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12 days of Christmas Horror the 2023 edition!

I haven't done one of these in a while but have been feeling a bit festive this year so I thought I'd check out and review some newe...

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

12 days of Christmas Horror the 2023 edition!

I haven't done one of these in a while but have been feeling a bit festive this year so I thought I'd check out and review some newer Christmas Themed horror movies. Despite being called 12 Days of Christmas Horror I can't guarantee I'll get to twelve movies. I just dig the title so stuck it on my holiday marathon a few years ago when I did the first one. Also I should point out that not all of them are going to lean too heavily into horror as will be obvious with my first movie below, but more on that later. So I suppose we need to get on with the proceedings. 


New Reviews

Movie 1: Amityville Christmas Vacation (2022) - This independent movie is less than an hour long but director/writer/star Steve Rudzinski packs the short runtime full of good stuff. The movie leans heavily into the comedy but does have a ghost... so yeah horror. This one is a blast. Click here for my full review. 

Stuff you should check out

I thought it might also be fun to mention some of my favorite Holiday Horrors that I've already covered for the site in previous years. These are the movies that I find myself rewatching every December to get in a festive spirit. Don't judge me!

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) - The most controversial of all the Santa slasher movies this one lives up to the hype. Decent kills, including the most festive of murders, and a twisted storyline make for an excellent gift for all horror nerds. 

Jack Frost (1996) - A killer is doused in chemicals and bonds with the snow turning him into a mutant killer snowman! Plus Shannon Elizabeth has a shower scene... hey where did his carrot nose go? So good that they had to do a sequel!

Jack Frost 2: The Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman (2000) - More Killer Snowman fun... this time in the tropics! Yeah it is warm but this is a mutant killer snowman so it makes sense. 

Letters to Satan Claus (2020) - Imagine what happens when someone at the SyFy channel decides to make a horror spoof of the one plot Hallmark has for their Christmas movies? You get this awesome bit of holiday horror. 

Fatman (2020) - Mel Gibson is a pissed off Santa Claus who is targeted by an even angrier mob boss who is also a child. This leads to a big showdown with a hired killer. This one is more action than horror but still a blast. 

Elves (1989) - Is this a good movie. Not at all. Do you need to see it? Absolutely! Why? Dan Haggerty, Nazis, and killer Elves summoned thru some sort of nonsense. Not often is bad good but here it is. 

A Christmas Horror Story (2015) - This awesome anthology is fun from start to finish. Toss in a story with William Shatner as a radio host and you have yourself the makings of a very merry evening. 

Santa's Slay (2005) - Bill Goldberg is a murderous Santa Claus. Do I need to say more? How about a star studded opening that sees some familiar faces including horror icon Chris Kattan (inside joke...sorry) brutally killed? 

Amityville Christmas Vacation (2022)

I’m a big fan of independent movies and one of my favorite indie filmmakers is Steve Rudzinski. Amityville Christmas Vacation is a continuation of his Wally Griswold character. The loveable and bumbling cop wins a contest to spend Christmas in scenic Amityville not knowing that the evil owner of the bed and breakfast has chosen him for her own nefarious purposes. There is an evil ghost haunting the place who she feeds unsuspecting guests too.

After saying goodbye to his cat and rats, who play important roles in the previous movies like Meowy Christmas and A Meowy Halloween, he heads off for a couple days of relaxation. When he arrives the ghost, Jessica, goes about trying to scare him. He is so clueless however that he keeps misunderstanding what is happening and apologizes to her. Confused she eventually falls in love with him, much to the dismay of the owner, Samantha, who decides to call in a ghost hunter to get rid of Jessica to get rid of the now unhelpful ghost. Seems she has gotten to like the killing and is rather annoyed. After a couple of funny twists and turns the movie ends. Is it a happy ending? Well… Wally has terrible luck. That is all I’m going to say here.

Clocking in at a quick forty seven minutes Amityville Christmas Vacation wastes no time on padding but jumps right into the gags. From an early bit with Wally packing an impossibly deep suitcase to the slapstick shenanigans that take place when Jessica is trying to scare him there is a lot to enjoy. If you have read any of my other reviews of low budget independent movies, you will be familiar with my “shoot what you have the resources for” mantra. Rudzinski is an excellent example of a filmmaker that gets that.

The cast is small which allows him to limit the number of speaking roles. This allows Rudzinski to use the actors he has available to him to the fullest. All of them are quite good which is especially important because comedy is hard. The dialogue is clever, another hallmark of his movies, so if the actors don’t have comic timing it would be spoiled. Here the jokes are delivered and land with a great deal of skill. This includes Rudzinski who not only wrote the script (along with Bill Murphy) and directed but also starred as Wally. Just great stuff.

From the first time I watched CarousHell I’ve been a big fan of this filmmaker. I’ve never been disappointed by his movies, including his earlier work which was way better than I would have expected for a director and writer just starting out. Check out this as well as his other movies at the Silver Spotlight website. Personally, I recommend the CarousHell movies (soon to be a trilogy!) but you can’t go wrong with any of them including Amityville Christmas Vacation.

 

© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Monday, December 4, 2023

Steel Arena (1973)

More automotive shenanigans with me checking out Steel Arena. The plot, such as it is, follows a driver named Dusty. When we first meet him, he is hitching a ride into a small town. He strolls into the bar and after letting the bartender know he can’t afford his drinks is offered a job. They want him to run some moonshine which leads to a car chase after the sheriff shows up at the still! Dusty isn’t getting paid because he lost the load but does end up in a brawl where he meets Buddy. The pair then take the car down to enter a destruction derby for the prize money. Not only do they win but are then offered a job as daredevils for the traveling stunt show.

The rest of the movie are the pair along with the other drivers and stunt folks going from town to town smashing cars, jumping and smashing cars, and flipping and smashing cars. There is a lot of smashing here. We also get an attempt at storytelling where Crash, another driver, gets jealous that Dusty is the new featured driver in the show and is getting all the good stunts. This leads to bigger and more dangerous stunts as everyone has to up their game. Folks start to die and then the credits roll.

Much like C.B. Hustlers, which I covered recently, this movie is light on plot. There is just enough narrative to connect the various stunt shows. The story follows the pattern of some talking, a stunt show, some more talking as they drive to the next town, and another show. We do get hints at subplots with the owner of the show manipulating Dusty into riskier tricks to draw bigger crowds. There is also a lady that travels with Dusty, though I don’t think she ever gets a name. They even setup the fact that a now fired and angry Crash is going to sabotage the big jump that happens at the end of the flick. Though nothing is ever shown on screen and things end abruptly with the final scene being the girl boarding a bus to go home. Story wise there isn’t much here.  

The lack of plot isn’t helped by the fact that the cast is made up of actual stunt drivers using their real names and not actors playing parts. This means when they do try to deliver lines it mostly comes off flat and uninspired. So maybe not spending much time trying to develop characters and storylines is a good thing. The flip side of this is the cast is doing the stunts on screen and that brings a realism to the proceedings you don’t see in most of these movies. Cars get smashed up and the character climbs out of them, many times without a cut (to the scene not the actor)! That was a cool twist on this familiar genre.

The stunts are also well executed and since most of them are on tracks as part of a show take place in a controlled environment where they can really crank things up. Though the same tricks are show again and again as they build up the desire to jump further and flip more. From a narrative standpoint it makes sense, but seeing it play out repeatedly gets a bit old. Still, I think that while this isn’t a great movie it does bring enough mayhem and smashed up old cars that fans of this subgenre will dig it enough for at least a single watch.

Not a huge recommendation but unlike some of the other tedious entries I’ve covered, again C.B. Hustlers is a prime example, there are enough payoffs with the car crashes that I can’t completely hate it. But then again, I did grow up in the seventies where going to the county fair to see folks purposely run into each other until either they or the car couldn’t continue was considered a fun Saturday night! Still is actually…

 

© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Friday, December 1, 2023

Hooch (1977)

Eddie Joe, played by Gil Gerard, is running shine and the sheriff knows it. But every time he tries to catch him in the act he either gets away or doesn’t have anything on him. This is especially annoying to the sheriff because Eddie Joe is sweet on his niece Ginnie. If the criminal stuff isn’t enough, he is pissed off that Eddie Joe is stepping out with another woman, Jamie Sue, the daughter of one of the other moonshiners! Toss in the fact that Eddie Joe is the only supplier of shine that refuses to pay the sheriff off and it gets messy.

It gets worse when a stranger shows up in town. His name is Tony, and he is a mobster checking out the local bootlegging scene. When he sees how much money can be made he brings his boss in and they start making plans to take over. With the help of Old Bill, Jamie Sue’s pop, they locate the other stills and blow them up. Then they try arranging a meeting and try to blow up the bootleggers themselves. Along the way they try to frame Eddie Joe for the crime and turn the locals against him. Not only does he have the best shine, but his still is hidden and is the only one they haven’t been able to get rid of. This leads to a big finale with a shoot out and a car chase. Damn I forgot to mention that Eddie Joe drives a sweet El Camino.

I really liked this movie. It is a mix of carsploitation, moonshiners, and hicksploitation blended in a fun package. Gerard is great as Eddie Joe playing it low key and laid back. It is almost as if the part was written for his personality, which it was. He also wrote the story that the script was based on! There is always something happening on screen whether it is him romancing one of the two ladies, cracking wise with the sheriff, or the comedic gags with the locals it is a blast. There is a bit in the middle with a musical number and a lot of dancing and a bar fight that feels like padding where Hooch slows down a bit. But then the movie does pick up after that and ends in a fun finale.

It was the '70s and Gil was cool!
I was expecting a bit more car chase action, but what we do get is fine. Honestly, I don’t think they had the budget to crash anything so manage your expectations. You do get to see a couple nice rides and folks do end up in disposable vehicles, so you know they are going over an embankment or into the river. The inclusion of the mobsters halfway thru feels a bit forced but the actors are decent and there are some laughs to be had. It was weird to see Danny Aiello in a movie like this. He plays Tony and ends up with a butt full of buckshot… comedy!

A few other things to mention about Hooch. The soundtrack is filled with some appropriate seventies’ country toons. There are some awesome lines like, “I like my bourbon old and my women young.” Seriously Eddie Joe is one smooth operator when it comes to the ladies! There is even a funny Kojak line that if you don’t recognize one of the actors you will miss, but it made me giggle. Finally, the financial success of this movie was partly responsible for the creation of The Dukes of Hazzard. Honestly as a child of the seventies how the hell did I not know about this movie before now?

I had a lot of fun with Hooch and recommend that you go track yourself down a copy. It is a fun bit of drive-in cheese that is a must watch for folks who dig cars, hicks, or are just looking for a fun way to kill ninety minutes.

 

© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Throwback Thursday – The Gathering Dead by Stephen Knight

note: This is another book review that I wrote a decade ago. I did read more of Knight’s books after this one and remember enjoying the heck out of them. That said I don’t think I reviewed any for either my website or any other projects I worked on. At least there aren’t any in my archives.

The dead have risen and are quickly overrunning New York City. An elite team of soldiers is sent to bring a man named Safire and his daughter out of the city and to safety. Safire has some research that might help control the plague that is threatening to destroy the world. The team manages to get him on a chopper, but the dead still take them down (in a most gruesome and clever way…). The survivors end up trapped in a nearby building and looking for a way out. The bodies continue to pile up as the zombies take their toll on those still alive. Do they get the man and his precious knowledge out in time? Well I’m not going to spoil that.

Okay so this is one that I took a chance on. It had great reviews on Amazon and the Kindle version was really inexpensive. I do love some zombie fiction and am always on the lookout for a new series to dive into. Most of the time I'm disappointed, but it is a book like The Gathering Dead that makes the other misfires worth it.

The pacing is insane. It opens up with the rescue team making their way across the city to Central Park where the helicopters are waiting to get them out. Right from the start you can see that the characters are going to be heartless when the leave a woman and her child to the zombies. They have a single-minded purpose and that is to deliver their package to safety. This is a slightly different spin from most of the zombie fiction that I’ve read with survivors just trying to stay alive and sometimes hold onto their humanity. Not to say that there isn’t some hesitation and guilt in their decision. The characters are well developed and given unique personalities. The military characters could have easily been caricatures but instead Knight gives them some definable personalities within the limits placed on them being soldiers. This also leads to a backstory which itself provides some tension as the group moves it way across the city. 

The gore and zombies are presented in a way that I think fans will like. They shamble around in large groups and are dangerous with their sheer numbers. That is a very “Romero” approach which I dug. We get some suitably “sticky” deaths, but the author doesn't linger on them. Though I would have liked him too it does serve to keep the action moving along. Since that is one of the biggest strengths to the book, I can’t argue with that and it keeps the reader engaged. Staying within the framework of the traditional zombie as a monster Knight does toss in a few twists of his own. One of which is a nightmarish idea that had never occurred to me. Again I don’t want to spoil anything but lets just say skyscrapers won’t ever look the same to me again!

To sum things up, great pacing, fun characters, satisfying zombies, and some good twists on the genre make for a good read. With the current zombie craze I’d love to see this book made into a nice and bloody movie. Then again they would probably put a pretty boy like Brad Pitt in it and ruin a perfectly good story.  That said I highly recommend The Gathering Dead.

 

© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

C.B. Hustlers (1976)

You guys ready for another batch of Automotive mayhem? These are the movies set in and around the car culture and/or highway life. It is a uniquely American thing and was very important for the drive-in movie market from the fifties thru the sixties. This one, for better or worse, is a prime example.

Let me start with a plot synopsis, though for a movie like this it doesn’t much matter. There is a guy who goes by the C.B. Handle of Dancer. He drives around in a sweet custom van (Hot Box 1) talking to truckers on the radio. Why? Well because he has another van (Hot Box 2) with working girls in it, the titular C.B. Hustlers, and acts as their pimp. We find this out pretty fast as he directs them to a truck stop and they get right to work.

There is also a local sheriff who wants to clean up his county and get rid of all the undesirables. This includes a bunch of van enthusiasts who are having a festival/rally in an open field. I suppose there is some conflict because the girls ignore their normal eighteen wheeler customers for the four wheeler customers, but nothing much comes out of it. The local paper, basically a couple guys who serve as comedic relief, are also trying to do an expose like them “Watergate fellas”. Stuff happens and then the movie is over.

C.B. Hustlers is a prime example of someone making product for the drive-in circuit rather than a movie. There isn’t much story here, so it is easy to imagine this as the second or third feature on the bill when the audience was well into the other pursuits. There is a reason that they were called passion pits you know. There is some eye candy for those occasionally looking up at the screen in both the cool vans and the ladies getting naked. There are a lot of examples, and they are spaced evenly throughout the duration. And if you insist on watching the movie, as I did for this review, there are also some attempts at humor. Though they don’t really work well.

My biggest issue with the movie is a complete lack of plot. They have at best an outline of what they want, but many of the scenes are clearly improvised. We also get wide shots from way back with characters walking up and “talking” to each other. Far enough away that you can’t see their mouths move which allows the filmmakers to dub whatever dialogue or exposition they need in to push the story along. After about half an hour C.B. Hustlers runs out of steam and becomes tedious. This is the case even though I watched the VHS cut which removes ten minutes of the movie! From what I can tell it isn’t anything good they were just trying to speed it up.

Fans might be interested in the fact that the movie was directed by Stu Segall who was responsible for the much better Drive-in Massacre. It also stars… well one of the girls is played by Uschi Digard. If you don’t recognize that name, she was an actress who brought her ample “assets” to many a Russ Meyer flick.

Unless you are a diehard drive-in aficionado like myself, I can’t imagine you would have any desire to spend your time watching C.B. Hustlers. It had a decent formula and folks behind and in front of the camera who knew what they were doing. Sadly, the utter lack of plot dooms this to the pile of painfully mediocre schlock.


© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Monday, November 27, 2023

Outlaw Johnny Black (2023)

I’m not sure when I first saw this teased, but I believe it was around the release of director/star Michael Jai White’s Black Dynamite. I loved that movie and was super excited to see his Blaxploitation Western. I’m a huge fan of Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, and Woody Strode and they made some great flicks in the sixties and seventies. Truth be told I sort of forgot about this one until I saw one of my friends talking about it online. That same day I had a copy in my possession and dropped everything to watch it.

The movie opens with Johnny Black riding into a town. He is there to find and kill a man named Brett Clayton. While Johnny is an outlaw Clayton is a murderer who is there to rob the bank. We see in the first of a series of flashbacks that when Johnny was a boy his father, a gun toting preacher, was shot by Clayton. Since then he has been on a mission to get revenge. But Johnny is also a decent guy and when he sees the locals beating up on some Indians he stops them but accidentally gives the sheriff a heart attack. That leads to him being convicted, saved from the gallows, and spending the rest of the movie on the run from the law.

Along the way Johnny meets up with a preacher named Reverend Percy, steals his identity (to be fair the thought he died in another Indian attack) and falls in love with a lovely lady while waiting to steal money from a church. I mean he is an outlaw after all… Though something happens to him when he is forced to preach to keep his cover. His father’s words come pouring out of his mouth and suddenly make sense. Now instead of wanting to make off with the loot he now wants to save his lady friend, Jessie Lee, and protect the community from the evil rancher Tom Sheally. Don’t worry though as guess who shows up to burn the town to the ground on behalf of the bad guy? Yep, old Brett Clayton is going to get what is coming to him.

Outlaw Johnny Black isn’t what I had expected it to be. I was anticipating an over the top violent homage to the Spaghetti westerns common in the old exploitation days of the Grindhouse and Drive-ins. We do get some of that but most of the movie is about reminding us what is so great about the movies that inspired this one.

There are some clever homages to the exploitation classics westerns or not. Early on we get a Billy Jack reference about a foot meeting someone’s head and there not being anything they can do about it. Jai White also channels his inner Eastwood when he lets the undertaker know how many coffins to get ready when he rides into town. There is a last minute rescue from the gallows that will seem familiar to fans. Toss in a big saloon fight with all the highlights you would expect like a guy sliding down the bar, someone going over the railing, and that sort of thing.

The humor is also spot on. Whether in the spirit of the non PC culture with white guys playing many of the Indians as well as the shall we say… manly Indian lady that Percy is forced to marry many of the jokes do feel like those we would get in the seventies. There is also a reference to the classic Mel Brooks flick Blazing Saddles. Yeah, a horse gets punched and knocked out! Though instead of Mongo it is the previously mentioned Indian lady. We even get a funny gag when Johnny Black is dying of thirst in the desert and his horse kicks the bucket. It literally kicks the bucket! Maybe it is just me, but I found that very funny. We also get some great dialogue with the following line being one of my favorites. “I’m Crackshot Bob…” “Now you just shot.” Not sure if that works out of context well but trust me it is hilarious.

White is channeling his inner Hammer
The cast that Michael Jai White has assembled is great. Byron Minns, who was awesome in Black Dynamite is equally as good here as the Reverend Percy. He brings some over the top comedic delivery to his character that works well with the deadpan deliver that White brings to the lead role of Johnny Black. He is an excellent sidekick and the pair of them have chemistry that makes the story work. Barry Bostwick is good as the bad guy Tom Sheally though he isn’t asked to do much. Randy Couture, Tommy Davidson, Kevin Chapman, and Chris Browning all shine in supporting roles. Michael Madsen shows up in a blink and you’ll miss it bit part too. Those names might not be familiar to you, but I guarantee the faces will ring a bell.

Director/Actor/Writer Michael Jai White is clearly a fan of the movies that he is parodying with Outlaw Johnny Black. To that end I wasn’t surprised with the cameos. While we never see him as he only does a voiceover, I instantly recognized Louis Gossett Jr.’s voice. He does a voiceover as the preacher who was gunned down by the bad guys in a letter. There is also a very cool moment at the end of the movie where the main cast members toast a couple of fellas sitting on a balcony. Those men? Fred “the Hammer” Williamson and the late great Jim Brown. I loved the fact that respect was paid to the men who worked on and inspired a movie like this. It is that sort of attention to detail that made me dig Black Dynamite and Outlaw Johnny Black.

If you haven’t figured it out yet I’m going to recommend this movie. I hope that it does well because I’d love to see what Michael Jai White can do next. I certainly hope it doesn’t take another fourteen years for someone to give him the resources to make a follow-up.

 

© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer