Monday, December 21, 2009

Los Monstros Pequenos

While respected film critics and paid journalists sift through prestigious Oscar bait in search of completing annual best-of lists, I aim low with the hopes of finding a few films that I can actually discuss in public without shame. Thankfully, there’s a country called Spain.
Six Films To Keep You Awake is a 2006 series of slightly-shorter-than-usual feature length films produced by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, he of the woefully underrated and terrifying classic, Who Can Kill a Child? Words don't express how much I loved that 1976 film (although they certainly tried in my review ), but Serrador's involvement seems to mirror Mick Garris's role in amassing those Masters of Horror. I picked up today’s subject, Cuento de Navidad (The Christmas Tale para los gringos) following the enthusiastic recommendation of one of my favorite bloggers, the mighty and macho Matt House over at Chuck Norris Ate My Baby (read his excellent review here ). Although it bares Serrador's name, the real men behind this sparkling little holiday treat are director Paco Plaza and writer Luis Berdejo, the team best known for 2007's refreshing viral zombie pic REC.

Quick Plot: Five spunky 12 year olds are enjoying Christmas vacation in 1985. Between watching zombie flicks, riding their bikes, and waxing on and waxing off, they stumble upon a deep hole in the woods with a mysterious woman named Rebecca and dressed as Santa Claus trapped inside (thankfully, none of The Pit ’s trollogs or obnoxious child actors are to be found). They attempt to notify the local policeman--a man who’d much rather provide very specific instructions for cooking xmas dinner--but do an about face when they discover a fax that puts their St. Nicole as a dangerous bank robber.

The gang is in a pickle. Two of the boys see million dollar signs and a lucrative hostage situation in their Christmas future, while the more sympathetic Moni (played by a pre-Pan’s Labyrinth Ivana Banquero with the same quality of ahead-of-her-years performance) feels it’s wrong to not help a woman in need, especially when the alphas start suggesting starvation as a torture tactic. The young Koldi nurtures his crush on Moni by supporting her decision, while Tito, the Short Round stand-in with some mean Ralph Maccio moves, is more interested in propising elaborate plans without considering the moral implications.

I'll slow down with any plot description, as The Christmas Tale's journey takes a few surprising--if not overly shocking--turns that are fun to experience with no expectations. It’s rare that you can watch a film and have no idea where it’s going, but this is indeed such a refreshingly made story that somehow manages to combine sunny nostalgia with cruel little twists. The somewhat standard premise--diverse preteens caught up in a wild adventure no adult could possibly handle--is both honored and improved, with true suspense, an intriguing villain, and pitch perfect filming that interprets nearly every scene through the eyes of its characters. A very deliberate touch is how, save for Rebecca, no grownup is ever fully seen onscreen. This Peanuts/Muppet Babies approach perfectly suits The Christmas Tale, where our characters’--and in effect, our own--understanding of how to survive is limited to a few hysterically tongue-in-cheek B-movie excerpts about the rubbery voodoo cursed undead.

I was utterly charmed by this movie in a way that makes me smile like a proud and approving aunt. This isn’t a “horror” in the typical definition of the genre, but because you care so much about these realistic, funny, and imperfectly not adorable kids, you remain surprisingly frightened for their fate throughout the film’s big chase scenes. At the same time, there’s a wonderful Peter Pan-esque cruelty they realisitcally commit against each other, eliminating the innate cuteness that could have clogged the earlier scenes with cloying child actors. While it does get fairly dark, it's almost the perfect film for those younger teenagers about to dip their toes into actual horror movies but still not ready for full blown boobs and guts.
High Points
There’s never one moment where you don’t believe in the naturalness of our young quintet, which is a huge testament to both the talented young actors and wise skills of the director

The Christmas Tale is quite a beautifully shot film, with original camera sweepings into and out of Rebecca’s pit and lots of touches that keeps the story from a child’s perspective
Having the film’s “monster” cast as a female is an intriguing touch that works well to stir up the children’s relationships. It helps that actress Maru Valdivielso brings both a sad sense of worldliness and a hungry old fashioned villainy to her character without even 20 words of dialogue.

Low Points
I suppose I was left wondering about the true nature of Rebecca, but since this was such a quickly paced film and our viewpoint was from the kids, I really didn't mind that dangling mystery
Lessons Learned
You know a boy likes you when he chooses Princess Leia as your code name
Blue cheese goes well in fish pie
Watching zombie movies at a young age is one of the most educational endeavors a child can take for him or herself
Mothers who watch Dynasty are risking the lives of their children

If even one other pick from the 6 Films to Keep You Awake boxed set is as enjoyable as this one, I’d encourage a buy if the price is right (and at just $17 on Amazon, it’s right enough for my xmas present to myself). My disc came from Netflix with a second film on the flip side (the soon-to-be-watched A Real Friend) and an entertaining making-of featurette that’s worth a good spirited watch for anyone who wants to learn more about The Christmas Tale. If you’ve been waiting for a slightly more serious companion to the Monster Squad and don’t mind some subtitles, I can’t encourage you enough to check out this funny, spooky, and utterly original little film.


  1. Yay! I am happy that you liked it! And I agree with the Monster Squad statement, with both films having a nice balance of a horror story and a children's story, without going too much either way.

    I will say that A Real Friend was very solid too and I can't wait to hear your thoughts on that one when you get to it. Thanks for the shout-out, namely the macho part!

  2. On your machismo, I calls 'em as I sees 'em (at least in a virtual way).

    I've been sitting on A Real Friend for nearly a week now, and it kills me to have a Netflix so long! But yes, I'll probably try to squeeze it on early next week and get Serrador's film to keep me awake soon after.

  3. "Thankfully, there’s a country called Spain." This made me laugh.

  4. This is one I totally spaced on. After I read your review I recalled seeing it on the flip side of A Real Friend when I reviewed that some time ago, and I totally meant to get it again around the holidays. For the second year I have forgotten about it. It sounds like a pretty fun little flick, and now I've made a note for net year!

    I can't wait to see what you have to say about A Real Friend. I really enjoyed it a lot.

  5. At least you get to save one more xmas movie for next year! The pile must be dwindling.

    Poor A Real Friend. It's now been sitting on my tv stand for close to two weeks. At least it has its flip side to keep it company for now until I consummate the relationship by inserting it into the master playah.

    Not that I think of my DVDs as having sex or anything.

    I shall sleep now. It's getting weird.

  6. I won't say a terrible amount here, but I should probably do up my own spoiler-filled blog post on this movie. Suffice to say this; I hated every single one of these kids and I never felt Rebecca was a villain. I spent the movie's entire length praying all five of them would meet a horrible gruesome death. For the sake of spoilers, I will not say here whether I was satisfied. I told the wife that I equated this to Very Bad Things with a pre-teen cast and I stand by it. It's a well made, wonderfully acted, beautifully shot film with a full cast of people I hated with a fiery passion. Yep, even Moni.

  7. Iiiiiiiiinteresting (strokes chin). Be sure to send me the link when you review the film. Actually, your blog should be listed to my right right now, so excuse me for a moment.
    Okay then.

    I can see your point in that the kids are kind of lil bastards, but that's cause they're kids! I love how only two of them are all-out cruel towards Rebecca, while two are ambiguous and only Moni actively shows any human concern. I'm of the J.M. Barrie school that all kids are actually heartless and it's everything in life that hones their conscience. The gang of The Christmas Tale simply don't empathize with Rebecca. Maybe in ten years, they'd all act differently, but since it's the alpha boys who dictate the action (which we see when Moni tries to help Rebecca by herself), I believed and wasn't overly upset about the decisions they made.

    Also, as soon as a bad child actor pops onscreen, I want nothing more than to witness his or her bloody death. Hence, since this was so well-acted, I rooted for the kids, even if they would've been the babysitting charges from hell.

    Plus, they were Star Wars and zombie fans!

  8. Ha! Just found this, and am so glad to find someone else who enjoyed it as much as I did. I run my own movie review blog too, and am in the middle of a two month splurge of holiday movie reviews where this one is definitely going to be covered. Everyone thinks of Gremlins and Black Christmas, but this is the holiday horror film no one knows about. Loved it. It helped that the woman in the hole reminded me of a Spanish Sigourney Weaver.

  9. Thanks Trever! I'll keep a look out on your site(s). I already see you launched the attack on Snowglobe, which I'll have up here in a few weeks. Since I think I've *almost* cycled through all the current holiday horror, I'm going to also feature a bunch of awful made for LIfetime/Family Channel Christmas movies. This December should be fun!

    Have you seen Rare Exports? It had, at least to me, a similar tone to The Christmas Tale. I'd also heartily recommend Christmas Evil, a similarly styled horror-ish film that's so much better than its title would lead you to believe.

  10. Well, that was actually my wife who wrote the Snowglobe review - I would probably have been less kind to it. :D Then again, I just gave a great review to a holiday Santa movie, so maybe I'm a soft heart after all. ( )

    We too are doing the Lifetime TV movie slush. GACK. Much god-awful stuff there. But a few pleasant surprises - The improbably-named "Booky and the Secret Santa" is a hundred times better than its title, for one. Dodge "A Golden Christmas", however, no matter how much you want to see Nicholas Brendan after Buffy.

    I've never seen Christmas Evil or Rare Exports, though the RE DVD is currently sitting in the December stack. Thought I'd save that one till closer to the big day, given all the good reviews I've heard about it. Christmas Tale will probably be the next thing I review. And I definitely want to work in time to do a good write-up on Black Christmas, still probably my favorite Christmas horror film ever.

  11. I just discovered that I get The Hallmark Channel, which means my DVR is about to explode. A talking dog voiced by Jay Mohr? Tori Spelling acting beside William Shatner? I can't say no!

    I actually caught a little bit of Gokden Christmas last weekend and was so confused. Tge entire movie is about these two boring people realizing they lived together in the woods with a ghost dog? And they made a sequel? What kind of world is this???

    Although to be fair, I just watched 2010's Tge Nutcracker: Tge Untold Story, and it may very well be worse than anything Lifetime has ever pooped out.

  12. Also, I'll be really curious to hear your thoughts on Rare Exports. It's not quite the horror film it's been sold as, but it's genuinely unique. I confess to not having any nostalgia for Black Christmas, just because I only saw it for the first time a few years ago. I like it and can't underrate what it did for the genre, but it's just not cemented in my history the way those VHS rentals of all 5 Sikent Night Deadly Znight entries were.

  13. FWIW, Black Christmas gets a lot better on repeat viewing. First time I saw it, I was kind of meh. Then I watched Halloween again and realized how much of Halloween was lifted from Black Christmas, and read a bit of the history of it, and thought it was a strikingly arty horror movie on second watch, and it's improved since. I like movies that get better with repeat viewing. Best way to appreciate BC is to turn off all the lights in your den except for Christmas lights, pour some spiked eggnog, and watch it under a blanket while it's snowing outside.

    Re: Golden Christmas. They were childhood sweethearts who lost track after age 9. Magic dog brings them back together after a lifetime and two divorces apart. Might have been OK if the leading lady had not been such a harpy - She was so horrible and annoying that it was impossible to invest in her, and we just kept wanting Nicholas Brendan to get away instead of ending up with her.

    FWIW, Netflix streaming has a small mountain of made-for-TV holiday movies. Terrifying.

  14. Believe you me, my Netflix instant queu is reeking oif holiday cheese. Melissa Joan Hart and Mario Lopez in a kidnapping romance? I'm already there!

    I'll take your advice on Black Christmas, and not just cause I like eggnog.

    And I guess that makes sense for Gokden Christmas, but because I caught scenes at a time, I couldn't quite piece the plot together and once I did, I couldn't believe that 90 minutes were spent on he annoying blond telling Xander they knew each other. I just really wanted it to be about ghost dogs.

  15. Yeah, that movie didn't have nearly enough dog in it. If you want Christmas dogs, check out "The 12 Dogs of Christmas" instead - It's better, and stranger.

    As for MJ Hart and Lopez, if you're speaking of "Holiday in Handcuffs" it's... :O Mind-searingly awful. I gave it a three and wanted to kill everyone in it. But it was still the best of the mini-review movies:

  16. BTW, I keep forgetting to ask - Is it OK with you if I add you to the "Other Drive-Ins" section on my blog page, where I list other cool movie-review blogs?

  17. 12 Dogs is on the queu! And checking your reviews, I've already seen HIH and Xmas With an X-er, Christmas with a C. Reviews a'comin'b did you know the Holiday In Handcuffs director also made Tremors?!

    Also, glad to trade sidebar links! I think I already added your site to my URL.

  18. I finally reviewed this, and in the process kicked off what will be a recurring theme with my blog, some cartoon characters who wander in and out of movie screen caps. I marked it down very slightly from my initial impression because I didn't think it held up so well as a repeat watch, but it's still loads of fun.

    Regarding the Netflix library, I can't believe I'm going to say this but last night we watched the film "A Christmas Bunny" and it was actually.... good. Way better than the title. I'd go so far as to say rather bleak even, and not at all sugary. So there's one, at least, that's a step up from "A Golden Christmas"...

  19. I keep seeing A Christmas Bunny on recommends, but maybe I'll actually give it a go.

    Then again, it's not hard to step up from Golden Christmas!

  20. We figured we'd watch 5 minutes of Bunny and then erase it from our queue, but got sucked in almost immediately. It's weird, though, because I bet there are lots of tots and sugary families out there who have been absolutely horrified by this film, expecting something really twee. Instead, it's this fairly grim story about an emotionally-damaged girl who's an abuse victim who gets fostered with a country family struggling with unemployment. One does not look at that sunnybunny cutesy poster and envision scenes of little girls being slapped by drunken mothers and cringing rabbit abuse.

  21. Wow. TOTALLY not what I'd expect from that cover art! I'm certainly intrigued.