Thursday, December 23, 2010

And All Through the House...

Well, evil elves, the holiday season has descended upon us like some massive, garishly decorated bird of prey once again (in the case of most department stores, it descended sometime around mid-August). One might think the season of good-will-toward-men (just men? Typical) is anathema to the ghouls, gremlins, and sundry grotesques lurking in the Psychobabble vaults. But then one would be wrong. Psychobabble is a big fan of the season’s lights and tinsel, if not all that Jesus stuff. And though the December holidays may not offer the monstery delights of Halloween season, they are not exactly devoid of scares. Just take a look at A Christmas Carol. Lest we forget, Dicken’s deathless tale is actually quite frightening. At its heart, A Christmas Carol is the story of an old crab terrorized by a bevy of ghosts, who threaten him with nothing less than an early death if he doesn’t get with the hall decking. The better adaptations, such as Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 version with Alistair Sim as miserly Scrooge or Clive Donner’s 1984 take starring George C. Scott, embrace the story’s horror elements readily. I took in the Donner version for the first time in twenty or so years recently and was surprised by how chilling its overall air of gauzy decay and its depictions of Jacob Marley and The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come remained. Even The Ghost of Christmas Past, played with withering detachment by Angela Pleasence—daughter of classic horror mainstay Donald!—creeped me out. The film is only missing the terrifying sequence from Dicken’s novella in which Scrooge looks out his window to see a tormented torrent of tortured phantoms in the snow.
                                     Creepy Angela Pleasence being creepy.

There have been a number of other feature length holiday horror films, ranging from the genuinely creepy (1974’s Black Christmas) to the delightfully deranged (1984’s Gremlins) to the out-and-out campy (1980’s Christmas Evil) to exploitative, slice-‘em-up-Santa shit (1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night). The latter genre actually has its roots in one of the season’s best fusions of sleigh bells and slay hells. “And All Through the House” appeared in the February/March 1954 issue of The Vault of Horror. Johnny Craig’s tale of an escaped psycho in a Santa suit is unusually layered for an E.C. comic.

Most such stories would give us one weapon-wielding loony, but Craig cleverly made the stalkee a housewife who committed her own murder just moments before evil Santa closes in on her house, threatening her and her daughter. It’s among the most memorable stories in E.C.’s all-too brief history, so memorable that it was treated to two direct adaptations. The first of these appeared in Freddie Francis’s superb 1972 portmanteau, Tales from the Crypt, and starred Joan Collins as the housewife double-tasked with disposing of her husband’s freshly killed corpse and avoiding Saint Nick’s crazy clutches.

Even better is the version that appeared in the debut three-part episode of HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt”, which may be the series’ best half hour. Director Robert Zemeckis gives us a more shadowy environment and a more monstrous Santa (the wonderfully weird Larry Drake), as well as the authentically gorgeous X-mas tableau that opens the episode, only to be wickedly and ironically shattered by its first murder. Zemeckis’s ex-wife Mary Ellen Trainor does a terrific job as the frazzled housewife, especially when she loses her shit in the episode’s concluding moments. Holiday horrors get no better: (Sorry, the first part of this episode was unavailable on You Tube):

Happy Horrordays!
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