What do Satan, sorority girls, Huck Finn, and Orson Welles have in common? They are all referenced in Ken Hardin's list of bizarre holiday films.
Hollywood gives us three or four holiday movies a year, and like most genres, the majority of them stink. But once in a while they get it right, and when then do, the films become as much a part of holiday tradition as avarice and gluttony. It's great, but it can get to be a tad redundant. And who really can stand all that happiness, anyway?
If you are looking for a change of viewing pace this season, here are five weird flicks with Christmas themes that you should check out. We tried to go a little light on the horror genre (there are a ton of deranged Santas out there looking for their pound of X-mas flesh), and we avoided films like Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, where the holiday tie-in is circumstantial, at best. We also dodged Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, only because it will be on every list of this nature you will ever read. So, on to the movies.
Santa Claus (1959)
This Mexican import was directed by Rene Cardona, best known for his work in the popular masked-wrestler-as-superhero genre, most notably with the great luchador Santo. Exploitation film distributor Gordon Murray pushed the movie directly to kids, with the catchy promise / threat:
"Whether you're in a cave, or behind a million mountains, Santa Claus sees you through his Master Eye ..."
Santa battles Satan, who is trying to turn the children of Earth against the Jolly Old Elf and resorts to mean tricks like treeing Santa with a pit bull. But wait! Santa gets help from Merlin the Wizard and the Greek God Vulcan. You can't make this stuff up. This trippy and inexplicable little gem has been restored to high-def and is available on Blu-ray. You can watch the Santa Claus trailer on the VCI Entertainment site.
Black Christmas (1974)
We only said we'd "go a little light" on horror. It's almost impossible to avoid it completely in this conversation. And while we were at it, we thought we'd highlight a good movie.
This almost-classic is broadly considered the first "slasher" film, although the formula was perfected a few years later in Halloween. Several of the trappings are there — outlandish murder tactics, a ton of red herrings, and camera shots from the POV of the unknown killer — as a stalker knocks off sorority girls during Christmas break. You also get to see some pretty good acting from Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, and the lovely Olivia Hussey. And to top it off, director Bob Clark went on to make A Christmas Story.
Be warned — do not watch the hideous remake of recent vintage.
The Magic Christmas Tree (1964)
The trailer for this one says it all — apparently, Santa Claus is "captured" by making him sit in an uncomfortable chair. Lower than low-budget, this morality tale follows a boy though a dream, beginning with a run-in with a whacky witch on Halloween, where he learns not to be greedy with wishes granted to him by the titular holiday pine. And there is a runaway lawn mower. This one lacks the colorful charm of Santa Claus — you find yourself laughing at it, not with it. But you are still laughing.
You can catch this one as the backdrop of a RiffTrax episode on Hulu. Probably for the best.
RiffTrax has also brought this kid's matinee horror back to the public eye. In fact, it's about the only way to watch this thing — but it's good fodder for snarky fun. The voiceover sounds for all the world like a ‘70s porn ad, and it goes downhill from there. Basically, Santa gets stranded by his reindeer in Florida and the exact opposite of hilarity ensues, with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn providing color commentary and a long, separately shot adaptation of Thumbelina just dropped in for filler. Sid Krofft and Marty Krofft did this kind of puppet-based psychedelia much better, and there is just no way a giant bunny suit can be anything but creepy.
It Happened One Christmas (1977)
Apparently frustrated that A Christmas Carol was being remade annually, some TV producers decided to put a fresh coat of crap on another holiday classic, It's a Wonderful Life. The result is a deeply odd film that actually gave jobs to some legitimate talents, including the legendary Orson Welles (yes, that Orson Welles) as Mr. Potter and a young Christopher Guest as Harry Bailey. But get this — the George Bailey part is played by a woman, That Girl's Marlo Thomas. Crazy, huh? And she is beyond awful. If the original had never been made, maybe this hatchet job would not be quite as odorous, but as it is you can chuckle as Thomas tries to play a desperate person contemplating suicide without ever actually acting desperate. And the little girl's name is Zuzu, not Suzy, dammit!