So long as David Sardonic, er, Sedaris, is a household name, he will forever be affiliated with Christmas. Who didn’t first come to this man’s oft-times sassy, other times outrageous satire via NPR’s broadcast of “Santaland Diaries”? This funny little stocking stuffer of a book adds six new stories to the 1998 version opening with—what else—“SantaLand Diaries”, which fans will enjoy every Christmas until their sanity has finally left them and they can laugh no more. With this book they’ll get the holiday treat they anticipate, and some new goodies, as well.
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Until recently, the PopMatters Multimedia staff consisted entirely of male writers. As such, it was almost a matter of drawing straws to see who would get “stuck” with covering the various Nancy Drew titles pushed out by Her Interactive every nine months or so. From these assignments came an interesting trend, however—to a man, every single person assigned to write about a Nancy Drew game ended up enjoying it, citing it as one of the better adventure games currently being produced for the PC. The latest in the series is no different. In fact, it’s an example of just how Her is putting the increasing budget they’re getting for these games to good use; it’s the best-looking Nancy Drew adventure to date, and yet it retains the unexpectedly complex puzzling of the previous games. Its target audience may be one made up of tween and young teen girls, but Her has proven over and over again that you don’t need to be a member of that group to enjoy this game. The Haunting of Castle Malloy is as good a place in the series as any to begin discovering that for yourself.
How do you satisfy the sex and violence cravings of that notoriously knotty genre film fan on your Christmas list? Why not give him (or her) a combo memento of Kevin Smith’s sly raunch RomCom as shout out to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. This actual hockey jersey, featuring a wonderful silhouette of the undead with sticks raised in corpse checking defiance, is a great way to celebrate the holidays. Nothing says Noel like wearing a piece of motion picture paraphernalia that simultaneously suggests horror and hardcore porn, without actually offering either.
In China, it’s like Halloween. The 15th night of the seventh month is reserved for the dead. Ancient tradition holds that, on this occasion, the spirits of those who’ve departed pass through the gates of purgatory and mingle with their loved ones left behind on Earth. Through ritual and respect, they are appeased and head back into the afterlife. Thus the Ghost Festival finds its folklore and a new horror anthology from Facets, entitled Visits, finds a foundation. Dealing with a specific part of the mythology centering on hungry, or vengeful spirits, four Asian directors with differing approaches provide a quartet of fright films proposing to make your spine shiver and your nerves rattle - that is, if they don’t bore you to death first.
Framed by a disc jockey promising a series of sensational holiday horror fare, the first tale, entitled 1413 centers on two young girls, a suicide pact gone sour, and the truth behind the untimely death of the unsettled specter. Waiting for Them has an unlucky in love businesswoman upset over the despondent phone calls of a friend. When she finally finds her wondering the street, she seems unusually connected to the supernatural realm. A young filmmaker hopes to capture a scary ritual known as the Nodding Scoop…and gets much more than he or his gal pals bargained for, while a psychotic security guard stalks a pretty apartment dweller, unaware of her own sinister secret in Anybody Home.
While all four films have something going for them, nary a single one stands out as special or suspenseful. They all suffer from incomplete ideas and half-baked realization of same. If one had to pick a worthwhile installment amongst the otherwise mediocre material, the final segment would score strongly. Until the last act mistake of switching the point of view from surveillance cameras to standard cinema, Anybody Home makes for some quasi—creepy silent storytelling. We never fully understand the motives of the security guard, and can only speculate as to what he reacts to once he’s inside the victims home and looking in her freezer. Of course, the entire set-up suggests something unholy and awful, but when director Ho Yuhang decides to switch gears and go back to a standard shooting style, we instantly loose interest. Add in a lengthy, unexplained flashback and a weird, anticlimactic ending, and even Anybody Home suffers.
In fact, it’s safe to say that all of Visits is stunted by a long standing, second class association with the already dead genre of J-Horror. From the obsession with suicide (1413) to the notion of pissed off phantoms taking their afterlife anger out on the living (Nodding Scoop), each episode here feels lifted from a better, more original inspiration. Even Waiting for Them, which wants to put a fresh, frightening spin on self-discovery and female empowerment treads so lightly and statically that you frequently wonder if the actors are actually moving. Indeed, this mind-numbingly dull effort argues for James Lee’s ineffectualness as a filmmaker.
Yet even when a director tries for something novel, like Ng Tian Hann and his caught on tape terror show Nodding Scoop, the conventions of the genre do him in. We need to have ghosts, girls under attack, and a clueless cad for a hero who ends up making multiple mistakes before succumbing to the spirit’s evil advances. The whole narrative is knotted around itself, unclear from the moment we learn that our novice filmmaker has hired two babes to be his on camera (and off screen) talent. While the occasional glimpses of the unhappy spook make the opening moments fun, the finale falls flat. Indeed, what we need more than anything else is a sense of clarity. We don’t mind enigmatic moments and unexplained fears. But without details - or an attempt to offer said - we become frustrated.
Indeed, Visits is an overall aggravating experience. 1413 seems to wrap up its obvious mystery before it even begins, and the red herring married boyfriend in Waiting never pays off at all. It’s the same for Anybody Home. Why take several minutes putting us through the cat and mouse of the security guards personal surveillance only to have the storyline shift over into something completely different…and underwhelming? While the sole bonus feature argues for the effectiveness of the short film format, nothing about Visits supports this theory. All four mini-features would have benefited from a longer length, as well as a few rewrites, an expansion of themes, and a revisit to the Western way of delivering the shivers. The closest we get to effective macabre is a bit of bloodshed.
Of course, it’s not Visits fault that it took nearly four years to get to American audiences. While a previous DVD version of this title was released by an unknown company back in 2006, this will be the first exposure for many to this irritating title. Since it was made, the entire Asian fright flick fad has peaked, petered out, and grown passé. It’s now the stuff of spoof, not serious scary moviemaking. Yet there are occasional attempts to revive the format, with Hollywood still working through its One Missed Call contracts before finally putting the genre to bed forever. It would be nice to say that Visits could jumpstart, or at the very least reinvigorate an already DOA medium. At this point in the game however, the type is no longer viable, and this film is far from strong enough to overcome such odds.
It’s said that you can’t go home again. Other maxim-mized clichés include the inability to revisit past glories and the ever popular suggestion regarding letting sleeping dogs remain within their current supine positioning. But when you’re Joel Hodgson, famed comedian and creator of the classic Mystery Science Theater 3000, you’ve already bucked one Thomas Wolfe-inspired trend. Why not take your newest version of that hilarious in-theater riff-a-thon and tackle a title that made MST famous - fans and fancy pants be damned! Thus the decision to return to the days of Patrick Swayze, catalog daydreaming, and the madcap extraterrestrial antics of an overgrown green idiot named Dropo.
That’s right, Cinematic Titanic’s last offering for 2008 is a revisit of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a crappy kid vid creation that sparked one of Hodgson’s original series’ Season Three highlights. Gone, of course, is the attempt at a new Christmas Carol (based on that other holiday favorite, Roadhouse), a discussion of off the radar TV specials (“The X-Mas that Really Kicked Ass”), and a nice bit of cool Yule logging. In its place is a racier, edgier take on the material, the CT crew finding plenty of adolescent-to-adult affronts in this uninspired space epic. Fans who were afraid of a mere recycle and unnecessary regurgitation will now have to suck it up and gauge which edition - old school or new breed - is better.
As for the film itself, we are treated to a dull little sugarplum piffle involving the angry red planet, a leader desperate to bring joy to his sullen alien offspring, and one of the kindest, dullest Kris Kringle’s on record. When King Martian Kimar sees how sad his son and daughter truly are, he goes to Chochem (Mars’ answer to a shaman) for advice. Discovering that his kids need fun and freedom in order to thrive, Kimar comes up with a daring plan - head down to Earth and kidnap the universe’s symbol of glad tidings - the one and only Santa Claus.
With the help of henchmen Stobo and Shim, the stale stupidity of castaway Dropo and the always upset, desperate for power Voldar, the Martians find two Earth kids (Betty and Billy Foster), force them to fess up to Santa’s location, grab the jolly old elf, and head home. Once back on Mars, however, one of Kimar’s minions prepares for a double-cross, while our apple-checked champion grows bored of making toys via technology.
On any filmic scale, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is not merely horrible, it’s horrendous. It’s like watching a half-witted home movie made by people who have neither a home or moviemaking skills. Documentarian turned editor turned flop-meister Nicholas Webster proves here that working for Uncle Sam’s war effort during WWII lends little in the way of cinematic vision or professionalism. He utilizes cardboard backdrops and pipe cleaner costuming to turn his interstellar story into tired, two-dimensional dross. It’s a good thing the actors are coated in layers of baby diarrhea tinged make-up. That way, we can’t see how red faced and embarrassed they must have been. No one is safe - not John Call’s Santa, not Leonard Hicks’ Kimar…heck, not even a prepubescent Pia Zidora as a barely recognizable Martian girl with a permanent deer-in-the-headlights look on her face.
Of course, what really distinguishes Santa Claus Conquers the Martians from other, happier holiday fare is the total absence of that mandatory mistletoe movie must - Christmas spirit. Our benevolent being with a belly like a bowl full of jelly is decent enough, but refrigerator box robots, creepy old alien sages, and a villainous Village People reject with a man-love moustache and mayhem on his mind do not an engaging Noel make. While the plot is busy lapping itself, offering kidnapping after snatching after hostage crisis as a means of moving the story alone, any sense of magic and wonder slowly dissipates in a fog of failed ambitions and staid Saturday Matinee mediocrity. No wonder kids in the ‘60s went hippie. This conservative claptrap would turn even the staunchest Neo-Con into a member of the counterculture.
As with his previous comedic outing, Hodgson has often said that the cast’s ability to mock a movie is inversely proportional to how atrocious it is. The worse the outing, the better the belittling - and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is no exception. In fact, the notion that a similar selection of performers could once again pick apart this movie in equally effective fashion says as much about the Cinematic Titanic talent pool as it does Claus’ crappiness. Right from the start, we get a “haven’t we seen this before” reference, before diving right into the ridicule. Along the way, former MSTers J. Elvis Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl peel back the layers of lousiness inserting their own off the wall (and frequently off-color) takes. There is some very racy stuff offered this time around.
What many fans will miss, however, is the lack of holiday-themed skits, the kind of material that made something like the crazed carol “A Patrick Swayze Christmas” so memorable. This version of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians does offer one of the new series’ minor ‘movie-stop’ moments (times when someone else will ask that the film be halted so they can offer up a scripted comedic bit). In this instance, Hodgson delivers his presents for the festive season - and not everyone is happy about it. Elsewhere, we get more introductory bits between the crew and the security team, including a failed escape attempt by Trace (the key word here being “failed”). With more movie available than ever before - no commercials means no ‘editing for time’ constraints - this version of the title truly lives up to its ‘worst film ever’ classification.
Still, it’s slightly surreal to hear voices that originally eviscerated this seasonal stool sample going in for an amusement Mulligan. It must have been a tough decision, especially when considering fan expectations and potential MST cult criticism. Certain episodes of the celebrated cowtown puppet show symbolized everything that was perfect about Mystery Science Theater 3000 as a concept and a creative enterprise, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was among that noted number. Cinematic Titanic took a massive risk remaking this iconic installment, and that they succeeded so well speak volumes for their individual abilities and satiric skills. While it’s probably true that a trip back into one’s past is more problematic than therapeutic, this updated look at a piece of MST history is a retread well executed…and well worth it.