“Where the hell am I supposed to find silver bullets? K-Mart?” — Rudy (Ryan Lambert) in The Monster Squad.
Like many baby boomers reared on the Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, Fred Dekker is a huge fan of the classic Universal horror movies. Frankenstein, Dracula, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy and The Wolf Man inspire nightmares in most, but for Dekker they simply fire his imagination.
“As a kid,” said the San Francisco born filmmaker, “I loved the Universal monster films of the ’30s and ’40s so obviously, getting the chance to play in their fictional universe was a dream come true.”
The result of Dekker’s reverie was the creation of The Monster Squad, a 1987 teenage horror comedy that owes a big nod to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein with a side order of The Goonies thrown in for good measure.
When Count Dracula recruits a posse of monsters — Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon — to retrieve and destroy an ancient amulet that holds the key to controlling the balance of good and evil in the world, he didn’t count on a band of fifth graders (and one chain-smoking eighth grade greaser) driving a stake through his plans.
The Monster Squad, a geeky group who wear T-shirts that say “Stephen King Rules” and spend their days obsessing over monster magazines and debating important topics like, ‘Who is the coolest monster?’ and ‘Does The Wolf Man have the biggest nards?’ have come into possession of the diary of famed Dracula hunter Abraham Van Helsing, a document that holds the secret to stopping the Count’s army of darkness and thwarting his evil plan.
With the help of the local “Scary German Guy” (Leonardo Cinimo) who translates the book into English they get the skinny on the amulet. According to the book it is composed of concentrated good, but for one day every century it is vulnerable and can be destroyed.
If they can find the amulet and use it in conjunction with an incantation from the diary they can create a swirling vortex which will suck the monsters away from Earth, condemning them to a metaphysical jail and saving the world from their reign of wickedness. If the monsters get to the amulet first, evil will win.
The first thing you’ll notice about The Monster Squad is that the monsters don’t look exactly the way you remember them from the old Universal movies. That’s because this homage to those landmark films wasn’t made by Universal, who still own the copyrights to the likenesses of those famous fiends. To get around that hurdle special effects wizard Stan Winston, whose creature creations have been seen in everything from Edward Scissorhands to Jurassic Park and Aliens, took the original copyrighted designs and tweaked them just enough to avoid lawsuits.
“One of the things we had to be very careful of was that although we were doing a movie that was a take-off on the Universal classics, we had to be careful none of our designs infringed on the original designs of the Universal characters,” Winston told Rue Morgue in 2007. “There were subtle changes; we had to be sure that nothing specific about them could be considered a copyright infringement of a design.”
You’ll notice Dracula still has a cape, but no widow’s peak; Frankenstein’s head is shaped differently and the neck bolts are gone, while The Wolf Man looks like his hair was blown dry and teased by a hairdresser with one too many Red Bulls under his belt. The changes are minimalist, but spookily effective. The success of the make-up designs is further enhanced by strong creature performances by the actors, particularly Tom Noonan as Frankenstein’s Monster, who brings a vulnerability to this familiar character.
“I think Tom Noonan brought just the right amount of conviction and gentleness and sadness to Frankenstein’s Monster,” says Dekker, “and Duncan Regehr was a terrific Dracula. He had just the right combination of nobility and evil and animal rage and all the stuff that are the hallmarks of that character.”
In contrast to the supernatural showings of the older actors, the kids of The Monster Squad turn in nice, natural performances.
“It was really important to me that we had real kids and not movie kids,” Dekker says. “You know, the kind you see in commercials who are too pretty and mug and overact? We didn’t want that. We wanted them to be believable, and to seem like they were really friends. Luckily, they turned out to become a very tight-knit group.”
The Monster Squad, despite the salty language (the boys swear, Dracula calls a little girl “a bitch” and a preteen uses the word “chickenshit,” no doubt courtesy of Shane Black who also wrote more adult fare like Lethal Weapon), the refreshing lack of political correctness, the violence and the presence of nightmare-inducing monsters this is, above all, a kid’s film. The youngsters are the heroes and battle the monsters in ways that only kids can. A garlic pizza proves to be Dracula’s undoing, and in one classic scene The Wolf Man is felled by a well-placed kick to “the nards.”
“I like to think that Monster Squad, in its own small way, says something about what it is to be a kid and to be afraid in the world,” says Dekker, “and discovering the need for heroism.”
Dekker adds that he set out to make an exciting teen adventure movie, but may have been a bit ahead of his time. In the post–Buffy the Vampire Slayer world we live in the mix of kids, humor and horror seems normal, but in 1987 it didn’t click with audiences.
“When Monster Squad was released, we found that kids didn’t go see it because their parents wouldn’t let them. Mostly because they thought it was going to be too scary, and parents didn’t see it because they thought it was a kid’s film,” he says. “In fact it took another several years before the combination of young people in jeopardy in genre-horror situations like Buffy and Goosebumps and Harry Potter really became acceptable. The audience wasn’t ready for it in the ’80s. Sure there was The Lost Boys and The Goonies, but specifically the kind of monster-slayer approach wouldn’t be popular for another ten or fifteen years. So I like to think that we were a little ahead of the curve.”
The movie’s box office take, or lack of it, condemned the film to obscurity, but it didn’t disappear altogether. Substandard video releases of the movie helped built a small cult audience for the flick, but fans had to wait twenty years for a deluxe DVD treatment. In 2007 Lionsgate released a sparkling two-disc set with lots of extras and deleted scenes. “The remastered print is so incredible that there are many shots that I hadn’t seen since I saw them through the lens of my Panaflex,” says Dekker.
“People, and critics too, should know about the circumstances under which I had to shoot my films,” said Mario Bava. “On Terrore nello spazio (Planet of the Vampires) I had nothing, literally. There was only an empty soundstage, really squalid, because we had no money. And this had to look like an alien planet! What did I do then? I took a couple of papier-mâché rocks from the nearby studio, probably leftovers from some sword and sandal flick, then I put them in the middle of the set and covered the ground with smoke and dry ice, and darkened the background. Then I shifted those two rocks here and there and this way I shot the whole film.”
Planet of the Vampires is a low budget film, but the visual style of Italian maestro Mario Bava elevates what could have been a forgettable B-movie into a memorable movie experience.
American International Pictures, the house that entertainment lawyer turned Hollywood showman Samuel Z. Arkoff built by churning out cheaply-produced exploitation films with grabby titles like I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Invasion of the Saucer Men, had distributed two of Bava’s best known films, 1960’s terrifying fairy tale Black Sunday and ’63’s Black Sabbath (Ozzy Osbourne and friends lifted their band’s name from this movie).
Those films had filled AIP’s coffers, so Arkoff and collaborator, James H. Nicholson felt it was time to co-produce a movie with Bava, rather than simply distribute the finished product. They’d make more money and be able to shape the story according to the ARKOFF Formula, which was the former lawyer’s recipe for B-movie success.
Action (exciting, entertaining drama)
Revolution (novel or controversial themes and ideas)
Killing (a modicum of violence)
Oratory (notable dialogue and speeches)
Fantasy (acted-out fantasies common to the audience)
Fornication (sex appeal, for young adults)
AIP provided the services of Robinson Crusoe on Mars screenwriter Ib Melchoir to help form the “haunted house in space” tale based on the short story One Night of 21 Hours by Renato Pestiniero into a screenplay.
An international cast was assembled, headed by American Barry Sullivan, Brazilian actress Norma Bengell, Italian starlet Eva Marandi and Spanish actor Angel Aranda. Co-writer Robert J. Slotak remembers it was a confusing shoot, with each cast member using “their own native tongue on the set, in many cases not understanding what the other actors were saying.”
Sullivan plays ever-so-serious Captain Mark Markary of the exploratory space ship Argos. In orbit over a newly discovered planet, the fogbound Aura, the Argos begins receiving odd electronic signals. Forced to crash land on the desolate planet by a radiation overload, the troop turns on one another. Once restrained, the aggression disappears and the crew members have no memory of their violent behavior.
Markary, puzzled by the feral behavior of his crew, doesn’t have time to get to the bottom of the mystery before he receives a distress signal from their sister ship, the Galliot. Leading a small search and rescue party Markary braves a hallucinatory landscape of psychedelic swirling colors and molten lava flows only to find that most of the Galliot’s crew has already massacred one another, and those who survived are badly injured, and worse, most of the scars are psychological. In other words, they’ve gone crazy from fear.
It’s a grim discovery, made all the worse when it is revealed that the deceased Galliot crew members are having a hard time staying dead. In one of the film’s most eye-popping sequences the undead rise from their makeshift graves with a taste for living flesh.
Bava, working with no money but lots of ingenuity isn’t so much a cinematographer as he is a Cinemagician. For once, Arkoff’s penny-pinching ways actually served the movie. Optical special effects are expensive so Bava created the world of Aura using nothing but miniatures and old-school forced perspective shots. The two papier-mâché rocks — “Yes, two,” he said years later, “one and one!” — were maximized with the use of mirrors and multiple exposures to give the illusion of a rocky landscape. It’s hard to know for sure, but it’s possible that if Bava had access to a larger bank roll he might not have been so imaginative in his execution of the look of the film.
As much as possible the special effects were done “in camera,” that is utilizing the camera’s operations such as stop motion, slow shutter tricks and multiple exposures in lieu of special effects which are typically added to the film once the shooting is complete.
Bava further masked the cheapness of the set with a rainbow of colored lights filtered through fog. “To assist the illusion I flooded set with smoke,” he said.
It’s this sense of style that makes Planet of the Vampires so enjoyable. Bava injects great atmosphere into every frame, literally turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse. The film’s simple B-movie premise doesn’t promise much in the way of originality, but Bava’s unerring eye elevates the material, giving us an alien world unlike any seen on film to date.
Fangoria’s Tim Lucas wrote, “Planet of the Vampires is commonly regarded as the best SF ever made in Italy, and among the most convincing depictions of an alien environment ever put on film.”
The images are striking, none more so than the scene where the Argos astronauts discover a derelict ship in a huge ruin on the strange new planet’s surface. Climbing through the skeleton of the ship they uncover the gargantuan remains of mysterious creatures. If this sequence looks familiar, it’s perhaps because it appears that Ridley Scott borrowed from it while shooting Alien. Although Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon deny having ever seen Planet of the Vampires at the time they made their film, the similarity between Bava’s vision and a long sequence in the 1979 movie cannot be disputed.
Bava died in 1980, and even though he made all kinds of films during his career, his name has become synonymous with horror. It’s ironic that the maker of such classic horror films as Kill, Baby . . . Kill and Twitch of the Death Nerve was a bit of a fraidy cat in real life.
“I make horror movies,” he said,” my aim is to scare people, yet I’m a fainthearted coward; maybe that’s why my movies turn out to be so good at scaring people, since I identify myself with my characters . . . their fears are mine too. You see when I hear a noise at night in my house, I just can’t sleep . . . not to mention dark passages. Sure, I don’t believe in vampires, witches and all these things, but when night falls and streets are empty and silent, well, sure I don’t believe . . . but I am, frightened all the same. Better to stay home and watch TV!”
Sci-fi and horror rarely mix, but when they do it can result in classics like Alien, a near perfect fusion of scientific fiction and terror. Or, when the blend isn’t right, you get flops like The Mole People.
Dark Skies tries to hit the right balance with a story about a suburban couple, an ET disguised as a human and some good old-fashioned alien abduction.
Dark Skies did OK at the box office, but horror stories about outer space creatures have succeeded in the past.
The premise of Species is pure sci-fi. Scientists discover that alien and human DNA can be combined. Of course nothing bad will happen when you create a human with alien traits, right? A-listers like Ben Kingsley added some cache, but it was the horror of the H.R. Giger-designed alien and Natasha Henstridge’s flicking frog-like tongue that made the movie memorable.
Years before Peter Jackson hit it big with Lord of the Rings, he made a film that mixed sci-fi, horror and a big helping of humour. Bad Taste sees a small town taken over by aliens who harvest humans as ingredients for their fast-food restaurants. Über low-budget, the movie was called a “deranged, bloodthirsty heir to the Marx Brothers’ slapstick kingdom” by a BBC film reviewer. Its best joke may be on the DVD cover. The film title’s font looks like the logo of the U.S. takeout restaurant Fatburger.
It Came from Outer Space (one of the first alien invasion films), The Blob and giant ant movie Them! all combine the best elements of sci-fi and horror, but not all movies are as successful. The title Robot Monster promises some futuristic scares, but earned the title “Baddest of the B-Movies” in Michael Sauter’s book The Worst Movies of All Time mainly because the robot was actually just an actor dressed in a gorilla suit topped with a diving helmet.
The name Bela Lugosi conjures up images of horror to anyone familiar with his portrayal of Dracula, so a sci-fi movie with the genre legend should be both speculative and spooky, right? Wrong. The Golden Turkey Awards dubbed Plan 9 from Outer Space “The Worst Film Ever,” but it wasn’t Bela’s fault. He died before the movie was actually shot, but director Ed Wood Jr. used test footage of the actor in the finished film; hence the video box tagline, “Almost starring Bela Lugosi.”
Are there any more frightening words in a horror movie synopsis than “five friends head to a remote cabin”? That phrase has been the starting point for many scary scripts, conjuring up visions of ancient evil life forms, dangerous hillbilly types, mysterious incantations and lines like “No matter what, we have to stay together.”
The “cabin in the woods” genre is decades old, but almost always follows the same formula—five good-looking teens, say, a jock, a stoner, some hot girls, one a brainiac, and a party girl—go to a cabin, only one or two make it home.
The remade Evil Dead shakes up the formula to an extent. In it some handsome people head to an isolated cottage not to drink and party but to help Mia (Jane Levy) kick her addiction to drugs. The details are different, but the outcome—and this isn’t a spoiler, just a statement of fact—is the same and that’s what we like about the genre.
The most well loved “cabin in the woods” movies must be the first two Sam Raimi Evil Dead films. The original, and namesake of the series, was actually shot in a real life abandoned cottage. In it five friends go to a cabin in the woods (sound familiar?), discover a ‘Book of the Dead’ and unleash flesh-possessing demons. It made a star of Bruce Campbell and lead to a sequel, Evil Dead II, another cabin movie that is equal parts silly and scary.
Eli Roth made his directorial debut with Cabin Fever, a movie inspired by real life events. The idea for a film about a group of friends in a (you guessed it!) cabin in the woods, tormented by a flesh-eating virus and homicidal townsfolk, came to him as he worked on a horse farm. “I was cleaning hay out of this barn and got this infection on my face,” he says. The rash got so bad that, “I went to shave and I literally shaved a third of my face off.” It hurt, but he looked at the bright side. “I thought, ‘This is actually going make a great movie one day.’”
Sleepaway Camp—ignore the sequels, although the number two’s title Unhappy Campers is pretty great—sets the action at a summer camp. This gory slasher flick is most notable for a wild twist ending that has been called a “jaw-dropping, tape-rewinding, pause-and-stare-and-call-your-friends-over-to-stare” moment.
Richard joins canada’s number one mid-morning show “The Marilyn Denis Show” to talk about movies and television show to make your skin crawl on Halloween! We talk about a pair of chillers on Crave, “Come Play” and “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” Disney+’s “Lego Star Wars Terrifying Tales,” the Amazon Prime reboot of “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” the world’s most popular TV show, Netflix’s “Squid Game” and “Halloween Kills,” in theatres now.
“The Crime of Dr. Crespi starts where Frankenstein left off!” — advertising tagline for The Crime of Dr. Crespi
In front of the camera Erich von Stroheim was known to the public as “The Man You Love to Hate.” Behind it he might have been known as “The Man the Studios Love to Hate” because of his haughty attitude and disregard for the Tinseltown power structure.
In a Hollywood career that spanned forty years the Austrian-born director and actor saw his stock rise and fall many times. He first made a name for himself during WWI playing cruel aristocratic German villains — in one film he actually throws a crying baby out a window! — the stereotype which earned him the title “The Man You Love to Hate.”
In the silent era he was also a much sought after director until his arrogance (he made a nine-hour movie called Greed),budgetary follies (he was the first director to spend over one million dollars on a film) and attention to detail (his scripts were often as long as the novels he was adapting) made him unemployable by the big studios. Unable to find important work behind the camera he was forced to concentrate on performing.
Despite his hatred for acting — he couldn’t remember his lines and didn’t like taking orders — he was a striking screen presence. His well-crafted pompous screen persona was put to good use in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but it is a little seen 1935 film that captures von Stroheim at his ominous best.
In The Crime of Dr. Crespi, loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Premature Burial,Von Stroheim plays the embittered titular character, a chain-smoking doctor consumed by thoughts of revenge against Stephen Ross (John Bohn), the current husband of Crespi’s former flame (Harriet Russell). He’d give everything to be her everything again, and hatches a twisted plan to win her back.
The mad doctor gets the chance at vengeance when Ross comes down with a mysterious disease which only Dr. Crespi’s surgical skills can remedy. Unfortunately the operation is not a success and Ross dies shortly after the procedure . . . or does he? In fact Crespi has secretly administered a powerful drug that placed his patient in suspended animation which apes the signs of death. His lifeless body belies the fact that he, horrifyingly, he has all his faculties about him. Knowing that the drug will wear off after a few days Crespi rushes things along, forgoing an autopsy or embalming and makes arrangements to have the sentient man buried alive! Before the funeral Crespi visits Ross at the morgue to gloat over his fate; when the casket is lowered into the grave Crespi’s insane revenge plot is complete.
It isn’t until Crespi’s colleagues, Dr. Arnold (Paul Guilfoyle) and Dr. Thomas (Dwight Frye), become suspicious of the alleged death and have the body exhumed that lovesick doctor is exposed as a murderer.
The Crime of Dr. Crespi makes the best of its poverty row production standards, resourcefully using lighting effects to create a unique visual style that is part Universal Horror and part film noir to create a memorable looking film. As was often the case with these low budget thrillers, there’s little in the way of a musical score, just some stock music that undoubtedly cost the film’s producers little or nothing. No matter, the movie makes an impression because of the twisted story and even more twisted performance from von Stroheim.
The former director’s presence elevates what could have been a run-of-the-mill, bottom of the bill shocker. His characterization of the eccentric doctor is outrageous, a completely unsympathetic bad guy. He portrays mood swings that range from calm and controlled to full-out ballistic. In the latter mode his voice becomes a shrill staccato, a vocal representation of his fractured state of mind.
Director John Auer emphasizes Crespi’s mania with the use of extreme close-ups. The up-close-and-personal shots reveal Crespi’s craziness in riveting detail. The camera work creates an atmosphere of dread and doom that maximizes the story’s thrills and chills.
The supporting actors are fine; they’re journeymen actors who could be relied on to hand in decent performances while working quickly and for little money.
The standout of the secondary cast is Dwight Frye, the character actor who was usually typecast in oddball riffs on his famous roles from Dracula and Frankenstein. In Crespi he is allowed to, for once, strut his stuff as the hero, and sink his teeth into something other than the lunatic roles he usually played. He even gets to flirt with a pretty nurse, something that his most famous alter ego, Fritz the vicious hunchbacked lab assistant in James Whale’s Frankenstein, would never do.
The Crime of Dr. Crespi was likely made as a throwaway, a movie for “the shirtsleeve audience” and not the critics, but it transcends its humble origins by way of inventive direction and an unforgettable central performance from “The Man You Love to Hate.”
A Saturday matinee screening of Paranormal Activity was the first and only time I have ever heard anyone actually scream in a theatre. I don’t mean a quiet whimper followed by an embarrassed laugh or a frightened little squeal. No, I mean a full-on, open throated howl of terror.
The release of Paranormal’s prequel last weekend got me thinking about other big screen scream worthy scenes. So just in time for Halloween are some leave-the-lights-on movie moments.
If Alfred Hitchcock had any doubts about the effectiveness of the shower sequence in Psycho they must have been put to bed when he received an angry letter from the father whose daughter stopped bathing after seeing the bathtub murder scene in Les Diaboliques and then, more distressingly, refused to shower after seeing Psycho. Hitch’s response to the concerned dad? “Send her to the dry cleaners.”
The shower scene was terrifying but at least it was allowed to stay in the movie. In 1931, Frankenstein star Boris Karloff demanded the scene in the movie where the monster plays with a little girl, throwing flowers in a pond be cut from the picture. It’s a cute scene until the beast runs out of flowers and tosses the little girl into the water, leaving her to drown. Karloff, and audiences, objected to the violence against the youngster and the scene was shortened, then removed altogether and remained unseen until a special videotape release 48 years later.
More recently, The Exorcist (now beautifully restored on Blu Ray) so traumatized audiences with shots of the possessed Regan MacNeil’s 360-degree head spinning that in the U.K. the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade were on-call at screenings to tend to fainters. Star Linda Blair says she wasn’t traumatized by the film, but admits there has been one long lasting side effect. “You wouldn’t believe how often people ask me to make my head spin around,” she says.
Blair may have been unfazed while shooting her gruesome scenes, but not all actors emerge unscathed. Elisha Cuthbert was so grossed out while shooting the notorious blender scene in the down-and-dirty flick Captivity she says she felt “physically ill twice” and had to have a bucket nearby.
Scary scenes one and all, but recounting them begs the question, why are we drawn to them?
The quick answer comes from Alfred Hitchcock who said, “People like to be scared when they feel safe.”
1. Romero’s zombies don’t eat brains. “I’ve never had a zombie eat a brain! I don’t know where that comes from,” he told Vanity Fair. “Who says zombies eat brains?”
2. Romero didn’t even call his undead characters zombies in his first movie. “When I did Night of the Living Dead,” he told About.com, “I called them ghouls, flesh-eaters. I didn’t think they were. Back then zombies were still those boys in the Caribbean doing the wet work for Lugosi. So I never thought of them as zombies. I thought they were just back from the dead.”
3. Romero doesn’t watch The Walking Dead. “I love the books,” he said to io9.com. “I haven’t seen any of the episodes.”
4. Romero has had it with people asking him about zombies. When asked by eatsleeplkivefilm.com if he is tired of zombie queries he said, “Yes. But you know what are you going to do?”
5. Romero wears his famous thick-rimmed black glasses mostly for show these days. “I don’t need them anymore. I mean I don’t need them to read, I mean these are bifocals. I used to need them for reading and for middle-distance. Now I’m a little fuzzy on the long-distance, but I guess that all turned around with old age, so I don’t need for these reading but I’m thinking of just taking the lenses out, because I’ve got to wear them for photographs; everybody says, ‘Where’s your glasses?’“
6. Romero wears Goliath brand glasses. From barimavox.blogspot.ca: “The Goliath is favoured by famed horror filmmaker and Grandfather of the Zombie, George A. Romero and worn by Elliot Gould in the Ocean’s 11 trilogy and Robert De Niro in Casino, as well as by the late flamboyant actor and game show host Charles Nelson Reilly.”
7. Quentin Tarantino says the “A” in George A. Romero stands for “A fucking genius,” when actually it stands for Andrew.
8. Romero calls the 1951 Michael Powell film The Tales of Hoffman, “the movie that made me want to make movies. I was dragged kicking and screaming by an aunt and uncle. I wanted to go see the new Tarzan; the new Lex Barker movie to see how he stacked up against Weissmuller and they said, ‘No! We’re going to see this,’ and I fell in love with it. It’s just beautiful. Completley captivating. It’s all sung. It’s all opera. It’s not like The Red Shoes where there is a story running through it and then Léonide Massine does a ballet at the end. I just fell in love with it from the pop.”
9. Romero is of Cuban and Lithuanian descent. His father was Cuban-born of Castilian Spanish parentage, his mother Lithuanian-American.
10. At age 19 he worked as a gofer on the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest but was unimpressed with the director’s mechanical and passionless directorial style. He was there for the train station scene shot in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. Also among the onlookers was future It’s Alive director Larry Cohen.
“If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl . . . it’s on too tight!” — advertising tagline for Black Christmas
Canada is a nation of firsts. Torontonian Don Munroe built the first table hockey game here in the early 1930s. Other parts of the country can lay claim to the Jolly Jumper, the celebration of Labour Day, artificial hearts, the Robertson square-head screwdriver, and it was a Canadian who mixed the world’s first Bloody Caesar. The country has broken ground in many fields, including film. Florence Lawrence, the first performer to be identified by name on screen, was born in Hamilton, Ontario, while the first aboriginal actor to portray a Native American on television, Jay Silverheels, hailed from the Six Nations Indian Reserve in Brantford, Ontario.
In a more macabre vein, without a groundbreaking 1974 Canadian horror film there might never have been a Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers. Between them the gruesome threesome have sliced and diced their way through at least two dozen movies, but the mayhem they imposed on promiscuous college girls and studly teens owes much to one film made in Toronto, a movie Film Threat magazine calls “the first modern slasher movie.”
Director Bob Clark didn’t invent the slasher film with Black Christmas — arguably Psycho, Peeping Tom or Bay of Blood (Reazione a catena) were the granddaddies of gore — but he did establish the format. Mix and match the fear of an unwelcome visitor to a sorority house brimming with randy college girls, a holiday-turned-violent theme, the anonymous phone call used to terrorize girls, a motiveless killer, a mysterious male stalking young women, and a female lead who must conquer her own fear in order to stay alive and you have the plot of dozens of films that were to follow.
Shot in Toronto between February and May 1974 on a budget of roughly $600,000, Black Christmas is about an unseen psychotic killer named Billy who makes disturbing, obscenity laced phone calls to a group of sorority girls. Soon he escalates from one-sided phone sex to dispatching the girls one by one in brutal fashion.
“It was originally called Stop Me,” says Clark, who was killed in an April 2007 car accident, “I don’t think I’m taking unfair credit, but Black Christmas was my title, my idea. I love the contrast of the idea of Christmas, the jolliest of all seasons with this dark kind of imagery. Both a horror film and Christmas have tremendous trappings that make a nice juxtaposition.”
Apparently others agreed with him. In the next two decades a tsunami of holiday themed horrors — Christmas and otherwise — drifted into theaters; My Bloody Valentine, New Year’s Evil, April Fools Day and a Santa’s sack of movies featuring death by Christmas tree light.
What sets Black Christmas apart from the rest of the Christmas horror pack are the memorable characters. The standout is a pre-Lois Lane Margot Kidder as the sharp-featured brunette Barb, whose alcoholic tendencies foreshadowed the actress’s troubled real life. “One of my favorite memories is Margot coming to the set for her famous turtles-screwing-for-three-days scene,” says Clark. “She was supposed to be imbibing, and she was, to get in character. She was definitely there.”
As Barb she thumbs her nose at any form of authority — be it the thick as a brick Sgt. Nash or the threatening caller — and steals every scene she’s in with her reckless energy. When she slurs, “This is a sorority house, not a convent,” it is lewd, raunchy and sexy-funny.
Argentine-born Olivia Hussey as Jess is not the typical sorority slasher movie heroine. Hussey brings a quiet strength to Jess that hints at a fountain of inner resolve. It has often been said that slasher films are the most Republican of genres because of the punishment meted out on people who go against conservative middle-American values. In other words smoking pot and jumping from bed to bed is bound to earn you a one way ticket to hell courtesy of some masked madman, while the virgin of the group usually makes it through bloodied but unbowed. In Black Christmas Jess rebels against her boyfriend, and is planning to have an abortion. Clearly she is no virgin, and yet she is the sole survivor of Billy’s rampage.
The boyfriends of Claire and Jess — Chris Hayden(Art Hindle) and Peter Smythe(Keir Dullea) — are studies in opposites. The Halifax-born Hindle plays Chris as earnest and loving (although he does wear a raccoon coat), a stand-up guy who loves his girlfriend even if their relationship is chaste.
Keir Dullea as Peter is a different story. Peter is an eccentric musician who realizes too late that he has traded one passion for another. His love of music overshadowed his feelings for Jess and now she is backing away from him. He is prone to fits of anger, and this hot-headed behavior is the perfect red herring (or McGuffin as Hitchcock used to call them) to make us think he is the killer. It is interesting to imagine how the character might have differed if Clark’s first choice for Peter, Malcolm McDowell, had accepted the part.
During shooting Dullea was only available for a week as he had other commitments in Europe. In his short time on the film, he never met Margot Kidder and worked with John Saxon only briefly. “My total experience with working with anybody was Olivia Hussey,” he says. Clark shot all of Dullea’s scenes first and in editing made it appear as though he was there for the whole time.
Like Black Christmas’s other imported movie star, Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea’s early career showed great promise, but didn’t mature into full-blown movie stardom. Two films hinted at his star potential — 1963’s Lisa and David and Bunny Lake is Missing in 1965 — but it wasn’t until he played astronaut Dave Bowman in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 that his full promise was reached. He failed to really capitalize on the notoriety that movie earned him, leading Noel Coward to famously quip, “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.”
Uncredited but very effective are the actors who voiced the obscene phone calls. The disembodied voices of unseen evil were supplied by a number of people including Bob Clark, actor Nick Mancuso and several female actors. “[The phone calls are] a compilation of about five actor’s voices,” says Clark. “I remember what Nick brought it to was an intensity that certainly I had never seen before,” said sound designer and composer Carl Zitrer who engineered the calls, mixing in reverb and an array of spooky sounds.
Was Black Christmas the inspiration for John Carpenter’s seminal slasher flick Halloween? It’s a question that has sparked a fair amount of debate, so let’s break it down. There are similarities that cannot be denied between the two films.
Most obviously both films open with a point of view shot of the killer creeping around the outside of a house at night. Clark uses this shot, and many POV angles to great effect in Black Christmas, but he wasn’t the first to use the subjective camera to create fear. Clark simply took an old idea and put a new spin on it. He would later say that he hoped to break new ground by “employing some, if not new, certainly reworked and rethought cinematic ideas.” Mario Bava used distorted POV in Blood and Black Lace, and Hitchcock used it in the shower scene in Psycho, just to name a couple famous examples. Clark’s innovation in Black Christmas was to make the point of view shot his centerpiece, using it create a mood of terror rather than a secondary complement to the horror already on screen.
Clark’s film is unique in that we never see the killer, he moves in the shadows, a subliminal figure of terror unlike the very visible Michael Myers in Halloween. What they share, however, is motive – neither of them has one. They are striking out at these victims for no reason. Carpenter says he modelled Michael Myers’ relentless passion for killing on a film by Michael Crichton. “I must tell you that I cribbed from Westworld – Yul Brynner as a robot gunfighter who malfunctions and keeps coming after them. I just took it a step further, but I gave you no explanation.” Pre-Black Christmas movie homicidal maniacs always had a motive, but we never know why Billy targeted the Pi Kappa Sig house or its inhabitants.
There is one major difference between the two – Billy is literally a raving lunatic, screaming and grunting his way through the film, whereas Michael Myers (and later, Jason Voorhees) is unnaturally silent.
It may have just been weird synchronicity that two films about homicidal maniacs open with unusual POV shots, and share an ideological bent, but there is no question that Black Christmas and Halloween are similar.
“I absolve John Carpenter every time,” says Clark. “The facts are that I was going to direct a film John wrote a couple of years after Black Christmas. He was a big fan of Black Christmas… and he asked me if I was ever going to do a sequel.
“I said, ‘I would make it the following fall and somehow in the interim the killer had been caught and had been institutionalized. I would have him escape one night, and now he is free in the community… and he starts staking them again at the Black Christmas sorority house, and I was going to call it Halloween.’
“I think he was influenced by it, as were a few others. When you think about what John Carpenter did, [however], wrote a script — really quite different from that idea —directed it, edited it and did the music. It was a terrific piece of work. Maybe the title Halloween he should have given me a little of, but I didn’t own that either.”
Despite the rave reviews, and the prediction of Olivia Hussey’s personal psychic that the film would make a bundle, Black Christmas didn’t fare well at the box-office in the USA. To boost admissions, in some markets the movie’s name was changed to A Stranger in the House to avoid confusion with the flurry of blaxploitation films that were appearing at the time. It was also released as Silent Night, Evil Night.
Viewed through today’s eyes the movie holds up. It is very stylish, although slower in sections, and with a lower body count than modern horror fans are used to, but it is still capable, more than three decades after its conception, to raise goose bumps. A testament to the film’s enduring ability to scare came when NBC cancelled an airing of the film because they felt it was too intense for television audiences. It has also earned the seal of approval from Quentin Tarantino, who cites it as one of his favorite movies.
“It’s an interesting film.” says Clark, “I thought it was a good, scary, classic horror story, and those have a way of surviving.”