30 Days of Fright: Christmas 2011 DVD roundup

Posted Filed under

Let me guess. It’s a few days until Christmas, you haven’t bought any gifts yet and your flat is bereft of anything even approaching festive decoration, unless you count the colourful detritus overflowing from your unemptied kitchen bin. Your brain is empty when it comes round to thinking of what to give your Auntie Linda this year, until it finally strikes you: Kill List is the ideal yuletide treat for a loved one.

Well, you’re in luck, it seems, as Ben Wheatley’s brilliant fusion of Ken Loach-style kitchen-sink drama and Wicker Man occult horror heads up this last-minute guide to holiday gore. The director of Down Terrace’s second feature tells the tale of a pair of out-of-luck ex-servicemen, Jay, played by Rise of the Footsoldier’s Neil Maskell, and Gal (Michael Smiley, best known as cycle courier Tyres in Spaced) who are tempted into a series of murders for money by a mysterious stranger.

Family man with anger issues Jay needs the money, while affable best friend Gal seemingly is in it because he can’t do anything else. Needless to say, as is the way with these things, the list of victims (all of which seem deserving of their fate) isn’t dispatched with easily, as dark forces slowly conspire against our anti-heroes.

Wheatley’s film skillfully builds a bleak, realist setting in bland suburbia to begin, with Maskell’s shark-eyed estuary bloke and Smiley’s warmer Irishman Gal thoroughly convincing. As the brutality (and there is a lot of this, filmed unflinchingly), followed by cult surrealism, builds to a gripping climax, the audience is completely absorbed in the tense spiraling out of control as panic sets in. A bold statement of intent from a great young British talent, it seems a no-brainer to watch this space.

Continuing this months’s trend for low-budget, pseudo-realist regional UK releases, we have Mark Harriott and Mike Matthew’s Scottish-set Unhappy Birthday, a slow-burning look at an ill-fated trip to a remote northern island. That rare (or maybe more like rarely-publicised) horror headed by a gay couple, Unhappy Birthday is an effective film about said lovers, Rick (David Paisley) and Jonny (Jonathan Keane) and their close friend Sadie (Christina De Vallee), whose birthday trip (organised by Rick) is a meeting with her long-lost half-sister, who she hasn’t seen since childhood.

Things start off badly when the trio are fumigated on entry to the secluded, old-fashioned island, and they only get worse when their modern values clash with the traditional religious beliefs of the locals. As old secrets are revealed, this makes for another claustrophobic, Wicker Man-influenced look at isolated individuals faced with a situation out of their control. With decent performances, a great, eerily scenic setting and intelligent treatment of the script, this is well worth a watch – unlike the ‘Jesse Eisenberg vehicle’, Camp Hell

With Oscar-nominee Eisenberg’s face plastered all over the cover for this straight to DVD-fest, you’d assume he would have a pivotal role in the film’s plot. Well, no. With a less than five minute cameo appearance, this melodramatic look at a batshit Christian summer camp for boys is semi-watchable, if only for some good performances from the reliable Bruce Davison as a loony preacher and Andrew McCarthy as a slightly less loony parent. Still, this is pure budget horror hell and you really can’t blame Eisenberg for suing Camp Hell’s makers for false advertising.

In contrast, Grindhouse Trailer Classics 3 – a collection of film trailers from the late seventies/early eighties cycle of pulp movies based around sex, drugs, violence, Blaxploitation and basically anything as mad as you can think of – certainly does what it says on the tin. With an introduction and accompanying documentary by this blog’s hero, cult horror critic Kim Newman, this is an enjoyable, eclectic few hours of alternative film history.

Titles like The Dobermann Gang (a film gloriously about a group of canine bank robbers!), Swedish Wives Exchange Club (self-explanatory), Black Mama, White Mama (lots of nudity and a Pam Grier appearance), Nazi Love Camp 27 and The Vampires Night Orgy (both as you’d expect) combine with many less memorable ones (though probably all equally poor) for a breezy look at low-budget, possibly too silly to even offend, movies. Stars such as John Saxon, Peter Fonda, Telly Savalas and even Robert Shaw crop up as the old list of films to see grows ever longer (Mother Goose A-Go-Go gets our vote).

Continuing the somewhat silly theme, you may remember the last blog lamenting a lack of cheesy Christmas-themed massacres this year. Rejoice, then, for ridiculous Dutch gem Saint, an enjoyably over-the-top romp about a less-than-charitable St Nicholas who returns with his undead cronies every forty years to wreak bloody vengeance on Amsterdam.
With a distinctly Dead Snow vibe, a kill count around the 300 mark and, bizarrely, after the last blog’s Blood Creek, even more zombie horses, this gory, tacky (some CGI is hilariously bad) blast is great, undemanding festive fun for all the family (or not).

Having successfully repressed the memory of Most Haunted: Ghosthunting With The Only Way Is Essex into the same dark abyss as childhood trauma and Michael J. Fox’s terrible Oirish accent in Back to the Future Part III, we now move onto the last of this blog’s releases, Season 1 of George A Romero’s Tales from the Darkside. The original eighties TV spin-off from Romero’s cult feature Creepshow, unlike Romero’s other recent portmanteau DVD release, Dead Time Stories, Tales proves itself to be a massively enjoyable collection of short, macabre stories.

With a very familiar set-up of modern-day fables with ironic deaths and morals heavily leaning towards ‘be careful what you wish for’, Tales from the Darkside is patchy at times, but solid viewed as a whole. Romero’s executive producer role ensures a delicious delight in the tongue-in-cheek nastiness as guest writers including Psycho scribe Robert Bloch, Stephen King, Harlan Ellison and Clive Barker, lend a touch of class to proceedings. This bumper boxset provides all 24 episodes in the first season and could add a pleasant hint of brimstone to the traditional over-sentimental Christmas fare.

That’s it for this year, then, so we’ll leave you with a festive quote from 1974’s Black Christmas: “Why don’t you go find a socket and stick your tongue in it.” On second thoughts, that doesn’t quite work, so on that anticlimax, we’ll see you again in 2012.

What was your favourite horror movie of 2011? Let us know below…