Who doesn’t enjoy snuggling up with loved ones around the holidays and enjoying a good scifi/fantasy/horror movie? No hands up? Good, then I’m in the right magazine.
Now maybe you have your own holiday favorite. I can see popping some popcorn, turning down the lights so only the glow of the holiday decorations serves as mood-setting ambient light, and popping in The Hills Have Eyes. Around our digs, our traditional Christmas Eve movie is Swayze’s mullet-tastic Road House. But it’s also nice to have a few Christmas-themed genre favorites around for company.
A Chrismas Carol/Scrooged—Let’s kick things off with a classic. Yes, Dickens wrote genre. If having ghosts show up and interact with the living doesn’t put you into some sort of genre category, I don’t know what would qualify. Welcome to the group, William S. Take a seat up front.
The Christmas Carol version I recommend is the Alistair Sim’s Scrooge from 1951 (though the Muppets have their charms, as does Blackadder’s Christmas Carol). The special effects are a little hokey, even for the time, but nobody’s done the scratching old miser any better. What particularly appeals about this version is the way Ebenezer Scrooge softens almost immediately when viewing his old boss and the Christmas Party he gave at his trading house, still with the Ghost of Christmas Past. It’s interesting to see a version where the good Scrooge isn’t lurking too far beneath the surface; it makes his transformation more believable and turns his encounter with the ghost of Christmas future positively tragic.
If the straightforward literal interpretation in black and white is an impossibility for you, try Richard Donner directing Bill Murray in Scrooged. In this, Scrooge is a TV executive named Frank Cross. Everything’s been updated, if you call the 80s updated, even Tiny Tim, who’s made even more appealing. The ghosts have been upmodded as well. Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present is a Lolita-domme joy to behold, more than worth the effort of digging up this gem.
But Christmas isn’t all valuable baubles. Tinsel and nut logs are part of the holiday tradition as well. I’m something of a bad movie aficionado. I like my films really, really good, or really, really bad, so lets talk about a few Christmas clunkers.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians—You’ll want to avoid any versions of this except for the MST3K version, which coats, soothes, and relieves the hurting like a tablespoonful of Pepto-Bismol. While the title makes it sound like Santa’s sleigh is going to napalm the Valles Marineris, nothing nearly that interesting is going to happen. Instead, you get cheap sets, depressing actors, color that evokes an early, failed Ted Turner process, and a comic relief (Droppo! Just try to laugh, I dare you) who makes Bob Denver look like Peter Sellers. It’s like the whole production crew had been fired by Ed Wood for incompetence and, being at a loose end, decided to make a Christmas movie.
So, a group of Martians wearing silver-sprayed Air Force crash helmets travel to the North Pole to kidnap Kris Kringle and bring him to Mars to make the Martian kids happy, or something. A brother-and-sister team of know-it-alls stow away on the Martian craft. Santa is happy to spread the True Meaning of Christmas ($$) to Mars and uses the trip to build a toy-making machine (I guess the elves’ union demanded holidays off or something). And there are soap bubbles at the end. I think. The alcohol-induced blackouts always start about the time Santa revs up his Martian toy machine.
Santa’s toy machine has to be the most depressing mechanism put to film since all those workers burned to death in Metropolis. It makes the head-chopper from Caligula look like a museum piece. The pile of cardboard and egg cartons makes about six different toys, slowly, and, quite honestly, your child would get a better selection at a Guatemalan thrift shop.
If you can watch the non-MST3K version without wishing you had a carton of those government-issued suicide pills from On the Beach, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.
Silent Night, Deadly Night—Pure horror with no sf or fantasy elements, the premise is that Santa’s coming down the chimney–with an axe. Though it has a cult following, God knows why, I’m grateful to this dog for more or less killing off the holiday slasher sequence of films begun with John Carpenter’s riveting Halloween. Or maybe they ran out of major holidays. Arbor Day Deathcamp just doesn’t sing.
While Silent Night has a few interesting moments and plenty of bloody nuns for those who went to Catholic school, it’s main claim on the genre is that it serves as seed corn for Hannibal Lecter and possibly Dexter (Billy the Extremely Bad Axe-wielding Santa gets a whole lotta backstory), who turned serial killers into avenging angels, or rather devils, of sorts. Thankfully, they didn’t scream “naughty” or “punish” as they did so.
If you’re the type who puts red food coloring in the eggnog, it might be for you.
The Star Wars Holiday Special—A lot of words have been expended on this monstrosity. I’m not going to talk about Mark Hamill’s drag-queen makeup, Harrison Ford delivering every line like he’d lost a bet, or Carrie Fisher’s dilated, thousand-yard stare as she warbles through her “life-day” song. I’ll just offer a personal note. I’m one of the “first generation” fans–I saw the original Star Wars during the transitional summer between Elementary School and Junior High in a movie theater without knowing much more than that it was about spaceships. It revolutionized my opinion about just how much fun I could have at the movies. Keep in mind, there were no toys or tie-in books (beyond the novelization ghost-written for George Lucas by Alan Dean Foster) or comics or games–the movie was just out there, setting my imagination on fire. I wanted more. You can’t imagine my excitement at seeing full-page ads in the newspaper and TV Guide advertising the return of my Very Favorite Space Rebels.
I got this. Something that resembled a variety show supervised by a wardrobe assistant from The Carol Burnett Show who picked up a few things while helping Tim Conway with his costume changes. The horror. The horror.
At least Lucas learned something from the whole SWHS fiasco. And that’s to carefully ensure that the Star Wars universe remains in the best of creative hands with his participation at a strategic and tactical level. Err, right?
Let’s move onto the happier subject of good Christmas genre features.
The Nightmare Before Christmas—A twisted Goth version of the Rankin/Bass stop-motion animations we all grew up watching, my only complaint about Tim Burton’s Halloweenland trip to Christmas is that it takes a bit long to get going. Otherwise, it’s rich and dark, rugose with Burton’s trademark touches, moving lightly between funny and scary, or perhaps a better way to put it would be to say it treats them as one and the same. It’s the surprisingly touching story of a Halloween character (Jack Skellington) trying to learn about Christmas. Some of the tunes are pretty catchy in the aspirational Andrew Lloyd Webber tradition, but Neil Diamond hasn’t gotten around to covering any of them yet. You’ll like it if you don’t mind an elegantly Frankensteinish leading lady who’s shedding body parts now and then.
12 Monkeys/Brazil—Terry Gilliam’s two best movies both careen off the Christmas holiday like a cue-ball shot out of a swivel-gun. The effect is that of an otherwise well-put-together man (say, Donald Sutherland in his Invasion of the Body Snatchers raincoat) screaming “Christmas is a lie” on a street corner.
In both movies, Christmas serves as background noise to the more important events the characters are dealing with. In Brazil, it’s an everyman’s struggle against totalitarian bureaucracy (think 1984 meets the Department of Motor Vehicles) and in The 12 Monkeys, Bruce Willis plays an inmate from a disease-ravaged future who has to travel back in time to gather scientific evidence about the plague that destroyed humanity, with the holy grail being the original virus before it mutated. Incompetence and blunder reigns like a god-king in both movies, with the people who send Bruce Willis back in time frequently messing the process up, and the all-powerful Department of Information Retrieval and/or the city’s Central Services threatening a burgeoning love story in Brazil.
Both movies are great holiday contenders, because with each viewing you discover new rewards, but these days I’d give the edge to 12 Monkeys. I know Brazil is the Gilliam-fan favorite and has been given the blue-ribbon approval of deluxe Criterion editions, but I prefer 12 Monkeys because the cast is better rounded and shares the load (I wish Brad Pitt would work with Gilliam again!) and some of the practical effects in Brazil haven’t aged very well. Happily, they’re both on Blu-ray, so you can freeze frame wherever you want to check out the astonishing amount of background detail Gilliam layers in behind the action.
Gremlins—A holiday movie that’s alternately naughty and nice–and created by storytellers skilled enough to make both quite interesting. A wandering inventor picks up a curious pet on the sly in Chinatown and brings it home as a Christmas present for his son. The pet, a cute little bundle of fur called a “Mogwai” but quickly named Gizmo, might seem more engineered for a Toys-R-Us shelf than a best supporting actor role, but he’s both the MacGuffin and heart of the film. The Mogwai comes with a strict set of rules of care that end up broken, by accident and evil design, producing toothy little second-generation mutants resembling a cross between a frog and a Tasmanian devil. Soon nasty v2 gremlins are overrunning picturesque Kingston Falls.
Trying to cope with the menace are Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates, who play their small-town characters as intelligent and earnest, a nice change from the usual Dogpatch. They’re easy to root for.
The gremlins adhere to fairy-tale rules of behavior, sometimes terrifyingly murderous, at others devilishly appealing. Like rain, they fall on the just and unjust alike (those poor Futtermans!) so you’re alternately scared for their victims or enjoying the rough justice. The sequence in Phoebe Cates’s bar, when the gremlins are reduced to lame caricatures of human behavior, disappoints, but the movie soon picks up again when our hero lures them to a theater. If you like black humor and Spielbergian family antics with a Charles Adams touch, toss a Gremlin head on the Yule blaze and fire this one up.
Jumanji—A near-perfect Christmas movie, despite the fact that there’s only a brief sequence set during a holiday party at the end.
It’s the story of two tragically broken families and four emotionally wounded individuals coming together over a magic game, a destructive jungle-survival game that seemingly threatens the existence of an entire town. It takes place over two generations, one set in the late 60s and the other in the 90s. In the 60s, we have young Alan Parrish, born a patrician with a shoemaker-tycoon father, the town “rich kid,” and pays a price for his status. He’s conflicted about his father and his schooling and is about to run away when he decides to spend some time with a local girl named Sarah. The game yields surprising results with each roll of the dice, and Alan gets sucked into the world of Jumanji, panicking poor Sarah.
Flash forward about thirty years. The house is now empty, the Parrish Family destroyed. Some new kids, Judy and Peter, move in, orphans now in the care of an insurance trust and their aunt. They pick up the game, forgotten in an attic, and start (or is it continue?) to play, and through a lucky die-roll, Alan is returned from the game. Alan finds he has a great deal to set right, and eventually has to look up his old playmate and would-be girlfriend, Sarah. The quartet form an ad-hoc family, forced to continue the game at any cost….
The best part about it? You can enjoy it even more if the kids watch it with you. Just try not to cry at the end, when you see Judy and Peter’s family made whole again. I’ve never managed.
Jumanji, now over 15, reigns as a traditional Christmas favorite on broadcast and cable television. Though it’s not as explicitly a Christmas film in the sense of Jingle All the Way, The Santa Clause, or The Polar Express. Rather, like The Sound of Music before it, popular culture has turned the jungle-inspired adventures of Alan, Judy, Peter, and Sarah into perfect background noise to calm excited kids or to have on while licking envelopes and wrapping presents. Sweet success for cast and crew.