YBCA offers up a bloody cinematic antidote to holiday smarm
FILM There is probably nowhere in the Christian-majority world where it's as OK to wax hum-buggy about Christmas and all it entails as San Francisco. Allergies to carols (admit it, they're horrible), frantically enabled shopaholicism, and forced contact with those people you moved here to get away from are all tolerated, even encouraged here.
In the rakishly Grinch-like spirit such sentiments allow, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is observing "the season" with "Go to Hell for the Holidays: Horror in December." This series might just as easily have been titled "Grievous Bodily Harm" since it serves up a six-program lineup of film and video features whose common thread is excess of a highly splattery kind. Included are a few variably antiqued golden oldies, as well as newer titles unlikely to get local commercial runs anytime soon (if ever). Some are fun, some deliberately unpleasant, and a couple manage to be both. All provide a sort of palliative effect for those seeking refuge from the suffocation of wholesome holiday cheer.
Because Jesus probably would, let's approach "Hell"'s contents tactfully, in ascending order of assault on any delicate sensibilities. The sole double bill on offer is also hands-down winner in terms of camp value, providing unintentional laughs in bulk for every intended scare. In fact, these two underseen gems of bright and shining awfulness comprise one of the more genius programming matches of 2010.
First up is the barely describable, let alone explicable, 1985's Night Train to Terror, which alongside They Saved Hitler's Brain (1968), Al Adamson's ouevre, and a handful of other oddities personifies that most secret, least natural of genres: the Frankensteinian film. By which we don't mean anything directly related to Mary Shelley, but rather movies crudely, grotesquely composed of parts harvested from other movies abandoned as dead.
Few are as triumphantly, energetically, and entertainingly arbitrary as Night Train, which stitches together bits of three features variably orphaned by legal trouble, runaway funding, aborted shooting, or all the above. Linking them — or desperately trying to — are scenes in which "Mr. Satan" and a white-bearded God gamble in a private car for the souls of their fellow train passengers. The latter are an ensemble of ultra-perky "New Wave" youth in Flashdance (1983) garb singing and kinda dancing in a neverending MTV video for synthpop non-hit "Dance With Me."
Familiar B-flick faces like John Phillip Law and Cameron Mitchell surface sporadically in the wildly condensed "case histories" our biblical antagonists debate, drawn from individual films otherwise known as Cataclysm, Carnival of Fools, and Scream Your Head Off. That this bastard 1985 anthology was assembled, let alone actually shown in theaters, restores your faith in predictable mankind's ability to occasionally touch the truly, inspirationally senseless.
This feeling one could apply to virtually anything by the late Doris Wishman, whose decades of bottom-rung exploitation work left miraculously intact an approach to such basics as continuity, camera coverage, and synch sound so primitive it achieves a sort of abstract impressionism. Her 1983 A Night to Dismember was stab at the slasher genre after almost a quarter century selling softcore sex. She brought to it exactly the same WTF aesthetic and narrative perversity she had to Nude on the Moon (1961) and Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965). If you're a Wishman newbie, Dismember is a great place to start since its saga of the compulsively homicidal suburban Kent family is awesomely clumsy without being too dull or claustrophobic.