselves, there’s still a good time that’s being threatened.

With the 2000s, post-Se7en and especially post-Saw, the movies stopped having any joy. Nothing is fun, life sucks, and then this unstoppable killer arrives. The mistake filmmakers made was in thinking that making horror “serious” meant everything had to be grim instead of seeing that the horror resides in the ripple effects these disturbances have on the characters’ lives. Sure, the characters are threatened with death, but the real threat is that the lives they’ve been living become impossible to maintain. There has to be something good for them to fight for to give the audience any catharsis at the end of the movie.

In other words, there has to be someplace we, as the audience, want to go back to.

Dead End starts with the characters being miserable and awful to each other and then they start to die. The trailer and synopsis imply that it’s the stress of being trapped on this road and threatened by this mysterious force which causes them to break down and start revealing buried secrets, but they hate each other from the start, no force is bothering them, and their secrets—an affair, being pregnant, and smoking weed—are banal and unimpressive.

The movie builds to a twist that the audience figures out 20-30 minutes in and nothing disabuses you of your notion of how the movie will end. This is something The Lodge did well. The central mystery of what’s actually happening seems to have obvious answers (for people who watch horror movies), but then the movie hangs a lampshade on those assumptions and creates something more compelling and complex.

Here’s what happens in Dead End: dad falls asleep at the wheel and they almost have an accident. They keep driving down a road that continues forever with no crossroads or turn-offs. They notice all their clocks have stopped at the exact same time. Each time they stop the car, someone gets taken away in a long black car and is immediately found down the road horribly burned or mutilated as though by a machine.

Do you get it? Do you get the twist? Have you solved this particular puzzle?

I pulled this movie from a listicle of 25 Christmas Horror Movies posted on Good Housekeeping, which raises two questions: why is Good Housekeeping making lists of horror movies and why am I looking to Good Housekeeping for horror recommendations?

Here’s a third question: how do I have six movies from their list in my own (The Lodge, Dead End, Anna and the Apocalypse, The Day of the Beast, Gremlins, and one yet to be revealed)?

Regardless, this movie sucks. At one point, they pull over and the “teenage” son walks off into the woods, pulls a porno mag from his underwear, hangs it from a tree, and starts masturbating for reasons I cannot begin to fathom—either on a character level or a narrative level. Why would anyone do that? And what does it do for the movie other than split him off from the group, which could have been done by having him take a piss. Plus, he's not separated from the group because he walks right back.

The movie is not just inept, it’s smug. It is doing the most obvious thing and, like the elderly teen wandering into the forest, furiously stroking itself. It’s not fun-bad, just exhaustingly bad. On top of all that, it’s not even Christmassy. They’re going for Christmas dinner but that is incidental. Christmas plays no practical role in the film at all.

Don’t watch it. There’s, literally, nothing to see. They don’t even show the bodies. Skip it.

1/5 boring bickering basic bastards bound for a bad end

Dead End is currently available to avoid on Tubi in the US and on Netflix in Korea

Monday, December 20, 2021

Awful Advent #9: To All a Goodnight (1980)

Welcome to Awful Advent: a countdown of 13 Holiday Horror movies for the 13 days before Christmas

For this year’s ninth entry, a killer dressed as Santa stalks the youths staying at a girls’ finishing school over winter break in To All a Goodnight!

That one line intro is the summary of the entire movie. That’s it. That’s all there is. It’s a slasher movie where the slasher is dressed as Santa Claus.

The movie opens with a girl being chased through the school by a gaggle of other girls. She runs out onto a balcony where someone pushes her and she magically turns into a life-sized stuffed doll that lands, Michael-Myers-style, on the ground below. Cut to two years later and all the girls at the school are heading home for winter break. A few are staying behind with the housemother, the creepy religious groundskeeper, and a plot to sneak in some boys who are literally flying over in a private plane.

There’s no real mystery over who the killer is or why they’re doing it (although if you don’t already know, the thumbnail on Shudder shows the killer). Shades of Friday the 13th with the killer seeking revenge against anyone in the same demographic as the people they feel are responsible for their daughter’s death, all with a Silent Night, Deadly Night gloss. To call the film “derivative” would be both unfair and inaccurate. It came out 4 months before Friday and 4 years before Silent Night. However, “generic” would be a fair description.

The movie does have its moments of flair, but mostly rolls off the brain. Characters start dying before you have any sense of who they are and then the movie pauses so its second act can do the work of establishing the surviving characters. The characters’ actions fall on both sides of the reasonable/happening-because-we-need-a-movie divide and they’re not interesting characters, but the movie is efficient at making it clear who will live and who will die.

Also, the movie’s budgetary constraints are generally handled well. It doesn’t look as cheap as it surely must be, except in the day-for-night shots. “Day-for-night” means filming during the day and trying to make it look like night, usually by putting a blue filter over the lens. You do it because you can’t afford the light kits you’d need to properly shoot at night. It’s one of the things we accept in filmmaking because you do what you gotta do. It doesn’t look 100% real, but it’s usually not so glaringly obvious as to kick you out of the movie.

To All a Goodnight has day-for-night shots without the blue filter. So they’re just day shots. The characters are just walking around during the day. Even though it’s supposed to be night. We know it’s night because they’re carrying flashlights and mentioning how dark it is. As they squint at the sun.

Those shots were a real high point for me: it’s rare you get to see something done badly in a new way. Another thing I really enjoyed was the spate of elderly teens. This is a prep school for girls and no one is a teenager here. Which is good in practical terms because there is nudity and I don’t want to see naked kids, but also hilarious when you see people who clearly have mortgages pretend to be young.

What is there to say? It’s a cheaply but competently executed early-80s slasher. It’s neither excellent nor execrable. It’s fine. Add it to your library of Santa slashers or run it in the background of your holiday party. It has nice aesthetics, is a bit of a time-capsule, and doesn’t get on the nerves. It’s a bit of fun.

2.5/5 Santa-slashed sorority sisters

To All a Goodnight is currently available to stream on Shudder.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Awful Advent #8: The Last Drive-In: Joe Bob Ruins Christmas (2021)

Welcome to Awful Advent: a countdown of 13 Holiday Horror movies for the 13 days before Christmas

For this year’s eighth entry, we step away from movies themselves and turn instead to one of the biggest names in cult-movie-curation, Joe Bob Briggs in The Last Drive-In: Joe Bob Ruins Christmas!

It’s the annual Last Drive-In holiday special and this year’s theme is gifts! Joe Bob has picked Darcy’s favorite movie, and Darcy has picked his. Ice Cream Man (1995) and ‘Gator Bait (1974)!

A bit of a departure. Instead of curating the movie for tonight myself, I wanted to turn horror host to see what they would do. I’ll admit to being a little disappointed that they didn’t pick explicitly holiday movies (I thought there’d be something wild like Blood Beast in there), but I like the theme of these being gifts exchanged between the hosts. Plus, with horror host shows, the movies are less important than what the hosts add to them.

Horror hosts have two jobs: curation and context. The curation is the films they choose and the context is what they add to it. Joe Bob is good at both. He picks films that are unique, unexpected, and then he gives all the details about how the movie was made as well as the larger place it has in the culture. The stories behind the making of Ice Cream Man sound like a better movie than Ice Cream Man, and his description of how Beverly Sebastian, the writer/producer of ‘Gator Bait, distributed her movie describes a world wholly removed from the Marvel monopoly currently dominating our culture.

As for the films themselves, Ice Cream Man is the 1995 Clint Howard vehicle where he plays a murderous ice cream man. It’s a movie I’d seen before and is not very good at all. However, it’s bad in interesting ways and worth seeing once just to puzzle through the strangeness. Joe Bob has the details that explain why many things happened the way they did.

‘Gator Bait is the 1974 redneck rape revenge film and, to quote Joe Bob, “this movie got grim real fast.” The movie starts with someone being threatened with sexual assault and later someone gets killed during a uniquely violent sexual assault. Yeah. Merry Christmas. The star is former Playmate of the Year Claudia Jennings and she runs around in the kind of skimpy outfit you’d expect, but there’s a lot of sexual violence in the movie and, as the Flop House boys say, I don’t want that chocolate in my peanut butter. It’s a tougher watch than Ice Cream Man, but Joe Bob’s stories about the movie’s production, legacy, and the people involved is something else and demonstrates why he’s such a compelling host.

If anything struck a sour note about the special, it was Joe Bob’s monologues about the theme he wanted to focus on for the special, “No room at the inn.” He talked about the Christmas story and spun that out into a metaphor about inclusivity and exclusivity, the moments when we’re denied entry or acceptance. He makes the point that these are some of the best memories that we have—the night becomes better because you weren’t allowed into that party, and, besides, the people who get kicked out have more fun anyway. He wants his show, his space, to be a place where everyone is welcome, even those kicked out of the other places.

I’m down with the idea of inclusivity and he’s right, the “freaks” have more fun. Sort of the inverse of the Groucho line, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member,” I don’t want to hang with the people who would demand I change. The issue, though, is who do you think is being excluded? If it’s the trans folk, the black folk, the activists and agitators, I’m down. I’ll go where they lead. And you can read Joe Bob’s speech as being addressed at those very people. He says he wants people of all races, genders, and sexualities to feel welcome, but he also says “politics.” And he doesn’t get specific in his speech up to that point. He doesn’t name any group he sees as being excluded that he wants to make sure feels included. It’s very general and wishy-washy and you could read it as speaking to anyone, and thus to no one. The only examples he gives, and he repeats them so these are the people he’s thinking of, are people who voted in a way you don’t like or people who said something on Twitter in 2014. And my reaction is just,

Motherfucker, are you talking about cancel culture?

It’s that stuff that sticks in my craw. When you get into the realm of “we need to make space for people who disagree with us,” there’s a line. First, because it only works one way. It’s always left and liberal types who have to make sure conservatives feel comfortable. You never see the National Review run articles like, “How to tell your aunt about your son coming out,” or, “Easy vegan dishes to keep Thanksgiving civil.” It’s always your racist uncle who likes starting shit that you have to tiptoe around. Here’s a radical idea: if Uncle Duke can’t make sure the dinner that’s important to your mom goes well, maybe he can fuck off. Maybe the people who want to make things worse for the people around them don’t need to be invited. In fact, I’ll grant them this concession: since they’re authoritarians they can follow the fucking rules in my house and keep their politics to themselves.

Second, no one even believes it. No one believes it. No one insists you have to invite people you don’t like into your space unless they disagree with you on politics. Then it’s a moral imperative. Why is that the exception? Cousin Melvin doesn’t get an invite because he’s boring and always talks about copyright. Aunt Ruthie is a Cowboys fan and this is an Eagles house gawdammut! And when they do get invited, they manage to keep their copyright and Cowboys discussions to themselves because they understand that ancient Philadelphia koan: don’t start shit, won’t be shit.

The call for inclusivity is for those who are denied entry for who and how they are—not for what they did. I was visiting friends for the last time in 2017, during the summer when things were moving forward to cancel Obamacare. If that had gone through, my friend’s dad would have died because he couldn’t afford his medical care without the various Obamacare provisions. People voted for that. They didn’t vote for candidates who then turned around and sprung that on us, they voted for that very thing, demanding the repeal of the law that was keeping my friend’s father alive. All this talk of “cancel culture” is people demanding they not be treated like people who did what they did. Oh, you tweeted something mean in 2014? Well, what have you done since? How have you apologized? What did you do to make it right? Cause if it’s nothing, then I’m going to act like you’re the person who said what you said because you are the person who said what you said.

When you say you want to run a space where everyone is welcome, I need to know if you mean my mixed-race family is welcome or if the people who papered my campus with flyers about “white genocide” are welcome. When you say it’s about not decrying people for how they voted, you tell me the safety of my family is second to the comfort of your uncle and, for all your talk of “inclusivity,” you’ve told me very clearly who's not welcome.

2.5/5 horror hosts cringing in a corner afraid cancel Krampus is coming to claim them

The Last Drive-In: Joe Bob Ruins Christmas is available to stream on Shudder starting December 19th.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Awful Advent #7: The Lodge (2020)

Welcome to Awful Advent: a countdown of 13 Holiday Horror movies for the 13 days before Christmas

For this year’s seventh entry, a film that explores the true horror of the holidays—spending time with your religious family. It’s The Lodge!

A young woman is spending Christmas with her partner’s two children at their isolated winter lodge. After falling asleep watching movies together, they wake up to find the power out, the water off, and all their possessions—including food—missing from the house. She needs to solve the mystery of what is happening, but memories of her cult leader father start cropping up and it’s not clear that there is a rational explanation.

I’m going to be circumspect about this movie because I really liked it and I don’t want to spoil anything. I’ll admit to rolling my eyes here and there guessing at the inevitable twist ending, but then the movie would lean into those very explanations. Rather than make me exasperated that the movie was drawing out its inevitable reveal (as a forthcoming movie on this list did), it made me doubt my assumptions and get drawn back into the movie.

At the center of the film is Grace, a young woman who, as a child, was the lone survivor of a Christian cult that had been led by her father. The cult all committed suicide leaving Grace behind as the messenger. Now, years later, she’s had therapy and is on medication to keep her anxiety and hallucinations in check.

She’s fallen in love with Richard, a married man with two children. In fact, we start the film with the mother dropping the children off with Richard. Grace is only a shadow in the background or a figure walking away in various cutaways for a good portion of the first act.

Richard asks his wife to finalize their divorce because he wants to marry Grace. There follows a sudden and shocking act of violence that leaves the wife dead and then we’re at the mother’s funeral. The congregants release a lot of black balloons into the sky, but the daughter ties her balloon to a doll she has of her mother, preventing it from floating away. That night she’s inconsolable, telling her father, “You don’t understand! Now she’ll never go to heaven!”

Over Thanksgiving, Richard tells his children that he plans to marry Grace and they object because they blame her for their mother’s death. We cut to Christmas where Grace will be staying with the children at the family’s winter lodge while Richard goes back to town for a few days to take care of business. Grace is unnerved by the Christian iconography in the lodge and things are stressful with the kids, but it seems like progress is being made.

And then they wake up to find the house stripped bare, the power out, and their cell phones dead. Dad took the car and they’re trapped in the middle of a blizzard.

300 words ago I said I’d be “circumspect,” but all of this is setup. What follows is the story itself with the erupting tensions between Grace and the kids, her own trauma resulting from surviving her father’s cult, and the mystery of what has actually happened.

Something I found interesting that I don’t think the film intended was the portrayal of mainstream Christianity as just another cult. This is 100% a result of my having left the church almost 30 years ago and abandoned my faith almost 20 years ago, but any kind of religious practice just looks so strange to my eyes. After the mother’s funeral, all the congregants release black balloons into the sky, which is a practice I’d never seen before. And it’s all done in front of a giant cross (not unlike the one at the start of The Day of the Beast) which made it all more Expressionistic and odd. The daughter’s extreme reaction afterwards sounded like someone deeply indoctrinated into a cult insisting upon the cult’s interpretation of the world: these rules must be followed or she’ll be damned.

The film actively plays with the manipulations of faith as well. Grace (subtle name) is made uncomfortable by the religious iconography in the house because it reminds her of her cult upbringing and the daughter saying grace before dinner feels like an intentional act of violence against Grace. It’s not the daughter doing her routine pre-dinner action, it’s done because she knows how uncomfortable religion makes Grace.

Like I said, I think that’s me more than the movie. I saw similar threads in the conclusion to The Wicker Man where the sergeant is crying out to Jesus to save him while the islanders are raising their voices to their own god. They’re crying out to their god in hopes of having their wishes granted the same way he is, only his wish is to no longer be on fire. It’s not so much that one god triumphs over the other as physics persists regardless.

All of that aside, this is a really good movie. It’s creepy, it’s twisty, and it’s shocking when it needs to be—and it knows what to make shocking. I highly recommend it in general, but I don’t think it’s really a holiday horror movie. Even more than The Day of the Beast, the Christmas aspect of this movie is incidental. Instead, it’s a psychological horror film set at winter and maybe a bit too heavy for the purposes I tend to put holiday horror films to. This movie demands your attention so it’s not something you’d just have on casually and it’s not visually splashy (although it does look great) so it doesn’t work as background fodder for a holiday party.

So, while I recommend it, not for Christmas.

4/5 reverends raving about Revelations and resurrection

The Lodge is currently available to stream on Hulu