Gravid With Decay: Issue #2
Welcome to Gravid With Decay, a short biweekly-ish newsletter by John Tolva about all things horror.
Happy holidays, dear readers. This is one of my favorite times of the year for horror, primarily because for once the holiday (which, let’s face it, is usually Christmas) has some relation to plot. Halloween? Not about trick-or-treating or pumpkin-carving, except as setting. My Bloody Valentine? Not really about cupids and crushes. (Die Hard on the other hand … definitely a Christmas movie.)
When not (literal) window-dressing, the connection between horror and Christmas is usually through myth or simply by virtue of the stress of the season itself: missing loved ones, rampant consumerism, too much family time, etc.
But that connection, especially linking ghost stories and Christmastime, goes way back. Dickens’ ghosts of Marley and Christmases past, present, and yet-to-come are the most known, but you can probably hum this line from “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” too:
🎶 There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting and caroling out in the snow. There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.
Parties, caroling, and scary ghost stories? Sounds perfect to me! That linkage is most prevalent in British traditions. A series of BBC radio plays that eventually became TV specials called A Ghost Story for Christmas even ran in the 1970s. What Halloween became in the United States in the 20th century mostly overtook Christmas as the go-to holiday for frights, but there are vestiges that remain — and plenty of movies capitalize on this. Let’s slide down that sooty chimney.
I only had to see the title of The Advent Calendar (Le Calendrier) to know I was in for this. Strong idea, using the traditional, windowed box of treats as some sort of framework for nastiness. It certainly is that: don’t break the rules of the calendar and take what it gives you — for better or worse. Not surprisingly, the tone grows progressively more Faustian as the windows open. The physical box itself, part Wunderkammer, part wind-up toy — may be the best part of this flick. Oddly, I don’t know that Christmas is ever even mentioned in this movie. But who opens an Advent calendar any other time of the year?
Dial Code Santa Claus (3615 Code Père Noël) is basically Home Alone but with a killer instead of thieves. In fact, John Hughes was apparently overly dismissive of the similarity when confronted about it, so … you’ve seen it, but not with Angry Whipping Santa. I did like that Minitel (the French Telnet-based proto-Internet) is a plot point in this, basically the dawn of online creeping. It’s campy, but Santa kills the dog first so you know he’s evil.
I probably watch Christmas Evil every other year. It’s such a strange take on the killer Santa. You feel sorry for the guy which of course makes you root for the deaths, but not in the way you do in a slasher. If there’s a single image that makes this a cult classic it is the final shot of Santa in his van achieving his dream.
A Christmas movie in time of year only (though there may be a decoration or two at a gas station) Wind Chill with Emily Blunt was surprisingly good. Basically, what if a stretch of road were haunted with everyone who had perished there? And your car breaks down. And it’s freezing. But also Christmas!
Speaking of haunted Christmastime roadways, Dead End is also that. Lin Shaye from Insidious anchors this tale of a never-ending drive with a big ol’ twist. Driving long stretches of nothing at night with no good way to mark progress is itself somewhat anxiety-producing. Add some ghosts and such and that’s a not-bad movie.
To All A Goodnight is not a good movie. Released in 1980 it is Black Christmas but shitty with a storyline from the original Friday the 13th. If you like horrible acting set in a sorority house, though this is for you! No judging.
I’m a sucker for a good anthology so was looking forward to All the Creatures Were Stirring. The frame is weird: a first date at a live theater acting out the shorts (which you only see glimpses of before it cuts to a cinematic treatment). Problem is, none of the stories seem finished and not in a leave-you-hanging way. And the frame story, if there is one, wraps up similarly truncated. Coulda been good. Wasn’t.
Perhaps a glimpse of the fat Val Kilmer we will see in the Top Gun sequel, The Traveler was actually kind of a perfect role for him. Part of the sub-genre of films solely set in police stations at night, this one is simple and fulfilling. That it is Christmas is meaningless, except maybe echoing the visitation of ghosts from the past.
Mercy Christmas was a nice surprise. Shlumpy office functionary with no holiday plans (or friends) gets invited to a family Christmas by a hot co-worker. Torture and cannibalism ensues. If I need to tell you more, you’re on the wrong mailing list.
Last year’s The Creepshow Holiday Special was as close to the tone of the original movie as the series has achieved so far, in my opinion. Kinda scary, definitely funny, and super-inventive. Modeled on AA, the episode is a meeting of Shapeshifters Anonymous. The mythology of lycanthropy here intersects with a Santa-as-Satan’s-spawn history that’s just great. Little bit tone deaf with regards to the African-American heroine, I’ll note. But she does save the day.
My favorite Yuletide terror might be Anna and the Apocalypse. Imagine this pitch to producers: “It’s a Scottish zombie film … Set at Christmas … And also a musical.” You know what? It works. The tunes are catchy and the filmmakers obviously know the undead genre. And the cast — none of whom I had ever seen before — were superb. I made my wife and daughter watch this one. It’s gonna become a tradition over here — as might the line “Christmas is fast becoming my least favorite c-word”.
What a gem is Secret Santa (2018)! Absolutely hilarious with exceptional kills (though only so-so production — there are typos in the credits, for instance) this is the tale of horror that is family gatherings, done so right. If you watch one new holiday horror film this season, this should be it. Is it hot in here?
Firmly in the random finds category, Two Front Teeth is a student project-grade film that is truly wonderful. It’s free on YouTube in its entirety. Without giving away the plot I’ll note that this film involves the aftermath of a plane crashing into Santa’s sleigh, Rudolph’s nose as a power crystal, an animated segment, ninja nuns, a boss fight involving “Clausferatu”, and lines such as “I’m the Ghost of Christmas Pissed!” Watch this movie.
Also about the horror of family, The Children is a tough one to watch. British countryside reunion plus homicidal children. It’s a fine line between the chaos of sugar-addled, gift-craving children and the chaos that ensues here, but that line is not fine enough not to be crossed. It’s dark, though completely filmed during the day. (As this is set in England though, it might as well be night.)
Follow and Body are grouped together here because they are both driven by the plot point: Uh oh, we have a dead body. Now what? Follow is a good-looking film and has some really unsettling moments. Body is maybe the better film, though, with Helen Rogers giving a great performance. As with much of the holiday horror canon, the Christmas setting for both seems something of a bolt-on. If you’ve ever wondered what you’d do with a dead body, get a start on research with these two.
Had never seen Elves (1989) and now I have. This also is on YouTube. It’s a weird flick, essentially in a square aspect ratio, with lots of terrible dialogue (e.g.“Santa said ‘oral’”), but let’s focus on the fact that this film is about elves engineered by the Nazis to mate with a virgin on Christmas Eve to create a master race and bring about the antichrist. Do what you will with that.
Another in the lengthening string of movies I do not recall that I had watched before until the very final scene, Christmas Presence is another British group holiday film. It’s all over the place, complete with fourth wall breaks and literally nothing to do with Christmas. Pretty creepy though in parts.
Where is Krampus, the original Anti-Santa baddie, in all this you may be wondering? Well, for sure you should see the 2015 movie Krampus. It’s good fun and actually scary in parts. The homage to the family arrival scene from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is pitch perfect while the attack of the gingerbread people in the kitchen scene is the very best of horror-comedy. But there’s a long list of cinematic treatments of Krampus — a startling amount, honestly (Google it). In the best of the rest category I’ll note A Christmas Horror Story, an anthology framed and narrated by William Shatner (!) which pits a super-buff Krampus versus Santa Claus in a boss-level climactic fight. I think I actually cheered when it came to this.
Sometimes Christmas movies are unintentionally creepy. Twitter asks: “What’s the most frightening Christmas movie, and why is it ‘The Polar Express’?”
I found the book-length collection of essays Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Television fascinating. If you want to go deeper on the topic, this is a great place to start.
Let’s not forget La Befana, Italy’s traditional epiphany witch. She’s not unlike St. Nicholas in her gift-giving (and thus a “good” witch), but the motivation for her largesse is the extreme guilt she feels at not joining the Three Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus. Thus, her eternal wanderings looking for children, good and bad. Kinda creepy, no? Why is this not a movie?
And remember: 🎶 he sees you when you’re sleeping …
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