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The Fine Art of Tactical Retreat

Apr. 10th, 2019

11:46 am - For clarity's sake

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Feb. 24th, 2017

07:05 pm - Past Misdeeds: Wardat (1981)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

A mysterious evil scientific genius (in whose hunchbacked, jodhpur-wearing glory the audience will be allowed to bask only much later in the movie) is sending out swarms of locusts to destroy the Indian rice harvest. Then, he uses his favourite henchman Shakti Kapoor (Shakti Kapoor; no, I have no idea why the actor is alright with having the bad guy named after himself, but that's not the first time I have seen this in a Bollywood film) to drown the food market in cheap, low quality rice that has been enriched with a drug that - on first impression - seems to make people just sort of horny (in a Bollywood way, obviously).

When Shakti's not taking care of the rice business, he is killing the people the suspicious Indian government has commissioned to investigate the mysterious case of the atypical acting locusts. And, just because he's a proactive kind of guy, Shakti is also setting up various murder attempts on that greatest of all Indian secret agents - Gopi (Mithun Chakraborty), also known as "Gun-Master G9". As it turns out, Gopi's so secret, his code name is even written on the side of his car. But while you can say less than pleasant things about Gopi's knack for secrecy, you can't fault the man's talent for survival, or his talent for kicking people in the face, and so Shakti's assassination attempts all come to nought.

Now, your typical James Bond-like agent would begin to develop an interest when people are trying to kill him, but Gopi prefers taking part in random musical numbers, accidentally picking up the kinda-sorta tomboyish Kajal (Kajal Kiran) who soon is crazily in love with him, and just lazing about to doing any actual work, until he can't escape the urgent calls of his boss, the man they call Chief (Iftekhar), anymore.

Not surprisingly, Chief wants Gopi to find out what all this business with the rice, the locusts and the dying agents is about. Soon, Gopi, his assistant Kabadi (Jagdeep - hear me sigh) and the quite competent in a fight Kajal have their hands full lazing about some more, ahem, I mean finding out what Shakti's plan is and who he is working for.

Shakti himself has all the while made contact with Anuradha (Kalpana Iyer), the sister of one of the Chief's dead agents, and has convinced her that Gopi is responsible for her brother's death. Knowing the agent's reputation as a lady killer, the evil Kapoor is planning on using the innocent woman as bait for his enemy.

In my mind, I have Mithun Chakraborty pegged as the go-to guy for the batshit insane sort of Bollywood films, so I found myself a little disappointed when Wardat's first ninety minutes turned out to be rather normal. Sure, there's the fact that the evil plan the film is about is as sane as the proverbial guy who takes himself for Napoleon, or the abundance of bizarre details surrounding Gopi (for example his idea of daily combat training, consisting as it does of fighting a big guy who breaks down his door and destroys his furniture in the mornings; I suppose the Indian government pays rather well), but in the world of the James Bond inspired super spy film, this sort of thing is rather mundane.

Fortunately, I'm trying very hard not to judge movies on what I expect of them, but on what they are delivering, so the disappointment soon turned into the sort of basic satisfaction that comes from watching terribly cheap yet vaguely competently made films like this that are throwing their all (small as it may be) into the will to entertain.

And if one lets oneself be entertained, one can have quite some fun with Mithun's adventures here. His Mithun Fu is strong and ridiculous/awesome as ever; Kajal wavers between being pretty annoying and pretty charming, and while she's not shown to be equal to Mithun's bizarre achievements, she's at least treated as competent and resourceful; Jagdeep's "comedic" bits are mercifully short (and his character is even allowed to shoot a few people, which explains why anyone would put up with him); the musical numbers are mostly okay, certainly not the best nor the most bizarre even I have heard from Bappi Lahiri, although I quite liked the early one with the pixel and red cross theme.

All that combined would make Wardat a solid yet not especially remarkable movie, but the film's director Ravikant Nagaich decides to put out all the stops for the final three quarters of an hour of his film. Suddenly everything that was alright before turns into the sort of brilliant, ridiculous fun I had hoped for from the beginning.

Mithun does SCIENCE! in front of multi-coloured, blinking lights. Suddenly, we are in Africa, at once in a jungle, a desert and on a mountain. Mithun and Kajal are drugged for a cheaply psychedelic romp of tumble-dancing. Then, we enter the lair of our true main bad guy which is probably situated in a ruin in Egypt - at least that's what the statues in it look like, though his dancing troupe (yes, of course our heroes will pretend to be part of it directly before the big finale) is dressed in a mix of Peruvian, Aztec and Hollywood Africana and his guards are wearing what looks like white kendo masks - and are suddenly confronted with some of the most eye-popping uses of red lighting that have ever touched human eyes, a baby farm, torture by shaking, a duel to the death with added sharpshooting archers, mind-control, Mithun wrestling a tiger and various explosions large and small. In other words, all the extreme, silly excitement on could wish for turns up, shouts gleefully at your face, dances a little jig, fights and leaves this always hopeful, yet oh so often disappointed watcher of dubious movies with a warm afterglow and a sudden and frightening love for Mithun Chakraborty.

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Feb. 23rd, 2017

07:02 pm - Three Films Make A Post: Fear takes a road trip.

Broadcast News (1987): They sure don’t make romantic comedies like James L. Brooks’s film anymore, though I’m not sure they ever did make many romantic comedies with endings this sober-minded yet un-cynical that also worked just as well as media satires (in this case like Network if it were an actual film with characters instead of a very long self-satisfied rant). Add to that sharp and deep acting performances by Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks, dialogue that’s cutting and funny and wise and absurd all at the same time, direction that does a lot of thematic and emotional work without ever pointing to its own class, and you’ll be as confused as I am that this thing was actually once nominated for seven Oscars (but didn’t win any, don’t you worry).

Cave (2016): Another point to add to my list of “things movies taught me”: going on an illegal cave diving expedition isn’t such a swell idea if you are the members of a love triangle. Apart from bringing me that helpful insight, Henrik Martin Dahlsbakken’s cave-bound thriller looks slick and contains one and a half truly creepy scenes but lacks the psychological depth in its characters to be a proper character-based thriller, as well as the tight control a film like this needs to be truly suspenseful. It’s competent and not particularly clever, yet still would be a film I’d recommend for a bored afternoon or so, but the rest of my goodwill for the whole affair got eaten up by its ending. For after not even eighty minutes of plot, the narrative just stops on a cliffhanger (not a proper open ending, mind you) with titles informing us the sequel is going to be in cinemas soon, adding insult to injury and making quite sure I’m not going to waste my time on said sequel.

The Axe Murders of Villisca (2016): Taking place in the house where a bunch of historical axe murders happened, this indie production directed by Tony E. Valenzuela turned out to be rather better than the teenagers versus ghosts flick I expected it to be. The characters are somewhat more interesting than usual in this sort of thing (and well acted to boot), the script knows where it wants to be and how to get there, and the photography is often effectively moody. The film doesn’t quite manage to hold the tension it has built up throughout its final act but I enjoyed my time with it quite a bit. And unlike Cave, it has an actual ending.

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Feb. 22nd, 2017

06:28 pm - Harry in Your Pocket (1973)

Sandy (Trish Van Devere) and Ray (Michael Sarrazin) meet cute at a train station when he awkwardly steals her watch, and her bags are stolen by somebody else when she’s politely going after him to get it back. Ray’s got a bit of bad conscience about the whole thing, and they hit it off as well, so he offers to give Sandy a couple hundred dollars once he’s sold off his other ill gotten gains.

They don’t only land in bed but sort of team up, following the small time crime grapevine to a job opportunity. Harry (James Coburn) the suave yet cold boss of a wire gang (a small team of dedicated pickpockets) is looking for new partners, seeing as he’s only working with aged pickpocket – and his sole friend - Casey (Walter Pidgeon) right now. Thanks to Sandy – who’d be convincing even if Harry didn’t take a shine to her – Harry takes them on despite Ray’s dubious talent and lack of a knack for his chosen criminal enterprise. It’s going to be a learning experience.

Various factors – among them a developing love triangle, Ray’s overambition and Casey’s love for cocaine – just might end up ruining a good thing.

Harry in Your Pocket’s director Bruce Geller is best known as creator/writer/producer of TV shows like Mission Impossible and Mannix and less for his only cinematic film as a director (he’s also responsible for TV movie The Savage Bees but nobody’s perfect). It is an unfairly overlooked little film, though I’m not exactly surprised by how comparatively little seen Harry is, for the film’s copious charms aren’t exactly on the obvious side.

This is a film, after all, you’ll compliment with adjectives like “quiet”, “unassuming”, or “consciously small-scale and dramatically inconspicuous” which is not an approach to filmmaking that will help many people notice a film. It certainly doesn’t help the film either that Geller’s direction is not at all on the flashy side – in fact, two or three scenes show his TV roots rather clearly. There is, in particular, a pretty damn tacky scene of slow motion seagull feeding to ignore, but if you do ignore these few moments of tosh, you realize Geller is usually just stepping back to make room for his actors and their characters, doing exactly as much as he needs to help them while otherwise getting out of their way.

Which is obviously the right decision for a film this disinterested in heightened drama or rather, one this interested in the small drama of human interactions and the musical qualities of pickpocketing. The quartet of main characters (the film not really features anyone else as more than objects for the characters to work on) earns Geller’s trust well: Coburn is letting go of a lot of his typical acting tics (I’ve never seen the man acting less with his teeth), while Van Devere manages to effortlessly sell Sandy as an independent woman despite her part in the love triangle (where the film to my surprise and approval still doesn’t treat her as an object for the men to fight over but as an active participant) so much that she dominates the audience’s sympathy for much of the film. Sarrazin’s believably inexperienced, and Pigeon shows all the dignities and indignities of age in a profession not made for old people (I mean pickpocketing, not acting).

While the film slowly meanders through not much of a plot in which only a handful of small scale dramatic things happen, it does so in the full knowledge that actual people like you and me live and die on this small scale. The film clearly wants its audience to let go of the crutches of melodrama without going all arthouse on it. It works beautifully too for most of the time. I, at least, found myself quietly enraptured by the proceedings, in sympathy with the characters and actually touched by a quietly sad ending that even shows one of the characters committing a quietly heroic act – on a human scale.

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Feb. 21st, 2017

07:17 pm - In short: Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1998)

A sadistic, bottom-paddling sorority chieftainess (Robin Still) sends her stupid little club’s newest pledges (Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer) out to steal a bowling trophy from the local Bowl-O-Rama. Three local nerds (Andras Jones, Hal Havins and John Stuart Wildman) have to accompany them as punishment for peeping on the girls.

Awkwardness, a bit of demonic possession, violence, and “ironic” wish fulfilment ensue when our protagonists accidentally free a demonic imp (the voice of Michael Sonye working under the nom de plume of “Dukey Flyswatter”) who was trapped in the trophy (don’t ask). One of the nerds manages to team up with roving punkette Spider (Linnea Quigley keeping her shirt on for a whole film, believe it or not) – only there to rob the bowling alley – improving his chances of survival to no end.

Once you’ve called your film Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama you have made yourself practically critic proof, for whatever criticism anyone could throw at your film you can easily answer by crying “Look at the title! What the hell did you expect!?”. Ironically enough, this core text of the Scream Queen horror comedy subgenre that mixes Porky’s style “sex comedy” (not to be confused with comedies actually about sex, the quotation mark version is about showing tits) is not quite as bad as all that.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the film’s jokes fall flat at least half of the time even when you try to approach them with the mind-set of a fifteen year old heterosexual boy, the script is barely there, as is the gore, and the nudity is of that “naughty” style which seems so embarrassed by itself you want to pat the people involved on the head and tell them it’s okay. However, the other half of the jokes is sometimes somewhat funny, the actresses seem to approach whatever goofy crap they are supposed to be doing in any given scene with a wink, a smile, and the sort of bad acting that comes over as likeable rather than bad. Plus, for something directed by David DeCoteau, this is surprisingly fast-paced and decently shot, with sets that are somewhat larger than the tiny wardrobes most of the guy’s later films seem to be shot in.

What Sorority Babes completely lacks is a cynical side. The nudity – at least from here and now – is used so harmlessly the word “innocent” comes to mind to describe it, and while this is in theory a sleazy movie exploiting a bunch of young actresses’ willingness to undress in front of the camera, it’s all so clearly harmless and in good fun, criticizing it seems mean spirited at best. And, after all, I’m watching a film called Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, so I have nobody to blame but myself, right?

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Feb. 20th, 2017

06:15 pm - Music Monday: Learning Edition

Feb. 19th, 2017

08:14 pm - The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) owns a morgue in some small county in the USA. He’s also the local coroner, clearly a diligent and experienced one, working together with his son Austin (Emile Hirsch), who is staying on as his dad’s assistant more because he can’t bring himself to leave his old man, who is still not really coping with the death of his wife two years ago, than because he loves the work.

This night, the local sheriff (Michael McElhatton) brings trouble to their door in form of a female unidentified corpse (Olwen Kelly). The titular Jane Doe was found half buried in the cellar of a family home whose other inhabitants have died under mysterious circumstances. How the young woman came to be there nobody knows, nor is the cause of her death at all apparent – she looks as well-preserved as any corpse you’ll encounter (he said, expertly).

On the outside she does at least. As the Tildens will discover during the autopsy, on the inside, Jane Doe is suffering from all manner of horrible injuries. Impossible injuries for that matter, for there’s no way her inside could look like it does and her outside not showing any of it. While the coroner duo puzzle over the corpse and what they find in it, strange and increasingly threatening things start happening around them. It’s as if their Jane Doe is much more then just a creepy corpse.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe is not exactly the film you’d expect André Øvredal to direct after the brilliant POV horror/fantasy comedy Troll Hunters. It is a very different film both tonally and formally, yet it shares with the previous one its director’s calm control over his material and a precise focus on what’s important for the film at hand.

Formally, The Autopsy is nearly classicist horror, taking the autopsy gone wrong scenes we know as set pieces from quite a few other films and turning them into a full movie that decides not to follow a lot of horror rules established in the 80s. So there’s barely a body count – making the deaths that do happen all the more emotionally important – and while this isn’t a film that’s showing nothing of its supernatural threat (there’s a bit of the red stuff for sure, some might argue even a bit too much in the finale scenes), Øvredal prefers to use things that are heard but not seen, shadows in the corner, and the audience’s minds.

He’s rather brilliant at this, too, using the small cast and the few rooms the film takes place in to create a palpable affair of dread, isolating his characters and turning their normal surroundings into a place of horror for them (while still keeping the irony in mind that the characters’ normal surroundings would certainly strike parts of the audience as anything but). The escalation of the situation is nearly perfectly timed as well, developing slowly but not so slowly anyone should get impatient.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is how cleverly it uses Tommy’s and Austin’s relationship and their character background not only to make them relatable to an audience (which is always well-meant but a very basic thing to do) but really makes what makes them tick important to the way they relate to the supernatural goings-on. Even though there’s a thematic and metaphorical relation between Jane Doe and the Tildens, and more importantly to the way they react to her, The Autopsy never falls into the habit of only seeing its supernatural threat as the metaphor. So this is very much a film about pain, what it does to people for worse yet also for better, and how we attempt to take on other peoples’ pain, but it is also a film about two guys fighting a supernatural threat that deserves quite a bit of compassion. Which is just the way I like a horror film to handle this sort of thing.

I’m not terribly fond of the film’s final act, though, for in the last few minutes, the plot stumbles into a needless array of horror film conventions that doesn’t really feel of a piece with what came before. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if that most terrible of monsters, the focus group, had struck there again.

Still, a bad minute or fifteen are by far not enough to drag down a film this accomplished and clever, so The Autopsy of Jane Doe is still one of the best horror films I’ve seen last year (and 2016 had quite a few good to brilliant ones).

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Feb. 18th, 2017

08:57 pm - In short: Witches’ Night (2007)

Jim (Gil McKinney) has been left standing alone at the altar by his prospective wife, so his brother and his two best friends decide to take him out on a spontaneous drinking and camping trip that’ll even devolve into canoeing if opportunity arises because canoeing has never been the kiss of death in all horror films ever made.

Unfortunately, it turns out the night before Halloween is not a good time to be traipsing around these particular patches of wood. Witches are looking for a sacrifice to Satan, and our quartet of idiots are just the kind of people they can use for that.

I’ve seen many films that were objectively much worse than Paul Traynor’s indie horror Witches’ Night. At least, the acting here is basically decent, and while the film certainly won’t charm anyone with visual style and grace, it is shot well enough, it’s edited somewhat competently, and so on and so forth.

Yet still I enjoyed watching many a worse film much more than this one, for while Witches’ Night isn’t terrible in any way, shape or form, it is so pedestrian being terrible would at least make it somewhat more interesting. There’s little of interest happening, and the potentially interesting moments of violence and sex (I’m not even hoping for anything deeper from a film like this) are so tame, they might just as well not be in there at all for all the difference in excitement levels that would make.

However, at least the film taught me one thing: the touch of a witch leaves a nasty rash. Insert your favourite 40s mildly misogynist anti-STD slogan here, sailor.

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Feb. 17th, 2017

06:38 pm - Past Misdeeds: Ogroff (1983)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

A leather mask and wool cap wearing killer who might or might not respond to the name of Ogroff (the film's director/writer/nearly-everything-else-er N.G. Mount) haunts a patch of woods in the French countryside, doing what masked killers do, namely killing people with his favourite axe, eating parts of their corpses raw (although he appreciates a good blood soup, too), and having sex with said axe in his bone-adorned shed. From time to time, Ogroff has more interesting things to do, like having a longish duel with a chainsaw-wielding gentleman or demolishing a very French car with his axe in real-time.

While Ogroff goes about his day(s) - time tends to be somewhat malleable in these woods - a female relative of one of his victims - let's call her Girl - arrives to find out what happened to her sister/brother/little nephew. While she's at it, she also decapitates a zombie with the help of her trusty car and a rope. When Girl and Ogroff meet, our hero (yep, that's what he is, sorry) hauls her over his shoulder and drags her to his shed where the two soon proceed to have consensual sex. Afterwards, Girl starts with improving Ogroff's home by burying various body parts and tidying up the shed.

It looks like the start of a perfect relationship, if not for the sad fact that Girl doesn't want Ogroff to continue killing. Of course, Ogroff sneaks off to follow his calling anyway. While he's out, Girl finds a trapdoor in the shed, and unwittingly frees the zombies living under Ogroff's and her home. Soon, Girl has quite enough of her new boyfriend's very alternative lifestyle, but will that help her against the zombies? And will Ogroff be able to axe all the flesheaters before he himself is all gnawed up?

During the course of its unlife, Ogroff has developed quite a reputation with friends of the seediest and most obscure regions of horror film culture for being astonishingly bizarre even compared to other weekend movie projects by amateur enthusiasts. And a very deserving reputation that is.

At first, Mount's film lives from creating the feeling that the life of a backwoods slasher is much more quotidian than one would expect. The killing, the gore, the head-adorned cross in Ogroff's yard are all filmed with a sense of shrugging matter-of-factness, as if there were nothing strange or disturbing about these things, as if running around killing people were really nothing more than another day at the office, not just for Ogroff, but also for Mount's camera and the audience sharing its gaze. Creating this mood of the boringly normal out of the outrageous is already an achievement, but Mount seems to realize that more than thirty minutes of it would get a bit boring for a viewer, and so begins to spice things up by adding increasing amounts of weird shit to the proceedings - possibly just to keep the viewer on his feet.

Things like the axe masturbation sequence in which Ogroff seems to touch his axe instead of his penis, and not so much his penis with his axe handle are still handled with the same laconic (possibly apathetic) flair as the rest, they do however feel even weirder by being given this treatment. Even at the very end, coming with the surprise appearance of Howard Vernon as [spoiler redacted], when the film turns completely into a comic book as written and drawn by a French gore loving Fletcher Hanks, Mount keeps the friction between the utter normalcy with which he treats his subject and the batshit insane nature of it up. I mean, everyone sleeps with the killer of one's beloved sister/brother/whatever, right? And it's not at all unusual to have zombies in one's cellar?

On a more technical level, Ogroff is not always as bad as you'd expect from its nature as an amateur film. Sure, light changes happen rapidly and randomly, and sometimes it's too dark to see much even in scenes that are probably supposed to take place in daylight (although the latter problem, as some random blurriness, might be the fault of the print I saw and not of the film itself). The film features nearly no dialogue, and the minute or two of it which are there are as asynchronously dubbed and boredly spoken as anything I've ever heard. Naturally, the film's acting is done in the pantomime style of really bad silent movie acting (personal favourite: when female victim number one finds her dead husband/boyfriend/whatever and holds her bloody hand into the camera while mugging). Obviously, the gore is at times embarrassingly fake, with a special love for what looks like unpainted styrofoam heads.

However, while all these flaws (and more) are present and accounted for, Ogroff also features more than a few well composed - even moody - shots, an awesome minimalistic non-score of synthesizer warbling and overloud sound effects, and acting which is perfectly adorable if one pretends that this is in fact a silent movie gone insane.

There's also the disturbing fact that Ogroff, the big cannibalistic oaf, is quite endearing. If one takes on the minor effort to shut off one's moralizing inner Roger Ebert, one can begin to adore the little gestures of Mount's performance, the slight sagging of the auteur's shoulders when he realizes that Girl has left him, the enthusiastic post-axe-pleasuring drooling. Plus, how many movie axers apart from Ogroff do you know who are frequently seen pushing a bike through the woods, and who wear a helmet over their mask and wool cap while riding their motorcycle, axe in hand?

And, you know, even if all of that doesn't float your boat, Ogroff still has so much more to offer for someone who likes her movies as batshit insane as possible.

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Feb. 16th, 2017

06:13 pm - In short: Black Christmas (2006)

Sometimes, it helps not being such a big fan of a film that’s being remade. Now, I like Bob Clarke’s original Black Christmas just fine, even though I think it is a bit blandly directed, a problem I have with all of Clark’s films. However it’s a movie whose supporters often tend to come over as rather overexcited about this particular proto slasher, probably because he was so unfairly overlooked for quite some time. Once the “It’s better than Halloween” card is played, though, and the Halloween in question isn’t the Rob Zombie abomination, I tend to back away very slowly and very carefully.

Anyway, given my position, I can enjoy Glen Morgan’s in name and very basic set-up only remake for what it is: someone’s platonic ideal of video nasty, my second-favourite Christmas slasher (number one is of course Christmas Evil/You Better Watch Out), and an all-around joyfully messed up bundle of horror as a fun ride. This being a Morgan joint (his long-time partner James Wong relegated to a producer credit in what is a sign of one of the saddest divorces I know), the film is packed to the gills with – often hilariously – macabre detail, a very bloody sense of whimsy, male characters that are either totally useless or the killer, a love of the grotesque and the all-around weird jumping – sometimes literally - from every corner, sardonic use of musical standards, and Kristen Cloke.

It’s not a terribly logical film - but then it really doesn’t attempt or pretend to be – instead it is a sometimes sleazy, always bloody series of fun set pieces, paced with panache, crisply photographed in often pleasantly popping colours. Add to that a very special cookie recipe, an absurd yet awesome killer backstory told in flashbacks, some interesting thoughts about the proper use of Christmas trees and their ideal ornamentation, and you’ve got yourself a Santa Clause sized bag of Christmas fun.

If I’m perfectly honest, I prefer this to the original Black Christmas by a country mile, but then, there’s not accounting for taste, particularly not mine.

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