‘Tis the season for regifting. Which is why if the following list seems familiar to you, I’d like to thank you for being a loyal reader all these years. A couple of years back, I did indeed make up a list of 20 Non-Traditional Christmas Movies for Film Geek Central. Well, that was then and this is now. I have split up the list into easier to digest morsels and even revised and added bits and pieces here. So, it’s not the same list. It’s got new stuff. Read on, if you don’t believe me.
You’ve already seen the usual flicks on these lists: A CHRISTMAS STORY, A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS and so on. But here are some non-traditional holiday films for you. Some veer into horror, some veer into strange fantasy, some are wonderful and some are just wonderfully horrible. All are made to offer for those who want a little something different for the holidays.
So, in chronological order, here we go…..
Remember that song, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus?” No matter how the song turns out, did anyone else find that song disturbing? Chances are, Harry Stalding would. He caught his mom doing just that as a kid, and he hasn’t been the same ever since. As an adult, Harry works for a toy company and still holds an obsession with the holiday. Eventually, Harry snaps and resolves to be the next true Santa Claus. This involves playing with his dolls, dressing in character and spying on his neighbors to see who’s been naughty or nice. He makes his list, checks it twice and starts killing anyone who he deems naughty. What, the guy never heard of coal?
TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980) – It’s the Christmas holidays , but not everyone at the Calvin Finishing School for Girls is going home. A group of young students decide to stay at the school, because what better time to order up some rich boys to party with? But uh-oh, it looks like the party has another uninvited guest as a killer in a Santa suit begins slicing up the nubile schoolgirls and their dates.
Does that description sound pretty routine? That’s the idea. TO ALL A GOODNIGHT is a fast and cheap slasher flick, filmed in ten days at the dawn of the 1980s. The story has some turns to keep things interesting, but a lot of what would become fixtures of the slasher film show up here. You’ve got a horrible accident that no doubt provides the impetus for the attack. You’ve got a creepy gardener who could either be the killer or merely a prophet of doom. You’ve got the conservative adult who warns against the dangers of loose morals. You’ve got young women giving up their goodies to every other guy that crosses their path. And you’ve got the virgin whose purity almost insures that she will make it to the final reel. That’s a lot of slasher mainstays, so many that it’s easy to ignore that this film came out more than four months before FRIDAY THE 13TH.
And yet, it seems like the people behind the scenes knew this was material ripe for parody. Director David Hess was already a veteran of horror, known for playing the monstrous Krug in LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. He would be hired on to provide variations on that role for flicks like HITCH-HIKE and THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK. Hess had a good eye for how routine this stuff could be and hence, almost seems to be poking a little fun at the formula while providing the requisite amount of sex and violence. This all makes for an entertaining slasher film that nonetheless never insults its audience.
Incidentally, Hess wasn’t the only horror actor to be working behind the camera. The screenplay was written by Alex Rebar, who had just played the title role in THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN.
TOO ALL A GOODNIGHT was recently released on Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing. The picture is quite the revelation when compared to those old Media VHS tapes. Makes a great holiday film to add to the collection, if you have room in your stocking.
GREMLINS (1984) – Oh, sure, they start out cute and cuddly. But just wait until something happens to them. They grow up and wind up causing all kinds of mayhem, killing little old ladies and giving Dick Miller another reason not to get out of bed in the morning.
What I like most about Joe Dante’s GREMLINS is that in many ways, it lampoons the cuddly creature motif that Speilberg unleashed with E.T., THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL. Yes, you have Gizmo, an adorable but strange creature that no one has ever seen before. But the first reaction of Mr. Peltzer is not to study it, protect it or learn from it. No, like all American capitalists, especially around the holidays, his only concern is how he can buy it and bring it home to amuse his son as a pet. That the family, without any true malicious intent, nonetheless neglects the basic rules for caring for Gizmo should be no surprise. Nor should their baffled reactions when it turns out that their selfishness, immaturity and arrogance leads to some truly dire consequences.
And if that isn’t enough of a Christmas wake-up call for the Black Friday shoppers, you have Phoebe Cates’ incredibly disturbing story about why she doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, completely out of left field to blacken the waters a bit further.
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984) – An alternate title for this film could easily be IT’S A VERY MORAL VACUUM CHRISTMAS. While many slasher films had something lurid or provocative, this one really is as extreme as they say. It seems as though the filmmakers went out of their way to stomp all over the holiday.
As a little kid, Billy visits his catatonic grandfather in the hospital. The grandfather gains consciousness just long enough to scare the crap out of the kid, telling him that Santa punishes bad boys and that if he sees Santa coming, he’d better run. Later on that night, a man in a Santa suit robs and murders the kid’s father and then rapes the mother right in the middle of the street, before offing her too. Nice. The kid is sent to an orphanage where he is systematically abused by the strict and violent Mother Superior. In short, there was no way this kid was ever going to end up right.
Years later, Billy works in a store over the Christmas holidays. But when he is forced to play Santa Claus for a promotion and then sees his co-workers being naughty (i.e. he sees a sleazeball trying to rape the girl he likes, and decides to punish them both), Billy goes completely bonkers. He runs around the town in his Santa suit, punishing anyone he sees as being naughty. This involves beheading school bullies and a memorable sequence where he impales a topless Linnea Quigley on a set of deer antlers. Slowly but surely, Billy makes his way across town, his final destination the orphanage where he was mistreated years before.
Perhaps the sequence that sums this film up best is when the police accidentally shoot a different Santa at the orphanage, believing it’s Billy. Turns out it was just the kind but deaf priest who entertained the kids every year. SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT is the type of film that shoots a kind, deaf priest dressed as Santa Claus in the back. In front of a group of orphans. On Christmas.
But it’s one thing to read about this stuff and another to see it. Check out my episode of Moviocrity, all about this ultraviolent cult favorite.
Alexander Salkind was one of those larger than life producers. Along with his son, Ilya, he created huge blockbusters, typically based off of iconic properties. In the mid-1970s, he produced the film for which he would always be known, SUPERMAN. By 1985 however, the diamond was showing a few flaws. Both SUPERMAN III and SUPERGIRL had been disappointing, to use the most charitable language possible. Salkind needed another subject for his blockbusters. He needed someone who, like Superman, would be a figure that could bring hope to millions while providing a natural backdrop for fantasy adventure. Who better to fit the bill than Santa Claus?
SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE (or just “SANTA CLAUS” as it’s billed on-screen) starts off by telling the origins of the rotund children’s hero. The film explains many of the mysteries from Santa’s mythology. How did he come to be? Where did the elves come from? What about that suit? How do the reindeer fly, etc.? These scenes, covered in the first forty minutes of the film, are among its best.
Santa is the Big Lebowski. No, really. Santa Claus is played by David Huddleston, who among many other notable roles would play the title role in the Coen Brothers’ cult classic. As Santa Claus, Huddleston is sort of flawless. He is kind and joyous without ever being cloying. A perfect balance.
SANTA CLAUS does eventually shift to the present day. Patch the Elf (Dudley Moore) is naïve and has big dreams. But his ambition exceeds his abilities and eventually Patch has to make his way in the world. Wanting to prove himself to Santa Claus, he tries to market his own amazing Christmas toys. He gets mixed up with the remorseless toy manufacturer B.Z. (John Lithgow), not realizing how evil the magnate really is, or how far he’s willing to go to make a buck. Another unintended consequence is that rather than be impressed with Patch’s ingenuity, Santa begins to question his own relevancy. This section of the film has some good moments, though often it feels like it should be fleshed out even more.
Lithgow is gleefully wicked as B.Z. Since he spent so many years starring in 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN, it’s easy to forget that Lithgow was not originally known for his broad, comedic talents. He gets to chew every piece of scenery here and yet, as far as he goes, it’s never too much. Moore is plenty charming as Patch and honestly I’d still take him over Will Ferrell any day. The same can’t be said for Christian Fitzpatrick and Carrie Kei Heim, who play the requisite kid characters, Joe and Cornelia. I take no pleasure in knocking down child actors, so I will instead say that the fault in their characters seems to stem from how terribly they are written. Screenwriters David and Leslie Newman (mainstays in the Salkind troupe) know how to convey fantasy, but don’t know how to write the children who would be their main audience.
There used to be a perception that SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE was as crass a commercialization of Christmas as what the villains in the movie were hocking. Of course, judging how much worse that commercialization has gotten over the years, the Salkinds’ film winds up looking pretty sweet and charming in retrospect. It’s no classic, but I daresay even families today will see a lot to admire in this big budget event picture.
Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) is a 23rd century cop who hunts murderous zombie-like creatures called Trancers. The head of the Trancer cult is Martin Whsitler, a man Deth finally killed several months prior. But hold up. Whistler didn’t die, but instead traveled back in time to 1984. Deth follows him into the past, his consciousness inhabiting the body of one of Deth’s descendants. Now, Deth has to traverse a version of Los Angeles he only knows from the history books, as he searches for the descendants of world leaders that are on Whistler’s extermination list.
Charles Band’s cheap sci-fi film is a shameless mash-up of BLADE RUNNER, THE TERMINATOR and a few zombie flicks for good measure. And yet, it winds up being a fun and inventive ride. The film boasts some interesting talent as well. A young Helen Hunt plays Deth’s cohort/love interest and writers Danny Bilson and Paul DeMio would later work on THE ROCKETEER and the FLASH television series. TRANCERS spawned a whopping five sequels, half of which aren’t even terrible.
And lucky you, I also devoted an episode of Moviocrity to this fun little flick. Check it out!
NUTCRACKER: THE MOTION PICTURE (a.k.a., NUTCRACKER, PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET’S NUTCRACKER) (1986) – You’re never going to make a profit with ballet movies, but God bless ‘em, producers keep trying. Or at least they do with one particular ballet, Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite.” Since I actually like ballet, and love Tchaikovsky even more, I have no problem with this.
This staging of the ballet is a bit more dark and sinister. But despite some artistic flourishes, it’s actually more faithful than many of the sanitized versions that tour the country around holiday time. We see the dream of young Clara, put into her head by her Uncle Drosselmeyer. She notes that while it is full of wonder, she can’t quite forgive her uncle for putting such a wicked dream in her head. True to form, the uncle is a figure whose feelings towards his niece don’t seem completely honorable. Don’t worry; this element of the story is handled with subtlety.
The dancing is incredible, as is the music. It’s breathtaking. You shouldn’t expect anything less. The story is interpreted by the Pacific Northwest Ballet, under the direction of Kent Stowell. Tchaikovsky’s music is performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. And as for the film itself, the direction is handled by Carroll Ballard (THE BLACK STALLION), an incredible filmmaker who I have only recently learned to appreciate.
In truth, we have yet to see a groundbreaking ballet film. We have yet to see a film that will break free from the proscenium. THE RED SHOES, in its extended fantasy segment comes closest, but still only scratches the surface. In the medium of film, the backdrops need not be two-dimensional. The dancers can travel back through that landscape and inhabit it. And as viewers, we can follow them. One day, some enterprising filmmaker will light upon this and somehow convince some visionary producer to finance his/her vision. Until then, you’re stuck with stagebound presentations. But as far as those presentations go, you can’t do much better than this beautiful and unsettling version, which was designed by the great children’s author, Maurice Sendak.
DIE HARD (1988) – Okay, so ballet isn’t your thing? Too classical for you? How about Bruce Willis gunning down terrorists? Better? Well, DIE HARD does famously use “Ode to Joy” on its soundtrack. That’s got to count for something.
You all know the plot to DIE HARD. John McClane (Willis) winds up being the fly in the ointment for a group of thieves who have taken the Nakatomi Tower hostage. Yippee-kay-yay. Now, I’ve got a machine gun, ho-ho-ho. You know the drill.
Now, it’s confession time. Like most kids of the 1980s, I loved DIE HARD when I first saw it. But for a number of years, I have felt a sense of estrangement from the film. It would infuriate me to see how ridiculously some of the characters were painted. And then it occurred to me, I’ve been trying to confine the film to its own literal plot. But in honestly, I was watching a different film than most of you. To most rationally-thinking adults, DIE HARD is about a man fighting off terrorists and trying to save his wife. What the film is really about, at least as far as I can see it, is something different.
DIE HARD is about a man trying to do the right thing, despite being hindered by the incompetence of everyone around him. Everyone McClane encounters – the 911 operator, the police, the FBI, the news media, the walking scum puddle Ellis – all of them are so incompetent that you can’t imagine them going through their day without somehow ruining everything around them. Even Mrs. McClane isn’t innocent here. The first thing she does in the film is tell a pregnant woman to get blackout drunk and later she coldly insults the villain to his face, when there is nothing to gain from her ice queen stance. And in the middle of this you have John McClane, trying to keep everything from falling apart when even his closest allies seem hellbent on making that happen.
John McClane is the last sane person in an insane world, and he knows he likely won’t get any appreciation for his efforts. And hell, who hasn’t felt like that before?
Watching DIE HARD under these conditions, I was not only able to look at the film in a new light. I was also once again able to appreciate DIE HARD for the action extravaganza it was always meant to be.
The movie involves a virgin girl who is tormented by her unreasonably cruel mother. How cruel is this woman? When her daughter bemoans that her cat is her only friend, the mother drowns the kitty just to be mean. Ouch! Well, it turns out she doesn’t have the best family ever since they’ve been using incest, genetic experimentation and occultic rituals to create a race of superbeings – the elves of the title. Dan Haggerty – Grizzly Adams himself – has to step in and figure out how to stop this rather pathetic takeover.
The title itself it actually a bit of a misnomer. There are really only a couple of elves, and never more than one on screen at a time. I guess they couldn’t afford more than one rubber puppet. Whatever the case, the insane plot, awful acting and unintentionally hilarious dialogue make this a gem.
Much like TROLL 2, I discovered this puppy when it first came out and have watched in proud wonder as it has developed a cult following. And yet, after all of this, the best print we have available is the old, dark, muddy one used by Action International when it was released. Come on, HD Wizards, if some of the other films on this list have gotten the red carpet treatment, surely it’s time to show a little love to ELVES.
And that’ll do it for Part 3. For tomorrow’s final installment, we look at the non-traditional Christmas flicks from the 1990s to the present! See you then!