Yesterday we rode over the rivers of A Christmas Carol adaptations and other worthwhile holiday film fare in a post that was such a huge hit that Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is already labeled “Short wait” on my Netflix cue, catch up here if you missed it. Today we’ll continue through the woods of Christmas movie recommendations with some choice holiday tales that run the gamut from classic to creepy.
And without further ado…
As a cynical cinephile, I feel compelled to recommend a featurette that will push all of my seasonally depressed kindred spirits closer to suicide. My selection is actually not a film, but a 60-minute TV special that I was subjected to when it ran on CBS in 1969. I have never recovered.
It’s called J.T. and presents an excruciatingly realistic tale of a young African American Harlem boy who discovers an injured, semi-frozen kitten and nurses it back to health in time for Christmas. He and his kitty become BFF, and the fluffy fur is declared by the tiny tyke to be “the best Christmas gift ever.” This is fortunate as his family cannot afford to put anything under their tree.
For over forty minutes the two frolic with carefree abandon until a massive Chevy rounds the corner and schmears the unsuspecting feline onto a cold cracker of asphalt.
Not since Ring of Bright Water have I been this traumatized.
Sadly, this forgotten gem is not available on DVD but can be purchased on VHS from Carousel Films in NYC and viewed online here.
For those who love trivia…The Philadelphia-born actor who played J.T. (Kevin Hooks) went on to star as the kid in in Sounder, a story of another pet who meets his end prematurely. The acclaimed screenplay was written by Jane Wagner, Lilly Tomlin’s long-time partner. And lastly, director Robert M. Young later directed the earnest misfires Short Eyes, Extremities, and Dominick and Eugene.
Film Programmer; Moderator, Cinema Salon
As vanity productions go, The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t (1966) has to rank among the strangest. Rossano Brazzi, leading man of Three Coins in the Fountain, South Pacific, and David Lean’s Summertime, directs and stars as Scrooge manqué Phineas T. Prune, while the hero, manchild lawyer Sam Whipple, is played by “Tubby the Tuba” author Paul Tripp, who penned the screenplay from his own children’s book. Mrs. Brazzi, baroness Lidia Bertolini, gets in on the act as well, playing “Mrs. Santa,” (not Mrs. Claus), constantly scolding the rest of the cast that “men are all children.” Which they most unnervingly are in this case: Whipple is a rather ineffective attorney, spending most of his time playing with local children and pining for Christmas; Prune is a rather transparent baddie, whose moustache-twirling makes Snidely Whiplash look subtle (he even sings a song about how glad he is to be bad); and Santa Claus himself wanders around in a clueless daze, wholly out of touch with the “modern” world. This may have something to do with living alone for eons with his uber-nurturing wife and a pack of nearly feral elves. The plot is inane, turning on a real estate squabble and Prune’s irrational hatred of children, ultimately resolved by a Rosebud-like revelation, what Orson Welles might have called “dollar-book Freud.” But the delights of this strange, awkwardly-dubbed little film, which was a perennial on HBO’s December schedule when I was growing up, are legion: first and foremost, mighty character actor Mischa Auer as the manic-depressive elves’ leering foreman, getting almost as much mileage out of his bug-eyed gawkiness here as Welles did of Mr. Arkadin; Morricone compatriot Bruno Nicolai’s memorably daffy score; Tripp’s out-of-time singing; Prune’s Carnival of Souls butler; or the nightmarish toy store where Santa and Whipple get jobs. Which also may prove Sam wrong when he claims to be a “good lawyer” – when you’re in the midst of a land dispute and your attorney advises you to take on seasonal employment, in which he then joins you in a janitorial capacity, it’s time to find new representation. As Auer sings, “We don’t care if it all makes sense,” and it rarely does, but why shouldn’t a holiday pegged on an Arctic-residing gnome reverse-burglarizing houses via flying reindeer arrive with a little extra surrealism?
Writer, City Paper, Philadelphia Inquirer
Remember the Night (1940): Barbara Stanwyck is a jewel thief and Fred MacMurray the district attorney prosecuting her during the holidays in this poignant drama written by Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen. Mr. D.A. doesn’t want the jury to go soft on Miss Itchy Fingers because it’s Christmas so he delays the case and takes her home to Indiana with him for the Christmas break. Their inevitable feelings for each other bring them closer as love purifies the felon and corrupts the lawman. The tone is a careful balance of acid and sweet. Sturges liked to say it had just enough schmaltz, schmerz and schmutz (sentiment, pain and naughtiness) to make it box office, and he was right.
Film Critic, Philadelphia Inquirer
I’m not a Christmas movie kind of guy. I’ve never even sat through all of A Christmas Story. For me, a Christmas movie is whatever my Jewish mother wants to see at the theater before dinner at a Chinese restaurant on December 25.
But there is one Christmas film that I adore. It’s a little-seen Canadian coming of age drama from 2005 entitled C.R.A.Z.Y. It opens on Christmas Day, 1960 with the birth of the protagonist, Zac. He proclaims, “As far as I can remember, I’ve hated Christmas.” Zac bemoans that his birthday goes unnoticed, and the day always starts with midnight mass. For his birthday/Christmas present, he never gets what he wants (who can’t relate?).
The bulk of C.R.A.Z.Y. depicts Zac as a teenager (played by Marc-André Grondin). He struggles with his sexuality, his domineering father, and his four brothers. The holiday scenes are fantastic—both spectacular and dreamlike. In one of the film’s highlights, Zac imagines midnight mass as a fantasy set to “Sympathy for the Devil.” In another memorable scene, the family’s joyful Christmas dinner is ruined when Zac and his older brother insult each other and a fight breaks out–in glorious slow motion. Christmas films should all take a cue from C.R.A.Z.Y, because this is how the holidays are for most families.
C.R.A.Z.Y. also features an important subplot about Zac being a gifted healer—“Jesus’ instrument,” he says. Late in the film, Zac takes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to find himself and walk in Jesus’ footsteps (he also has a sexual encounter with a Christ-like stranger). But these religious elements are never preachy; they enhance and magnify the drama.
When Zac returns home from Jerusalem, he has a conversation with his father that always makes me cry. You can have It’s a Wonderful Life. For me, C.R.A.Z.Y. pushes all my emotional buttons–which is what any great film–should do. Take that Bad Santa.
Gary M. Kramer
Writer/film critic, Philadelphia Gay News, City Paper and other publications
I originally wanted to annoy the crap out of cine(del)philes everywhere by convincing them that my favorite Christmas movie was a culmination of the various Twilight Saga films, in which I compared the Cullens, members of the Wolf Pack and the entire human race to that of Santa, his elves….and the entire human race. But frankly, I’m a busy woman and my interns just don’t have time for this type of research between midterms and finals. So I’ll just do what Obama would do and tell you a tale about my father:
Throughout the years of my adolescence I can remember countless days sitting in my room and hearing my father’s uncontrollable laughter beneath the floorboards in the living room. No matter the time of year, I could assume he was watching Jingle All the Way on TV. There was something about a Sinbad/Governator farcical collaboration that really split that man’s side. Or maybe he could just relate after raising three bratty kids who always wanted Christmas presents when they didn’t celebrate Christmas!
The premise is two dads who wait until Xmas Eve to buy their kids a gift (the Turbo Man action figure) that’s high in demand but of limited quantity. Let the shenanigans begin.
The film may be ridiculous, but it definitely stands the test of time. What could be more heartwarming around the holidays than evil Santas, possibly rabid reindeer, some flipping of the bird towards whole families (my favorite scene), or strapping Arnold Schwarzenegger to a rocket pack and sending him into the sky like so many fireworks on the 4th of July? My dad would have argued, “nothing.” I bet it’s On-Demand this month if you’d like to give it a go.
Managing Director, Philadelphia Film Society
I love Christmas horror movies. Sincere tributes to the season with unintentional scares, beloved holiday icons wielding knives, and horror flicks incidentally set on December 25th all have a special place in my heart. I’m sure my admitted lack of discrimination makes my opinion suspect, but I’ll deny my love for trash this time and suggest something good.
It pains me to tease the uninitiated with a film so difficult to legitimately acquire, but I recommend Álex de la Iglesia’s The Day of the Beast (1995). Not unlike shriveled doomsayer Harold Camping (but significantly more willing to get his hands dirty), Roman Catholic priest Ángel Berriartúa has cracked an ancient code that foretells the birth date of the Antichrist; the beginning of the End. As a mockery to the Nativity, Satan’s spawn is due on Christmas Eve. The devout Ángel must commit evil acts and remake himself as a Satanist in order to attract the Devil’s attention, learn the location of the unholy birth, and stop the Apocalypse. His quest, involving earnest experiments with sin, death metal and occult rituals, is hilarious yet increasingly disturbing. It’s sadly out of print, but The Day of the Beast is a fun (and festive?) ride for viewers seeking twisted Christmas flicks. Happy holidays, everyone. And Hail Satan.
Final Girl Support Group; Cinedelphia.com contributor
I heard it all the time, I was “a sensitive kid.” When I was seven I felt a sense of profound betrayal when I found out the whole Santa Claus tale was a conspiracy to make me believe in bogus magical being. Is that why to this day I don’t go soft at the sound of sleigh bells or the sight of colored lights? I think perhaps my least favorite film of all time is 2004’s Christmas with the Kranks, where the whole neighborhood rises up like a mob to “good-naturedly” coerce Jamie Lee Curtis and Tim Allen to celebrate Christmas. It may be the definitive nightmare of life in the suburbs.
A pair of Christmas specials have really hung with me over the years though, both broadcast on CBS in the early 1970’s. The first is 1972’s The House Without a Christmas Tree, scripted by Eleanor Perry, who contributed screenplays to a number of provocative social dramas directed by her husband Frank Perry, including Diary of a Mad Housewife and David and Lisa. Re-visiting the show on DVD recently, I was surprised how low-budget this videotaped three-camera shoot was, much of the story unwinds in long takes as if capturing a stage play (director Paul Bogart would go on to extensive work on the sitcom All In the Family, which also often felt like theater). The story is set in late 40s rural Nebraska, a flashback from Addie (Lisa Lucas), who grew up with a mourning, widowed father and his mother (Mildred Natwicke). The fact that the father is played by Jason Robards, in all his Eugene O’Neill gravitas, is what dominates the piece. Here was a father I could recognize: distant, brooding, and unknowable. The plot involves the precocious pre-teen Addie convincing her gruff and distant father to get their first Christmas tree, something he hasn’t been able to bring himself to do, the memory of his dead wife still being so strong a decade later. He finally cracks about 70 minutes into the 75 minute piece, so it is no surprise it is Robard’s inner turmoil that is best remembered, a pain recognizable in the many people I meet with more ambivalent feelings towards the holiday hysteria.
CBS produced another grim one, 1971’s The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, whose success led to The Waltons TV show the following year. The pilot was a much rawer, grimmer affair, with the dour atmosphere of The Great Depression not lightened by the 70s sheen the series would later possess. The mother was played by the smoky-rasp that was the great Patricia Neal and hearing her say “Santa’s poor this year, just like everyone else!” really made an impression on me as a mere squirt. The other unforgettable moment is a darkly shot scene where they gather about a well-dressed Missionary woman who has come to preach and hand out presents to what she describes as “the poor youth of the Blue Ridge Mountains” (“Why give these presents to savages overseas?” she opines, wrapped in furs on her perch). The kids must say a Bible verse before they can snatch away their presents and when the four year-old Elizabeth unwraps her gift in the shadows, we see a china doll, with a smashed face. “It’s dead! Someone killed it!” she wails and she drops the doll in the dirt as the brood drags her away. Again, all is made good when the assumed dead Walton dad arrives in the last five minutes, but how can you undo a scene like that? The desperate goings-on at Walton’s Mountain acknowledged the sad and bittersweet flavor are an element of every holiday season, if we can stop caroling for a moment to roll them around our candy-coated tongues.
Film Critic, Phawker.com
But A Christmas Story (1983) and A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) can’t be beat.
I’ll watch Angela Lansbury in anything and Mrs. Santa Claus (1996) (with charming Jerry Hermann songs) is included.
Of course, my real idea of Christmas viewing is the fabulously trashy escaped mental patient dressed up as Santa going on a killing spree movie, Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), or its equally fun, more-of-the-same, sequel (1987).
However, my favorite holiday movie is the farce, The Ref (1994) starring Judy Davis, Kevin Spacey, and Denis Leary. Davis and Spacey play an unhappily married couple on Christmas Eve dealing with a home invasion courtesy of Leary AND the arrival of Spacey’s mother played to perfection by Glynis Johns. Mean and hilarious.
Andrew Repasky McElhinney
Filmmaker; Writer, Ritz Film Magazine
No Christmas themed film stands out to me as much as Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984). Perhaps it was due to the graphic violence (mom clinically slaughtering several gremlins with a knife, blender and microwave oven) or the presence of a post Private School Phoebe Cates. I recently watched Gremlins again and for those who haven’t seen it recently (or at all), the film is a rare blend of horror, comedy and family film set in a working class town with it’s own female version of Ebenezer Scrooge. Amidst this backdrop appears a cute, furry pet named Gizmo, from Chinatown, who hates bright light, must never get wet (he multiplies) and must never be fed after midnight or becomes a gremlin, troublemaking little monsters who enjoy excessive debauchery (smoking, drinking and poker playing), the movie Snow White, and, of course, killing humans. If that doesn’t make for a Merry Christmas, I don’t know what does.
Festival Director, Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival
If there’s one episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 to show your non-MSTie relatives to fuck with them this Christmas, this has got to be it. Mike and the Bots lambast the Mexican Christmas film Santa Claus (1959) which, believe it or not, is culturally significant in it’s country of origin. Yeah that’s right, this horrifically frightening tale of a Santa who creepily keeps tabs on you with a mouth-bot spy telescope and then takes to the air on monstrous automa-terminator reindeer, all in an effort to combat the sinful temptations of Pitch, a junior VP in the Devil’s employ, would normally cause your relations to roll their eyes and gossip behind your back. But since Crow, Servo and Mike make fine sport of this atrocious misfire, you may well be the toast of the family. If they hate it, well, at least YOU had a good time.
Co-host, First Friday Fright Night at The Colonial Theatre
Christmas is lousy with “Christmas films,” sometimes sincere, often times cynical attempts to comment or cash in on the most commercial of holidays. Just as long as that list, however, would be one enumerating another sub-genre of movies: those set more or less incidentally around the holidays, where candy-colored lights and porcine shlubs in Santa outfits merely take up space in the background. This is a diverse lot, ranging from The Thin Man to Brazil, Metropolitan to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Blast of Silence to Curse of the Cat People. And though their setting always comes with at least a sliver of commentary — e.g., Stanley Kubrick set Eyes Wide Shut against Christmas to stress the purity and sense of family Tom Cruise’s character is obsessively going out of his way to pervert — they’re not prominent enough to take up 24 hour slots on cable networks (though some, The Thin Man especially, should).
Of these, the most amusingly un-Christmas-y would be Morvern Callar (2002), the last film the freakishly talented filmmaker Lynne Ramsay made before this year’s adaptation of We Need to Talk About Kevin. The set-up: shortly before Christmas Day, the titular Scots supermarket clerk (Samantha Morton) awakens to the body of her boyfriend underneath their twinkling tree. Along with a suicide note, he’s left three items: his to-be-published novel, his ATM card (with PIN) and a mix-tape featuring the downer/spacey likes of CAN, Aphex Twin, Stereolab, Boards of Canada and Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra (plus some 12 Golden Country Greats-era Ween for good measure). Rather than collapse under the tragedy of her lover’s self-offing, Morvern proceeds to calmly replace his name on the manuscript with hers, sell it to a publisher as her own masterwork and use the cash for a breezy trip to sunny Ibiza. She never tells anyone what happened, not even her bestie (played by Kathleen McDermott), and the rest of the film is spent waiting fruitlessly for a shoe to drop.
The 1995 novel (by Alan Warner) is told in the first-person, yet performs the rather herculean task of never delving into its anti-hero’s psyche. What “she” presents to us is eternally, frustratingly skin-deep, the intimation being that she’s somewhere between too shell-shocked and too under-formed as a person to deal with such a personal atrocity. Ramsay’s film doesn’t even offer audiences that much. There is no narration, and Morton is given the awesome task of making sure no one, neither the audience nor other characters, gets a read on her. Her face is blank, her mannerisms childish-bordering-on-Asperger’s. It is an intentionally surface-level performance in an intentionally surface-level film that’s comprised of beautiful imagery, most notably the violent segue from gloomy, overcast rural Scotland in winter to the blinding brightness of the Mediterranean. As the Christmas season is designed to (supposedly) charm out our gregarious, family-cherishing side, Morvern Callar shows what it’s like to disappear deeply and tragically into one’s own head. I could watch it for 48 hours straight on TBS.
Film Critic, Philadelphia Weekly
Big thanks to all of the contributors and a happy holiday to all!