In this perennial state of broke in-debtness, I've taken to the highways and byways of my cable box for holiday entertainment. One thing has become instantly clear this December. Our Christmas classics have become stale bread. We, as a general populace, like to cling to certain objects of affection and wring them dry. For thirteen years, A Christmas Story has been in heavy rotation. Despite it being a dud upon initial release, it now airs twenty-fours hours straight over the course of Christmas Eve, pulling in record numbers ever year. This trend has also grabbed ahold of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Both follow in the traditional carbon footprint of It's a Wonderful Life, which was flung into immediate repetition in the late seventies after its copyright lapsed. All three have been recycled beyond comprehension. Then we also have A Charlie Brown Christmas, and more versions of A Christmas Carol than we do cheap beer selections at the K. Rogers.
These are all films that I, much like you, have seen quadruple times. They dominate the holiday. They permeate the skin of December and flaunt royalty like nips at a sexy car wash. I could perform them all as a one-act play. And not miss a single syllable of dialogue. Dare I say; I look forward to them each and every year. These five properties have a very strong Pavlovian grip on the shirt collars of America. But they're not the only guilty parties. In recent years, Jon Favreau's Will Farrell comedy Elf has also become a mainstay on the holiday forefront. Soon, it too will get its own twenty-four hour marathon. Then there are the hipster film nerd classics that non-traditionalists like to play into existence. Why? Because they think its funny and that it subverts the holiday quilting that surrounds any given traditional holiday film festival. The sad fact is that Gremlins, Die Hard, and Lethal Weapon have been making Christmas best of lists for years.
Christmas is a big deal in our household. It's not necessarily seen as a "religious" holiday. Baby Jesus has been replaced by the extremely paganistic presence of Santa Claus and his black magic practicing reindeer. Working from home has allowed me to delve deep into the Christmas movie stockpile that resides inside my house on both DVD and cable. The thing that becomes most obvious within seconds of doing a keyword search on my DVR is that Tom Arnold and Dolly Parton have a strong presence here in this electrical winter wonderland. And it's with them that I started my search for a new Christmas classic. Surprisingly, I found the seeds of what could become a box office hit residing in a Tom Arnold made-for-cable movie called Chasing Christmas. It's one of the very few films that's had the balls to take on Charles Dickens' stolid staple A Christmas Carol and do something wonderfully new with it. Sure, Bill Murray tramped these lines with his 1986 favorite Scrooged, but that's still a less than thinly veiled remake of the original 1938 film modernized for 80s comedy standards. Chasing Christmas, on the other hand, actually challenges the often recycled storyline, and breaks deep into its time traveling mythos.
Arnold is an affable subject, and his presence usually kicks up the standard-issue dogshit quality of these made-for-cable Christmas films. Here, he's not cast as the traditional Scrooge. Instead, he's a good-natured chap, and a warmhearted family man that truly cares about his daughter. His wife cheated on him at a Christmas party, and understandably so, he has since disowned the holiday. He wants nothing to do with it, and proves to be a funny character study as he becomes increasingly frustrated with Santa's omniscient image. This makes him a prime target for the celestial holding company that deploys Dickens-like ghosts upon any frowning face not wantonly celebrating everything that is red and green in this world. For a tiny moment, you expect Arnold to be whisked away on a telltale journey of self-realization and forgiveness. Nope. This 2005 ABC Family Channel effort actually has a bit of imagination up its sleeve, and doesn't mind flaunting a bit of edge against this usually tame kid-friendly landscape.
Sure, we're given the requisite openers. A Bob Marley-like friend of Arnold's comes to warn him about the impending arrival of three spirit-challenging spooks. Leslie Jordan plays the pixie-ish Ghost of Christmas Past, intent on shoving Arnold through his former transgressions. It certainly sounds like yawns-ville from the get-go. We've seen the tropes of Scrooge a bazillion times, and we don't need another quacked up version of it. Just as I was about to hit that off button, a strange thing occured. Past became a fully fleshed out character in his own right. A man tired of his job. He has an at-work melt down that sees him stranding Arnold in the Fifties. Suddenly, the film becomes chalk-full of possibilities that no other version of A Christmas Carol has ever explored. This could go a million different ways, and I suspect someone else will fully crack open this delicious story-telling nut in the very near future. As it stands, Chasing Christmas only beings to play with this interesting concept. Arnold eventually teams up with The Ghost of Christmas Present to track down and stop Past from totally ruining the holiday. In a truly weird turn of events, Tom even has a tryst with Present. And his Scrooginess is vindicated when we see his ex cheat on him during their wintertime honeymoon back in 1977. It's not the best Christmas movie ever made by any means, but it certainly is the most entertaining made-for-ABC Family or Hallmark flick I have found perusing the outer recesses of DirecTv.
Chasing Christmas? Whoop-doo!
This wacky Christmas calamity sounds like something Robert Zemeckis would have concocted in his 80s heyday. I happened upon it the same weekend I saw Zemeckis' own ode to Dickens' cautionary tale, Disney's A Christmas Carol. I was struck by that film's soulless attempt at being technically relevant. It's an empty, heartless experience that offers nothing new to this holiday sub-genre of redemptive shouting. Its locked likes a roller coaster, and careens around each ghostly corner with blurring speed. Thus proving that it has no destination or purpose. We're never allowed to root around in Ebenezer's past or present long enough to get a feel for why this guy is such a scathing dickhead. It hits each note with a wrench-like precision that squeezes any and all meaning out of its dry bones. Before long, the 3D aspects of this digital prose have drifted to the back-left corner of your brain, and it's proven to be a less than proficient stab at stealing money. With Back to the Future, Zemeckis, working with Bob Gale, wrote one of the most imaginative and hands-down perfect scripts ever conceived. Now, he's just playing shitty video games, and the experience of watching Disney's A Christmas Carol is the equivalent of watching your nephew dick around with some dusty, sub-par Nintendo 64 cartridge he found at a garage sale.
Disney's A Christmas Carol? Super-triple-BOO!
Judging from the foreboding wasteland of holiday fare that awaits us as consumers, it becomes obvious that the Christmas genre is a difficult one to work inside. Chasing Christmas is one of the few rare exception to the rule. No wonder there are only five or six true classics that get shoved down our throat this same time every year. So-called visual artists must have a hard time coming up with new and exciting ideas that revolve around gift giving and eggnog. I happened upon three other Tom Arnold Christmas movies (A Christmas Proposal, Moonlight and Mistletoe, Three Wise Guys) and an Arnold-hosted redneck holiday special before finding something that didn't totally suck. I'm not sure if it's by design, or if Arnold needs a paycheck and ABC Family is the only one with a continual offer. That said, the comic is tops when it comes to these types of dirt-cheap outings. Clicking through my on-screen guide, it seems that every third tier actor or actress that once held a modicum of fame has found a second life appearing in this claptrap straight-to-cable holiday garbage. Valerie Bertinelli, Mario Lopez, Jenny McCarthy, and Kathy Ireland are but a few who've come here to die a quiet, cheery, candy cane-coated death. Given enough tryptophan, it wouldn't be hard to smother yourself under this cozy, disinfected blanket. These types of holiday movies remind me of the flu. Because they'll be the only thing on when staying home from school. They're incredibly bad. Total trash. Yet they're also incredibly addictive.
Though a holiday classic they do not make. They're generally good for one viewing, if that (sometimes it's impossible to get to that first commercial break in tact; Jay Mohr I'm looking at you). Because of their C-list status, I was surprised to find Dolly Parton wallowing around in this minefield of spirit bombs. She appears in not one, but two cheesy Christmas movies that are definitely worth checking out. Along with a Christmas concert special co-starring Kenny Rodgers. All three projects have new music that is unique to Dolly. She's one of the few musicians striving to create something out of the Christmas norm. Our big-busted rapscallion of swagger doesn't rely on mediocre Jingle Bell standards to sell her talents home. Which makes Kenny and Dolly such a treat. A box office draw in the 80s with hits like Nine to Five and Steel Magnolias, Dolly wasn't a performer that needed to stick her ample assets in some made-for-TV crapfest. Yet here she is with 1986's A Smoky Mountain Christmas, which proves to be a goofy hoot. Directed by Henry "Fonzie "Winkler, Dolly stars as country music superstar Lorna Davis. Hounded by the paparazzi, she fakes her own kidnapping and disappears into the Smoky Mountains. There, she happens upon a bunch of orphans operating their own sovereign nation. She also runs into Lee Majors as Mountain Dan, a scary backwoods Daniel Boone type that chews on rattlesnakes and whips horses with his wicked tongue. Together, this motley crew becomes a family. The great Dan Heydaya plays a celebrity photog that comes to Dolly and Dan's rescue, John Ritter appears as a haggard judge, and I haven't even gotten to the part about the witch and her sheriff boyfriend yet. Throw Danny Cooksey in the mix, and you've got a crazy 80s cocktail of divine madness. Including a handful of original songs, one has to wonder why this isn't a more renowned holiday favorite. It has "cult status" written all over it. Dolly didn't fare quite as well with her second swing at a TV Christmas movie. Ten years after A Smoky Mountain Christmas made its stunning debut, Dolly strapped on a pair of wings for Unlikely Angel. Which finds her once again starring as a popular country-western musician. Here, she dies an untimely death but must perform one good deed before being allowed into heaven. It's a sentimental drip of pudding that might be insufferable if not for Parton's pleasant smile taking up the majority of its screen time. It gets a pass, but only because of her winning presence.
Dolly's holiday movies are pleasant enough, and Tom Arnold has certainly kept me occupied. I'd like to name them King and Queen of Christmas 2009. But I don't see their fruit cake baked efforts ever winning a twenty-four hour marathon. Except maybe on a cable channel in Hell. In digging through this insurmountable mountain of crap, I have found three Christmas films that I don't feel get enough attention around the holidays. And a fourth that has been on the cult circuit radar for years, but should certainly achieve more notoriety. First up is The Great Rupert, an undersold, underrated feel good comedy from 1950 that may have become lost in the shuffle due to either its Black and White sheen or its prominence on dollar store DVD shelves.
On the surface, it looks like a weird kiddy flick about a dancing squirrel. At its heart, Rupert is really about a broke ass family and the love that keeps them glued together throughout the harsh climate of the holidays. Jimmy Durante stars as Mr. Louie Amendola, a good man that has lost his job and is forced to move his wife and daughter into a burnt husk of a hovel, in the basement below a well-to-do realtor. Speaking truthfully to our own socio-economic times, Rupert (created by legendary science fiction film producer/director George Pal), an amazing circus squirrel, is abandoned by his trainer because the poor guy can no longer provide the proper accommodations for this hip-hoping rodent. Rupert takes up residency in the realtor's home. There he happens upon a hidden stash of cash that he showers upon the Amendola family through a hole in the wall. They believe it is God speaking to them. And chaos ensues. It's a film that remains timeless, and just as entertaining as the big five that currently dominate our landscape. For some reason, it has failed to achieve any sort of status of its own, and is missing from more than most of our Christmas best of lists.
If you've been searching in vein for a unique and worthy addition to your own classic Holiday line-up, The Great Rupert is a defiant must-see. It will find itself placed in heavy rotation inside your DVD player, and if they can get over it being in Black and white, your entire family will come to adore it as their own. Another misplaced Christmas film worthy of "classic status" is a little ditty called Christmas Evil. Perhaps the most overlooked of Christmas-themed horror flicks. There are plenty of Santa slasher films out there for the gore hungry masses that like a little viscera with their eggnog. But I don't think there has ever been one that is this stunningly empathetic. It's a grungy, filthy character study that doesn't consider its subject matter with lesser eyes. Harry Stadling isn't your typical hack and slash maniac in a Santa Suit. He punishes the naughty. Sure. But in a fantastic twisty, he also rewards the nice as evident in his climatic run to the orphanage with a van full of toys. The kicker comes when he gets away with his heinous deeds, and his white Chevy rape van takes flight, turning him into the real thing ala Scott Calvin and those equally charming Santa Clause films (which have gained a lot of footing these past few years as the go-to Christmas trilogy). Its weird, but so viciously awesome that you'll want to revisit it again and again.
More on the family front, but equally as weird, is a quaint little Disney movie called One Magic Christmas. It sets itself in the same vein as A Christmas Carol, but takes that conceit and stretches it to absurd levels. Mary Steenburgen stars as Ginny Hanks Grainger, our Ebenita Scrooge of sorts. Her husband Jack has been out of work since July, and she's forced to hold down a lousy job at a supermarket. The stress and strain of Christmas is weighing on her back, and she's in a personal Hell that any broke modern day matriarch could sympathize with. She's mad at her husband for not getting a job (he wants to open a bicycle shop). And she's resentful of her kids because they still believe in Santa Claus. Enter Harry Dean Stanton as Gideon, the Christmas Angel. He isn't magical by any means. He's a foreboding presence clad in all black. He looks like he wandered off a grisly post-Modern Western. Ginny's daughter befriends this scary creature late at night, outside in the snow. And the movie certainly seems to push home the message that its "okay to talk to strangers, because they could be angels in disguise." Things go from bad to worse quickly. Jack wants to take some money out of savings for Christmas gifts. Ginny is dead set against this idea. What if there is a medical emergency, huh? What are they going to do then?
When Ginny is forced to work a double-shift on Christmas Eve, Jack takes it upon himself to get money out of the bank. Of course, his timing couldn't be worse. Jack and Ginny's poor neighbor has failed to earn enough scratch for his own Pork and Bean celebration. So he robs the bank, and in the process shoots Jack dead. He then steals Jack's car, with Ginny's son and daughter both in the back seat, and drives it off a bridge. Joy! You'd think that Gideon would come in and save the day. Nope, the children survive the plunge into that frozen lake, and soon the daughter is hanging out with Santa and Mrs. Claus in a Jersey brownstone. Yes, One Magic Christmas goes completely off the rails. It's a hard-edged drama that will have you scrunching up your face like, "WTF?" It has flown under the radar since its release in 1986. Is it a Christmas must-see? Yes, it is if you've seen everything else.
Speaking of everything else. The one film that should have earned true Christmas classic status remains to this day an oddity that has thus far only registered with cult film enthusiasts, Mexican archivists, and Shane Black (who utilized the film to great effect in his own Christmas Caper Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). Its Santa Claus (not to be confused with Alexander Salkind's much maligned Santa Claus: The Movie). All you need to know is that Santa fights Satan, and it's as awesome as you could have ever hoped or imagined. Though not broadcast on cable, it's easy to find with an Amazon search. If you want something that is truly unique and exciting in the way of Christmas films, you can't do any better than this. It certainly deserves its own twenty-four hour marathon.
If you're looking to be depressed, lets not forget Robert Downey Jr.'s striking performance in Less Than Zero. It, too, is a great holiday movie that has failed to register as a December keepsake. Along with his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Home for the Holidays it makes the prefect Christmas trilogy antithesis to the corny Santa Clause triple feature that awaits you on the Disney Channel.
I hope these Christmas time suggestions find you well and on your way to discovering some new holiday treasures of your own. As we are only a week into December, my quest for Christmastime fare as not stopped. If something else tromps its way towards us that's worth mentioning, I'll make sure the Whoop-doo! Nation knows about it. Eat food! Kill Grandma! Have a safe and jolly holiday film-watching extravaganza! Whoop-doo!