Good Cinema: Black Christmas (Dir: Bob Clark, 1974)

A group of young girls is being mercilessly targeted by a crazed killer on a beloved holiday. At the end of the film, only one survives and the killer has disappeared into the night, presumably to strike again.

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If you thought I was describing John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), you would be wrong, but not off base. In fact, without Black Christmas, there might not have been a Halloween at all. Carpenter, a huge fan of Black Christmas and friend of director Bob Clark, was talking with Clark about a potential sequel to Black Christmas. Clark’s response: While he didn’t want to make one, if he did, he could imagine the killer breaking out of a mental institute and wreaking havoc. Oh, and it would be on Halloween. Carpenter ran with it and created an indelible masterpiece that has gone on to reap all of the acclaim of being the progenitor for the slasher.

But it’s not only the potential plot that Carpenter borrowed from Clark. If you watch Black Christmas, you will see a few of the tropes that have gone on to define the genre which have been attributed to Halloween:

  • the camera stands in as the POV of the killer = the opening sequence of Halloween outside the Myer’s home, which Carpenter has long attributed to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), can also be found here.
  • the lone girl survivor = while this trope should technically be attributed to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which was released in theaters a week earlier, Black Christmas sets the killings within a sorority house (another trope continued to this day in TV shows like Scream Queens). Where Halloween differed and laid new ground is that while Laurie Strode was the virginal goodie-two shoes that came to define the “lone girl,” Black Christmas’ survivor Jess was a liberal minded woman, set on getting an abortion.
  • the killer attacks on its victims’ own turf = While Michael Myers slew and stalked his victims in places in which they felt at home, Billy (the faceless murderer in Black Christmas) actually committed all of his murders within their home, the sorority house, even making his ominous phone calls there, a trope later popularized in When a Stranger Calls (1979) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and parodied in Scream (1996).
  • the killer disappears into the night = Halloween‘s glorious ending sequence, as the camera takes us through the various murder locations, can also be found at the end of Black Christmas.

None of this is meant to take anything away from the majesty of Carpenter’s masterwork. Seriously. It is one of the greatest films ever made and possibly the greatest horror film of all time (barring Psycho, of course). But in fairness, Black Christmas should get some of the credit it is due.

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Black Christmas, a parody on the famous Bing Crosby tune, is set during Christmas break at a sorority house. The girls have been receiving prank calls from an anonymous moaner. Up until now it has all been rather amusing. But when one of their sisters disappears, the others think it may have something to do with their disturbed caller. Suddenly, it is a race against time with the police (led by the sexy John Saxon) in tow to try and catch him before he strikes again. Along for the journey is the father (James Edmond) of the missing girl, Jess (Olivia Hussey) and her obsessive boyfriend who may be the murderer (Keir Dullea), the sorority drunk Barbara (Margot Kidder), the wallflower (Andrea Martin) and the comedic den mother of the sorority house (Marian Waldman, paging her best Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life).

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So is Black Christmas just “important” or is it good too? Well, it’s both. In particular, some of the murder sequences are very artfully crafted, albeit without the blood and gore to which we are accustomed; it wasn’t until Friday the 13th (1980) rolled around that this became an acceptable and expected element (although Herschell Gordon Lewis had already made a name for himself in the 1960s as the Godfather of Gore with his cult films, relegated to the fringes of cinema). The performances are more earnest and stronger than in some of its later knock offs because the script tries to give them all three dimensional characters with stakes – and very talented actors were cast; Olivia Hussey was fresh off of Shakespeare and Margot Kidder had just completed her dual performance in DePalma’s Sisters (1973). However, the story of Black Christmas is overdrawn and over complicated and feels at times that it is unsure what type of movie it wants to be. Is it horror? Is it police procedural? Is it black comedy? All questions one must work out when laying the ground work for a new genre. Black Christmas, while not as great as its descendants, deserves a viewing. Especially for those interested in the history of horror.

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Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

*The film is also known as Silent Night, Evil Night because distributors were worried that people would think Black Christmas was a blaxpolitation film.

*For further viewing on the history of the slasher, see Michael Powell’s excellent Peeping Tom (1960).

*Available on YouTube.

Good Cinema: Adventures in Babysitting (Dir: Chris Columbus, 1987)

Trevor had been begging me for months, years.

“Gurl when are we gonna watch Adventures in Babysitting? It is werking so hard!” 

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It had gotten to the point where I almost didn’t ever want to see it. It had gotten to the point that I could only be disappointed, sold on the promise of greatness. But tonight, after jamming to the new Mariah Carey (which has some fabulous moments btw…), after a false start watching La Vie en Rose (which looked like a HOT snooze…), I decided, what the hell. Let’s do this. I texted Trevor. He was ecstatic. I was cynical.

And I am here to say….it is glorious.

***

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OK. So Elisabeth Shue, rocking her best 80s hair, dances around her room to The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me,” whp for a Golden Globe nod. The power of love overtakes her body. It’s her anniversary and she is getting gussied up for her man. But wouldn’t you know it. Her boyfriend’s sister is sick. And he needs to take care of her. Well, we can see from a mile away that his sister isn’t sick. He’s stepping out with another girl! But Elisabeth i.e. Chris is none the wiser, despite the warnings from her anxious friend, Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller). With no pressing plans, when she gets a call to babysit the Andersons, she heads out for a night of easy money and boredom. Or so she thinks!

That worrisome Brenda has run away from home and begs Chris to come get her from the bus stop before the homeless man who lives in the phone booth attacks her. Well, Chris, being the dependable friend – the virginal paradigm set forth by Laurie Strode – dashes from the suburbs into the scary streets of New York City to rescue her friend, kids in tow. There’s 10 year old Sara (Maia Brewton) who thinks she is Thor, 15 year old Brad (Keith Coogan) who is sporting a serious crush for Chris, and his 15 year old friend Daryl (Rent‘s Anthony Rapp) who blackmails them into a night of adventure. And adventures are aplenty!

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It starts with a flat tire. Simple enough. Annoying, but not devastating. Unless you don’t have a flat. And the pick up truck driver is kind of creepy with his hook hand and instead of taking you directly to the mechanic’s, goes to try and kill his wife’s lover. And then to avoid getting shot, you duck into an open car. That just so happens to be in the process of being stolen. So there you are, taken to a hot garage, surrounded by gangsters, locked in their office, escaping through the skylight by straddling the beams in the ceiling like a damn circus performer with the stolen Playboy in your bag; the one that has all that secret information across the centerfold, the centerfold who looks like Chris. So you escape only to be chased by these gangsters, trapped on stage where you have to sing the blues to escape and you tear down the house (Shue is really werking this scene…) and the next thing you know you are stealing a thug’s knife saying classic lines like, “Don’t FUCK with the babysitter” before dangling from windows and finding out your boyfriend with the sick sister actually IS running game on you and your 15 year old crush calls him out for being a douche. Then you’ll get your car from Vincent D’Onofrio, race home, narrowly beating the kids’ parents, and bonding with your ward over the best night of your life…so far.

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Adventures in Babysitting feels like John Hughes Light, filled with charm, but missing the gravitas and hopeful cynicism. The soundtrack is filled with grooves and the cast is really excellent and sells the over the top plot. The tone of the film is not obvious satire like Heathers, yet it is not meant to be taking seriously; you never believe that the kids or Chris are in any real danger, which leaves Shue’s performance feeling somewhere in between great and just missing the mark. She underplays where she could camp it up and downplays her stunning beauty when she could use it to their advantage. Perhaps it is a sign of the times. If made today, Chris would need to be more sassy, more guarded, more kick ass. Think Ellen Page or LiLo. But there is an innocent maturity to Shue’s interpretation. After all the too-smart-for-their-own-good teens committed to celluloid in the ’80s, Shue’s Chris is kind of refreshing as an average girl without the life skills asked of her.

Adventures in Babysitting is a great time. Stop putting it off and watch the thing today! Thank you, Trevor!

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*Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

**I would watch this as a double feature with Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, also starring Keith Coogan, and an inevitable Good Cinema selection…

Good Cinema: Outrageous Fortune (Dir: Arthur Hiller, 1987)

“You’re an actress. Bullshit him.”
“I don’t use my training to tell lies to people.”
“Then what do you use it for?”

When I write about films for this column (and its sister column, Bad Cinema), I like to spend a substantial amount of time with the movie and its universe, reading up on its significance, perusing what other critics had to say about it, or watching it multiple times, with director’s commentary if possible. For example, when I was writing about Vamp, I listened to Grace Jones on repeat; when writing about THX 1138, I made sure to watch George Lucas’ student films to gain perspective; and when writing about Sextette, I delved breast first into Mae West, reading her autobiography and fast forwarding through her terrible filmography.

Outrageous Fortune, however, is a film I have seen innumerable times, one of those childhood stalwarts, like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, that I could quote from memory. Yet, strangely, I do not own it. (Or PTA…yet mediocre BS like Igby Goes Down and the Ernest Goes To…Box Set line my shelves. Figure that one out…). Last night, I made a special trip to Amoeba, the giant media store on Sunset that seems to have everything in search of this gem, but it was nowhere to be found! Not even in the $1 bin! I even scoured the row of VHS tapes. You know you are desperate for Outrageous Fortune when you are scouring the row of VHS tapes… I could have rented it for $2.99 from YouTube or ordered it from Amazon in a Bette Midler 3 Pack for $14.98 (which I still may do and am kind of embarrassed I didn’t…), but for now, I am going from memory.

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OK, Outrageous Fortune is a buddy road movie starring Bette Midler and Shelley Long. That’s all I really need to say. What? You aren’t pulling your hair out in pursuit of its digital presence? Hmmm…OK.

Shelley plays Lauren, a stuck-up bitch who thinks she knows everything (so Diane Chambers…), yet works in a dime store; Bette plays Sandy, a hustler, promising sexual favors for information. They are both actresses at the end of their roads. Their paths cross when Sandy busts in to an audition looking for “one phone in this whole fucking town that works.” Lauren is beyond insulted that this woman, this thing, would dare interrupt her VPS exercises. And not only that! Since she’s there, she’s gonna audition too. Well, Lauren loses it:

“You do not audition for a man of Korzenowski’s reputation without the classic presentation: that’s Shaw, Ibsen, Shakespeare. I’m doing ‘Ophelia’s Mad Scene.’ I’m not waltzing in here off the street thinking, (with thick Brooklyn accent) ‘Gee, I think I wanna be an actress.'”

Sandy/Bette’s signature response: “You know what I bet? I bet you haven’t been laid in about a year.”

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Well, they both get in. After class and back at work, amidst Lauren’s utter frustration (“He let her in! And on scholarship too! I just bet I know what she did for an audition…”), Michael (Peter Coyote) strolls in asking for a pumpkin costume. One of his kids (he’s a teacher) has a learning disability and he thinks “it would give him such a boost if he had the best damn costume in the pageant.” Well, they don’t have any vegetables so Lauren, blinded by his beauty, decides to make him one. They end up in bed.

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Next day at class, she’s flying high. “My, my, my. THAT kind of evening, huh?” “Well, not the kind you’re used to. No money changed hands.” Later that day, we learn that Bette…is ALSO sleeping with Michael! Just wait until they find out their beloved is sleeping with the enemy! They’ll kill him!

Turns out they don’t have to. Michael blows up in a flower shop explosion. The women are devastated until they… well, just watch.

Knowing that Michael is at large, the two join forces to track him down and find out once and for all: who’s it gonna be!?

Long and Midler play off of each other perfectly (despite their onscreen struggles), elaborating on their well established personalities and finding new notes of brashness and sympathy, respectively. Their characters use their acting training to get tangled (and untangled) from drug dealers…

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…airline officials (I used to act out this scene ad nauseum…)…

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…whore house madams…

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…and the KGB.

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All in the pursuit of love. And of course, in the grand tradition of the buddy comedy, they become best friends.

Oh, yeah. George Carlin is in it too.

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And that guy from The Golden Girls who plays Gil Kessler.

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***

Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

 

Bad Cinema: Alien3 (Dir: David Fincher, 1992)

“When they first heard about this thing, it was ‘Crew Expendable.’ The next time they sent in marines. They were expendable too. What makes you think they’re gonna care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass end of space? You really think they’re gonna let you interfere with their plans for this thing? They think we’re…we’re crud.”

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If you had asked me twenty years ago – ten years ago, two weeks ago! – if there was even the remotest possibility I would entertain the notion one day that Alien3 would be anything less than great, I would have laughed right in your face. The Alien Franchise was a vital and glorious part of my maturation. My friend Kevin and I used to crawl around his house, hiding from xenomorphs, stomping around in our invisible loaders, making flame throwers out of odds and ends, fighting over who would get to play Ripley this go around (and this was before we knew we were gay; talk about throwing flames…). While the first two films in the series are established masterpieces, I have always championed the third installment as its neglected step-sister; the Desperate Living in the canon, if you will. In fact, last week I was excited to write about Alien3 for Good Cinema, ready to remind the world (or the 16 people that would maybe read my review) that this little baby need not be lost in the shadow of its glorious predecessors.

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But 20 minutes into the 2 hour and 24 minute Special Edition, I had the crushing realization that my beloved film – the reason I would fall backwards into a pool with my eyes closed, the reason I would randomly yell “Pour the lead!”, the reason I would curl up into a ball against the wall and pant like Sigourney on the poster, imagining that I was narrowly escaping death by way of the Alien and his phallic mouth – was pure and utter bullshit. Perhaps even worse than the completely ridiculous Alien: Resurrection. 

Before we continue, I want to make the clear distinction between a Sequel and A Quest for Cash Addition to a Series. Not to be misunderstood, I’m under no delusions that all Sequels – good and bad – are made because they think there is great market potential for more material. But the difference between say, Back to the Future Part II and Friday the 13th Part II, is that the former is interested in continuing the story while the latter merely uses a similar device to create a franchise. What is so rare about the Alien films is that they are usually categorized as horror – the genre most guilty of shameless franchise-ment – AND continues the same story; Scream would be another great example of this phenomenon. Alien 1-3 uses Ripley’s relationship with the creatures as its central crux, picking up where the previous film left off and attempting to give us something fresh, something vital, something unforgettable about the universe. Alien is a masterwork of suspense, while Aliens is the best war film ever made. Alien3, however, is a belabored exercise in tone by a rookie director figuring out his style with one great pay-off, mired in an ironic combination of excess and void.

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Like the beginning of Aliens, Alien3 begins with Ripley coming out of an extended hypersleep. This time, instead of being picked up by a salvage team and taken back to Earth, Ripley’s escape pod crash lands on Fury 161, an almost abandoned planet housing a maximum security prison. We learn through a series of didactic conversations that the authorities wanted to shut the place down entirely, but a group of 20 prisoners who had found religion requested to stay and wait for the apocalypse. Seeing how they were a gang of rapists and murderers, the establishment had no problem leaving them in someone else’s hands. Dillon (Charles S. Dutton at his most ministerial) leads the others in prayer and harmony – until Ripley, the first woman they have seen in years, shows up to disrupt the delicate balance.

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For the first hour of the film, we hear nothing of the creature. There is a long drawn out, slow motion look-at-me-I-started-in-music-videos directorial touch where Ripley is rescued. There is Newt’s autopsy. There are gratuitous shots of surgical equipment and infrastructure. There is flirtation and sex between Ellen and the good doctor. There is an averted rape. There are muddled speeches, drowned out by the incessant use of music and horrible acoustics in the complex that force you to watch the movie with subtitles only to discover you really aren’t missing much. And there is the ticking of your own clock on the wall as it taunts you minute after minute, embarrassed for Sigourney Weaver that she was actually a producer on this thing and that her acting is for the first time maybe in her whole career melodramatic, making you long for something as pointless as Ghostbusters II  to help you forget you actually got up early to watch this mess.

So then the creature miraculously appears in the belly of a dead cow they find in the trash heap. The mythology of the xenomorph is that the Queen lays eggs. The eggs hatch these scorpion looking creatures who impregnate their prey by attaching to their face and basically cumming down their throat. Then the fetus bursts out of the chest of its host and grows into the fearsome, acid-for-blood motherfucker we all know and love. So that means somewhere there would have had to have been an egg/facehugger in the prison (which seems HIGHLY coincidental that they Aliens are everywhere Ripley happens to be) OR survived the crash water landing of Ripley’s ship, swam to shore, and attacked some unsuspecting bovine. The film isn’t exceptionally clear on its theory; it doesn’t care. The point is that the ball needs to roll and a dead cow is as good a host as any.

The prisoners learn to keep their dicks in their pants long enough because maybe Ripley knows how to stop this thing. Easily, almost too easily, they trap it in a space with no air ducts and six foot thick steel walls. But there are still 45 minutes of run time so you know shit is going to hit the fan. One of the nutso prisoners thinks that the Alien is giving him secret instructions to…who knows. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the Alien escapes so they have to catch it again.

While the creature runs free, Ripley decides to give herself a CAT scan. It is unclear why, other than to facilitate Plot Point 2, which is that Ripley has an Alien inside of her. Now THIS is an inspired piece of writing. Of course Ripley would be the host this go around. It is Part III, the theoretical end, the perfect way to complete the series. Ripley, carrying their Queen, serves as the guinea pig to lure the Alien to its death, before she murders herself and its progeny.

But of course, the old “company” – those nameless Maleficents that only want to study, only want to bring back, only want to protect the creature for its bio-weapons division – have returned and demand that Ripley and the fetus inside of her be saved at all costs. They even send Bishop, the man who invented the droid, as a friendly face to convince her they will take it out safely and destroy it. But Ellen is no novice to this game. She can smell his lies! And does the only thing she can: falls into a giant pool of molten lead to protect humanity.

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Like Laurie Strode’s decapitation of Michael at the end of H20: 20 Years Later, Ripley’s sacrifice is the best way to end her relationship with the xenomorph – and the series. But where there is money to be made, there are convoluted explanations to be concocted. “That wasn’t REALLY Michael in the mask. She killed some other guy who happened to be chasing her for hours and trying to murder her.” “Yeah, Ripley jumped into the fire, BUT we were able to abstract her DNA from the ashes and create a clone of her and the Alien.” Um, OK.

Alien: Resurrection could have been chosen for this column; it is awful too. But at least it gives us a different take on the Ripley character. Weaver is werking as the mischievous clone and Winona Ryder is…well, she is at least employed. But Alien3 is a disaster, an utter fail without redemption. Unless you are a die hard fan of the series or want to see Fincher developing his style, to paraphrase a much better film:

“Stay away from this movie….you bitch.”

***Rip van Winkle***