12 Ways of Christmas Vol. II — #7: ‘Scrooged’

Scrooged Bill Murray christmas review

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?

With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

Don’t tell TV executive Frank Cross he’s a “Scrooge” around the holidays. He knows Dickens’ Christmas Carol, considering his network IBC is planning a live in-studio broadcast of it. Richard Donner’s weird, charming, and brilliant Scrooged isn’t a meta commentary on a seemingly endless string of Christmas adaptations. Rather, it infuses a familiar plot outline — a mizerly curmudgeon reassesses his life through the help of three spirits — with new dynamics, placing new characters and designs inside a modern, cynical New York City.

Given that he’s a stickler for perfection, Frank (Bill Murray) expects the most out of his employees at IBC. He abuses the dependability of assistant Grace (Alfre Woodard) and even fires an outspoken critic (Bobcat Goldthwait) of his sensationalized Scrooge promo on Christmas Eve. But Murray isn’t channeling an 80s update of Ebenezer. This is a man who’s as cynical as the cynics come, yet all the highballs in the world couldn’t make him forgotten his former love Claire (a bubbly Karen Allen) — well, with a little help from his grisled spirit of a former boss.  Apart from IBC’s “Scrooge” production, there isn’t much in Scrooged to immediately signal the film’s trajectory. (even John Forsythe’s “Jacob Marley” proxy is more rotting east coast snowbird than a tortured, shackled spirit of Dickens). Like its jerk of an executive, Scrooged’s writers have been there, done that, and thus they bend and break the original story to fit their own ends.

The supreme focus, of course, is the redemption of Frank Cross via three spirits. David Johansen’s “Ghost of Christmas Past” is a grimy, cigar-smoking loudmouth of a cab driver who steals Frank away from an important lunch meeting as his fare meter flits back to Frank’s childhood and days as an intern. The slap happy “Ghost of Christmas Present” is played Carol Kane. Seemingly a benign fairy with frilly sparkled wings, her spirit is wonderfully aggressive, smacking peppy reality into Frank as he’s shown the unappreciated love of his brother or the destitution he’s caused for his personal assistant. Pain, like the present, is an immediate experience. Adhering closest to Dickens’ original concept, the “Ghost of Christmas Future” towers over Frank like a statue draped shrouded in ashy cloth, but where a gaping hole for a face once appeared, Scrooged replaces with a television screen. Guiding Frank on an elevator ride down to his own cremation is a dark sight indeed, but “Future’s” resounding sting is its televised visage, a cathode ray of a window into one grouchy executive’s future.

Considering how much of a louse Francis Xavier Cross at the onset, several days of a haunting still seem like an easy bargain for a real workhorse of a spiritual makeover, and removed from his blanket of general callousness, his firing a pushover during the holidays is plenty cold-hearted on its own. Murray doesn’t relish in these moments of cruelty, often playing off Frank’s victims as if they’re outsized nuisances a misstep away from being swatted off his map, and while even a genuine performance from him doesn’t completely sell Frank’s transformation, there’s newfound warmth in his rekindled romance with Allen’s Claire. And against the hypertextured Dickensian landscape Donner has gorged himself on, Frank’s sincere plea for peace on earth, for love among family and friends is a tranformative moment for this scrooge. Via a masterful stroke and a teleprompter, Frank’s selling the millions of IBC viewers tuned in to his live broadcast. Like a board meeting, he’s giving a pitch: tonight, turn off your damn television, America.

Way #1: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Way #2: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Way #3: Jack Frost (1997)

Way #4: Jack Frost (1998)

Way #5: Jingle All the Way

Way #6: Santa’s Slay

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12 Ways of Christmas Vol. II — #6: ‘Santa’s Slay’

Santa's Slay movie review Bill Goldberg christmas comedy

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?

With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

Cutting through the strained tension of the Mason family Christmas dinner, Bill Goldberg’s demonic Santa immediately signals the tenor of David Steiman’s Santa’s Slay, a black comedy that looks to its sadistic figurehead for thrills and kills. Before Santa bursts down their chimney, the likes of Fran Drescher, James Caan, and Chris Kattan exude bourgeois decadence of too many stagnant Christmases. The ambience is stiff, the chicken is dry, the eggnog lukewarm. It’s difficult to imagine more perfect targets for yuletide violence, and Santa delivers as much, frying scalps with flaming liquors and impaling with chicken drumsticks.

For Steiman, the Mason family dinner is enough of a tired, licentious retread to demand a switch-up. Everyone in Hell’s Township knows the story of Santa Claus, but not the real story, at least as one cooky codger (Robert Culp) tells it. Just as Jesus was born via virgin birth, so too did Satan produce a son, Santa, who would grow up to slay helpless souls each Christmas. That is, until he was defeated by an angel in an ancient curling match and sentenced to deliver presents to all the world’s children for 1,000 years. In 2005, those 1,000 years are up, and Santa’s back to his old, throat-slitting ways. Steiman’s tongue-in-cheek riffing on Santa’s commercial mascot makes for an OK dig on the state of its religious roots, but “evil Santa” is not a wholly unknown  story to Hell Township’s Nicholas Yuleson (Douglas Smith) and Mary Mackenzie (Emilie de Ravin). They know the accepted tales of Christmas aren’t the truth; it just takes some coaxing of Nicholas’ grandfather before he’ll read from his giant tome of Nordic legend.

This new Santa, however, presents a bit of a problem. Short of a sizable supporting turn in Brian Robbins’ ill-fated Ready to Rumble and his role as Battle in the 2005 remake of The Longest Yard, Santa’s Slay is arguably Goldberg’s most prominent performance — it’s certainly his meatiest. While Goldberg is a far cry from inhabiting phenomenal range, he effectively growls bits about who’s been naughty and who’s been nice, a rough approximation of his “Who’s Next?” shtick from his days with World Championship Wrestling. As a demented harbinger of evil, this Santa’s plenty fine, even if most of his menace comes from hurling Christmas stars, knives, even a hardcover copy of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at fleeing victims. Too much of the black comedy derives from this evil Santa spitting forth familiar lines with malice and disgust, and this is not your typical Kris Kringle. He drives a sleigh not pulled by “eight tiny reindeer” but one angry bison and delivers gift-wrapped explosives instead of presents. Grandpa Yuleson’s ancient storytime suggests a deeper mythological twist here — a few rungs below the ret-conned universes of Dogma or Constantine — but short of a historical preamble of period artwork, this evil Santa’s never really situated in anything outside of a juxtaposition to our own familiarity.

Santa’s Slay is mercifully short, clocking in at a mere 78 minutes, and thus operates as more of an extended exercise than a well-rounded parody. Given the middling territory, brevity’s not a bad thing. For such an evocative name, the people of Hell Township are downright dull, save Saul Rubinek’s feisty Jewish deli owner. Nick and Mary’s will they/won’t they romance is neither here nor there, and short of flavorful cameos from Dave Thomas and Tiny Lister, the flat townsfolk practically beg to be slaughtered by Santa; the punk soundtrack and darkly upbeat tempo whenever he appears suggest as much. Its finale puts the shocks to the side, pitting Santa and Grandpa’s returned spirit, revealed as the original avenging angel, in a curling rematch of the fates.

Santa’s Slay’s laughs are strained and while some of its kills are satisfying, the degree to which Steiman take pleasure in those kills problematizes audience sympathies. Maybe he’s just giddy all those years working as Brett Ratner’s PA finally paid off with the director financing his project.

Way #1: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Way #2: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Way #3: Jack Frost (1997)

Way #4: Jack Frost (1998)

Way #5: Jingle All the Way

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12 Ways of Christmas Vol. II — #5: ‘Jingle All the Way’

Jingle all the Wall christmas movie review Arnold netflix

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?

With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

For children, Christmas can be an annual excuse to reel in the latest and greatest in video games and toy sets. For parents, Christmas can be a real bitch on the family wallet. Picture a father struggling to regain the approval of his young son through a frantic citywide search for the hottest new toy, the rocket-powered crime fighter Turbo-Man. Now, imagine that dad is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Jingle All the Way primes Schwarzenegger as upper middle-class family man Howard Langston, who (as seems commonplace in Christmas films) too easily misses quality time with son Jamie (Jake Lloyd). A speedy car drive to Jamie’s karate demonstration lands Howard a cool ticket from an ornery motorcycle cop and the scorn of his wife Liz (Rita Wilson). And while tempered reprimands might feel laughable to Schwarzenegger’s action persona, Jingle All the Way enjoys putting its burly, brawny hero into familiar, middle-class milieu.

The favorite show of both Jamie and virtually every young boy in America, Turbo-Man resembles a cheap Power Rangers send-up, pitting colorful goons against its costumed, jet pack-sporting hero and his pink, oversized wombat of a sidekick, Booster. As a faux property, Turbo-Man ain’t bad, and even sparing details on the TV hero’s archnemesis Dementor offer plausible context for every eight year-old’s Christmas obsession. When Howard attempts to regain Jamie’s trust with the promise of a brand new Turbo-Man doll for Christmas (a promise he’d unknowingly made weeks earlier to Liz), his late-minute shopping jag is just one of thousands in the Twin Cities area with a flurry of ravenous shoppers all searching for the same sold-out product. That commercial frenzy is punctuated by loudmouth delivery man Myron Larabee (Sinbad). At first bonding over the same toy that has them pulling their hair out, the Myron and Howard quickly differentiate one another in their shopping tactics. Myron feigns friendship but fights dirty, tripping shoppers and using his messenger bag as a nondescript wrecking ball — Myron even makes threats with packaged “bombs” he’s intercepted in the mail. The physical humor isn’t particularly inspired, but Myron’s slapstick gives a satisfying flavor to Howard’s frustrations, especially considering how easily Arnold could whoop Sinbad’s rear end six minutes to Sunday.

The materialistic scramble that makes up most of Jingle All the Way, might feel overly cynical and more than a little depressing were it not for all the camp. There’s nothing endearing to be found in America’s ugly “Black Friday” tendencies, but circumstances are heightened to comical levels, deflected off a reliable tough guy at its warm gooey center. Howard finds comfort in putting “his star” atop the Christmas tree or taking the family to the annual “Wintertainment Parade,” but he can still throw a mean right hook when it’s required. In his desperation, Howard follows Jim Belushi’s crude black market Santa (credited here as the prestigious “James Belushi”) to the Nicollet Island Grainery, a front for an underground gift racket run by an army of shady Kris Kringles. When Howard drops $300 on a “new” Spanish language Turbo-Man doll, fists begins to fly at the prospect of a refund, and Santas pile on Howard en masse. From a nunchaku-sporting ninja Santa to a giant-sized Saint Nick punching Verne Troyer’s fun-sized clone clear across the room, it’s a cheesy set piece made tolerable by Arnold’s bulging eyes and capable mugging. This may be a forgotten Christmas comedy, and not a great one at that, but 1996 has seen Arnold come a long way since his mute days as Hercules and the T-800.

Director Brian Levant understands the kind of actor he’s got on his hands, too, and circumstances would be far from ironic were Howard not an unassuming male adonis. At one point, obnoxious neighbor and serial wife-stealer Ted (played with ham and disdain by the never not excellent Phil Hartman) mentions that Howard “can’t bench press his way” out of disappointing his family. While that may be true, he can still can fly his way back into their hearts. The climactic “Wintertainment” Parade features an inevitable showdown between Howard and the pesky Myron, with both getting duped into unwittingly performing for the Turbo-Man float in their search for the doll. Zipping and zooming on a poorly-tested jetpack, Howard dons the Turbo-suit and instantly embodies his action persona of titles prior. (actually, Schwarzenegger seems far more comfortable in orange latex than the generic actor seen on the film’s faux TV show.) It’s little surprise that when Howard finally delivers Jamie a special edition Turbo-Man doll in front of thousands of bystanders, Jamie graciously gives it to a defeated Myron (dressed of course, as the dastardly Dementor). He doesn’t need a toy when he’s got a real hero dad at home. On the surface, one cartoony set piece shouldn’t make Howard any better a father, but Jamie may not know just how right he is.

Way #1: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Way #2: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Way #3: Jack Frost (1997)

Way #4: Jack Frost (1998)

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12 Ways of Christmas Vol. II — #4: ‘Jack Frost’ (1998)

Jack Frost 1998 Michael Keaton review

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?

With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

I railed on Michael Cooney’s DTV send-up Jack Frost for failing to find humor in an ostensibly tongue-in-cheek premise. Released just a year later, and under the same title, Troy Miller’s Jack Frost goes for supreme holiday sentimentality, re-birthing Michael Keaton into a guardian snowman with the straight faced earnestness of It’s a Wonderful Life.

1998 was an interesting year in Keaton’s career. After reprising his Jackie Brown role as jumpy, dogged agent Ray Nicolette in Out of Sight, Keaton starred in the action thriller Desperate Measures. As a convicted felon, Keaton’s also the only man whose bone marrow can save the life of cop Andy Garcia’s son. Now a mostly forgotten thriller, Desperate Measures’ extreme upping of stakes seems cute compared to Keaton’s final role in 1998. Keaton plays a struggling Denver musician, whose “Jack Frost Band” is criminally overlooked — if one is to believe the townsfolk banter and local radio jockeys. Their bluesy rendition of “Frosty the Snowman” over Jack Frost‘s opening credits doesn’t provide much evidence of the band’s “surefire” potential, but Keaton’s generally reliable intensity imbues Jack’s career path with passion and dedication.

For artists finding their big break, playing gigs and mixing demos are staples of an often unrewarding job, but Jack’s wife (Kelly Preston) and son Charlie (Joseph Cross) treat his day-to-day roughing as a mid-life crisis, not a long gestating dream. To them, Jack’s more absentee father than road-tripping musician. Sure, Jack forgets his son’s occasional hockey game and (gasp) the death of Charlie’s hamster, but none of that outweighs genuine dedication to family. On Christmas Eve, Jack plans a holiday retreat to the family cabin with no television, no excuses, and most importantly, no band, however Jack finds his lifelong dream at a crossroads when he receives a last-minute invitation to play a record exec’s personal Christmas party. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but Charlie doesn’t see it that way. He chastises his father for backing out on his plans, returning an old harmonica Jack bequeathes to him and sulking back into the house.

There’s nothing wrong with indicting shitty parenting, but that’s not what Jack Frost’s quartet of script doctors (including Daredevil’s Mark Steven Johnson) have on their hands. Halfway through the band’s road trip, Jack has a change of heart and ditches the gig (and the band) to be with his family on Christmas — that is, until his car veers off the mountaintop in the middle of a fatal snowstorm. Jack Frost weirdly brushes past the mourning process, jumping ahead a full year for Jack’s reincarnation as a talking snowdad. Still reeling from the loss of his father, Charlie indulges in a cathartic replication of his father, bedecking his snowman with Jack’s pork pie hat, scarf, and favorite carrot, and by some miracle, his spirit returns to embody the snowman. Or something. (There are multiple magic whirlwinds in Jack Frost.) Following up the gut punch of Jack’s death with such a zany concept feels more than a touch disrespectful, especially considering its proximity to the glib account of his accident.

Nevermind the tragedy though because it’s all downhill from here — downhill snowboarding that is! When Charlie finally warms to the idea of his father’s frosty form, Jack Frost becomes unrecognizable from its preceding 25 minutes, stretching any previous moments of camp into full-on sequences. Snowman Jack teaches Charlie his patented hockey move, “the J-shot,” and helps mount a snowball fight against neighborhood bullies. The film treats these moments like a change of pace in Charlie and Jack’s relationship, as if a button nose and corncob pipe can give its father a new lease on life. Barring his physical change though, Jack’s pretty much the same dude sans blues band, as loving and laid back as ever — he even breezes over his own non-human reincarnation rather quickly.

Charlie eventually comes to his senses, more or less realizing what a shitty, unappreciative son he’s been. He takes his father to the same family cabin in the mountains in the hopes that the colder climate will save his new snowdad from melting. Jack’s snowform however, has apparently been imbued with wintry omniscience, telling Charlie their time is almost up and packaging in a sugary mixed message about coping with loss. For Jack, now that Charlie’s let his father back into his heart, he can do anything. It’s an after-school special moment on the heels of dumb set pieces and a do-or-die hockey game, and it doesn’t really make much sense. But then again, this is a movie about a talking snowman, and apart from its ludicrous, unexplained hook, Jack Frost doesn’t know if it wants to be madcap or sentimental. Speaking practically, alternating hot and cold schmaltz must do a number on snowpeople.

Way #1: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Way #2: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Way #3: Jack Frost (1997)

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12 Ways of Christmas Vol. II — #3: ‘Jack Frost’ (1997)

Jack Frost 1997 horror christmas movie review netflix

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?

With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

Outside the sublime status of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2, the “horror comedy” sub-genre is less an apt categorization and more an anticipatory heading off of the audience’s reaction. Take convicted serial murderer Jack Frost (Scott MacDonald), whom en route to the electric chair, becomes a malevolent snowman when his execution convoy collides with a truck containing experimental molecular technology. A single frame from Michael Cooney’s 1997 direct-to-video “horror comedy” isn’t necessary in illustrating the absurdity of a killer snowman; Jack Frost is more than aware of how dumb it is.

But what does Cooney do with the presumed ridiculousness of his premise? For one thing, he uses it as license to bastardize tonality. On a jarringly twee note between an adolescent eager for a bedtime story and a faceless, inexplicably British storyteller, Jack Frost begins as a Christmas story, told to a young girl by her indulgent uncle, who seems all too keen on disturbing his sole audience member with Frost’s legendary slayings. Who tells children this stuff? Especially at Christmas? That subversive thrust is at the core of what might define a Christmas horror film, but where Bob Clark’s Black Christmas relied on the disjunctive combination of salacious, thrilling slaughter and shiny tinsel, Cooney’s addition of black humor to the recipe shows he’s already juggling more than he can handle.

With a transformed (and now missing) Jack Frost, the people of Snomonton presume the killer to be dead and their nightmare to be over, but the town sheriff (Christopher Allport) can’t shake Frost’s threats of revenge on the man who finally put him away. As insane as Frost’s vengeful form will be however, it’s hard to believe Allport’s simpleton sheriff didn’t see the murderous snowman coming. Jack Frost is loaded to the brim with snowmen — inanimate ones, of course. Snowmen hang up on classroom walls in the background. The sheriff’s son builds one in the front yard. There are snowmen decorations hanging from trees and kitchen drawers. For crying out loud, the town’s name is “Snomonton.” The saturation makes for a comical preamble before Frost’s new form is revealed. It’s a terrible form. Closer to resembling foam balls than anything like snow, the costume’s biggest crime isn’t its Pilsbury Doughboy smile but that it completely obscures the one element Jack Frost has going for it. Scott MacDonald’s career to date has been defined by “that guy” character acting, but he relishes in mugging for the camera here, delivering one-liners on precognitive levels of self-awareness. In human form, MacDonald furrows his brow as he sneers and puts out cigarettes on prison guard’s faces, but as a grouchy voice behind a shoddy costume, the film’s energy is diluted.

Really, it’s all about the kills though, and if Jack Frost can be considered remotely recognizable for anything, its bathtub sequence is undoubtedly the reason. After a strip down in which Snomonton’s lone 20-something male and a pre-American Pie Shannon Elizabeth hurriedly disrobe to jaunty elevator music and an accelerated frame rate (read: comedy), Elizabeth readies for bathroom coitus by taking a dip in the tub. Unfortunately for her, Jack’s melted himself down to water, lying in wait for his newest victim (read: horror). Once he solidifies back to his powdery form, Elizabeth’s terrified shrieks feel incongruous to the absurdity around her, and Jack’s resulting “rape by carrot nose” plays like a chauvinist punchline as a bulbous snowman rams a young woman against the shower wall to the tune of a Brian Setzer-styled guitar solo.

Given its upbeat score, quick zooms and line-slinging smartassed Frosty, Cooney is intent on maintaining his tongue-in-cheek scares (His dedication would eventually produce a sequel, Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman, in 2000). But its barebones Christmas decorations feel subservient to a one-dimensional joke. Jack Frost never finds notes of balance within its purported horror comedy, and its classification within such a niche category rings as misguided, not intentional. Much in the same way Tommy Wiseau’s been exonerated of his creative failings in recent years, Cooney’s post hoc cult status tries to remove its filmmaker from damning culpability. As with fans’ ironic enjoyment of The Room, Cooney’s project doesn’t seem appreciated as intended.

Way #1: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Way #2: The Nightmare Before Christmas

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12 Ways of Christmas Vol. II – #2: ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’

The Nightmare Before Christmas Halloween or Christmas movie review

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?

With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

Christmas and Halloween are, respectively, America’s first and second most commercialized holidays, owed in part to the sheer mountain of decorations either demands. From fake spiderwebs and wreaths to carved pumpkins and decorative strings of plastic lights, it’s generally stuff my father would refer to as “crap.” On grumpier years, you might even catch him grumbling a few words for why the Christmas tree was too much of a pain to bother with. Yet for all the stress that comes with decorations, their aesthetic potency has remained timeless, and it’s that aesthetic potency that’s at the core of the debate over Henry Selick’s 1993 debut. Either a Halloween film wrapped in yuletide trappings or a deranged Christmas tale decorated in macabre garb, The Nightmare Before Christmas begs its viewers for a classification: Just what kind of movie is this?

Admittedly, the mashup takes some getting used to. Halloween Town’s covered in an ashy brown, with tree limbs curling  like overgrown fingernails under the omnipresent full moon light. Everything in Halloween Town looks like it’s drying, but Selick tops these ghoulish confections with musical delights. In Halloween Town’s introductory number, the town’s vampires and werewolves emerge from crypts and rundown houses to bleat a declarative “This is Halloween!” capping a celebration on the town’s sole holiday. The booming heart throbs ache and jangle against the bony clangs of rattling xylophones, adding offbeat liveliness to so much death.

All of this is merely lead in to introducing Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon, sung by Danny Elfman), Pumpkin King of Halloween Town. With lanky appendages and a permagrin slapped on his sunken-eyed face, Skellington doesn’t seem like the “Christmas” type, but something’s missing this year. He’s removed from the festivities. He doesn’t even stay for the annual awards (although what are the chances the vampires don’t win “Most Blood Drained in a 24-Hour Period?” Year after year of being inundated with Halloween successes, Jack’s looking for a change, to move on to bigger and better things. So when a soul-searching walk in the woods leads him to a ring of doors, each corresponding to its own holiday realm, Jack finds himself overtaken with curiosity over the door with the funny, pointy tree. In he jumps, arriving on the snowy outskirts of Christmas Town — populated by elves, run by Santa, and covered in rosy holiday cheer.

To the credit of Selick, writers Michael McDowell and Caroline Thompson, and producer Tim Burton, Christmas Town’s depiction is wholeheartedly earnest, a more idealized setting than later cynical Selick/Burton collaborations would offer. Shop windows glow with a supernaturally warm yellow, and the fresh cover of snow seems more “new” than cold to Jack’s sensations. As out-of-place as Nightmare’s “Dickens Village” might seem, Selick uses Jack’s surprise as an avenue for unfettered wonder for the holiday season, returning to Halloween Town to calculate the essence of his new obsession. His plan? Assume Santa’s annual responsibilities and bring Christmas to Halloween Town for once. Jack’s town proposal, however, is met with a macabre one-upsmanship. Beyond the shiny tree, the frankendogs, vampires, and ghosts only seem in interested in the purpose of stockings and gift-giving so long as there’s a gruesome element lurked behind the mistletoe. ‘Here’s a Christmas stocking, everyone!’ ‘Okay. What’s messed up about it?’ Like it or not, when Jack abducts Santa and dons his own raggedy beard, he’s not bringing Christmas to Halloween Town; he’s bringing Halloween Town to Christmas.

That Nightmare Before Christmas is aggressive enough in dampening holiday spirit gives some credence to parental concerns. It also explains why, 20 years ago, Disney was “terrified and a little embarrassed” by the film. With the perpetually limbless Sally (Catherine O’Hara) and devilish menace in Oogie Boogie (Ken Page, relishing in everything), Halloween Town is creepy enough; skeletal reindeer and gift-wrapped shrunken heads ain’t exactly the stuff of sugar plum visions. It’s why Jack’s usurping of Christmas, whatever his intentions, eventually crumbles to reality. Scaring’s for Halloween Town, so leave Christmas to Santa. It’s wonderfully distilled in a final exchange between the two figureheads, as Jack wonders aloud if there’s still enough Christmas Eve left to salvage the holiday. “Enough time to fix Christmas?” Santa scoffs. “Of course there is. I’m Santa Claus.”

For a film seemingly so subversive in playing with conventions, there’s a strange restoration of the status quo by Nightmare’s end. A cute romance gift wraps Jack’s emotional through line, realizing the hole he was feeling needn’t be filled by a new project but rather the comforts of Sally, someone in Halloween Town who’s beyond an annual obsession with two-dimensional scares. Jack’s restlessness dissipates almost as swiftly as the tears of his traumatized tikes, whose Halloween Town gifts of snakes and demonic dolls are swapped for baseball bats and puppies. Considering the promise of Selick’s aesthetic shuffling though, the restorative sequences are a tad disappointing.

Rather than answer that initial question — Is this a holiday or Halloween movie? — a better question might posit whether it matters either way. Even as instigator of this stop-motion foray, Selick ultimately implies some things had best remain separated.

Way #1: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

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12 Ways of Christmas Vol. II — #1: ‘Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians review Rifftrax MST3K

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?

With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

Short of a plate of chocolate chip cookies, the notion of Santa Claus “conquering” anything stretches the imagination, so duking it out with denizens of Mars sounds plain absurd. Nicholas Webster’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is as much a woefully misguided mashup of family holiday fun and science fiction as its title implies, and to return to the image of Kris Kringle blowing away green spacemen, its haphazard conceit likely accounts for much of its cult status. Because really, why martians?

Perhaps a better question is why Santa? The children of Mars have become enamored with Old Saint Nick after absorbing hours of television — yes, American television. On Mars — and its in-depth coverage of goings on at the North Pole. Consulting his village’s 800-some odd year prophet, concerned father and village leader Kimar (“King Martian”) endeavors to capture Santa and return him to Mars where the Martian council can presumably set him up with some sweet kickstarter money to get to cracking on toys for Martian children.

The shortsightedness of Kimar’s Martian brigade is arguably where the “lesson” here would lie were it not for the film inadvertently preserving much of the previous decade’s insularity. An “us vs. them” mentality is a vestigial tail borne out of Cold War politics, whether it’s “us” as in Earth against the brute force of Voldar’s mustachioed emerald adonis or the “U.S.” opposed to those Soviet cats out east, an inconsequentially small region of Earth whose sole existence is to fact check to whom those strange UFOs belong — if you believe everything you see on TV, that is.

The American media certainly seems to buy their own product, as a news reporter pre-empts our introduction to Santa with a ludicrous check-in at his workshop. John Call’s rendition of Claus resembles a schlubby Bert Lahr type, an aloof man-pixie who ambles about scenes with a lackadaisical whimsy — and possibly a heavy buzz going. Were he not the closest cut to a protagonist, such lightness might work. As it stands, Santa makes for a piss poor anchor. In one moment, he enters a room and, apropos of nothing, immediately induces a laughing jag in the children, earthling and martian alike. What shred of stakes remain in such a feeble plot line are singed by Santa’s arbitrary presence, hooting and hollering without a care or clue in the galaxy. It’s as if Jack Nicholson’s Joker wandered into the wrong makeup trailer (and decade) and proceeded with his same shtick anyway. “Oh me, oh my, oh me!” smashes mirror on table “Ho ho, we meet again, eh?” murder by hand buzzer.

From its opening jaunt of a children’s choir sing-yelling “Hooray for Santy Claus!” the production quality is an immediate red flare that explains why the crew of MST3K would have any interest in recording a scathing commentary. Costumes appear to be the spray-painted contents of a PA’s toolshed, its fist fights are feigned beyond belief, and a certain polar bear “suit” imbues Star Trek’s Gorn with the special effects sophistication of Gollum by comparison. But alas, a list of Santa Conquers the Martian’s failings would far exceed beating a dead reindeer. What’s any of this got to do with Christmas?

Propelled by “golden age” TV mechanisms in its dissolves and punchy sitcom-styled stingers on the end of sequences, Nicholas Webster pulls from early serial storytelling techniques to fashion an inept chunk of holiday pop culture that unknowingly anticipates the deluge of televised Christmas specials to follow. That the traitorous Voldar’s plot is ultimately foiled by a children’s barrage of manufactured toys is oddly indulgent of the glimpses of B-roll military-industrial footage we glimpse of rockets blasting into space. And of course, Santa’s stump speech on the follies of industrialization fly in the face of the idea that a toy train set, whether handcrafted or machine-generated, hurts all the same when chucked at your head.

Perhaps the children of Mars’ baffling awareness to secular commercialism speaks volumes about the ubiquity of the Christmas profit engine. Oh, who am I kidding, right?

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