by Collin Souter
Wayne Coyne in "Christmas On Mars"
It seems that every year, we get two or three official Christmas movies that try desperately to be added to the canon of Tradition. Most fail miserably. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a rock solid formula for getting a holiday movie into the public’s consciousness. For every “You’ll shoot your eye out,” there are at least a dozen or so Prancer sequels or mistaken identity Santa movies. This year, we get two batshit crazy entries: The Nutcracker in 3-D (wow!) and a curious Finnish import called Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a straight-faced (or so it seems by the trailer) adventure in which Santa is found in a mineshaft and held for ransom by terrorists. But what about the quality stuff out there that may not be a part of the Christmas mainstream? What new traditions can one add without resorting to the obvious likes of It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story? This list sheds light on some out-there short films, TV specials and downloads, all of which have become permanent holiday staples in my household. Yes, I love Christmas. I’m not ashamed to say it. Here are ten reasons why (in no particular order):
1. Mystery Science Theater 3000 / Rifftrax / Cinematic Titanic – Let’s face it. Most Christmas movies suck. I know. I’ve done the research. But not every bad Christmas movie has to be tantamount to being the middle man in The Human Centipede. As the writers on Mystery Science Theater 3000 have proven time and again, bad movies can be fun to sit through if surrounded by the right people. The Godfather of all bad Christmas movies, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, can be enjoyed either with Joel and the bots from Mystery Science Theater 3000 or Joel and many of MST3K’s writers via Cinematic Titanic, their latest incarnation where they appear to be watching a movie from a cruise ship, a la silhouette.
I’ve been watching the MST3K version quite regularly over the last decade and a half since it first aired on Comedy Central and I found it quite refreshing to hear the jokes and references changed and updated for CT. Just goes to show there is no end to the amount of ridicule that can and should be aimed at this movie. The $9.99 is worth the price of the download, although I will say the downloading process can be a bit of a pain sine you’ll also need the EZTakes software to make it work. The final DVD product is rather nice for what it is and it does have a Scene Selection menu. The MST3K version is available on DVD as part of a 2-pack Essentials collection along with the legendary Manos: The Hands of Fate.
The other celebrated piece of holiday trash is the Mexican import simply titled Santa Claus, which was roasted by Mike Nelson and the bots on MST3K and is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XVI Collection. I don’t know which movie is more sickening of the two. Both are slower than Farewell My Concubine, both are aimed to please only the dumbest of children and neither could care less about proper story structure. But these are often the most fun to watch given the MST3K format. The worse the movie, the better the episode.
Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett have since branched off to form Rifftrax, a downloadable commentary track for some of the worst films ever made, old and new (although why they bother with films such as Lord of the Rings remains a mystery to me). Their first foray into the holiday scrapheap was a commentary track to the inexplicable Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978. Of course, the show itself has never been available on video, but thanks to bootleggers the world over (bless them, always), it can be found if you look hard enough. Or, just go HERE. The commentary is fantastic and essential if you actually want to watch and survive the Special from beginning to end.
Rifftrax’ second holiday offering came in 2009 when they hosted a stage show and riffed their way through several holiday short films from yesteryear. The video, Rifftrax Live! Christmas Shorts-Stravaganza, is quite a showcase of rarities, including an animated Rudolph short with sexual overtones, a creepy dancing doll short and a story about Santa that is so lacking in production values that someone’s suburban livingroom is meant to pass as Santa’s workshop in the North Pole. I really hope there are more awful films like this out there so that Rifftrax will give it another go. I have a feeling I’ll have this one committed to memory in a few years’ time.
2. Flaming Lips: Christmas On Mars – I only recommend this one to die-hard Flaming Lips fans, devotees of experimental cinema and, well, potheads. Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne’s long gestating dream project finally saw the light of day in 2008. It’s not quite the whimsical, goofy spectacle of a Lips stage show, but you will be treated to the image of a “vaginal-headed marching band from hell,” as described by Adam Goldberg in one very funny scene. The story concerns a group of astronauts trapped on Mars with a dwindling oxygen supply. In order to boost morale and to celebrate the birth of the first human baby in space, they try to stage a Christmas pageant, except that the guy who was supposed to play Santa has died under bizarre circumstances. A mute Martian visitor (Coyne) just might save the day (that’s what the Nexflix sleeve says, anyway). This mostly black-and-white wackjob of a movie (and I mean that lovingly) recalls the films of David Cronenberg, Solaris and John Carpenter’s Dark Star, yet it remains on a planet all its own. Although it is a Flaming Lips production, you may be disappointed to find there are no Flaming Lips songs in the film.
3. A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All – Stephen Colbert’s writers deserve a lot of credit for making a point to not write any jokes that would make this Christmas show appear dated. It steers clear of any political humor and instead stays in character as a dead-on parody of the worst Christmas variety specials you can imagine. Here, Colbert is trapped in a homely cabin by himself during a snowstorm and is visited by celebrities including Toby Keith, John Legend, Willie Nelson, Feist and Elvis Costello, all of whom are greeted with brief canned applause. Toby Keith’s song “War On Christmas” is given a hilarious, tongue-in-cheek video treatment even if it’s plainly obvious that he is the only one on the show who has no idea The Colbert Report is satire. This special revels in the absurdist humor that gives Colbert’s show the slightly demented edge The Daily Show lacks. Jon Stewart, of course, makes an appearance to sing a duet with Colbert about that other holiday. The DVD includes a 20 minute Book Burning Yule Log, a Video Advent Calendar and Alternate Endings.
4. Christmas Evil - There are many Santa slasher movies to choose from, from the Silent Night, Deadly Night series to the original Black Christmas (remake be damned!), with lots of direct-to-video offerings in between. But nothing is quite as unique as this psychological study into the truly demented mind of Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggert), a man with a fetishistic obsession with Christmas, he works as a toymaker called Jolly Dream and will do anything to become Santa Claus. Even kill. Originally titled You Better Watch Out, this movie makes for a great MST3K entry, but you may be surprised to find yourself too hypnotized to speak. There is nothing quite like it. Be warned, though. There are quite a few DVD incarnations of this. If it’s not the Special Edition, you’ll miss out on seeing the Director’s Cut as well as the commentary track by the film’s director Lewis Jackson and ardent fan, John Waters.
5. Opus n’ Bill’s A Wish For Wings That Work – Sadly, this remains the only animated version of Berkely Breathed’s Bloom County / Outland comic strips, although this really is aimed at the non-converted. As such, it is just as fresh, funny and weird as anything else featuring the large-nosed penguin and his diseased feline friend. In this half-hour short (which is also based on the picture book of the same name), Opus wishes he could fly. After various unsuccessful attempts involving balloons and a girdle, Opus does what anyone would do this time of year when all else fails: He writes a letter to Santa. While Breathed himself was quite displeased with this special, it has always brought a smile to my face year after year. The animation here is quite opulent for a one-off TV special and the material here is surprisingly touching for something that has almost always been grounded in satire. Featuring uncredited vocal performances by Robin Williams and an unrecognizable Dustin Hoffman as Milquetoast, the Cross-Dressing Cockroach, both of whom recorded their roles while filming Hook. Steven Spielberg served as Executive Producer.
6. Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life – We really are lucky to live in a world where a short film such as this is readily available and not languishing in total obscurity. Still, short films require strong word-of-mouth from enthusiastic cinephiles who will actually watch short films for the sheer pleasure of it. This Academy Award winner is one of the best. Richard E. Grant plays Franz Kafka who is struggling against hope with a severe case of writer’s block. He strains to begin the first sentence on what will eventually become Metamorphosis (“…awoke to find himself transformed into a gigantic…what?”). But it’s Christmas Eve and there are parties, landladies and bug harbingers who will not leave him alone. Poor Kafka! As the title suggests, though, it really is a wonderful life. Written and Directed by Peter Capaldi, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 2009 for his role in the blistering political comedy In the Loop.
7. A Junky’s Christmas – In 1993, William S. Burroughs recorded a spoken word CD in collaboration with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, a collection of short stories with an urban backdrop. The result, Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, was mostly brilliant if taken in single doses (front to back, it can be a bit much). One of those tracks, The Junky’s Christmas, was adapted into a mesmerizing black-and-white claymation short produced by Francis Ford Coppola. It tells the story of a junky, Danny the Carwiper, looking for a quick fix of heroin on Christmas Day. Believe it or not, it does have a happy ending, but it’s all relative, of course. Burroughs makes an appearance at the end in a strangely heartwarming coda. His great, gravelly voice makes a fine alternative to the usual high-brow Englishmen reading Dickens we’ve grown accustomed to over the decades. The DVD has two other short films on it, neither of them Burroughs related. I haven’t seen them and at $17.99 on Amazon, you might be taking a bit of a risk for one good, short 20-minute film, but it’ll definitely stand out in your Christmas collection. I’d say a used one at $7 is worth it. You can also find it on youtube. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
8. South Park Christmas Episodes – What more do I need to say here? In this collection, you get seven Christmas episodes and, really, they’re all worth watching. I usually watch a couple of them a year. My personal favorite: Woodland Critter Christmas (any episode with Woodland Critters is gold). Unless there’s an Easter egg I don’t know about, conspicuously absent is the legendary South Park kick-off short film The Spirit of Christmas. No matter, though, you can watch that here.
9. A Christmas Past – Maybe you’d like something a little different to put on as a background image for your party or gathering since the novelty of a fireplace video wore out its entertainment value roughly 20 years ago (although Colbert’s book burning version puts a fun spin on it). In 2001, Kino Video put out a collection of ten silent Christmas films made between 1901 and 1925. A Christmas Past runs about 2 hours and the narratives are mostly sparse and a little confusing at times (as one would expect from this era when the medium of film was still being experimented upon), but some of the imagery is truly enchanting and is a must for any holiday historian. It includes silent versions of A Christmas Carol, The Night Before Christmas and several films involving Santa Claus, one of which is more like an Alaska travelogue. The string driven musical accompaniment doesn’t quite work and at times is just flat-out annoying, so you might want to consider muting it and throwing in your own background music. Oh, and a glitch in the DVD’s Scene Selection Menu only allows for two choices instead of all 10. Weird. Regardless, this is a fascinating collection of vintage films lovingly preserved.
10. Downloadable shorts – My new favorite activity in the last couple years is to make mix DVDs for people. If you know me, chances are you’ll get one from me every year. Maybe you want to make your own DVD of weird Christmas films. No problem. The good folks at Prelinger have got you covered with their vast collection of public domain films, many of which come in MPEG format. You can always view the films before downloading them. Among their collection: A Lucky Strike commercial; Christmas Comes But Once A Year; Pathe News Christmas Around The World A Visit To Santa (as seen on Rifftrax Christmas Shorts-travaganza). Also, if you really, really need to sit through it and do your own riffing, the immortal Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3119
originally posted: 11/27/10 15:41:33
last updated: 12/03/11 17:57:17