"Merry Christmas, Bigfoot!": A Suite of Offbeat Christmas Movies

In recent years, I’ve gorged on Halloween movies during October, and I watch a fair number of movies by myself during the rest of the year as well. But being a musician and having a family means that it’s harder to find time in December to watch things that the rest of the family doesn’t want to watch. There are quite a few Christmas- and holiday-themed movies that are darker, edgier, or just weirder than the usual run that I don’t always have time to get to (and which I don’t feel like watching out of season: Krampus in July just doesn’t have the same effect). This year, however, I found the time for a mini-marathon of unusual Christmas movies.

“What?” I hear some of you saying, “Christmas is over! It’s January! Isn’t it a little late for Christmas articles?” Actually, today is the twelfth and final day of Christmas–those weeks leading up to the 25th were Advent. So if you’re all Christmased out, maybe you should have thought of that before you started jamming Christmas carols on November 1st! (Or you could just bookmark this and read it next December when you’re looking for something seasonal to watch.)

In any case, these aren’t necessarily the BEST weird Christmas movies or the WORST or even the WEIRDEST weird Christmas movies; they’re simply the ones I watched this holiday season. Consider this a frontline dispatch from the War on Christmas.

Pottersville (Seth Henrikson, 2017)

When shopkeeper Maynard Greiger (Michael Shannon) discovers that his wife (Christina Hendricks) is secretly part of a furry club, he drunkenly dons a gorilla costume to reclaim her interest and inadvertently sets off a Bigfoot craze in his small town. The resulting comedy is a slightly cracked take on the Hallmark formula (will Maynard get back with his wife, or will he notice the nice coworker played by Judy Greer who has stood by him the whole time?) with a contemporary edge. (Furries are perfect for this kind of movie because they signal “this is kinky” without showing anything explicit; this is a Netflix movie, but it’s PG-13 according to imdb.) As the hysteria, including the arrival of an Aussie-accented TV monster hunter (Thomas Lennon), reaches fever pitch, Maynard and the other townspeople ponder just what they’ll do for a taste of fame and excitement. Pottersville riffs on It’s A Wonderful Life in both the title and a “richest man in town” climax, but above all it’s an excellent showcase for Shannon’s “what the hell is going on?” face.

Jack Frost (Michael Cooney, 1997)

There were two movies about snowmen coming to life called Jack Frost made in back-to-back years. One of them starred Michael Keaton as a dead father who comes back to life as a snowman to help raise his son. I watched the other one, about a serial killer named Jack Frost who, through an accident involving a secret government experiment, is turned into a living snowman and uses terrifying elemental powers to seek revenge on the small-town sheriff who sent him to Death Row. (There is . . . a lot going on in this movie.) Jack Frost definitely falls into the “comedy horror” category, in which such contrivances as the killer’s name or the fact that it takes place in the town of Snomonton, “Snowman Capital of the World,” are barely commented on (convoluted as it is, the explanation for Jack’s transformation is actually pretty cool, and could be the basis of a more serious sci-fi movie). It’s all great fun, and actually suspenseful in places, but it’s also a classic example of a poster that doesn’t look anything at all like what’s in the movie (most of the time Jack in snowman form looks like Frosty, and toward the end when he assumes a more dangerous form, his mouth ringed with icicle fangs, he doesn’t look like this).

Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)

I haven’t yet seen the recent remake (or the one from 2006); this is the original. As winter break begins, a killer stalks a sorority house, terrorizing the sisters with obscene phone calls. This is a tight film, jumping into the suspense right away while balancing it with human interest scenes and subplots. I imagine it was even more shocking when it came out, before its killer’s-eye-view shots and creative murder methods became the stock vocabulary of the slasher genre (although I think its “the call is coming from inside the house!” twist was already the stuff of urban legends when this was made). With its visual flair (Clark does wonders with match cuts), attractive cast (including familiar faces Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Andrea Martin), and thematic concerns (including a possibly mad musician played by Keir Dullea), it strongly reminded me of the thrillers Dario Argento was making around the same time (perhaps both were influenced by Mario Bava; I haven’t done a lot of research on this one).

Santa Claus (René Cardona, 1959)

This Mexican-made children’s film is really three movies in one: a sentimental morality play, in which a poor little girl overcomes the temptation to steal and trusts in Santa (and by extension her parents and Jesus Christ); a documentary-like survey of Santa’s base of operations and working methods, complete with solemn voice-over (at least in the English dub I watched) and explanations for every bit of Santa’s magic; and a wacky comedy about a devil named Pitch, sent by Lucifer to tempt children and throw a wrench in Santa’s plans. The last part is what most people remember, and is also the most entertaining, full of magic and slapstick. I won’t say this is a great movie, but it is an interesting one, as Santa’s North Pole headquarters, full of children from all over the world (interns, I guess), is truly lavish, and the additions to Santa’s lore (including a variety of surveillance devices, charms to help him on his Christmas Eve journey, and a personal friendship with Merlin the magician) would fit perfectly in a Rankin-Bass animated special.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (Nicholas Webster, 1964)

Remember that scene in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure where Pee-Wee rides his bicycle through the Warner Bros. lot and interrupts a bunch of different film shoots, and one of them is a Christmas movie with fake snow and people in gingerbread man costumes? That’s basically what this movie looks like; it’s charming in its quaintness, but perhaps if this had been an animated film it might have a better reputation. The plot is simplicity itself (if you’re looking for a space-age angle on Christmas in 1964, that is): the no-nonsense Martians grow alarmed when Martian children start watching television programs from Earth and become distracted and dissatisfied with their utilitarian lives: Earth children get presents from Santa Claus! The Martian high command draws the obvious conclusion, sending a ship to Earth to kidnap Santa and bring him back to Mars (along with a pair of Earth children who had gotten lost at the North Pole). Most of the Martians (presented as green-skinned, with Captain Video-like TV-antenna helmets) are basically good but misguided, but Santa and his friends must overcome a bullish Martian officer who thinks getting rid of Santa once and for all will end the distractions that threaten to make Mars soft. Ultimately Santa conquers the Martians with kindness, not rayguns.

Rare Exports (Jalmari Helander, 2010)

Now here is a Santa not to be toyed with. In this Finnish film, an archeological expedition on the Russian border uncovers the tomb of the original Santa Claus, encased in ice. But this is the old Santa, the pagan demigod who punishes naughty children–and they’re all at least a little bit naughty, aren’t they? Only a young boy, Pietari (Onni Tommila), realizes what has been reawakened and convinces his reindeer-hunting father and his colleagues to fight back. Along with Black Christmas, Rare Exports was one of the best Christmas films I watched during this mini-marathon; it’s tightly paced (I was frequently reminded of Edgar Wright) and just grounded enough to help the more fantastic ideas come off, and the clever mythological twists are well thought-out (not surprising, as the feature film was preceded by a couple of short films establishing the premise in the decade before).

Anna and the Apocalypse (John McPhail, 2017)

In the world’s only Christmas-themed zombie musical (I assume? I mean, it’s gotta be, right?), Anna Shepherd (Ella Hunt) has enough to deal with, including difficulties relating to her widowed father, a dictatorial school headmaster, and a love triangle that includes her best friend, and on top of that, it’s Christmas! As in many such movies, the zombie epidemic first appears around the edges of the story–a radio report here, an ominous sign of death there–before it spills out into the open. Then it’s a life-or-death struggle for Anna and a group of her friends to get to the school where the other students and their parents are trapped. There are some witty moments–as is also typical for modern zombie movies, the characters have seen the same movies we have, and their reactions range from disbelief to being psyched–but it’s the musical angle that really stands out. In format this is a classic musical, with characters breaking out into song without it being all in their head or limited to background music, and many of the songs (by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly) are in classic holiday style, like the Phil Spector (and Mariah Carey)-like “Christmas Means Nothing Without You” and the seductive “It’s That Time of Year.” Your response to this will probably depend on your feelings about pop musicals in general, but it has a likable young cast and it puts them through the wringer: musical or not, it doesn’t pull its punches as a zombie movie.

Krampus (Michael Dougherty, 2015)

The best Christmas movies are often about doubt and the difficulty of keeping the flickering flame of belief alive during the coldest time of the year. Perhaps that’s why there has been a surplus of movies about the Krampus–the goat-like “shadow of St. Nicholas” who doles out punishment to misbehaving kids in Germany–in recent years. Or maybe it’s just that success invites imitators. Like Rare Exports, Michael Dougherty’s Krampus revives some of the old, pre-Christian spirit of the winter solstice, trapping its protagonist’s bickering family in a nightmarish Fimbulwinter, cut off from the rest of the world by a monster blizzard, while they are picked off one by one by twisted versions of Christmas toys and decorations. It sounds grim, but the darkness is leavened by a caustic sense of humor, roasting crass consumerism, keeping up with the Joneses, and awkward family get-togethers, and it wraps up with a sly “hell is other people” ending. I’m actually glad I watched this after the busiest part of Christmas was over–its acknowledgment of how stressful the holidays can be makes it the most realistic of the movies on this list.

Get Your Chimes On! (What to do with Christmas leftovers)

So you got a set of chimes (aka “tubular bells”) under the old Christmas tree?  Congratulations!  Perhaps these are your first chimes, or–if you’re Mike Oldfield–you finally wore out your original set and somebody got you replacements.  Either way, you have years of musical enjoyment to look forward to.  If you’re like me, you probably spent the holiday hammering out favorites like “Silent Night” or “Joy to the World;” or maybe you had some friends over for an impromptu sing-along with A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector or the Spector-influenced “All I Want For Christmas is You.”  But a few days afterward, you may be saying to yourself, “That was fun, but what am I going to play the other eleven months of the year?”

"How am I going to fit this in a stocking?"

“How am I going to fit this in a stocking?”

Fortunately, record producers’ use of chimes isn’t limited to the Christmas season: here are a few pop and rock songs that make use of the instrument to tide you over until next December.  (I’m leaving aside those songs that include the tolling of church bells, such as AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells”* or Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”  You can imitate church bells on the chimes, of course, but it only takes one pitch.  The songs that follow cover a wider range and sometimes–gasp!–even take the lead.)

Some kids got the deluxe model this year.

Some kids got the deluxe model this year.

If you’re feeling funky and futuristic, there’s electronic music pioneer Pierre Henry’s “Psyché Rock” (with Michel Colombier, 1967) and Jean-Jacques Perrey’s “E.V.A.” (1970).  Both feature chimes prominently amongst the fuzz guitar and space-age sound effects.  Henry’s composition, in particular, was the inspiration for Christopher Tyng’s Futurama theme (which also includes chimes, so learn all three and you can really make a night of it):

These guys know what I’m talking about:

If you still have a rhythm section at your disposal, consider Blondie’s 1981 mega-hit “Rapture,” the first single to contain rap to hit number one on the U.S. pop charts (and one of the first music videos played on fledgling cable outlet MTV that year).  The sound of bells can be exuberant or mournful; in “Rapture” they complement the slinky bass line in creating an otherworldly nocturnal atmosphere.  Along with Perrey’s frequently-sampled “E.V.A.”, “Rapture” can be heard as a spiritual forerunner of trip-hop.

Staying in the early ’80s, the British girl group Dolly Mixture is one of the most unjustly overlooked bands of the post-punk scene, but they are increasingly receiving their due.  Most of their recorded output is from the (unsurprisingly) spare Demonstration Tapes; their single “Everything and More” from 1982 has a fuller sound reminiscent of Phil Spector’s style, including a rocking chime riff:

Working a similar vein of updated ’60s guitar pop were The Housemartins, whose 1986 hit “Happy Hour” prominently features our chosen instrument in the break:

Perhaps your tastes run toward alternative or indy music.  May I suggest Throwing Muses’ “Mexican Women” (1988) or The Flaming Lips’ “The Abandoned Hospital Ship” (1995)?  Both songs save the chimes for the big ending, giving you ample time to make a dramatic entrance.

It’s fitting that we conclude this list with They Might Be Giants, a group that has throughout its history explored varying styles of production, often using the signature sound of an era or artist to frame its songs, as if they came from a slightly off-kilter parallel universe of pop music.  “Destination Moon,” from the 1994 album John Henry, draws on both the “wall of sound” of ’60s pop and the futurism of Henry and Perrey for a vision of outer (and inner) space travel that’s equal parts Heinlein and Dick.

That ought to do it.  Happy chiming!

* Not to be confused with this “Hell’s Bells,” sung by Betty Boop in the 1934 cartoon Red Hot Mamma.  Playing the chime part for this requires two pitches: Betty Boop 1, AC/DC 0.

Christmas with the Doctor (No, not that one!)

Now that Thanksgiving is past, it’s time for the Christmas decorations to go up, and the Christmas music to come out!  In my family, one of our favorite Christmas albums is Holidays in Dementia, collected by the one and only Dr. Demento.  I’ve been a fan of the good Doctor since I was in middle school, although my interest has waxed and waned over the years as with so many youthful obsessions.  Holidays in Dementia was a gift to my wife on our first Christmas as a married couple (I know, but hear me out), in part because I remembered some of the songs on it, and knowing that she was a fan of “Weird Al” Yankovic and similar “demented” humor.  It’s since been played every year during December and has been the source of a number of inside jokes.  Holidays in Dementia was the 1995 follow-up to 1989’s Dr. Demento Presents The Greatest Christmas Novelty CD of All-Time, both released by Rhino.  The contrast between the two albums is interesting:

DOCTOR DEMENTO XMAS

The Greatest Christmas Novelty CD of All-Time

  1. The Chipmunk Song: The Chipmunks with the Music of David Seville
  2. All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth: Spike Jones & His City Slickers
  3. Jingle Bells: The Singing Dogs
  4. The Twelve Gifts of Christmas: Allan Sherman
  5. I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas: Gayla Peevey
  6. Nuttin’ for Christmas: Stan Freberg
  7. A Christmas Carol: Tom Lehrer
  8. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer: Elmo & Patsy
  9. I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas: Yogi Yorgesson
  10. Twelve Days of Christmas: Bob & Doug McKenzie
  11. Green Chri$tma$: Stan Freberg
  12. I’m a Christmas Tree: Wild Man Fischer (Duet with Dr. Demento)
  13. I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus: Kip Addotta
  14. Santa Claus and His Old Lady: Cheech & Chong
  15. Christmas at Ground Zero: Weird Al Yankovic
  16. Christmas Dragnet: Stan Freberg & Daws Butler

demento.holidays

Holidays in Dementia

  1. The Twelve Pains of Christmas: Bob Rivers Comedy Corp
  2. It’s So Chic to be Pregnant at Christmas: Nancy White
  3. Gridlock Christmas: The Hollytones
  4. It’s Christmas and I Wonder Where I Am: The Bob & Tom Band
  5. Santa Claus is Watching You: Ray Stevens with the Merry Melody Singers
  6. Santa’s Lament: Father Guido Sarducci
  7. Rusty Chevrolet: Da Yoopers
  8. Christmas is Coming Twice This Year: The Hollytones
  9. Christmas Wrapping: The Waitresses
  10. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town: Joseph Spence
  11. A Terrorist Christmas: James & Kling
  12. Stop the Cavalry: Jona Lewie
  13. The Pretty Little Dolly: Mona Abboud
  14. Hanukkah Rocks: Gefilte Joe & The Fish
  15. Hanukkah Homeboy: Doc Mo Shé
  16. Happy New Year: Spike Jones & His City Slickers
  17. New Year’s Resolutions: Scary Gary Alan

There are a few differences between the two discs: whereas Christmas is right in the title of the first collection, Holidays in Dementia also includes songs dedicated to Hannukah and New Year’s Eve (according to his introduction, the Doctor had intended to represent the winter holidays equally, but there weren’t many non-Christmas songs to choose from).  I wouldn’t argue against any of the songs on The Greatest Christmas Novelty CD; most of the songs on it earned their place through years of airplay.  The downside is that you’ve probably heard them all before.  It’s like having a friend whose favorite rock songs are “Stairway to Heaven” and “Hey Jude”: they’re classics, but not very interesting or surprising as choices.  Still, these are all songs you would want in your library of Christmas novelty songs (doesn’t everyone have one of those?), value added by Dr. Demento’s scholarly liner notes (scholarship genuinely arrived at, I might add: in his civilian identity as Barry Hansen, Dr. Demento has a degree in ethnomusicology, as well as being a crate-digging record collector of the first order, much like his predecessor Harry Smith).  It does cover a wide historical range, from songs that predate Dr. Demento and his influence (you can’t go wrong with Tom Lehrer and Spike Jones, for example) to artists like Demento discovery “Weird Al” Yankovic and others whose primary distribution was through the Doctor’s radio show.  (Incidentally, I had no idea the original Singing Dogs record appeared in 1956.)

If it sounds like I’m putting down The Greatest Christmas Novelty CD, I don’t mean to; it just doesn’t have the same personal connection for me as Holidays in Dementia, and the songs it includes are widely known and available, so even though I like them, I don’t think of this album specifically when I listen to them.  Going through the track list for Holidays, however, I’ve realized there are several that I skip when I listen to it (“A Terrorist Christmas,” a flat recitation of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with weapons replacing the traditional gifts, doesn’t work for me; unlike the equally dark “Christmas at Ground Zero,” there’s neither wit nor musicality).  But the songs I like, I really like: if a novelty song is going to be a perennial, it either has to be as funny on the hundredth listen as the first (a high bar for any comedy record), or it has to work as a song that just happens to have witty lyrics.  Most of the songs on both CDs fit one category or the other, and some fit both; surprisingly, there are few direct song parodies (“Jingle Bells” turns into “Rusty Chevrolet,” for example; Kip Addotta’s “I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus” rewrites a song that was already a novelty to begin with) outside of the numerous takes on “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (four between the two discs, five if you count its inclusion in “Green Chri$tma$”).  Most of the songs are original.

Perhaps what I respond to in Holidays is the specificity of the songs: both CDs prick the commercialism, sanctimony, and hassle of Christmas, but Bob Rivers’ “The Twelve Pains of Christmas” dissects the misery of the season so expertly, and draws such indelible characters with only a few lines, that it feels universal.  Selected lines have become the standard reference when sending cards (“I don’t even know half these people!”) or putting up lights (“One light goes out, and they all go out!”) in our house.

On the flip side, we might not all be able to relate to the expectant mother of Nancy White’s “It’s So Chic to be Pregnant at Christmas,” the harried single girl of The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping,” or the children of divorce from the Hollytones’ “Christmas is Coming Twice This Year,” but they evoke times and places as clearly as a short story.  So many Christmas songs are narratives to begin with, the line between “seasonal” and “novelty” is fuzzy at best.  The Hollytones’ “Gridlock Christmas” is one of my favorites, and one of the songs I sought out when buying Holidays in the first place: it came out in 1988, and must have been new when I first heard it on Dr. Demento’s radio show.  The tale it spins of motorists making the best of it while stuck on the freeway is ironic but with a core of sincerity: “I’m having gridlock Christmas / With people I don’t even know. / Though friends and family can’t be here / We’ll have good old Christmas cheer / With carols on the car radio.” The song combines a laid back, two-beat country accompaniment (complete with slide guitar) with a jazzy clarinet, and singer Floyd Elliot’s crooning delivery (complete with a Johnnie Ray-style catch in his voice) brings together the contrasting musical elements in the same way strangers are drawn into fellowship in the song.  Is it a testament to the resilience of the holiday spirit, of the way we can turn anything, even nuisances and frustrations, into traditions?  Perhaps, but it’s also just a terrific song.

BONUS VIDEO: In case you felt misled by this post’s title, here’s another Dr. Demento favorite from 1988: “Doctorin’ the TARDIS” by The Timelords/KLF, a mash-up of the classic Who theme and Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2,” complete with a music video featuring authentic special effects from the classic series (I kid, I kid):