There Ain't No Sanity Clause: Nasty Videos for Your Inner Naughty Child
Counter-programming Christmas with bad cheer and body counts
By Marc Savlov, 2:25PM, Mon. Dec. 19, 2011
It's that time of year again. Overcast, wet, and about as warm as Morrissey's Manchester, the holidays are once more upon us, grinning with suspect good cheer and bad cable knit scarves. And, even more taxing to cinephiles, awash in bad feel-good films and pernicious televised treacle. Bah, humbug, we cry. Bring on the transgressive holiday programming!
Like a festive zombie threatening to gnaw clean through our snarky, pomo-film writer's carapace, the holidays inevitably work our last, thrumming nerve. Especially when it comes to the barrage of cloying, filmed entertainments unsubtly and cynically calibrated towards moving tie-in merch and offering up overeager and ultra-obvious lessons for the hearts and minds of the young and easily manipulated.
Don't get us wrong: we love Frank Capra's roasted-over-the-open-fires-of-Hades chestnut It's a Wonderful Life as much and possibly more than anyone else. It's generally regarded as a deeply moving story of holiday redemption but reveals itself to be, upon closer inspection, a deeply jaded and jarring take on mankind's inherent proclivity towards Pottersville and all that that implies. Suicide, prostitution, borderline child abuse, alcoholism, and the death of hope? Capra's dark fable has it all, outdoing itself in a surreal race to beat poor George Bailey six feet down. Redemption comes, true, but only in the wake of the unthinkable.
Likewise our other favorite holiday tradition, A Charlie Brown Christmas, which leavens Young good man Brown's existential quest for a decent Scotch pine and the true meaning of Christmas with all the wonderful and warm-fuzzy familial familiarity of Linus's beloved blue blanket. Brilliant and melancholy and forever wise beyond its years, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains the pinnacle of holiday programming.
But that's where our joy for the world pretty much terminates, filmed entertainment-wise. A quick look at this week's TV Guide lists creepily opportunistic animated fare such as Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas, Shrek the Halls, and an endless loop of Peter Billingsley getting kicked in the face by a jovially sadistic Santa in Bob Clark's A Christmas Story, a very cool film that has been overexposed to the point of becoming virtual white Christmas noise.
Which brings us to our personal holiday counter-programming: five films, all on DVD and available via Vulcan Video and I Luv Video (please, no Netflix, people), that cut to the grim heart of the holidays. They're not for your grandmother's eyes, to be sure -- that's what George Lucas made the bizarro-world Star Wars Holiday Special for -- but they're guaranteed to subvert holiday viewing habits in the most disturbing yet entertaining ways imaginable. Grab the comforter, fire up the Google yule log, and stash the kids in the chimney. Santa won't be needing it this year…
Joe Dante's finest moment (after The Howling, natch) is, like Capra's Wonderful Life, far darker than you probably remember, especially if you haven't watched it since its initial 1984 run. Once you get past the OMFG adorableness of the "good" Mogwai Gizmo and the genius creativity of Chris Walas's unnervingly lifelike puppetry effects, Gremlins is, as Roger Ebert succinctly and accurately put it, "a confrontation between Norman Rockwell's vision of Christmas and Hollywood's vision of the blood-sucking monkeys of voodoo island." It's a darkly comic mix that takes every opportunity to lash out at authority, tradition, and holiday movies themselves. It's anarchy in the best sense of the word.
E. Elias Merhige's rarely seen (prior to Youtube, anyway) 1991 feature debut is 78 minutes of pure, undiluted, experimental outrage. Shot in grainy, high-contrast black and white, Begotten makes our holiday list chiefly because the main character is god, who turns out to be a grim self-mutilator and lurching metaphor for everything cruddy about mankind's voracious appetites. Its quasi-religious overtones are epically disconcerting in a creepy, ancient-pagan sort of way, and Susan Sontag was a major fan. Much like your first encounter with Santa -- or, for that matter, Satan -- it's impossible to unsee once seen.
Adapted from a Tony Burgess novel, which we haven't gotten around to reading yet, this is a snowbound zombie film like no other. In our initial SXSW 2009 blog post on the film, we described it as "one of the most original and freakily disturbing films of Canadian origin we've seen since David Croneneberg first sent Shivers up our spines. The less you know about it going in, the more you're likely to sleep with the lights on later, so we'll be circumspect regarding plot details. Suffice it to say, Pontypool leaves you feeling as though you've seen Night of the Living Dead re-conceptualized by William S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard while all three of you were on bad, scary LSD at a semiotics seminar whose keynote speaker turned out to be a zombie-Hunter S. Thompson."
2) The Diary of Anne Frankenstein
Because nothing says "Happy Hanukah" like a vaudeville-broad burlesque about a zany Adolph Hitler creating a vengefully Rabbinical zombie from parts of dead Jews. And before anyone takes offense, please note that director Adam Green, of Hatchet fame, is, indeed, one of the tribe and therefore immune to accusations of anti-Semitism. From the retro titles to the ridiculous end, this is sick and wrong in all the right ways.
1) Cannibal Holocaust
The original "found footage" film is also the most indefensible mondo-horror movie we've ever had the guilty pleasure to watch. Re-released in an all-new bells-and-whistles double-disk edition by Sage Stallone's Grindhouse Releasing several years back, this flesh-eating, cinematic atrocity exhibition gives new meaning to the term "consumer culture." It's every bit as vile as you've heard, but not half as bad as you'd imagined, and while it has nothing whatsoever to say about the holidays, it'll say everything necessary about you when you pop it in the player the office Christmas party. See it and weep.