Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Anti-Christmas Movies

(Full disclosure: This is another re-edited TPN rescue. Well, about 75% of it, at least.)

The holidays have hit big time, and I'm tellin' ya the TV Yuletide assault in already in high gear. Just in the last week, I've seen bits and pieces of “Christmas Carol” adaptations featuring Reginald Owen, Alistair Sim, George C. Scott, Kelsey Grammer, Bill Murray (Scrooged: awful, awful) and Patrick Stewart. (no sign of the Muppets, The Flintstones, Mickey Mouse, Blackadder or Mr. Magoo as of yet.)

Ignorance and Want, from Richard
Williams' Christmas Carol

The 2009 George Zemekis CG version voiced by Jim Carrey is in heavy rotation on the premium channels (a fine interpretation, IMO) but the 1971 half-hour adaptation made by animator Richard (Roger Rabbit) Williams hasn't surfaced yet. This is a real gem among Christmas Carol adaptations-- It's a bit truncated story-wise, but it was painstakingly animated in the style of a 19th century engraving. It's also quite scary. Dickens' original story is quite scary in and of itself, but most production tend to pull punches so as not to frighten the kiddies. Not this one. A fuzzy upload can be seen online here.

As long as we're parsing Holiday entertainment, Slate has an article listing the five worst Christmas movies of all time. Two of the usual suspects are in the list: Santa Claus Conquers The Martians and the truly weird Mexican Santa-vs-Satan Santa Claus.

All well and good to list bad movies, but I'm here to list my three favorite Anti-Christmas movies.

The anti-Christmas movie does not just point up the absurdities of the Holiday season, it actively tries to deconstruct the reasons and traditions of Christmas. Most of the time this is done in a spirit of irony, pointing out the sillier parts of what is undeniably an over-the-top holiday. I for one will argue that sappy, formulaic star vehicles like Jingle All the Way or Deck the Halls or Christmas with the Kranks or The Santa Clause trilogy in their own way do more damage to the spirit of Christmas than films that actively make sport of it. Fake sincerity is generally more pernicious and damaging than active mockery, a form of complicit betrayal, a treason of the season, if you will.

The Hebrew Hammer (d. Jonathan Kesselman, 2003) The titular character, the defender of Jews everywhere, is a superhero in the Mystery Men genre, thoroughly mortal and played with a streetwise flair by Adam Goldberg . The heavy of the piece is Damien Claus (Andy Dick), the evil son of Santa Claus, who kills his father and sets out to make Christmas the only December holiday. Central to his plan: making all Jewish children watch It's a Wonderful Life. The Hammer eventually defeats Damien and saves Hanukkah by-- and I'm quoting both Wikipedia and the film here-- “using Judaism's ultimate weapon (complaining and guilt).” This is a fun little film with a good heart and a message of tolerance, even as it rips on every ethnic stereotype you can imagine non-stop.

Santa's Slay (d. David Steiman, 2005). The opening scene was so stunning I had to see it all the way through. The Masons, a typical bickering middle-class family, are sitting down to Christmas dinner. Santa enters the house and proceeds to gruesomely slaughter everyone. Leading the cameo appearances as the Masons are James Caan, Fran Drescher and Chris Kattan. Santa is played by WWE wrestler Bill Goldberg. See a pattern here?

The premise of this film is that Santa is actually a demon who lost a bet with an angel and had to do 1000 years of community service as a good guy giving out presents. Now the bet is off and every Christmas he goes on a killing rampage. He's basically a thinly veiled lift of Robot Santa from “Futurama:” according to the film, before Santa lost the bet and had to be nice people spent Christmas hiding from him.

As weird and inspired as the opening sequence was, the film quickly goes downhill from there and becomes a holiday-themed gore-fest. Like The Hebrew Hammer this movie has a strange sort of Jewish bent to it, but unlike that film Santa's Slay is not well-written enough to convey any sort of message, which makes it fairly worthless entertainment.

Bad Santa (d. Terry Zwigoff, 2005). A holiday movie with 170 occurrences of the F-word, its protagonist is Willy, a perverted, foul-mouthed, alcoholic safecracker who badly impersonates Santa in department stores so he and his elf-sized partner can rob it after hours. Billy Bob Thornton does an impressive job of portraying a worthless, shiftless bastard with absolutely no redeeming qualities and lots of repellent ones. I'll venture an opinion about Mr. Thornton as Willy: he does a good job, but I never thought he was quite right for the role. He's too rangy and skinny, even though I can't imagine anyone else doing a better job on the voiceovers. Apparently, Jack Nicholson was interested in playing Willy, but ultimately had other commitments and had to back out. A shame: he would have been just perfect.

Wonderfully, Bad Santa never even gets close to a cheery holiday-themed message: in the end, there is redemption for Willy, but without spoiling the ending let's say it involves the Christmas sentiment of others, not the principal characters. It's the perfect antidote to the holidays.

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