Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why, I Oughtta Rate the Aughts!

You know what time it is...

That's right. Wheel out your eternally young, probably vampiric music personalities and let's toast to the end of the aughts. I'm actually quite bummed to lose this decade since I only discovered about two weeks ago that I could have been using the word "aught" in daily speech for the last ten years. Such a loss.

And just what is my last post of 2009? A rough guide to my thoughts on the last ten years in horror, with special attention to the highs, lows, and in-betweens. Expect zombie talk. Saw defending. Friday the 13th bashing, Martyrs theorizing, and lots of other 21st century travels surrounding studio horror I happen to remember.

Here goes:

1. The Evolution of Torture Porn
See my list of Lows for how I feel about the brief craze that rocked the mid aughts, but like any art form, good things can always rise from the bad. Eli Roth’s Hostel may have made the bucks, but it was his 2007 followup that explored new aspects of horror by taking us inside the world of a few regular joes ready to get off on the sensation of murder. Similarly, there was Martyrs, the genre fandom’s most divisive film of the 2008. Pascal Laugier’s French shocker disgusted some with its graphic violence and wowed others with its philosophical spin (and genre-bending) take on what was becoming dangerously well-tread territory. I’m thankful that the mean-spirited fad of the mid decade seems to be on the slide, but in hindsight, we shouldn’t deny that some of the more powerful films of the time came out as direct responses to its popularity.

2. Zombie Makeover
Hard to believe that prior to 2002, there hadn’t really been a losable race with the undead since Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City introduced sprinting zombies in 1980. While having great velocity doesn’t make a monster, we can’t ignore Danny Boyle (excuse me, Academy Award winning Danny Boyle) and his contribution to the zombie genre with 2002’s 28 Days Later. From its homages to past Romero films (Dayesque soldiers, Dawnishly undead child filled gas stations) to how it captured a world in the middle of disaster, this sleeper hit revived a subgenre that had spent the last few years in direct-to-video purgatory. 

3. Zombie Cred
Perhaps we’re nearing zombie burnout, but that doesn’t mean we should let a few too many brain flavored treats spoil what has been a pretty interesting decade of literature, films, artwork and video games. The MVP of the era is none other than writer Max Brooks, who put into handbook form what kids that had grown up playing Dawn of the Dead on the playground had been practicing their whole lives with 2003’s The Zombie Survival Guide. Three years later, Brooks gave us a true masterpiece unlike any other with World War Z, a sociopolitical horror show that used a zompocalypse setup to explore international and human relations. It’s hard to believe we’d have Zombieland or Pride & Prejudice & Zombies in the mainstream without the validation brought the genre by Brooks’ 21st century work.

4. Indie Horror
As technology inches closer to taking over our souls (yes, I’ve seen Pulse a few too many times) independent moviemaking has grown in its possibilities to allow unconfirmed artists the freedom and tools to craft their own genuine films. Paranormal Activity will long be remembered for its $15,000 rags to box office riches tale and an inspiration to other do-it-yourself auteurs. Additional strong showings from low budgeted titles like Session 9, May, Hatchet, Zombie Diaries, Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer and more proved that one didn’t need a major studio’s permission slip to create a memorable, frightening, or plain ol’ good time .

1. Found Footage Films
The concept of handheld horror is hardly new to the genre. Look to 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust or even Belgium’s faux documentary monster show, Man Bites Dog for older evidence. In a world where anybody’s cat can be a star on youtube, found footage and homemade movies rose to a whole new level of social consciousness, from the blockbuster disaster flick Cloverfield to the refreshing jolt of Spanish zombie action in REC. Even George Romero threw his ponytail in the ring with Diary of the Dead, a messily narrated and sadly out-of-date (but not wholly unfulfilling) reboot to his living dead saga. Following the success of Paranormal Activity, it’s hard to believe this sometimes innovative, sometimes nausea inducing style is going anywhere anytime soon.

2. The State of Franchises
For various reasons, I believe it’s fair to say we’ll probably never see another era so defined by famous franchises as the 1980s and their reliance on Freddy & Jason’s annual outings. In the last ten years, however, we did witness a few interesting--if no real champion--attempts to establish a multi-film series to varying levels of success. Final Destination kicked off the decade and has since provided three more enjoyably twisted popcorn flicks, but without a concrete villain, it’s a hard concept to market for Halloween costumes. Resident Evil tossed out a few fluffy hours of video game style zombie fun (soon to be resurrected and--get this--rebooted), but hardly made its mark on the millennium. The true gold medal goes to Lions Gate’s low budget juggernaut Saw, a series still going strong six films in (blame dwindling box office of Part VI on the Paranormal effect and the terrible taste left by Saw V). Love him or hate him, Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw is the closest this century has yet come to creating a horror icon, and while that doesn’t offend my sensibilities, many a film fan is most likely committing their own form of self-imposed torture porn upon themselves at the very thought. Ah well. I’m sure there’s a market for that...

3. Refreshing Remakes
While there were no classic revamps to hold a candle to 1980s power players like The Thing or The Fly (or for that matter, The Blob; apparently, great remakes can only be made with the definite article in their title), it would be a lie to say all 21st century remakes have thus far been sins against the foundation of cinema. 2004’s Dawn of the Dead managed the near-impossible by bringing new life to one of the genre’s most deservedly loved films of all time (even if it had to resort to action movie speed to do so). Last House On the Left remains one of the most unnecessary remakes of recent years, but also ended up being a fairly decent and disturbing 90 minutes of its own. And where would studio horror be without the sharp and haunting Gore Verbinski triumph of 2002’s The Ring? Well, it would be a lot more original and not clogged by uninspired makeovers of other Asian ghost stories, but from Naomi Watt’s strong career-boosting performance to Samara’s TV crawl, it’s hard to really deny the striking power of the film that started it all.

1. Torture Porn
In another ten years, there’s a good chance that this unsanitary subgenre will have become a chuckle-worthy bit of nostalgia along the lines of snap bracelets or rec centers. For a brief period in the mid-00s, however, it was invading every multiplex and firing up censor happy Tipper Gore wannabes with its blatant attempts to shock and disgust. There was certainly merit to be found in its early years--those who’ve read my work before know that I give Saw and its spawn far more credit than most--but when so many studio films hopped on board, it was the the audience that lost with empty violence from films like Turistas or The Collector. Perhaps the biggest offense was 2007’s Captivity, a middling thriller that truly crossed the line by inserting added footage of over-the-top torture post filming to blatantly cash in on the trend. 

2. Lazy Remakes
How hard did the makers of 2009’s Friday the 13th really have to try? Considering some of the dreck found in the middle days of that franchise (Part V, anyone?), and the general lack of any real scare or memorable character in eleven films that spanned three decades, making a decent reboot should have been easier than an open book test comparing Cheetos to Cheese Doodles. Yet somehow, Marcus Nispel’s attempt managed an incredible feat of being so mediocre, uninspired, and hard to actually see, it was kind of impressive in its aggressive blandness. Similarly, 2007’s The Hitcher showed how awful a film can be when its landscape is giving the best performance and The Omen proved that making a film because of its projected release date (6/6/06) is like reading War & Peace just because it’s heavy. And dull. Toss in The Amityville Horror, When a Stranger Calls, Pulse, and a pile of other remakes made with all the energy of a decaf latte.

3. Offensively Bad Remakes
It’s almost hard to pick on Neil LeBute’s laughable remake of one of the greatest genre films of all time, because 2006’s The Wicker Man did in fact have some positive effects; namely, making myself and many a youtube clicker laugh themselves silly for 2 minutes at a time. Still, it’s beyond awful, offensively misogynist, and a true crime against cinema. Similarly, the recent straight-to-DVD remake of It’s Alive was a baffling mess that should never have left a studio (much less a screenplay) and 2006’s Black Christmas managed to remove anything and everything interesting, spooky, and engaging about a landmark film and replace it with hateful characters and a style that literally produced headaches. Guess we were naughty that year.

1. 3D
Having not yet seen Avatar, I can’t really speak to the evolution of this 1950s gimmick originally launched to pry eyes away from that new thing called TV. Two major studio horror films have used it to varying effect: My Bloody Valentine capitalized on what was already darkly camp territory, but The Final Destination seemed to have no clue how to make Death pop behind plastic glasses. Recently, a slew of upcoming horror films have been announced to be receiving that $3 upgrade: Halloween 3, Saw VII, the Re-Animator remake, plus the soon-to-be-released Piranha, so until this lineup proves faulty in ticket sales, it seems like 3D is here to stay. For now. Let’s just hope nobody revises Smell-O-Vision.

2. Twilight
As someone who has yet to sit down and immerse myself in sparkling alabaster skin and flammable hair product, I refuse to make any sweeping generalization of the Twilight saga or how it casts shame upon the horror world. Some of my peers enjoy jumping on its underaged bare chest with a rusty pogo stick of hateful wit, but I like to believe in my Pollyanaish way that moody vampires can be one stepping stone into watching actual drama in something like Let the Right One In or just plain coolness, like Bill Paxton slicing a dude’s neck with his bitchin boot spurs. Generation Aught, prove me right.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Real Friend Is Always There To Lend a Chainsaw

One of the many reasons why I love Toy Story so much is how Woody (that genial and jealous cowboy voiced by Jim Hanks' brother) comes to accept and love the fact that his sole purpose in life is to be there for his master and friend. As kids, we deal with a lot of opposition from parents, siblings, teachers, and classmates, but save for a loyal dog, nobody listens to us with quite the same selfless dedication as our Pound Puppies, baby dolls, prized action figures, or, in the case of today’s film, imaginary friends.
A Real Friend is another 75 minute selection from Spain’s 6 Films to Keep You Awake, a 2006 collection that puts America’s Masters of Horror to the test. Like The Christmas Tale , (the wicked little gem that takes up the flip side of this DVD), it finds a point in childhood where the monsterish meets reality and lets an odd little story unfold with speed.

Quick Plot: Estrella (Nerea Inchausti) is a horror loving bookworm living a lonely existence with her single mother. While Mom Angela (Goya Toledo) works as an efficient, if not overly compassionate nurse, Estrella passes the time chit chatting with pals that bear striking resemblances to Leatherface, Mr. Hyde, Nosferatu, and a few other familiar faces rarely rearing their homicidal heads in 2nd grade classrooms.
All’s fun and adorable until Estrella meets a daybreaking vampire who seems a tad too interested (at least, by our estimation) in her family’s homelife. Is this balding duster-clad pale man another innocent figment of our heroine’s rich imagination? A deeper creation breaking through, or a real life menace from her mother’s mysterious past?
Like The Christmas Tale, A Real Friend is another distinct, somewhat sweet, and slightly disturbing treat that doesn’t wear out its welcome. It presents a neat little premise sold early in the film’s running by fine performances and plenty of empathy for a young character most horror fans can easily relate to by nudging their inner children awake.

That being said, A Real Friend never really grabs the reins to steer the audience in a clear direction. We’re fully invested in Estrella, but filmmaker Enrique Urbizu doesn’t really seem confident in whose narrative voice should be pushing the final act. We want to learn more about Angela’s connection to the increasingly unsettling villain, but we also need Estrella’s personal posse for the big finale. Instead of finding a fluid method of connecting these threads, Urbizu instead veers off to follow a third character we barely know. In the end, we never even find out exactly how our two leads feel about the bloody climax, or--more importantly--just how much control they had over its outcome.
High Points
I don’t know what’s in school lunch milk or pre-natal vitamins from the early 1990s, but following both this and The Christmas Tale, it seems Spain is the new breeding ground for effortlessly sensitive and sympathetic child actors
Much like The Christmas Tale, A Real Friend finds a one-of-a-kind, yet somehow familiar voice in reintroducing the horror icons from our past into a very different and much kinder--or is it?--new world.
Middle Points
The closing scene initially felt like a letdown and a cheat, but the longer it’s brewed in my head, the more oddly disturbing it seems to be for its strange implications on what may actually be going on inside Estrella’s mind
Low Points
Despite an extremely likable protagonist, I felt oddly detached from A Real Friend and I’ve yet to fully identify why. Perhaps it was the aforementioned character switch or lack of a grounded reality, but I ultimately found myself watching this film from a distance instead of actively engaging in its story.
Lessons Learned
Nothing ruins a day at the beach more than finding your personality-less teacher misguidedly putting the moves on your hot mom
Wine is not a drink
If you’re going to spend most of your time with imaginary friends, do yourself a favor and arm them well

I’ve already pledged my Buy support to the 6 Films series, and though I didn’t enjoy A Real Friend with quite the same level of enthusiasm as The Christmas Tale, it’s still an intriguing and thoroughly different film from your typical Hollywood studio offering. I’ll toss out a disclaimer to say I was a tad too tired while watching A Real Friend (and growing more and more antsy after holding onto the Netflix DVD for over 2 weeks) and may have been too low in my post-holiday spiritless daze to fully appreciate the image of Leatherface fighting the urge to pull a little girl’s braids. The film isn't perfect, nor is it revolutionary or the mark of a visionary honing his craft. It is, however, something new, charming, and more than worthy of your 75 minutes. 

Monday, December 28, 2009

Take Me Home Tonight

Whether you're sitting on the subway or waiting for your dentist to start committing all sorts of torture porn on your helpless pearly whites, there's always a time for that thing they taught you back in first grade: reading magazines about cult movies.

But where, you ask, can I find quality pages of colorful imagery, original illustrations, filmmaker interviews, and, most importantly, high quality content discussing and dissecting some of my favorite B-movies, cult classics, indie, horror, sci-fi, exploitation, underground, Asian cinema, and more?

Say it with me kids: Paracinema .

Issue 8 of this independent magazine is on the stands (of select shops) and ready for an online order. Why, you wonder, should you care? Well, aside from being one of the few--if only--film magazines of its type and caliber, it also features some intelligent and entertaining articles such as the following:

Love, Loss, and Astounding Growth in The Incredible Shrinking Man
and Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman by Jessie Robie

“Oh Hi, Movie!” The Unironic Aesthetics of “So Bad It’s Good” In
Tommy Wiseau’s The Room
by John Semley

The Story Behind Jim Wynorski’s Munchie Strikes Back
OR Paracinema’s Parents’ Manual for Little Billy’s Question:
“Why is the TV puppet telling me to vote Democrat?”
by Jonathan Plombon

The Serial Killer’s Mind: Comparing and Contrasting the Male Psyches in
Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer
by Brantley Palmer

Loss and Hope – The Past and the Future in The Road Warrior
by Todd Garbarini

and, perhaps of little interest to you: War May Be Hell, But a Sequel Is Purgatory:
Thematic Combat With Battle Royale II: Requiem
by Emily Intravia

That's right. Yours truly waxing on and off on the sequel to many a film fan's favorite kids-with-guns underground hit from the land of the rising sun. 

Head over to Paracinema's home page ( ) to get your very own copy. Individual issues are just $7 each, which is less than you'd pay for a Starbucks latte and scone, and let's face it: that "The Way I See It" paragraph on the side of your cup has less going for it than this magazine's table of contents.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Medium Rare With a Side of Stale Cheese

Short stories in the horror genre are often prime meat for feature film adaptations. Candyman, Re-animator, The Fly, and even Hitchcock’s The Birds and Psycho are a few glowing examples of how and why 20 or so pages can be expanded into a solidly entertaining 100 minutes onscreen. Unlike novels where readers are deeply connected to a character’s voice who has guided them for hours and days of reading, shorter fiction often tosses out a concept for inspiration, thus providing ample space for a filmmaker to create his or her own world.
And then there’s Rawhead Rex.

Based on a short story from Cliver Barker’s third Book of Blood, this is a film long abused by its original author (and penner of the screenplay) for misinterpreting its source material to make a mere monster movie. Having read Rawhead Rex, I can fully appreciate and sympathize with Barker’s criticisms. On the page, Rawhead Rex is a grungy, male ego-on-the-loose tale about an ancient god whose only weakness is, essentially, female menstruation and fertility. In the hands of George Pavlou, however, Rawhead Rex becomes a haunted house prop set loose on poorly shot screaming actors.

Quick Plot: In a quaint and quiet small town of Ireland, a farmer struggles to excavate a random monolith that has sat in the middle of his land for some time. With a strike of lighting and some fancy technique, he eventually succeeds. Unfortunately, the process also helps to free the long-buried demon god Rawhead Rex, portrayed here as a growling 8’ tall Halloween decoration with a mean six-pack and costume borrowed from a backup dancer for Gwar. 

So what’s so bad about Rex (aside from his wardrobe and laughably glowing red eyes)? Well, mostly the fact that he likes to eat folks (in the story, children are his meal du jour, but men and non-menstruating females make the menu as well). The skeptical police are of little help while the local village priest has switched allegiances to the titular monster himself. The only real hope comes in the form of a visiting historian who, along with his impatient and rather unpleasant wife, watches his son get devoured by Rex as we instead watch his slow reaction to what we assume is a horrific offscreen act. Will the grieving father be able to unlock the ancient secrets as written in stained glass on the church’s windows, or will the world fall prey to a blown up Spencer’s Gift with an appetite for destruction?

Rawhead Rex offers nothing revelatory in its execution, but it’s a solid enough watch for its brief running time. At the same time, it’s a pretty bland disappointment if you’re familiar with the work of Cliver Barker or have read its original story. Not only do those 50 pages offer triple the amount of gore as this 1986 film, they also dig far more deeply into what kind of evil Rex is and how the world he lived--and currently lives--in fosters the reign of a masculine monster. With a misused minimal budget, Pavlou’s Rex is a miniature Godzilla loose on an underfunded and poorly policed town.

High Points
It’s refreshing that the film retained some of the story’s less cinematic storylines--such as the excremental sacrament--but it would have been far more impressive if Pavlou had managed to attach actual weight to the actions
Low Points
Most of the special effects--including the woefully rubber faced Rex himself--feel less impressive than when Days of Our Lives featured a character possessed by a green-eyed devil

It's not that Rawhead Rex is completely devoid of the male-power aesthetic of Barker's original work; it just has no concept of how to use it. There are phallic symbols to be found and men to surrender willingly into servitude to Rex, but Pavlou provides no actual commentary on what makes this killing machine any different--or, for that matter, similar to--any other human-hungry villains.

Lessons Learned
Small red-coated women that resemble Venetian dwarves from Don’t Look Now frown upon public displays of affection from middle aged parents
When watching a gigantic monster hover over your child, it’s probably best to run to the boy’s aid before sighing with resignation

Irish policemen spend an awful lot of time smoking and scowling

Upon being released from several centuries of live burial, a demonic god’s first action will be to trash a kitchen a la Janeane Garfalo in Wet Hot American Summer
To save your girlfriend from being grabbed and eaten by a monster, it’s best to grab her arms and not her top. To get a gratuitous breast shot in a film that has need for nudity, it’s best for a character to grab a would-be victim’s top instead of arm
If your two children are insufferable brats, you, as a married couple, have no right to still be so damn horny
Not surprisingly, baptism by facial urination will make a new follower rather foul-mouthed

I obtained my copy of Rawhead Rex via a convention table sale and while it wasn’t the best $8 I’ve ever spent, I’m not cursing the time wasted viewing it. The film hasn’t had a DVD release and it’s not quite worth the time or mild guilt you would spend in trying to find a copy for yourself. Clive Barker fans will probably be offended by utter lack of artistic merit or any of the real horror found in his text, but those who enjoy mediocre monster movies will have a good enough time.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Motion Sickness Is the Least of Your Problems

A shorter than usual review of a better than average film:

Somewhere in the mid-levels of hell is an endless family road trip complete with tone-deaf sing-a-longs, backseat driving, and epic parental bickering sparked by minute issues such as someone having packed the wrong flavor of sugar wafers. While I don’t think the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer or Adolph Hitler will experience this painful, if not quite Salo-esque torture, such a place would most likely be reserved for sinners who deserve eternal punishment with minor glimmers of relief sparked by winning some rounds of 20 Questions or spotting a license plate from Alaska.
I’ve taken my share of vacations via the highway.
One of the great things about Dead End, a small festival veteran from 2003 that never quite found its audience, is that the film is fully aware hell is not just other people, but more specifically, your family after too many hours in a moving motor vehicle.

Quick Plot: It’s Christmas Eve on the road as the Harringtons make their way to mom (Lin Shaye, giving her all)’s family of gun and good liquor loving relatives. Daughter Marion (Alexandra Holden) is a psychologist with her boyfriend in tow and teenage son Richard is an obnoxiously horny and homophobic Marilyn Manson (not Branson) fan. Things take a turn when Dad takes the scenic route and comes upon a young woman toting a suspiciously quiet baby on a quiet and lonely open road. Mystery is in the winter air.

It doesn’t take long for bad things to happen. An ill-advised detour to an abandoned cabin leaves one passenger alone long enough to end up banging on the back window of a passing Rolls Royce, only to be discovered in a gooey and burned state icky enough to send a family member into inconvenient catatonia. Clearly, this holiday is on its way to being far worse than the time Dad drank too much eggnog and the kids gathered round to watch Jingle All the Way*

I rented Dead End on a whim due to the random discovery that it takes place on Christmas Eve. Following Cuento de Navidad , this is another refreshingly low profile pleasant surprise filled with interesting nastiness and a wonderfully twisted sense of humor. I was reminded slightly of The Signal ’s second chapter (minus the head-in-a-vice and blood-spattered helium tank), where black comedy seems to be banging on the door (or car windows) and sending tiny minions inside to twist a rather traditional horror narrative. 

Writer/directors Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa haven't made a masterpiece, but Dead End is a far more interesting ride than its bargain bin title and heard-it-before premise would lead you to believe. With solid performances, surprisingly effective jump scares, and a playfully wicked script, Dead End finds its own voice and delivers a fun enough 90 minutes that makes for a truly enjoyable alternative Christmas. Maybe next year I'll pair it with The Ref for a dysfunctional family double feature worthy of my eggnog toast.
High Points
Although each character doesn’t quite have the time for genuine in-depth development, it’s refreshing to see a family composed of normal, everyday people prone to selfishness, neuroticism, and a begrudging sense of familial love.
All the performances are marked by a nice and steady level of high energy, with Robocop’s way too cool Ray Wise standing out as the patriarch trying his best to save those he cares about.

Low Points
Perhaps it’s just that I’ve seen to many ghostly night-of-terror direct-to-DVD titles that utilize this type of ending, but the final explanation--even though it’s not quite it appears to be--feels like well-worn territory too tacked on for a rewarding finish

Similarly, the half-hearted attempt to toss in a haunted backstory so late in the film feels like a line of filler that doesn't really do anything to enrich the already engrossing narrative
Lessons Learned
Here’s a surefire relaxation technique taught across the nation by college baseball coaches: breathe in deeply through your nose. Now slowly let it out through your mouth. Done.
Always choose a Secret Santa with an NRA membership

In order to ease your sister out of shock, try to avoid confessing to murdering her pet hamster a few years back via such an unpleasant and unsanitary means as the kitchen microwave

Lab coats are so comfortable, many doctors wear them on the drive home.
While this isn’t hauntingly grim holiday horror along the lines of Inside or totally unique territory like Cuento de Navidad, Dead End is far more worthwhile than its low profile and dull title would have you believe. The mix of dark family humor with a standard horror setup makes for an experience that doesn’t quite take the direction you’d expect and in the modern age of remakes, teens in turmoil, and torture porn, it does its job with gusto, innovation, and a joyously off-kilter Christmas spirit.

*If I had the time I’d review this Arnold Schwarzenegger epic fail of 1996 because holy Christmas is this a terrifyingly bad film. I didn’t think the Action Star On the Decline period could get worse than Batman & Robin, but between Jake Lloyd’s practice rounds to destroy the Star Wars saga, Sinbad’s awful turn as an offensively disgruntled mailman (complete with a bomb scare plan), the wasting of Phil Hartman as an oily neighbor sexually harassing a married woman, and a horrifically commercial message at its heart, Jingle All the Way may be the most frightening Christmas movie of all time. Without question, my kids will be watching Billy Chapman hack his way through the naughty well before seeing the future governor of California punch a reindeer in the face.

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.