What better time than the day after Christmas to reflect on the year that has passed and look forward to what will hopefully be a bright new year? Or, if you’re 13 O’Clock, you spend the day after Christmas talking about two of the grisliest and weirdest unsolved axe murders of the 20th century. Boxing Day, Axing Day, close enough. We all celebrate in our own ways, after all. On this blood-soaked episode, Tom and Jenny are discussing the massacre of the Gruber family at the infamous Hinterkaifeck Farm in Germany in 1922, as well as the bizarre occult-style slaying of the Benny Evangelist family in Detroit in 1929. Keep your head about you as we swing the blade of episode 71 right into your eager ear-holes.
Song at the end: “Hinterkaifeck” by Drangsal.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all you freaks out there! While most normal people at this time of year can probably be found gathering around the TV set in their jammies with their steaming cups of cocoa and their five millionth viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street, we horror nerds are carved from an entirely different hunk of bloody flesh. Therefore, to celebrate this most magical and terrifying of holidays, let us unwrap a double dose of horrorific Christmas carnage! (Both of these movies are available on Netflix as of Christmas Day 2017.)
First up, 2015’s straightforwardly-titled anthology film, A Christmas Horror Story. While most anthology films usually present their stories one after the other with maybe something of an overarching frame story to loosely link everything together, this one actually takes the more original route of weaving all of its stories together into one narrative and shifting back and forth between them, as though they are all happening simultaneously, just in different parts of town and with somewhat interrelated characters. I liked this conceit quite a bit, as it made the film seem more like a single, cohesive whole rather than a disjointed series of unrelated tales.
The film is set in a small town called Bailey Downs, in which a gruesome murder took place on Christmas of the previous year. The framing device of A Christmas Horror Story sees the wonderful William Shatner (aka The Shat) playing a radio DJ named Dangerous Dan, who sits in his festively decorated studio trying to impart some holiday cheer to his listeners while slowly getting drunker and more depressed as the movie goes on.
Really only one of the “anthology” stories ties directly in with the previous year’s murders, but there is an underlying implication throughout the film that this particular town is perhaps suffering under some kind of curse that makes terrible things happen there every Christmas. In the first tale, a group of three high-schoolers sneaks into their school (formerly a convent where some shifty shit took place) and into the sealed off basement of the building where the grisly killings happened one year previously. They’re working on a documentary project for a class, and want to get some footage of the actual room where the two victims (one of which, we later learn, was Dangerous Dan’s grandson) were brutally hacked to death and where the murderer left a line from a Christmas song written on the wall in blood. This goes about as well as you’d expect.
Meanwhile, one of the high-schoolers’ friends who was initially supposed to accompany them on the school excursion instead gets dragged along with her dysfunctional family to visit some estranged and decidedly unpleasant relatives. Turns out that dear old Dad is running low on cash but doesn’t want to tell his wife or kids, so he’s essentially going to beg his terrible parents for money. Said parents are of German extraction, and have a little statue of Krampus on a side table that their bratty grandson purposely breaks, so that also goes about as well as you’d expect.
The third story deals with Scott Peters (Adrian Holmes), one of the cops who investigated the previous year’s murder. He, his wife, and their adorable son are heading into the woods to cut a Christmas tree, and Scott decides he’s up for a little law-breakin’ in order to get the best possible tree for the season. He impishly trespasses onto the land of a dude named Big Earl and finds the perfect tree, but along the way, the son disappears for a time. His frantic parents finally find him stashed into the hollow of another tree, but when they get the child back home, they discover that he ain’t quite the same, and in fact, over the course of the story, it comes to light that the kid has been replaced by a changeling who proceeds to wreak all kinds of holiday havoc.
In the goriest and most hilarious segment, set at the North Pole, a rugged Santa and a decidedly MILF-y Mrs. Claus are forced to deal with a zombie virus outbreak among their immortal elf workforce. The elves, who all have names like Jingles, Shiny, and Sparkles, have turned from cookie-eating cutie pies into murderous, foul-mouthed little terrors who don’t hesitate to call someone a “reindeer-fucking snow whore” before munching on their intestines. Once Santa has taken care of the elfin menace, though, he realizes that Christmas Eve is almost over and he still has to deliver presents to all the good children of the earth. But just as he’s about to set out, Krampus busts in and the two Christmas heavyweights have to go at it mano a mano in a final battle royale. As batshit as this segment is, it actually ends up tying in nicely (and surprisingly) with the overarching William Shatner bit, so in that sense it’s almost like a secondary frame story.
As I said, I really liked the interwoven nature of the stories rather than them just happening one after the other; it was cool spotting all the connections between the characters and situations as the story went on. William Shatner was priceless and pitch perfect as he grew more and more despondent, and despite the stories being helmed by different writers and directors, they all hung together astonishingly well. A couple of the stories were slightly more compelling than the others (for example, I thought the changeling story was by far the creepiest and most effective, while the zombie elves were easily the most entertaining), but this is a consistently solid and fun entry into the holiday horror canon.
Next up, what’s the first thing you think of when you think of Christmas movies? If you didn’t say “abortion,” then you and the director of this movie evidently cannot be friends. Red Christmas, a 2016 film by Australian writer-director Craig Anderson, wades right into some fairly controversial territory and ends up with a strange, potentially pretty offensive film that in my opinion was far better than it really had any right to be.
A weird prologue shows protesters on both sides of the abortion issue waving signs and screaming at each other, and then an unseen woman inside a clinic undergoing an abortion that is interrupted by a bombing. The aborted fetus is hastily chucked into a biohazard bucket, but soon a tiny, bloody hand emerges, and the fetus is “rescued” by a priest who was one of the clinic bombers.
Cut to many years later. Matriarch Diane (a fantastic Dee Wallace) is happy to have corralled all of her grown children to her remote homestead to have one last “perfect” Christmas in the family home before she sells it. Her husband has died of cancer, and she plans to use the money from the sale of the house to take a trip to Europe and treat herself for once in her life.
This isn’t sitting too well with some of her offspring, though, as very pregnant daughter Ginny (Janis McGavin) thinks her mother is being selfish and besmirching her father’s memory by selling off the house she grew up in, and also shirking her responsibilities as a mother, as Diane will have to put her son Jerry (Gerard Odwyer), who has Down syndrome, in an assisted living home. Also causing tension is uptight super Christian daughter Suzy (Sarah Bishop) and her nebbishy priest of a husband Peter (David Collins), who sourly disapprove of the rest of the family’s laid-back, swearin’ and pot-smokin’ ways.
All of this family awkwardness is soon interrupted by the arrival of a creepy dude in a black cloak whose face and hands are covered with bandages and who talks like the Elephant Man. Although we as the audience have already seen this hooded whosis murdering a guy who picked on him, Diane (if not the rest of the family) is initially sympathetic to this stranger who shows up on their doorstep, as he claims he is simply looking for his mother. She lets him in, gives him some tea, and even wraps an impromptu gift for him after he admits that he doesn’t know what a Christmas present is.
But as they all sit there uncomfortably, the man (whose name, we learn, is Cletus, which rhymes with fetus, so you know where this is going) insists on reading a letter to his mother that he has brought. In the letter, which starts out “from a place of love,” he eventually mentions the abortion clinic bombing we saw at the beginning of the movie, at which point Diane flips the fuck out and kicks the cloaked weirdo out of the house.
After that, the killin’ comes thick and fast, as family members are axed, blended, and bear-trapped to death in what essentially becomes a siege-style flick. It will come as a surprise to no one that this hooded killer is actually Diane’s aborted (or so she thought) son who was raised by one of the clinic bombers as a vehicle for vengeance, though he really only starts taking revenge on the family after they reject him. There are also tie-ins with her other son Jerry and his disability, which causes a brief bit of tension between Jerry and Diane later in the film.
It’s sort of a bizarre premise overall, and because of the opening scenes, you’ll know who the killer is and what his motive is from the start, but I don’t think that detracts from the enjoyment of the movie as a whole. Though the story grows out of a pretty controversial topic, it doesn’t really take a stance on the issue one way or the other, so it’s more of a straight slasher than any kind of political polemic. The setup takes a while, but I didn’t mind that, as I enjoyed all the tense, petty squabbles between the family members before the shit eventually hit the fan and they all had to pull together for survival. The death scenes are also pretty great and gory, especially the “blender to the back of the head” kill, which was also very elegantly shot. The single, brief glimpse of the killer’s real face was also a highlight, and all the more effective for only being shown for a few seconds and then never again.
This is not a film for everyone, obviously, and definitely not for the easily offended. It’s not nearly as fun or as crowd-pleasing a holiday horror flick as the first one on our double bill, being pretty much completely devoid of humor, but if you’re looking for a sort of strange, nasty, Christmas-themed slasher with a somewhat original premise and some pretty great acting performances (particularly from Dee Wallace, who is awesome here), then give Red Christmas a spin.
Happy holidays and keep it creepy into 2018, my friends. Goddess out.
Time for another double dose of Netflix-streaming horror, and damn, I got two good ones today, though they’re definitely not for all tastes (but then again, what is?).
The first is 2016’s The Wailing, a massive hit in its native South Korea and an exceptionally reviewed flick on American shores as well. I’d been hearing recommendations for this one almost from the moment it came out, so I’m glad I finally got around to seeing it. Just a heads up, though: it’s unusually long for a genre film (about two and a half hours), so it’ll take a significant time commitment on the part of the viewer. Though the film is kind of epic and rambling and all over the place thematically, I think that was one of its greatest strengths, so I definitely feel like the time spent was worth it, though of course your mileage may vary.
Directed by Na Hong-jin, The Wailing (known in Korean as Gokseong, also the name of the tiny village in which the film is set) begins as a gruesome murder mystery being investigated by the most comically bumbling cops imaginable. Doughy, hapless police officer Jong-gu (Kwak Do-wan) is called to the scene of an unimaginably horrible mass murder: a ginseng farmer has slain his entire family, and now sits, empty-eyed and covered with festering boils, on the porch of the house where the atrocity took place.
Before long, more similar murders begin turning up; it appears that some sort of disease is causing people in this sleepy little village to erupt into revolting rashes before going completely doolally and killing off their entire families. At first, the cops and the media blame a bad batch of magic mushrooms, but during a poke through one of the crime scenes, Jong-gu meets a mysterious woman in white named Moo-myeong (Chun Woo-hee), who tells him that the culprit is really an evil spirit in the form of a reclusive Japanese man who moved to the village shortly before.
And indeed, rumors have been circulating about this sketchy fellow, who is never named but is only referred to as “the Jap” (and is played by Jun Kunimura). A friend of Jong-gu’s says he heard the Jap raped a woman down by the river, and a backpacker reported that he had seen the Jap running through the forest clad only in a diaper and chowing down on a dead deer. The guy also supposedly has glowing red eyes.
Jong-gu begins having terrifying dreams about the Japanese man, which only intensify after his beloved daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) begins to develop the telltale rash and starts to exhibit some decidedly Regan McNeil type behavior.
Wanting to get to the bottom of things, Jong-gu and a few of his cop buddies go on a possibly unsanctioned mission to break into the Jap’s secluded cabin to see what’s what. While in there, they find a shrine-like room that contains what appears to be some sort of Satanic altar, plus dozens upon dozens of photographs of people both alive and brutally butchered. After discovering one of Hyo-jin’s shoes among the creepy collection of personal effects in the shrine, Jong-gu finally accepts that the Jap is likely a demon who is possessing his little girl.
At this point, at the recommendation of his mother-in-law, he brings in a renowned shaman named Il-gwang, who claims he can exorcise the spirit with an intensive ritual. During this long and very screamy interlude, in which animals are sacrificed willy-nilly and drums are beaten to within an inch of their lives, Hyo-jin seems to be in great pain and begs her father to stop the ritual. Jong-gu is reluctant, since Il-gwang had told him beforehand that the exorcism would be unpleasant, but at last he can’t stand it any longer and cuts the rite short, much to Il-gwang’s consternation.
And this is where the movie is at its most interesting. While Hyo-jin is undergoing the exorcism, you see, the viewer has been privy to intercut scenes of the Jap doing his own chicken-killin’ rite, as though trying to protect himself from the shaman’s attempt to expel him from the girl. Il-gwang’s exorcism appeared to be working, because we see the Jap keel over, but then he revived after Jong-gu made the shaman stop. So we’re led to believe that Jong-gu has doomed his daughter by not seeing the exorcism through to the end.
But then The Wailing throws us something of a curve ball. Hyo-jin actually appears to go back to normal for a while, but then reverts back to her possessed ways and eventually becomes so ill that she has to be taken to the hospital. Jong-gu still thinks the Jap is responsible, and ultimately ends up killing the guy (or so he thinks) but shortly afterward, Il-gwang desperately informs him that he was wrong, that the Jap wasn’t the demon at all. The real demon, he says, is Moo-myeong, the woman Jong-gu met at the crime scene. The Jap was actually a good guy who was trying to kill her. This introduced some real intrigue into the film, as it subtly played with the idea that the Jap had been targeted and vilified by the townsfolk because if his nationality.
There then follows a hair-raising final act in which we have no idea who we can trust, an analogous situation to Jong-gu’s dire predicament. He is simply a clueless schlub trying to save his daughter, and knows nothing of the ways of the spirits. If he makes the wrong choice, his child will die, but how does he know who the real demon is?
As I said, this film is really not thematically one thing or another. The first third of it is like a surprisingly funny police procedural, as the cops stumble ineptly around and make wisecracks at each other. Jong-gu makes a sympathetic but pitiful protagonist, as he is constantly (but hilariously) emasculated by the women in his family, and pretty much fails at everything he tries to do, though you can’t help but root for the guy as everything turns to shit around him.
The humor of the piece is juxtaposed against the grisly murders from the beginning of the film, but as the story progresses, it just gets darker and darker until no humor remains, and all we’re left with is complete hopelessness by the ending. I’m not sure too many American filmmakers would really have the stones to try and pull off something like this: an overstuffed, kind of insane film packed with hilarity and grim bleakness in almost equal measure. It probably shouldn’t work, but it totally does. The movie’s kind of ramshackle and chaotic, with particularly the exorcism scene going on so long and so loudly that by the end you’ll feel like you’ve banished some demons yourself, but there is definitely an underlying method to all the madness. Not for everyone, but if you like your horror films epic-length, sort of bonkers, and aren’t afraid of intensely downer endings, then The Wailing might be for you.
Next up is an even more recent flick, Liam Gavin’s 2017 debut A Dark Song, which he both wrote and directed. The setup of the piece is pretty straightforward: Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) rents a remote Welsh cottage and hires occultist Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram) to help her perform a months-long magical ritual, the Abramelin, that will allow her to talk to her murdered son once again. But that simple plot synopsis doesn’t even begin to convey the depth and originality of this creepy slow-burner, which I have to say is easily one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long, long while.
The movie is essentially a character piece: Sophia and Joseph are really the only two people in the movie, other than a couple minor characters that turn up in a scene or two near the beginning. The horror of A Dark Song, then, sprouts out of the interactions between these two flawed strangers as they hole themselves up in the house away from the world and put themselves through physical and mental torture in order to achieve their goal. The ritual is grueling and exacting, and if it is done incorrectly, the cost could be their very souls.
There are myriad wonderful things about this movie, but let me just list a few of them. Firstly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen another film that focused so intensely on the actual mechanics of magic; that is to say, the sacrifice involved, the study, the precision, the tedium. The invocation these two are attempting necessitated six months of celibacy and a strict diet before it even started, and then complete commitment to the rite once begun, which meant that Sophia would be unable to leave the house for any reason for anywhere from six months to a year after the ritual commenced. She is forced to write thousands of pages of invocations in multiple languages. She undergoes various water tortures and food purges. She must sit in magic circles for 48 hours at a time without moving, eating or drinking, and pissing and shitting where she sits. And all the while, she is constantly berated by the deeply unpleasant occultist she has hired, who is going to be paid 80,000 pounds for his efforts but never lets Sophia forget that he is completely in control of everything and that she has to do whatever he says in order for the ritual to work.
But will it work? This is actually the linchpin on which the rising action of the movie turns, and another one of the things I really loved about it. Joseph (referred to as Mr. Solomon) is a brusque, abusive asshole who nonetheless appears to know his stuff. But for a long time as we watch the film, we’re not actually sure if he can do what he says he can, or if he’s just a contemptible con man or psychopath taking advantage of a woman’s grief, who gets his jollies from forcing women to bend to his will. Though there are a few apparently “supernatural” things that happen during the early stages of the rite, they’re small enough that they could be misidentifications, or even hoaxes engineered by Joseph himself to make Sophia think that the rite is working. So there’s a great deal of delicious tension as we question whether Joseph is the real deal or simply full of shit, a dynamic which plays out in some pretty disturbing ways.
I also liked that writer/director Liam Gavin wasn’t afraid to make both characters fairly unlikable (though they were also relateable and compelling at the same time). Joseph is obviously a raging cockbonnet from the start, but he does have his moments of vulnerability and humor that makes the viewer see him in a different light. And even grieving mother Sophia, who we are primed to empathize with, is sometimes abrasive and dishonest, even lying about her reasons for doing the ritual at first and misleading Joseph about her intentions.
Another great thing about the film is its slow build, as we watch these two fascinating characters struggling to get results. And when scary shit does begin to happen in earnest, it’s kept low-key and in the shadows, which makes it a hundred times more creepy. There are some fantastic, skin-crawling scenes that needed nothing more than a voice speaking from behind a door, or the glow of a cigarette across a darkened room. The whole claustrophobic atmosphere of it was superb, with the viewer left unsettled by what might be scurrying around just on the edges of the frame.
The ending was also really beautiful, redemptive and totally earned, if a touch on the bizarre side. I’ve seen a couple reviewers even throwing the word “masterpiece” around in regards to this film, and I’ll tell ya, I ain’t gonna argue with that one bit.
All in all, a highly recommended movie for fans of subtly eerie, character-based horror. I really can’t wait to see what Liam Gavin does as a follow-up; he definitely seems like a dude to watch.
That’s all for now, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.
Happy Holidays, 13 O’Clock listeners! On our sorta Christmasy-themed episode, we’ll be delving into the fascinating world of Biblical mythology, and specifically how the books of Daniel and Revelation may have allegorical, astronomical and astrological underpinnings. Were these books really prophecies of events yet to come, or were they simply fancy mythological retellings of historical happenstances? Put on your ugly Christmas sweater, pour yourself some eggnog, and kick back with your hosts as they jingle all the way into episode 70. Enjoy, and have a safe and happy holiday season out there!
Video clips in intro courtesy of Videvo user dravreh. Other Christmas video clips courtesy of Videvo and Videezy. Audio clip of music box courtesy of freesound.org user klankbeeld. Audio clip of jingle bells by freesound.org user juskiddink.
YES!!! Finally, my latest true crime compilation, The Faceless Villain, is now available as an audio book. Obviously, print and ebook formats are also available if you prefer. If you like it, please leave a short review on Amazon. It really helps a lot! Thank you, and happy reading!