It’s that time of year again (And no, I’m not saying “’tis the season,” because bite me), where people who don’t have anything else to write about make lists. Lists of Christmas gifts, lists of holiday supplies and of course, lists of Christmas movies. All of them valiant efforts, but a lot of them looking similar. Hence, I’m going to go against the grain and compile a list of a few Christmas films you might not think of. Some of them are popular, some of them are not – but many of them are missing from the typical end of the year lists.
And if you would rather see a full review for each one, maybe if you’re good in 2013….
SANTA CLAUS (1959) – Actor turned director, Rene Cardona was one of the most prolific filmmakers in Mexican cinema back in the day. The films directed by him (and then by his son, Rene Cardona, Jr.) are legendary staples of cult cinema: DOCTOR OF DOOM, WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY, BATWOMAN, NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES, SURVIVE! And several great Santo films.
And then there’s this curio, an epic, whimsical tale of Santa Claus going to Earth. Only Santa Claus wasn’t really big in Mexico, so there are a few liberties taken. He lives in outer space. Instead of elves, he has child slave labor from around the world. He gets much of his magic from Merlin and a satyr-like keymaker. His reindeer aren’t the ones we’re familiar with, but a cackling brood of wind-up contraptions. Santa shows us all of this and his “ho ho ho” sounds awfully sinister.
Then he gets to Earth and has to survive a battle of wits with Pitch, chief minion of Satan himself. All of this while making the dreams of every good little boy and girl come true. No wonder the poor guy can only do this once a year.
THE MAGIC CHRISTMAS TREE (1964) – There were quite a lot of films in years gone by that were not designed to be shown all day long. Instead, they were made for kiddie matinees. Many of these were pretty cheap, and one of the cheapest was THE MAGIC CHRISTMAS TREE.
It involves some bratty little kid who falls out of a tree and is given a magic ring by an old witch. Trust me, this intro makes about as much sense as anything else here. The ring gives him the opportunity to plant a magic Christmas tree in his yard, which springs up overnight and begins talking to him. Yes, it’s very creepy. The Christmas tree also grants him three wishes, which the kid uses to be a pretty selfish little snot. This includes one moment when he captures Santa and all but paralyses the poor guy, trying to make him his slave. The kid then leaves Santa in his prone position and goes hunting (scenes of the kid fiddling with a rifle will make the NRA wet and make everyone else wince). He meets a giant (who looks like just a pretty tall chubby guy who needs a bath) who threatens to keep the little boy all for himself.
SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (1964) – No doubt you’ve heard of this one or even seen it, since it has slipped into the public domain. In this film, the children of Mars are pretty bummed out and the parents don’t know why. Seeking the knowledge of the planet’s wise man, they find out that it is because they have no one to place their faith into, who will fill their hearts with joy or something. On Earth, that void is filled by Santa Claus (And friends and family and teachers also, right movie? Right? No? Hello?). So, the Martians decide to kidnap Santa Claus and make him bring Christmas to Mars. But you can’t just force Santa to do your bidding. And what will the kids on Earth do?
It should be noted that the elder Martians are completely oblivious to this because they have no sense of humor whatsoever. This is why they can’t figure out what’s wrong with their lethargic children. The only Martian who differs from this is Droppo, the laziest man on Mars. Droppo is always joking, smiling and stumbling around and makes the kids laugh, even though it seems like he should never, ever remove his Martian helmet.
FATHER FROST (a.k.a. MOROZKO, JACK FROST) (1965) – The former Soviet Union has a treasure trove of fine cinema just waiting to be discovered. One of the fine things they brought us were some truly amazing family fantasy films, steeped in ancient eastern European folklore. These films are strange and often amusing for all the wrong reasons. But you know what? They’re also quite beautiful and amazing in their own right.
FATHER FROST involves two young people destined to be with one another. The young girl is treated horribly by her evil stepmother and stepsiblings (sound familiar?). Fortunately, she’s so darn nice that even the sun is willing to stay up a little longer than it should, just so she can finish her knitting for the day. We also have a very selfish young man who at one point is transformed into a bear by Father Mushroom and must overcome an evil witch.
What does any of this have to do with Christmas? Very little actually. Although, Morozko (called Jack Frost in the American print and very Santa-like in his mannerisms actually) appears later on and tries to make things right.
SANTA’S CHRISTMAS ELF (NAMED CALVIN) (1971) – Barry Mahon did a lot of movies, none of them epics. Some of the films he helmed were true curios. His first feature was CUBAN REBEL GIRLS, Errol Flynn’s last film, made with the coorperation of Fidel Castro. THE DEAD ONE is a voodoo-themed horror feature that is alleged to have inspired some of the later zombie movies. And then there’s goofy Cold War paranoia films like ROCKET ATTACK U.S.A. But what Mahon is best known for is his line of nudie cuties – films about nudists such as the THE BEAST THAT KILLED WOMEN and some rougies including PROSTITUTION PROTECTIVE SOCIETY.
As you can imagine, when Mahon ventured outside of exploitation and into the realm of children’s entertainment, the results were surreal. His WONDERFUL LAND OF OZ and JACK AND THE BEANSTALK must be seen to be believed. It’s really hard to believe kids didn’t feel ripped off when they left the theatre.
SANTA’S CHRISTMAS ELF (NAMED CALVIN) is a very rare oddity, so rare that it doesn’t seem to have an IMDB entry. It is shot by showing backdrops and then superimposing still pictures of people interacting with puppets and more typically puppets interacting with each other. As films go, it’s a tough one to get through and Mahon isn’t done with us yet.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972) – As you can imagine, most of this Amicus anthology film, based upon the classic EC comic, has nothing to do with Christmas. But one segment does, and it is so incredible, it would be a crime to omit it from this list.
The first story, “And All Through the House,” features Joan Collins as a cold-blooded woman who murders her loving husband on Christmas Eve while her daughter is in the house. She struggles to hide her crimes when she hears that an insane killer has escaped from the local asylum. Then she looks outside to see a sinister man, trying to get in the house. A sinister man dressed in a Santa Claus costume…
It’s a very short and creepy tale and would later serve as the basis for the first episode of the TALES FROM THE CRYPT television series produced for HBO in the 1980s.
SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY (1972) – To this day, the strangest Christmas film I’ve seen is undoubtedly SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY. It’s another cheapie and the whole film is actually a cheat. We start with several children (supposedly Santa’s elves – again with the slave labor) singing out of key. But where is Santa?
Wouldn’t you know it? Santa’s sleigh got stuck on a Florida beach (in broad daylight no less) and the reindeer were so hot, they left Santa out there to die. Don’t be surprised if Santa winds up cooking venison that night. We hear Santa, who is obviously a much thinner, younger man in a suit, bemoan the heat ad nausea. Finally, he telepathically enlists the help of neighborhood children to get his sleigh unstuck – call it his own version of AAA. The kids can’t get the thing unstuck, despite the kids bringing in their pet dogs, cats, goats, horses and gorillas to help.
Santa tells the kid to not give up hope and tells them a story of someone else who never gave up. Here is where the film switches entirely and we see another film, complete with its own credits and its own bookended storyline. And what is that film? Why it’s Barry Mahon’s version of THUMBELINA. Told you he wasn’t done with us yet. This film, done in conjunction with the old Pirate World amusement park, involves the uncomfortably attractive Thumbelina interacting with several creatures represented by people in masks or strange paper mache contraptions. Honestly, I could do a whole article just on the film within a film.
After this is done, the Ice Cream Bunny shows up on a firetruck to help out Santa Claus. It’s a man in a bunny suit and it is absolutely terrifying.
BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) – Bob Clark is one of the most frustratingly erratic directors I’ve encountered. He directed films in every conceivable genre. In 1982 for instance, he helmed the iconic PORKY’S and then one year later, directed the sweet and funny A CHRISTMAS STORY. In horror, he directed the dead serious DEATHDREAM as well as the comicly horrific CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS. But he also directed some of the worst films ever made, including RHINESTONE and the two BABY GENIUSES movies.
Towards the beginning of his career, he also directed what people in the know rightly acknowledge as the first true slasher film. While there were films about mad killers in the past, this one had all the elements that would later be adopted by Michael Myers, Jason and their ilk. It’s also one of the moodiest and scariest films you’re likely to come across.
At a posh college, a group of sorority sisters are getting ready for the Christmas holidays. They begin receving disturbing prank phone calls. The sisters are at first amused by what they think are just obscene calls, but soon they grow more and more afraid. What they don’t realize is that – say it with me, folks – the calls are coming from inside the house. Yep, here’s where it started.
The film boasts a pretty great cast too, including Olivia Hussy, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea and John Saxon.
Avoid the 2006 remake at all costs. It’s a stinker.
This film involves a grown man who resolves to become 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?
GREMLINS (1984) – What I like most about Joe Dante’s GREMLINS is that it in many ways 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.
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.
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.
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 her family has 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.
THE REF (1994) – Yeah, I’ve seen SCROOGED, CHRISTMAS VACATION and even BAD SANTA on some of these lists. But where’s the love for this great Ted Demme film, the only film to use Denis Leary’s comedic talent well? Leary plays a burglar trying to make one last getaway, with the cops on his trail. He takes a couple hostage on Christmas eve, not realizing that the two are more interested with fighting with one another than the armed gunman keeping them captive.
Throw in a dysfunctional family dinner arriving for the holidays and it’s a great, tightly-packed comedy. One of the funniest films of the 1990s.
SANTA CLAWS (1996) – A young woman, semi-famous for starring in softcore movies, struggles with her status while trying to raise her children. Unfortunately, the kindly neighbor who has been helping out is actually a stalker, feeding his obsession with her by being near her. Soon that neighbor is killing her co-workers and her competition while dressed in a Santa suit.
This horror flick isn’t a classic by a long stretch, but it does have one thing to recommend it. Debbie Rochon, who jokes about the film fairly often, turns in another fine performance. It’s a role she seems to have infused with some personal experience – the odd sensation of being a cult femme fatale while struggling to get by in her daily life. Throughout the rest of John Russo’s film, there are some shortcomings evident. And yet, Rochon centers the film by creating a three-dimensional character on which the film gains its strength.
SANTA WITH MUSCLES (1996) – Terry “Hulk” Hogan stars as a millionaire who lives recklessly and is a real Scrooge to his workers. While evading police after a high-speed chase in which she peppers them with paintball pellets, Hogan ducks into a mall and dresses as Santa Claus. If you’re willing to buy that illogical set-up, then you’ll have no problem when Hogan hits his head and starts believing he’s the real Santa Claus. You also won’t have any trouble believing his heroic battle against the mad scientist, Mr. Frost (Ed Begley, Jr.) who is trying to demolish an orphanage so he can get to some magic crystals. It’s a Christmas movie that could only happen by the filmmakers’ heads getting repeatedly shaken like a snow globe.
By the way, this is the first film for future Sexiest Woman Alive, Mila Kunis. She’s very embarrassed by the film, which is just adorable and makes watching it all the more sweet.
JACK FROST (1997) – On his way to the electric chair, serial killer Jack Frost’s prison transport gets in a horrific wreck which genetically mutates him into a killer snowman. Now the killer snowman travels to the small town of Snowmonton to get even with the sheriff who arrested him. Yeah, this is that kind of movie.
This is the type of film you can’t take seriously even for a moment. Even what under ordinary circumstances would be a horrific rape and murder of an 18 year-old girl becomes one of the most legendary scenes in the film as a young Shannon Elizabeth winds up on the business end of Jack Frost’s carrot.
A sequel transported the action to Hawaii… somehow. Oh, and you shouldn’t confuse this with the film where Micheal Keaton comes back from a dead as a snowman to play with his son. Now that film is really creepy!
RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010) – A scientist orders a series of excavations on what could be the world’s largest burial mound. What they actually uncover is a supernatural being, the source of the original Santa Claus legend. Soon, children are missing and reindeer are slaughtered as this entity teaches the Finnish countryside the true meaning of Christmas. Even when it looks as though the creature has been contained, the nightmare isn’t over. After all, Santa has helpers.
This film is already becoming a bit of a cult favorite in genre circles, as is our next film…
SAINT NICK (a.k.a. SAINT, SINT) (2010) – Much like RARE EXPORTS, SAINT is a film that seeks to show the dark origins of the Santa Claus story. But in this brutal film from the Netherlands, St. Nicholas is re-imagined as St. Niklas, a bishop who was killed along with his followers back in the mid-15th century. Today, as the innocent Dutch people get ready to celebrate the legend of Sinterklass, they are unaware that Nicholas returns with his ghostly legions whenever December 5th coincides with a full moon. St. Nicholas returns and slaughters hundreds of people.
This film comes from the director of THE LIFT and AMSTERDAMNED, two odd but noteworthy horror films from the 1980s. It was the subject of some controversy in the Netherlands, where Santa Claus is beloved much as he is here in the States. The controversy was actually milked by the filmmakers in order to gain even more publicity for the gory little film.
A VERY HAROLD AND KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS (2011) – There’s something endearing about this third entry in the franchise blatantly exploiting its 3D credentials. It throws everything it can at the screen in the most gimmicky and shameless way possible, flaunting it’s complete lack of class.
It also happens to be pretty funny as the stoner duo reunites on a search for a Christmas tree that as usual winds up getting them in more trouble than thought humanly possible. And yes, Neil Patrick Harris is back too. So is female nudity, which was appreciated.
Well, that’s what I’ve got. Anything you can come up with? Anything that wasn’t on anyone’s list this year, including ours? Drop us a line in the comments to tell us just how much or how little your appreciate us.
And remember, Christmas is the time for giving. Noel!