"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.

Introducing the Kamandi Challenge!

kamandi-challenge-special

I’ve written before about my interest in Kamandi, “The Last Boy on Earth,” the futuristic adventure series Jack Kirby created for DC Comics in 1972. So when I learned about DC’s upcoming Kamandi Challenge, described as a “round-robin, no-holds-barred storytelling extravaganza told in 12 issues,” with a separate writer/artist team picking up the thread in each installment, I knew I would be adding it to my pull list at my local comics store (shout-out to Prairie Dog Comics in Wichita). The book will apparently be more than just a showcase for talent: running up to the 100th anniversary of Kirby’s birth (1917-1994), the teams are invited to make things tough for those who follow them: “Each issue will end with an unimaginable cliffhanger, and it’s up to the next creative team to resolve it before creating their own. It’s a challenge worthy of ‘The King’ himself!” They already had me at “Kamandi,” but when cliffhangers are involved, how could I resist?

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To recap, Kamandi (named for “Command D,” the military bunker in which he was raised by his grandfather) is the last ordinary human in a post-apocalyptic world that has been taken over by intelligent animals: not just apes, but tigers, dogs, reptiles, and more. Other humans have been reduced to nonverbal animalism or have developed mutant powers themselves. Monstrous creatures roam the earth, and new animal societies have developed in the ruins of the old world, patterned on the Romans, pirates, or Chicago gangsters. Kirby had been tinkering with Kamandi as a concept for several years (his original idea was to be a newspaper strip called “Kamandi of the Caves”), but the final version owes a clear debt to the popular Planet of the Apes movies while remaining pure Kirby. It’s a set-up ripe for adventure and wonder, and after Kirby’s run on the original series it continued to inspire comics creators (not to mention the influence it had on cartoons such as Thundarr the Barbarian, for which Kirby contributed concepts and designs, and more recently Adventure Time).

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Perhaps to prime the pump for the upcoming series and get new readers caught up on the character and his setting, DC released the Kamandi Challenge Special this week, reprinting the double-sized Kamandi no. 32 (which included a reprint of the series’ first issue) from 1975 and including a pair of “lost” stories. Other than a full-page ad for the Kamandi Challenge, there’s no editorial hand-holding, and even the first issue, which introduces Kamandi and sets his feet on the path of adventure, is printed after the story from Kamandi no. 32, which begins in the middle of the action (just as it was in the original double issue–the reprint is always the backup in such cases). I guess they assume that fans can look up all the context on the internet, or perhaps the real audience is fans like me who’ve ready everything at least once already.

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Of most interest is a pair of stories that were intended for Kamandi nos. 60 and 61, but which were abandoned when Kamandi was a victim of the “DC Implosion,” when rising production costs and a slump in sales led to DC management cutting a third of the publisher’s titles without warning. Finished but unused stories from all the cancelled titles were printed in-house in ashcan editions (low-quality, low-circulation black and white copies); in addition to piecemeal reprints, scans of those stories have circulated online for years, but this is the first time the Kamandi stories have seen print in an official publication.

I’m not sure what a new reader will make of these “rediscovered” stories, to be honest: Kirby had left the book he created some time before its cancellation, leaving it in other writers’ and artists’ hands. In typical Kirby fashion, he had breathlessly filled his issues with ideas and characters, leaving many loose threads and never dwelling on any one idea for longer than a few issues. Writers who followed (including Gerry Conway, Dennis O’Neil, and Jack C. Harris) introduced some ideas of their own, but also revisited and fleshed out many of Kirby’s original concepts, using Kirby’s map of “Earth After Disaster” (also included in the Special) and tying the continuity together (for example identifying Kamandi’s grandfather as OMAC, the “One Man Army Corps,” another orphaned Kirby creation) while crafting some longer, less episodic arcs.

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The “new” stories form the end of one of those arcs, the quest of Kamandi and his friends to help stranded space alien Pyra (the final form of the energy being encountered in the first story reprinted in the Special) power up her spaceship by opening a “vortex” in a mysterious giant energy field in Australia, guarded by the “Kangarat Murder Club.” Kamandi, sucked into the Vortex by a mysterious voice, witnesses the infinite possibilities of the multiverse, and comes to understand that there are many versions of himself living different lives, including some in worlds that did not suffer the “Great Disaster.”

kamandi-pyra

Given a choice, Kamandi ultimately decides that he owes a duty to his friends, still in danger; before coming back, however, he is picked up by servants of the Sandman, the master of dreams, who mistake him for the Sandman’s friend Jed. (You see, Jed is one of the many alternate lives that Kamandi could have lived, had circumstances been different.) Kamandi’s encounter with the Sandman mostly serves to tee up an unused Kirby Sandman story in which Jed enlists the Sandman’s aid in proving to a miser that Santa Claus is real (this involves a trip through dreamland to the North Pole and a battle with a band of “Seal Men” who are unhappy about the Christmas presents they’ve received in the past). No, it doesn’t fit very well in the (admittedly fantastical) world of Kamandi, but the reprint was mostly to buy time as Harris and company geared up to take the book in a new direction, with Kamandi traveling into space and having yet more bizarre encounters. It was never to be. Nevertheless, it isn’t every day that a story sees the light of day (officially) nearly forty years after it was first meant to run.

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In any case, this is all preamble: the real action starts next week, with the release of Kamandi Challenge no. 1, written by Dan DiDio and Dan Abnett with art by Dale Eaglesham, Keith Giffen, and Scott Koblish. I’m so excited, I’ve decided to accept this challenge: I’m going to review and discuss each issue as it comes out. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you’ll join me.

My 2014 in Television

LetsWatchTV

I didn’t watch a lot of television this year. Oh, I logged plenty of screen time, but I was mostly watching movies rather than TV series. Other than Community’s fifth season (which I wrote about last spring), most of what I did watch was animated, since I watch with my kids, and since I’m not exactly allergic to cartoons myself.

The new series I found most exhilarating this year was Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty, the animated brainchild of Justin Roiland and Community creator Dan Harmon. (It technically began in December of 2013, but the majority of it came out this year.) Rick and Morty starts with a hoary premise—mad scientist Rick Sanchez takes his fourteen-year-old grandson Morty (both voiced by Roiland) on a series of wild adventures, getting them both into and out of jams with his inventions—and then turns it inside out. Rick isn’t just eccentric, he’s seriously damaged, and the show, while comedic, doesn’t shy away from the dangers he exposes Morty and his family to, and doesn’t simply set the reset button at the end of each episode. In just its first short season (eleven episodes), one of Rick’s schemes permanently transforms the world into a monster-filled wasteland, and the only solution is for Rick and Morty to relocate to a parallel universe in which their counterparts have conveniently died, taking their places. (No, this isn’t one I watch with my kids.)

RickandMorty

That points to another of the show’s strengths: like Futurama before it, Rick and Morty assumes that viewers have seen Back to the Future, Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, Zardoz, The Fly, and the many other shows that are winkingly alluded to, and there’s a minimum of hand-holding. It’s the twenty-first century, and the audience doesn’t need to have genetic modification, virtual reality, or (for that matter) the dangers of unintended consequences explained in long-winded detail. That leaves more time to develop characters (mainly the rest of Morty’s family: sad-sack dad Jerry and frustrated mom Beth, and overlooked big sister Summer) and fill the run-time with off-the-wall humor.

I can’t think of anything I laughed at harder this year than the episode “Rixty Minutes,” in which Rick’s modification of the TV cable box allows the family to view programming from infinite parallel universes (including glimpses of the lives Jerry and Beth could have had if they hadn’t stayed together). The combination of rapid-fire absurdity and referential gags most closely resembles Community’s Season Two episode “Paradigms of Human Memory,” and like that episode, “Rixty Minutes” puts the insanity of its plot in the service of its characters, up to a surprisingly poignant climax.

overthegardenwall

On the non-series front, 2014 was a year in which special events, already making a comeback in recent years, continued to gain ground as networks look for (non-sports-related) ways to keep viewers tuned in at the time of broadcast instead of time-shifting. Even the mini-series, that prestige format of the 1980s, is coming back into vogue (ABC’s upcoming Galavant is definitely on my radar for 2015). I’ve already written at length about Over the Garden Wall, Cartoon Network’s five-night mini-series that aired in November; suffice it to say that upon rewatching it, I still found it greatly enjoyable, and were I to rank it with my favorite films of the year, it would at least be in the top five.

SpecialSpecial

There were some other specials that grabbed my attention this year, as well: I’d like to highlight Lil Bub’s Special Special, which aired on Animal Planet way back in February. At a slight half hour, this celebration of the eponymous cat was as instantly disposable as the cute animal videos and memes of which the special is an extension, but the whole thing (held together by human costars Amy Sedaris and Andrew W. K.) had such a light touch (and just enough self-awareness) that I was charmed by it. It hasn’t been rerun to my knowledge, but it has a permanent home on my DVR (and you can watch it here).

drwhochristmas_bbc

Finally, there were the usual crop of Christmas specials. I could quibble with Doctor Who’s “Last Christmas,” leaning as it does on the revived Who staple of monsters that you can’t look away from, or that you can’t remember, or that (in this case) you can’t even think about without them coming for you. And I’m not as taken by the chemistry of leads Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as some are. However, my personal bar for the annual Doctor Who Christmas special is set pretty low, and as long as it doesn’t involve David Tennant being carried aloft by robotic angels, I’m willing to cut it some slack.

To be fair, “Last Christmas” was actually pretty good, in both spinning out an intriguing menace and lampshading its similarities to both Alien and The Thing, as well as casting Nick Frost as a snarky but ultimately benevolent Santa Claus and making it work. The special is part of a long tradition of Christmas films and stories examining the nature of faith and belief, with Santa as a safely secular football. If Santa Claus weren’t so widely regarded as a fiction for children, would Christmas stories still demand that we believe in him unconditionally? Entertainment that aspires to mainstream appeal can no longer preach with such certainty about Jesus or any other religious figure, but such arguments can be broached in the language of fantasy. Like most such stories, “Last Christmas” ends ambiguously (in more ways than one: a comment I read online accurately described it as “Doctor Who does Inception”), but it is clear on the power of faith, with Santa described as a “dream sent to save us,” a nice summary of the value of both fiction and religious parable.

ElfSpecial

2003’s Elf is similarly engaged with convincing the unbelieving, with Santa (Ed Asner) stating explicitly that belief, not confirmation, is the source of his power: “If I were seen, all would be lost!” As Jesus told his apostle “Doubting” Thomas, “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.” This year’s Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas, based on the film and the Broadway musical that sprang from it, isn’t quite so explicit, but finds a middle ground between the movie and the Rankin/Bass productions that inspired its story of a human orphan raised by elves at the North Pole. I mentioned this special on Christmas Eve, pointing out that it wasn’t as good as the original movie, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the stylish, handmade production—the stop-motion figures resemble Rocky & Bullwinkle‘s characters brought to 3-D life—and charming score (by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin). Mostly, I enjoyed it when it wasn’t directly imitating the movie, as the comparison is unflattering to the special; like many shows with familiar subject matter, it was more approachable when doing its own thing.

Tomorrow, look for my thoughts on the books I read in 2014.

A Merry Christmas to All

. . . or, A Visit From Saint Nicholas

AmbushBug.Santa

Well, I didn’t mean to take three weeks off from posting; I hope you’ve all been able to get along without me. In my absence from Medleyana, I’ve been writing and revising some fiction, as well as participating in the family and church activities that come with the season. As soon as anything comes of those projects, readers here will be the first to know it. I will also have a post on my favorite films and other pop culture of the year soon, but I’m still trying to squeeze a few things in before I make a definitive list. And to make up for my absence, I’ve arranged to have Santa Claus himself, Saint Nicholas, drop by to greet all my loyal readers!

In the mean time, I wish you all a happy, peaceful, and safe Christmas, and a prosperous New Year. And for my readers who don’t celebrate Christmas, I wish you a joyous holiday season! I hope you get what you’re wishing for, be it a set of chimes or a collection of holiday-themed novelty songs.

Atari.Xmas

When I was a kid, this was the time of year for television holiday specials: classics like A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, of course, but also specials tied into newspaper comic strips like Garfield, Ziggy, For Better or for Worse, and . . . Doonesbury? Thanks to nostalgic Gen-Xers on the Internet and the magic of YouTube, those not-so-classic specials have gotten some renewed attention in recent years, but there are still gaps: for example, I’m still sure that I saw a Doonesbury Christmas special in the early 1980s that wasn’t the award-winning A Doonesbury Special from 1977, but I can find nothing about it. Can anyone help me out?

I like the fact that prime-time animated Christmas specials have made a comeback in recent years, even if I’m not always that excited about them (sorry, Prep & Landing: your shtick is just too similar to The Santa Clause). This year’s Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas, while cute, didn’t really hit the heights of the 2003 feature film on which it is based, and even the beloved Toy Story franchise only left me lukewarm with its latest installment, Toy Story That Time Forgot. Well, they can’t all be classics.

Speaking of a classic, let’s check in on the titular star of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and see how he’s dealing with the pressures of fame:

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Hmm. Oh. I see. It just goes to show: the holidays are rough on a lot of people. Let’s give the Grinch some space; we’ll check back on him later. But wait! Is that the merry sound of jingle bells I hear? Is Santa here?

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Oh. . . . No, it’s just the False Santa from Elf, stirring up trouble. (NB: So there are two movies that combine Will Ferrell and Lego cities; I don’t know what that means, but I think Internet Law requires there to be a mash-up now, right?)

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While we wait, how about some visuals to get into the Christmas spirit? What could be more festive than the 1954 film White Christmas?

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So, this is . . . a pageant? A Living Nativity? I don’t see any snow.

Moving on, maybe Santa is here?

JackSkellington

Oh, not quite. But what about those classic Rankin/Bass specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Surely, there must be plenty of iconic Christmas characters we can while away a cold Christmas Eve with? Like these guys:

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And let’s not forget:

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And then there’s The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold; nothing says “Christmas” like leprechauns:

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And what are the leprechauns staring at, Spielberg-style? Is it Santa?

Leprechauns.StPat

Nice try. But wait! I think I hear him: it’s Santa, tapping at our windowpane! How festive!

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Let’s let him in! What’s that, Santa? Okay, we can hug. I mean, sure, why not?

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Wait! Aagh! No! Is there no end to these False Santas?

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Well, to be fair, the real Santa Claus is very busy this time of year; but I bet you’ll never complain about your office Secret Santa again! Anyway, it’s not too soon to start dreaming about next Christmas! Season’s Greetings!

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