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December 20-26, 2006

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Cult Leader

Nightmares Before Xmas

By Steve Palopoli

LET SCARY MOVIES ruin your favorite holiday tunes! I have been obsessed with scary Christmas movies lately. Not kooky obsessed like the Christians who think the Baby Jesus cries every time the Weinsteins release a horror movie on Christmas Day (trust me, if you've been following the controversy over the new Black Christmas remake, that joke is hilarious). No, I mean there's something about scary Christmas stuff that's been compelling me to watch as much as I can, like there was some puzzle out there that I could solve in my head like the crazy guy in A Beautiful Mind if I would just stop showering long enough to watch Silent Night, Deadly Night over and over. Unfortunately, that didn't help, because that movie really sucks. And what do you know, its sequels are even worse—in fact, the discovery that Monte Hellman directed the god-awful third installment, in which the fake Santa Claus killer is actually resurrected by a mad scientist, made me OK once and for all with not liking Two-Lane Blacktop.

Anyway, I finally had an epiphany, no pun intended (trust me, if you're Catholic, that joke is hilarious). The thing about truly worthwhile spooky Christmas movies is they always take a beloved holiday song and make it freaky. I'm serious about this. And not only that, but the song is always the best part. Don't believe me? Let's review:

Movie: Black Christmas (1974), Song: 'Silent Night' I haven't seen the remake, but judging from the trailer, they've camped up this cult classic, which is without a doubt the best Christmas horror film ever. Not because it makes a lot of sense, because it really doesn't—especially the end, which is just poorly explained enough to make you think about it for the rest of your life. What's effective here is the imaginative and at times gorgeous camera work set against a menacing mood. And you couldn't ask for a creepier opener than the title sequence, which features "Silent Night" sung by a choir that doesn't seem to know the words. This was directed by Bob Clark, one of my favorite cult directors of all time because he's so damn versatile—like a B-movie Billy Wilder, he's been able to make interesting movies in any genre. Case in point: His other Christmas movie is the family cult favorite A Christmas Story.

Movie: 'Gremlins' (1984), Song: 'Do You Hear What I Hear?' Richard von Busack had to remind me this was a Christmas movie. How could I forget, considering the three best moments are all holiday-related: (1) the Gremlin-propelled Christmas tree attack; (2) the insane monologue from Phoebe Cates about how she lost her Christmas spirit for good when she accidentally burned her father to death in the chimney—if I ever meet director Joe Dante, I will let him know that his attempt to cover his ass by parodying this scene in Gremlins 2 fooled no one; and (3) the only really unnerving scene in the film, when Zach Galligan's mom first investigates the Gremlins to the sound of Johnny Mathis singing "Do You Hear What I Hear?" Now, I have always liked this movie, but unfortunately the holiday setting also plays into the one thing that irks me about it: ice is frozen water, right? So why the hell don't the Gremlins multiply when they're cavorting around in the snow?

Movie: 'Christmas Evil' (1980), Song: 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town' Dig that disco version! What a strange movie! Get the DVD just for John Waters' commentary track!

Movie: 'Seasons of Belief' (1986), Song: 'O Come, All Ye Faithful' OK, this isn't actually a movie, but an episode of Tales From the Darkside about parents who foolishly make up a Christmas Eve story about a monster called the Grither to scare their children. It isn't scary, except for the song they make up to the tune of "O Come, All Ye Faithful," changing the words to "I am the Grither/ You cannot escape me/ Pleading is useless/ And so are your prayers." The second time the song gets sung (I won't say by whom), it still puts a chill down my spine. This episode can get so under your skin that not only did I have a dream about the Grither, just telling my friend Human Holly about it recently caused her to lie awake the next night weighing the odds of a Grither attack in her own home. Ironically, that's the point of the episode: the stories you tell can take on a life of their own, so you better watch out.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite holiday horror film here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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