This blog is devoted to all those pieces of 20th century culture too often pooh-pooh'ed by the so called 'high brow' crowd. The stuff that conjoures words like 'vibrant', 'garish' and 'lurid'. Cheap paperbacks, b-movies, exploitation, fantasy, horror and hokey sci-fi - all have a place on this blog where the trash of yesterday is recognised as the classics of today.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Movie Review: Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

It seems like only last week that I was doing posts on Halloween, and yet here comes Christmas already. I'm still kind of in 'horror movie mode' and so what better way to make the transition than with Silent Night, Deadly Night?

Released the same month as A Nightmare on Elm Street, this less influential slasher flick was understandably overshadowed by Wes Craven's more inventive project. But Silent Night, Deadly Night outdid Freddie Kruger in one respect - parents and religious organisations really hated it! The idea of Santa Claus going on a killing spree was not one relished by many and the film was banned for a good while.

The story revolves around a youngster called Billy who, after a Christmas visit to his senile old grandpa (who warns him that Santa punishes naughty children) sees the murder of his parents by a felon dressed as the jolly man in red. Understandably this traumatises him no end, a fact that has little effect on the iron-handed Mother Superior of the orphanage he winds up in - a woman whose method of raising kids is thrashing the living daylights out of them with a leather belt.

Flash forward a few years and Billy is all grown up and working in a toy store. Things are going well for him until Christmas time comes around and he is asked to suit up in the dreaded red costume and be nice to kids. At an after hours party in the store, Billy (still in his Santa suit) sees the female co-worker he has a crush on getting manhandled by a fellow employee. This pushes him over the edge and he kills them both before embarking on a rampage across town that will eventually lead him back to the orphanage for a confrontation with the old Mother Superior.

I can't not mention the toy store in this movie which is a great snapshot of 1980s childhood. Many people have spotted treasured items from their own past on the shelves in the background and I'm no different. Jabba the Hutt action figures! He-Man and Battle-cat (on some sort of kite)!

Anyway, back to the movie. What makes this one different from most other slashers is that it is played out from the point of view of the killer. Most entries in this genre begin by establishing a group of teenagers who will eventually be picked off, one by one by a masked killer as the film progresses. Silent Night, Deadly Night spends the first half of its running time establishing the killer! In fact, I can't really remember any of the victims, except the ways in which they are killed. And there are some great ways including impalement by deer's antlers, strangulation by fairy lights and my personal favorite - a swinging chop of an axe that decapitates some young miscreant as he hurtles down a slope in his sleigh (incidentally the film's working title was 'Slay Ride').

But the 45 minutes spent setting up the killer's motive still doesn't quite warrant his sudden turn into a zombie-like killer of all 'naughty children'. Sure, he's got more motive than the likes of Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, but the film still falls into the trap of almost every slasher - there is never enough credibility to make us believe that somebody would really go out and do this stuff. But never mind. A noble and entertaining entry in the genre nevertheless.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

RIP Ingrid Pitt

Sad news today as another icon leaves us. Polish actress Ingrid Pitt (born Ingoushka Petrov in 1937) who is best remembered for her work in Hammer Horror films (The Vampire Lovers - 1970 and Countess Dracula - 1971) died yesterday in London at the age of 73 of heart failure. She led an extraordinary life having survived the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp as a child and then escaping communist Berlin before beginning a lengthy acting career that saw her in Doctor Zhivago (1965), Where Eagles Dare (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973).

But for many she will always remain the epitome of the voluptuous vamp woman that later Hammer films became famous for.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

SAGA Entry 2: Poul Anderson

An American author of Scandinavian descent, Poul Anderson was a giant in the genre of 20th century science fiction. These two hugely influential sword and sorcery novels earned him a place in the Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America (SAGA).

The Broken Sword (1954) is a strangely paced tale that entwines fairy-tale style elves and trolls with historical Vikings and Anglo Saxons. Taking its cue from the Norse sagas, it tells of the son of Orm the Strong who is replaced in his crib by a changeling who grows up to be a doom-bringer to all his people. Orm's real son is raised by the elves as 'Skafloc'. There is also the matter of the titular broken sword - a theme present in the Norse sagas and also used by Tolkien (who's first volume in the Lord of the Rings trilogy was published the same year).

Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) was based on Anderson's novella printed in Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1953. Starting in wartime Europe, Danish resistance fighter Holger Carlsen - in true Burroughsian fashion - is sent hurtling through space and time by an explosion and winds up in another world. This pseudo-medieval world is under siege by the evil of 'Faerie' and Carlsen (who now goes by 'Ogier the Dane') discovers that this is where he is most at home.

Both books are essential reading in the sword and sorcery genre, not least for their influence on other writers. Michael Moorcock has credited The Broken Sword as a major inspiration in writing his Elric tales and the alignment of creatures and characters into the groups of 'law' and 'chaos' as shown in Three Hearts and Three Lions was used in the game system of Dungeons and Dragons the following decade.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Movie Review: The Black Hole (1979)

Odd that I've only just got around to seeing this. It was pretty big news in the late '70s when a lot of films were keen to follow the success of Star Wars (1977) and as I love pretty much everything from that decade it's strange that it's taken me this long to discover it.

Anthony Perkins and Robert Forster star in this Disney production which invested heavily in the special effects department and it certainly is a very pretty film to look at. The story is simple enough; a space exploration team discover the titular black hole along with a massive craft identified as the USS Cygnus which went missing twenty years ago. The ship appears to be deserted but the team soon come across Dr. Hans Reinhardt, something of a mad scientist, who has spent the last two decades living alone with only his robotic crew (which he built) and large, red, robot henchman, Maximilian for company. Reinhardt explains that rest of the old crew fled back to earth after the Cygnus was disabled by a meteorite shower. He remained and now has ambitious plans to travel through the black hole and see what lies on the other side.

Suspicions arise that Reinhardt may not be so devoid of human company as he claims as the crew discover a garden with enough food reserves to feed a small army and one of them witnesses some sort of funeral procession. As they gradually uncover Reinhardt's scheme, they discover the true fate of the old crew and soon find themselves his prisoners and at the mercy of his army of robots.

The main thing this film has going for it is its production design. It really is stunning. True, it's very much a product of its time with its browns and beiges reminiscent of other '70s sci-fi such as Battlestar Galactica and Space: 1999, but the effects and sets are still very impressive today. From the cavernous interiors of the USS Cygnus and its sprawling views of space and walls of consoles to the laser gun fights and floating robots, the film is what I suppose one would call a 'visual feast'.

But the film is not without its flaws. Primarily these revolve around the character of V.I.N.CENT, a robot buddy of the main characters. Clearly included as some sort of comic relief, R2-D2, this guy ain't. As a result the movie can't seem to decide whether it is a light-hearted family romp or serious science fiction and ends up being neither.

Of course, the film was merchandised to the hilt alongside other sci-fi extravaganzas of the late '70s.