Movies That Say "Christmas" To Us...
The Wilson Bros give a run-down of what films make them feel Christmassy
We thought that we would bring you a selection of movies which are guaranteed to elicit that a festive charge in us, regardless if they have a Christmas theme in them or not. So brace yourself as we bring you a flight at breakneck speed of what brings out the warm and fuzzy Christmassy feelings in The Wilson Bros...
We admit that there really isn’t much in the way of genuine festive cheer in the works of John Waters, but we were introduced to his earlier films back around Christmas 1990, when we bought a box-set featuring Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living and Polyester – needless to say exposure to such twisted works of genius warped our cinematic sensibilities in a fairly permanent manner.
John Waters’ 1974 opus, Female Trouble depicts the tawdry life of Dawn Davenport (Divine), from juvenile delinquent to career criminal and ultimately to murderess; what particularly links this film to the festive season for us comes early on, where Dawn’s long-suffering parents bear the brunt of not buying their daughter a pair of cha-cha heels for Christmas; Dawn stomps upon all of the unopened presents in a manner reminiscent of Godzilla levelling Tokyo and the ensuing altercation with her parents sees the Christmas tree knocked over and her mother underneath it semi-conscious and moaning “…not on Christmas”.
Dawn then flees the family home and hitch-hikes a lift with Earl, a seedy individual (also played by Divine) and the two of them end up getting down to it on a patch of wasteland, with the bilirubin stains on Earl’s undercrackers clearly visibly as he pumps away. Waters has since remarked having his leading man playing two characters having sex with each other in the same scene is the ultimate cinematic depiction of the term “go fuck yourself”.
With family discord, grubby seasonal sex, intravenous injection of eyeliner, murder and mayhem, Female Trouble isn’t traditional Christmas fare, but for those of you with a taste for something other than the traditional House of Mouse-type seasonal offerings, not to mention anyone who appreciates outrageous or distasteful humour, then John Waters’ story of the intermingling of celebrity and murder might just jingle your bells.
We were late getting to this particular party, as it was about ten years ago when we first saw it. Taping it off of Channel 4, we got our first taste as we wrapped presents on Christmas Eve, and what a belter it was! We immediately went out and bought the Tartan DVD in readiness for the following year, and has been part of the pre-Santa ritual ever since.
Though many cite John Carpenter’s Halloween as the original suspenseful maniac-on-the-loose-with-lots-of-tension-and-point-of-view-shots film, but the plain truth is that he was beaten to the punch a full four years earlier by director Bob Clark, who would later be responsible for the hugely successful Porky’s series.
Black Christmas sees pretty, young Jess (Olivia Hussey) and her fellow sorority sisters being menaced by an unseen figure that has been plaguing them with obscene telephone calls. The bodies eventually start mounting up and Police Lieutenant Fuller (genre icon John Saxon) wades in to try and get to the bottom of things.
When watching the DVD, it became apparent that the normally unassailable Channel 4 had taken it upon themselves to edit some of the fruitier dialogue out of the movie. As anyone whom has experienced the uncensored version will tell you, there is some deeply surprising obscenities to be found, especially in the incredibly twisted phone-calls made to our campus gals. Considering that The Exorcist was only the previous year, it looks like Clark wanted to see just how far he could take the concept of bad language, and boy, did he play to win!
Clark’s film is a festive thing of wonder, with numerous pleasingly tense scenes, coupled with a doom-laden atmosphere that pervades every frame. This may sound like Black Christmas is heavy going, but there are numerous moments of light relief, with many of them provided by a pre-Lois Lane Margot Kidder as a foul-mouthed, dipsomaniacal sorority chick; her most amusing scene sees her plying a little kid with booze and using decidedly salty language around him – you’d never get that in a film these days.
The mainly Canadian cast is bolstered by international stars like Hussey, Saxon and 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Kier Dullea, but there isn’t a single duff turn in the whole film and special mention must go to actor John Rutter, who plays a police detective with the filthiest snicker in cinema history. The gag he laughs it was so funny that Clark used it again (along with actor Doug McGrath) in his later movie Porkys.
The fact that this film deals directly with Christmas and evokes a genuine Christmassy atmosphere means that Black Christmas ranks quite high in our list of favourite festive movies; we’ll leave you with the words from the irresistible trailer, delivered by someone doing a vaguely passable James Mason impersonation…
“Remember those idyllic scenes out of your childhood? Crisp winter nights? Star bright? Cracking Yule logs? Sleigh-bells? Candlelight glimmering off of shimmering Christmas trees? Chestnuts roasting over open fires? Carollers beneath snow-covered window ledges? Remember those – remember them well. After Black Christmas they will never be the same again…”
A Christmas Carol:
Not the recent Jim Carrey one with the animated corpses, you know, the movie which cements that Robert Zemeckis has become George Lucas, obsessed with technology whilst simultaneously losing the core abilities needed to make cohesive cinema. It’s not even the 1999 version with Patrick Stewart treating it as a staging of his one-man show, our favourite is the best of the bunch. It was 1984, and George C Scott was to be shown the error his ways by three spirits… well, you know the story by now.
Scott is the glue which bonds all of the exceptional elements together. Some of the more celebrated performances of Scrooge have come across as caricatured or cartoonish in our eyes, but here we find a man genuinely haunted by his past, before the ghosts have even gotten to him. Scott is a man with a blackened soul, inwardly brooding rather than lashing out at all with no reason, someone whom has lost a crucial human component, unable to interact with anyone other than to better his financial situation. When he does lose his temper with those who fall afoul of him, this Scrooge is just cool and forceful, with a smouldering hatred like an improperly extinguished cigar. His eventual redemption by the close of the movie is genuinely uplifting, and neither mawkish nor a bout of forced jollity.
They say a story is about the journey, rather than the destination, and who reading this doesn’t know where A Christmas Carol is going to finish up? There are some version of the story which keep you checking your watch in anticipation of the finish, but the perfect pacing and genuine investment in the characters avoid such involuntary distractions. The resentment felt by Scrooge’s father, Ebenezer’s damning choice between a career and a family with the love of his life, the isolation from his nephew - everything hits home courtesy of terrific actors and some powerful direction. There are recognisable character actors populating the entire movie, all perfectly cast and pulling their weight, and you’re always finding yourself saying: “Hey, that’s… and that’s from…”.
How about this for a cast: George C Scott, David Warner, Edward Woodward, Susannah York, Michael Gough, Liz Smith, Angela Pleasance, Frank Finlay, Joanne Whaley, Mark ( Doctor Who) Strickson and Lucy Gutteridge, one of the most under-appreciated actress around, whom ironically ended up living in the gutter when made homeless. There are so many other faces, and it’s deeply pleasant experience to pick them out.
The atmosphere created throughout the film is both authentic and extraordinary, with extensive location photography in Shrewsbury bringing a real Dickensian flavour which has failed many times to be captured via the miracle of soundstages. It’s a clean version of the times, without the excrement awash on the streets, but to show Scrooge slipping on a pile of rancid shit would be to take away from the story itself, so we get instead a beautiful, chocolate-box version of Dickensian London, with some nifty matte-paintings to drop Parliament and St Paul’s into their right places.
If we were to pressed on any criticisms, they are that David Warner is a little too old to really be Bob Cratchit, and that the kid playing Tiny Tim is a bit wooden, but both overcome these obstacles through sheer charm. Whatever, this more than any other movie puts us in the Christmas spirit, with an affecting message that no matter how bitter and twisted life has made you, anyone can find the sense of joy and warm feelings either life has kept out of their reach, or which they have denied themselves. We can’t recommend this one highly enough.
Nobody makes a Christmas movie like Joe Dante, n-o-o-o-body. Ah, we remember it well: Gremlins was the big summer hit of 1984, only beaten by Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop and Temple of Doom (these movies raked in a phenomenal amount of cash at the time) but we here in the UK were still getting these huge blockbusters about six months after they came out in the US. Consequently, our first experience of this anti-festive classic was when a relative got hold of a literally unwatchable pirate copy of the movie, and any hopes of seeing it prior to release were quickly dashed. Gremlins was one time when the lengthy wait worked out perfectly, as this summer hit became a Christmas movie over here, released on 7th December to a waiting audience - Hell, even TVAM weathergirl Wincey Willis held up a Gizmo puppet to viewers, on the condition that only the ears be shown, so extensive was the pre-publicity!
BBFC “15” certificate be buggered - if these two eleven year olds wanted to see it, we were damn-well going to get in! Certainly it helped that our local cinema (Images - the memories…) was a private flea-pit, and that the manager really didn’t care about age restrictions, so in we quietly slipped. With all the bad-feeling generated by the US release, the cat was out of the bag as to how a cute Christmas movie turns into a monstrous rampage of evil creatures, not to mention that most of the more notorious pieces had entered into playground legend. Once the movie was rolling, it really had a Hell of an effect on us, as if we had been dragged into an adult world were horror could be brought squarely in the middle of a domestic environment, and that even the most reverent of times are fair game. We also remember a coupling couple a few seats along from us just as well as the movie - Jesus, they were really going for it…
We watch it every Christmas, and get a kick out of every time technology allows a better version of the movie to come along, with Blu-ray being no exception. Deleted scenes which we had only seen in our French sticker-album were finally revealed to us, and quickly seen as wise removals. Regardless of such material, there’s still no sign of the piece in the comic adaptation where Billy’s new pet gets his name after picking up the Bathroom Buddy, gaining the moniker as: “…he’s already figured out how to use most of your gizmos”. Gremlins comes with an almost infamous inbuilt mythology, with the “rules” for keeping a Mogwai baffling most audiences. How cans they transform into monsters should they eat after midnight? Why do they reproduce with water? Not to mention the biggest mystery of all: why are the Peltzer family celebrating Christmas anyway…?
Gremlins holds up pretty well today, as both an icon of eighties popular culture and as a Capra-esque nightmare all on its own. Sitting near me as I write is an original 1984 life-size Stripe figure, which probably helps bolster just how much affection we have for the movie. It ruined the concept of Santa for a generation of kids, which annoyed parents far more than the murderous mayhem on the screen, which is rather puzzling, and Snow White is still interlinked with Dante’s movie in our minds to this day. It’s quite a legacy for a director to be able to say that he buggered up Christmas, but Dante can still hold his head up high on this one.
We admit that on the surface, Dario Argento’s seminal dreamlike fairytale shocker might not seem like a title to appear on a shortlist of Christmassy films, but from our perspective it most certainly is; this is mostly due to the fact that we were given a copy of the VHS release as a Christmas present from our dear Nan back in 1990 and watching it surrounded by festive decorations that uncannily mirrored the general colour palate of Suspiria itself made inextricably linked the trials and tribulations of Suzy Banyon forever with Christmas in our minds.
Most of you know the story by now – American Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) arrives in Germany to start her training at a prestigious dance academy, little suspecting that evil lurks within the school’s walls and she slowly begins to realise that not only is it a front for a coven of witches, but also that the deeper she delves into the real goings-on, the less likely that she is going to walk out of the academy in one piece.
Argento’s aural and visual assault on the senses seems to lend itself well to Christmas, acting as both an accompaniment and an antidote to the excesses of the period; the colour scheme of predominantly red and green, coupled with the Teutonic flavour really evoke a feeling of Christmas - like wandering through a German Christmas market whilst whacked out on a particularly powerful strain of acid.
The music score by Italian progressive rock band Goblin is as much an all-out assault on the aural front as the visuals are on the optic nerves, with heavy bass and rock clobbering you like Ben Grim's fist, coupled with light and tinkly - almost childlike - melodies that creep up your spine and threaten to strangle you when you least expect it. The nursery-rhyme melodies that play through much of the film have a Christmassy feel to them, which is another reason why Suspiria is one of those films that remind us so much of this time of year.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service:
Well, it wouldn't be a list of Christmas films without including a Bond movie in here somewhere, now would it...?
The sixth entry in the Bond film series had been much-maligned for years, until it began to be reappraised in the early ninties, where people started to get over the fact that Sean Connery wasn't it in and actually started to appreciate all that the film had to offer, including beautiful cinematography; one of the best Bond girls of all time (not to mention being played by one of the greatest actresses of her generation, Diana Rigg); fabulous source material to work from (which was also followed Fleming's novel remarkably closely); a wonderful theme song performed by Louis Armstrong; and the man who shaped the editing style of the series, Peter Hunt, finally gets to direct. It is a pity that the only thing that people think of when OHMSS is brought up in conversation is that George Lazenby played Bond.
The criticism that Lazenby has constantly had to take over the last four decades was certainly unfair; even though the man had no dramatic acting experience prior to getting Bond, he had that certain charisma and managed to acquit himself admirably in the role, with only a couple of scenes revealing his inexperience. Certainly before Daniel Craig took over the role, Lazenby was the only Bond actor who looked like he could physically handle himself in a real fight and that really lent weight to his on-screen persona. It's just a pity that Lazenby took bad advice and left the series after just one film, though seeing as the next one was to be the awful Diamonds Are Forever, maybe George dodged a bullet on that one...
OHMSS contains what is far and away the most powerful scenes in the Bond series; after getting hitched near the end of the film, Bond and new wife Tracey are driving off on their honeymoon, only to be ambushed by Blofeld. Tracey is shot dead, leaving Bond utterly shattered and had audiences filing out of cinemas in stunned silence. They don't make 'em like that anymore.
OHMSS was the least financially successful film in the series - it certainly made back it's budget, but was the slowest to turn a profit; the anti-Lazenby feeling was fuelled by scurrilous tabloid reporting during the shoot and the public didn't warm to him. Ultimately, the passage of time has been kind to this entry in the series and Bond's human side is shown in a manner that was not seen again until Daniel Craig took over the role nearly 40 years later.
Why are we including this film in our list of movies that make us full of good cheer? Well, there is a Christmas motif than runs through the film, with much of the action taking place in Switzerland, allowing for all kinds of European Yuletide goodness to be seen. Much of the film is also set over the festive period, so when we watch OHMSS, we can't help but feel Christmas flowing through our veins.
The Nightmare Before Christmas:
Tim Burton’s story of the Pumpkin King trying swapping careers for something more festive is an utter delight, with Henry Seleck’s gothic design ironically capturing the purest sense of Burton’s work than Burton himself has been able to come up with. The superb stop-motion animation fuses with a terrific soundtrack by Burton collaborator Danny Elfman to create the ultimate Christmas movie, and one which doesn’t make you feel as nauseous as scoffing and entire tin of Quality Street afterwards.
The UK had to wait an entire year before getting to see the movie - which is wrongly attributed to Tim Burton on an almost daily basis - but we managed to get hold of an early NTSC-PAL conversion from a pre-release US tape, and were able to revel in its twisted goodness before most people over here even knew of it. We sat back and groaned at the expected tabloid publicity machine rumbling into action as papers (and we’re looking at you, Today…) published articles with psychologists trying to determine if the movie would “damage” children whom watched it. Absolute bollocks.
We went to collectors marts during the interim period between the US and UK theatrical releases, and noted with keen interest just how unsuccessful the marketing line was, with the dark imagery being too intense for younger buyers of toys, and being launched just before collecting such stuff became kind of cool for Generation X’ers. Since then, we have witnessed the shocking prices such previously unwanted merchandise now go for, remembering when you could pick them up for a song. Now there is so many things with Jack Skellington’s face on, that it boggles the mind how it all tanked at the time. For a frame of reference, see the “Final 17” of the original Star Wars figures, as we also remember seeing them warming pegs in our local Tesco.
We got hold of a copy of the superb (and expensive) LaserDisc set, which came stuffed to the gills with extras, most of which are now out there on Blu-ray, but we were most intrigued that subsequent special editions have footage of the cast removed from their additional features, leading us to believe that they have been carefully snipped in order to preserve the mystique of the film. It’s a pity, as watching the seamless merging of the voices of Chris Sarandon and Danny Elfman is nothing short of mesmerising. There is some really good stuff to be found, but not on the DVDs.
When Nightmare Before Christmas had a 3D re-release a couple of years ago, the reviews were much less kind than they were when originally released, as though the world had suddenly turned on it. Many point out that it sags in the middle, only just redeeming itself as the final act comes to an end. This might just be that the reviewers had experienced the horrors of real life a in the intervening years, and the make-believe antics of Halloween Town have squeezed out of their affections.
If we have any criticism of the movie it‘s that the more you watch it (and this is one of many we see every Christmas without fail) some of the logic unravels faster than the stitching on one of Sally‘s limbs. When Jack‘s attempts to bring joy to the world bring chaos to both worlds, leading him to go back to being the Pumpkin King, you can end up reading the moral of the movie as: “Stick to what you are good at, don’t branch out into anything new, because if you do, it’ll be an unqualified disaster”.
Then we get to the icing on the cake: Vincent! Packaged with every release of Nightmare Before Christmas is the absolutely superb animated short film by Burton. Narrated by Vincent Price, this creepy tale of a boy obsessed with Vinnie himself and the works of Edgar Allan Poe is brought vividly to life with more gothic imagery than the audience of a Smiths concert! We always stick it on after the main feature, and just sets the whole experience off wonderfully. Remember that psychological bullshit rolled out when Nightmare Before Christmas was eventually released? They “concluded” that Vincent was more damaging than the movie, concerned that it could seriously disturb kids. Utter crap.
Well, we hope that you've enjoyed this little look at what movies have the ability to fill our black little hearts with seasonal good cheer; though most have a direct Christmas theme to them, one or two just evoke strong memories of Christmas past and makes is feel as Christmassy. Writing this article gives us a break from our punishing Doctor Who reviewing schedule, but we'll wrap things up with by quoting William Hartnell's improvised line at the end of the infamous Doctor Who festive episode, The Feast of Steven...
"Incidentally, a happy Christmas to all of you at home!"
Editorial by Wilson Bros
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