Movies That Christmas Almost Forgot
By Frank Ruggiero & Joel Frady
Consider your favorite Christmas movie.
It's most likely a good one, not only for its merit as a film, but because it's something special shared with special people at a special time of year.
Put simply, it's heavy on the special. Your Mountain Times film critics would like to offer something heavy on the unconventional - Christmas movies that don't necessarily fit in, but have somehow found their way onto Santa's list, be they naughty, nice or an odd combination of the two.
Trading Places (1983)
John Landis plus Dan Aykroyd plus Eddie Murphy equals brilliant comedy. This role-reversal tale sees snobby investor Louis Winthorpe's (Aykroyd) world turned upside down when his millionaire bosses, Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche), place a bet - take common criminal Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy), put him in Winthorpe's position, and he can be just as successful in the company. Take Winthorpe, put him in the criminal's position, and he'll simply crack.
While the movie isn't necessarily about Christmas, one of its most memorable scenes shows a down and out Winthorpe, disguised in a filthy Santa suit, crashing the Dukes' Christmas party. Shoveling buffet items into his coat for later consumption, he's eventually exposed and makes an escape by bus. To the disgust of his fellow riders, he pulls a salmon filet from his suit, entangled in his greasy Santa beard, and starts chowing down. Descriptions simply can't do it justice.
Upon discovering the Dukes' scheme, Winthorpe and Valentine team up to beat them at their own game, while proving to them the film's morals - don't judge a book by its cover, and Jim Belushi in a gorilla suit is funny.
Santa Claus (1959)
Combining the Santa story with two parts Christianity and one part Arthurian legend, this flawed gem from Mexico sees Santa Claus (Jose Elias Moreno) in direct rivalry with Satan. Nestled in his cozy space station above the North Pole, Santa employs children of many nations, rather than elves, to sing and make toys. While spying on innocent little Lupita (Lupita Quezadas) with his tentacle-like telescope with an eyeball mounted on the end, Santa learns that Satan's minion, Pitch (Jose Luis Aguirre), is trying his damndest to tempt the little girl into stealing a doll, any doll.
When Santa arrives to the rescue, Pitch releases the hounds, treeing Santa and nearly preventing Christmas. Fortunately, Santa's pal and neighbor is Merlin the Wizard, who agrees to intervene and help make things keen again. Directed by Rene Cardona, Santa Claus is one of the most bizarre Christmas movies ever, from its garish set pieces to its nightmarish hell sequences to its portrayal of Santa as a Christ figure.
Naturally, it's a rather hard movie to come by, though you may have some luck online, at various dollar stores, or in someone's garbage can. Santa Claus was also featured on TV's Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
It's the special so nice George Lucas thought twice. Following the box office success of Star Wars in 1977, director Lucas immediately cashed in with a 1978 Christmas special featuring most of the film's original cast, some surprise guests, several musical numbers and a startling lack of shame. The result was something so compellingly foul that Lucas, who seldom admits fault, confessed that maybe this wasn't such a good idea.
The special follows a loose plot, as Han Solo (Harrison Ford) attempts to get Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) home for Life Day, the Wookiees' equivalent of Christmas. This doesn't bide well with Darth Vader (James Earl Jones), who sics his Imperial forces on the unusually festive Rebels.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) help Han along the way, in what boils down to a Star Wars variety show. At the Mos Eisley Cantina, Bea Arthur (TV's Golden Girls) serves drinks and, unfortunately, songs, with the help of Harvey Korman (Blazing Saddles) as an alien who drinks through his scalp.
Most folks will agree that the special's only redeeming quality is an animated segment that introduces the cult favorite bounty hunter, Boba Fett. Though personally, I prefer the opening scene with Chewbacca's family, a solid 10 minutes or so of Wookiees growling and moaning unintelligibly about incomprehensible matters, since subtitles, like humility, are not included.
Lucas has seen to it that this never makes it to DVD, but it's readily available on YouTube. Good luck, and may the Force be with you.
Bad Santa (2003)
Director Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa is much more than just another Christmas film - it's one of the funniest films I've ever seen. From the moment we meet Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), still dressed in his Santa suit and drinking heavily at a bar, it's obvious that this is a human being with very few redeemable qualities.
I've described the film as "the story of how one of the most despicable human beings on the earth learns the meaning of Christmas," and this seems accurate to this day. Willie and Marcus (the hilarious Tony Cox), his "African-American small person," disguise themselves as a mall Santa and elf team in order to rob department stores on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately for Marcus, Willie is constantly drunk and frequently yells at the children - when he's not chasing women in the Big and Tall section. But he soon begins staying at the house of The Kid (Brett Kelly) and his flighty Grandma (Cloris Leachman), and develops a sincere, if odd, friendship with the kid.
I must warn that this is an extremely offensive film because, as I mentioned, Willie is not fit to be around the general public and even less fit to be around children. But these characters are funny, and every scene contains giant, gut-hurting laughs, and anyone not offended will be laughing so hard it hurts by the time Bad Santa reaches its unpredictable conclusion.
The comedy in Scrooged, from Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner, is about as dark as possible considering it's a version of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Bill Murray plays Frank Cross, a rich television executive who is visited by three ghosts that illustrate how his misery is ruining many lives around him.
The highlight of the film is the portion featuring Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Kane, dressed as a pink fairy, brutally beats Cross repeatedly - including whacking him in the head with a toaster. The Ghost of Christmas Past, in the form of an evil cab driver, also creates some giant laughs.
But Murray is the key that makes it all work, balancing the line between being a greedy, unlikable man, but not one so greedy and unlikable that you hate him. He plays the scenes genuinely, not going too over-the-top, and it's not too hard to believe that Cross might be able to find the Christmas spirit after all.
It's far more than just another version of "A Christmas Carol" - it's the gleefully demented one that might scare the kids but will definitely leave the adults laughing.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
The crazy, colorful ideas that spring from the mind of Tim Burton never cease to amaze me, as he is the only man who would think of making a Christmas film that focuses on the residents of Halloweentown - because if there is a holiday that is the opposite of Christmas, it's probably Halloween.
Nightmare tells the story of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, who has grown very tired of the same Halloween things. So he goes in search of something new and exciting and finds Christmas town, a place that fascinates him with the snow and trees with lights. But enjoying it isn't enough for Jack - he kidnaps Santa and decides to make Christmas his own.
With beautiful stop-motion animation, many fascinating characters and wonderful songs written by Danny Elfman, Nightmare creates its own dark world that is pure fun. Long after you watch it - and watch it again - you'll still be humming these tunes and laughing at the film's many great visual gags.
Unlike the other two I mentioned, this one is family-friendly. While the jokes may be a little twisted - this is Halloweentown, after all - it's a wonderful tale that anyone can enjoy no matter what their age, and it will just get better with age.