I don’t usually post on Fridays, but here is my second one today, because I got two last stocking stuffers for you before the holiday weekend. Here are reviews of two Christmas related shorts, one horror, one crime (sorta). Pretty obscure ones, but both worth checking out.
First up is THE PRESENT, which is a 2005 episode of a Japanese anthology show called Kazuo Umezz’s Horror Theater (released on DVD as part of Horror Theater 3). The titular Kazuo Umezu (the spelling varies) is a famous author of horror manga, as you can guess by the art laid over the introduction to the show, so this is an adaptation of one of his stories. He’s been around long enough that the 1968 movie THE SNAKE GIRL AND THE SILVER-HAIRED WITCH is based on his comics too.
THE PRESENT filters the classic American form of the killer Santa movie through a more Japanese (and specifically manga) style of fucked-upness. It’s about a little girl named Yuko (Kiyo Ôshiro) who wakes up on Christmas Eve, terrified by a nightmare about Santa. She has a Christmas tree in her room and a stocking on her bedpost – I’m not sure if that’s how they do it in Japan, or if it’s weird. But her parents comfort her and tell her to go back to sleep and she’ll get presents because she’s a good girl (though “if you do bad things he’ll come and get you.”)
There are many shots emphasizing specific Christmas decorations in her room, including a ceramic castle or mansion type thing on her table. I thought it might be a Japanese idea of where Santa lives, but then it skips to Yuko as a young woman (Seiko Iwaidô, THE GREAT YOKAI WAR) and she and her friends are spending Christmas Eve at a hotel that looks just like that. The desk clerk (Randall Himes) is dressed as Santa Claus, and the rooms are decorated, strangely, with some of the exact things that were in Yuko’s room in the prologue.
Yuko seems very shy, and she makes a big move writing in a Christmas card to a boy named Ryosuke (Takamasa Suga, Kamen Rider) that “my Christmas gift to you is me.” Her friends embarrass her by pulling the card out of her pocket and reading it out loud to everybody. Ryosuke seems okay with her bashfulness, comments that she’s much more “pure” than her friends, and they get a room together and presumably do the deed.
But there is a loud sound in the hall, and they investigate and find a smashed door and so much blood that Ryosuke starts puking (there are multiple scenes in this where people puke in reaction to what’s going on, and one where a person slips on the puke). They find a dying friend who says, “We’ve been desecrating Holy Christmas. So this is Santa’s revenge. He said that he’ll retrieve… the presents he gave us in the past.”
Santa’s primary weapon is a long chain with a spinning star-shaped blade on the end, like a giant spur. Before we see him attacking for the first time we see the chain fly in from around a corner, wrap around their friend Nakata’s leg and then rip it off, with him still standing. After one witness pukes, the leg is yanked away. Evil Santa finally enters, whistling a downbeat version of “Jingle Bells,” suitable for a trailer, and stuffing the leg into his bag.
As he chases them, the chain flies in from off screen again, nearly hitting one girl in the head, sticking into the wall right above her. When she runs away the spur is holding a chunk of her hair. Close call. We stay close on the spur and watch the chain get more slack until Santa enters the frame and pulls it out of the wall. A cool way to stage it.
I’ve seen many killer Santa movies, but I don’t think I’ve seen one with a scene so straight out of the HOSTEL era as when Yuko wakes up in a dank basement with dangling chains and dripping water and spies on Santa from behind as he slams his bag repeatedly against a metal surface and then pulls out the crushed body of one of her dead friends. Then he takes out an arm and removes the fingernails (notable to Yuko as a habitual fingernail-chewer) to collect in a pan full of brains that he dumps down a dumbwaiter to be eaten by his reindeer.
So this is an imaginatively gruesome take on moving the simplistic “naughty or nice” Christmas binary from children’s stories into an adult (or at least teenage) world of violent punishment. And the idea, it seems, is that Yuko (despite recent activities) is a goodie two shoes and hoping not to get punished like her friends. But there’s a nice twist that this virginal, annoyingly passive character we’ve been watching is actually Yuko putting on an act because, and actually her friends weren’t totally on board with it. That’s revealed as Yuko flees through the snow wondering if this was her fault, and flashes back to before the Christmas party, where she’s acting totally different, and smoking a cigarette!
But that’s not the only twist. She wakes up, face sweaty, relieved that this was all a dream, just like she was as a little girl in the prologue. She really is planning on writing that card and going to the hotel, but it hasn’t happened yet. Then there’s a NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET deal where she talks to her friend on the phone and learns that she also had a dream about Santa. Except in her dream only she survived, and Santa was a woman (“My mother was a feminist. She told me Santa was a woman,” she explains.) It’s a weird touch but interesting because in the dream there was a strange part where she mentioned the desk clerk Santa being a woman, confusing Yuko (and me).
Then Yuko finds a maggot-covered corpse in her fridge and suddenly she has an enormous, pus-dripping hole in her head, and her childhood self is in the apartment with her and reaches into the hole and pulls something out. So the big reveal at the end is that we didn’t actually skip ahead to grown up Yuko at the beginning – this whole thing has been the little girl’s continuing Christmas Eve nightmare. But she’s awake again and happily tells her parents that she “defeated the evil” because she “pulled out her rotten brain.” It’s a cool twist, and it explains why things from her bedroom appeared in the dream. There’s a logic to Santa having one of her childhood toys (now with blade attachment) to attack her with, but only a dream can explain why the pillowcases in the hotel match the ones she had as a kid.
Since this is TV it’s got an overly clean video look to it, but it’s got vivid colors and it’s made pretty cinematic by quick edits, tilted angles and energetic camera moves I would maybe describe as Kitamura-esque. Director Yûdai Yamaguchi had previously done BATTLEFIELD BASEBALL and MEATBALL MACHINE, and later did an ABCs OF DEATH short (J is for Jidai-geki). The only one I’ve seen by him is the HiGH&LOW spinoff THE RED RAIN (2016), which I enjoyed, though it was more subdued than the other HiGH&LOW I saw and I didn’t finish writing my review.
THE PRESENT is a distinct and effective take on the killer Santa subgenre, and as a TV show it clocks in at 47 minutes, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. A nice little short horror story. But not that nice. Pretty naughty.
THE JUNKY’S CHRISTMAS is a 21-minute short, basically a music video for a track from the great album Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales by William S. Burroughs and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The track is Burroughs himself reading his short story from the collection Interzone, backed by Christmas tunes by album producer Hal Willner, alternating with a driving beat and bassline by the Disposable Heroes (Michael Franti’s group between The Beatnigs and Spearhead). The video illustrates the story in claymation (plus some puppetry, and a live action wraparound with Burroughs reading the book next to his Christmas tree).
I’ve only read one Burroughs book, Naked Lunch, and it wasn’t much like this. But this is just a great little tale of the streets, clearly talking about shit Burroughs knew well. The first sentence is, “It was Christmas day and Danny the car-wiper hit the street, junk sick and broke after 72 hours in a precinct cell.” Danny emerges blurry-eyed (I love the shot of the sunlight blinding him when they open the door) around trying to score heroin. First he prowls cars looking for something to steal, eventually finds an unattended suitcase, sells the case for money, but hears from his fence that his usual dealer George the Greek “got busted two days ago.” There’s a scene where he runs into an acquaintance and is disappointed when he sees his face and instantly knows he hasn’t been able to score either. They commiserate about which streets they’ve been down and how there’s no one around.
“Well, merry Christmas. See ya.”
“Yeah, see ya.”
It’s such a vivid portrait of a sad, lonely day, the streets empty, steam rising off the snow piles. It’s also punctuated with Burroughs’ pitch black humor. When Danny opens the stolen suitcase it turns out it was being used to dispose of a body – there are two wrapped human legs inside. He ditches them and grumbles, “Holy Jesus, the routines people put down these days. Legs! Well, I got a case, anyway.”
Believe it or not it really does end up being a story about Christmas magic and shit. Danny manages to convince an alcoholic doctor (who looks like Tom Bosley to me) to give him one morphine tablet, and goes and puts $2 on a $6-a-week hotel room. He prepares a syringe, but before he shoots up he hears so much groaning next door he goes to see what’s up, and finds a young man suffering from a kidney stone, unable to get medical help because they all think he’s a junkie faking it to get pills (as Danny admits he’s done many times). Danny acts selflessly, and is rewarded in a way that he appreciates. Merry Christmas!
This may also seem familiar if you’ve ever heard The Priest They Call Him, the 10″ Burroughs did with Kurt Cobain, which had a different reading of it. I’ve seen the short a few times over the years and listened to the Spare Ass Annie album more than a few times, and I really think this is a beautiful story. Seeing this character is depicted with zero judgment is striking even though we know it’s because the writer has been there. None of my business, but this seems to me a very Christian idea, worthy of the holiday, to have empathy for a character like this, who even without his act of kindness at the end is a human being, even if he’s a pain in the ass, lying and committing petty crimes to appease his sickness.
To whatever degree the animated part matches Burroughs’ life experiences, we know he had some wild days, but here he is in the live action bookends looking 100 years old (he was around 79), having lived most of his life off the streets and respected as a writer, now hosting Christmas dinner in a kitchen packed with his literary friends. I’m sure there were many times when nobody thought he’d be around for that.
But at first glance the story seems way more seedy than inspirational, so to adapt it into stop motion animation, the medium of so many classic TV Christmas specials, is inspired. It’s not the most sophisticated animation, and when I first saw it I wished they’d mimicked the look of the Rankin & Bass puppets. But I’ve grown to like the look of this thing – ugly, lumpy clay faces and all. I like that it’s black and white, many shots looking through windows, or with out of focus snow piles and things in the foreground, steam and breath effects layered in for atmosphere, sometimes handheld POV shots. It’s a raw underground movie in miniature. And the lighting looks great, very natural, really creates the illusion of a cold-but-sunny morning in the city. “It was a clear, bright day but there was no warmth in the sun.”
The live action part is shot like an old home movie, probly on Super 8 or something, no sound, in a cramped apartment that I gotta assume was really where Burroughs lived. I don’t know if you can fake the naturalistic clutter of a mantle stacked to the ceiling with books, many of them his own. And he knows how to pull Interzone out of the middle without making it collapse. That takes experience.
Animation director Nick Donkin also directed the video for “I Stay Away” by Alice in Chains, which has very similar animation (but in color). He was also an animator on the educational show Lift Off. Live action director Melodie McDaniel directed videos for The Cranberries, Tori Amos, Madonna and Natalie Merchant. She also shot John Doe’s photographs for SE7EN!
Low budget though this clearly is, it’s presented by none other than Francis Ford Coppola, and VH1 Films is the production company. Not even MTV! That’s funny, because back then I thought of VH1 as the more square one that never played anything edgier than Whitney Houston. I didn’t know they had this side to them. I’m grateful they did. This is an offbeat holiday classic, and the definitive visual adaptation of the story until Hallmark does their version.
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Thank you everybody for reading. I hope you know how much I appreciate you all. Please have a good Christmas, Hanukkah, or weekend, and if this is a hard time of year for you, hang in there. I feel it sometimes too. We’ll get through it.
Next week I think I’m gonna take a holiday break, take it easy, eat cookies, do some movie catch up, but I expect to at least post one review I’ve been working on, and I’ll check in to say hello in the comments. Then I’ll be back the next week to find out what this whole 2023 thing is all about. Ho ho ho, everybody!