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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

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The Christmas not-quite-classics

Last time I shared the first half of my list of all-time must-see Christmas movies. If you don’t see at least one or two of these each December, the holiday season somehow just isn’t complete. I began the list with the five all-time classics. Now I present the flip side, which consists of the five not-quite-classic films that have become kitschy perennials in their own right. Seeing one or more of these flicks may help bring a chuckle or two during an otherwise stressful holiday period.

A Christmas Story (1983), directed by Bob Clark. Who would have thought that the director of the tasteless Porky’s series of sex-obsessed teen movies would come up with a near-heartwarming reminiscence about childhood Christmas? Based on Jean Shepherd’s memoir of his own childhood in the 1940s, this flick has lots of touches about family Christmases that are familiar to people of all generations. It has everything from Dad’s quest to find the perfect Christmas tree to the requisite visit to an assembly-line-efficient department store Santa. And have mothers of any generation ever stopped telling kids who want a BB gun, “You’ll shoot your eye out”?

Gremlins (1984), directed by Joe Dante. When this flick came out in the mid-1980s it was a welcome antidote to the multitude of cute, big-eyed furry puppet creatures that had worked themselves into a lot of science fiction and fantasy films. Notable examples included the Ewoks in The Return of the Jedi and Gremlins producer Steven Spielberg’s own E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Young Billy’s strange new pet is unbearably cute, but in true Joe Dante fashion (his earlier credits included Piranha and The Howling) the cuteness gives way to deliciously dark mayhem while sending up a whole lot of monster movie clichés. One of the best scenes is Mom fending off the gremlins with an array of household appliances, notably a blender. But just because a movie takes place around Christmas time doesn’t necessarily make it a Christmas movie. This one qualifies because of one notorious scene involving a story about Santa Claus, which is best left to be discovered by the viewer—well after he or she has aged enough to be plenty cynical.

Home Alone (1990), directed by Chris Columbus. The feature that made Macauley Culkin a household name and etched his screaming evocation of a Edvard Munch painting into pop culture consciousness also made a ton of money. Produced by John Hughes, who made a career of comedies about teens and pre-teens, this was mostly a big cartoon about childhood fantasies of hurting adults, specifically Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. But it is destined to replayed on TV during the holidays forever because in its over-the-top Hollywood way it still manages to touch on a lot of eternal themes like a child’s fear of abandonment, fear of the bogeyman (who, in true To Kill a Mockingbird fashion, is not what he seems), and Christmas wishes that sometimes come true.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), directed by Jeremiah Chechik. This makes the list, if for no other reason, because my parents enjoyed it so much. Another cartoon-ish take on the holiday season, there is much that is recognizable here about celebrating Christmas in late 20th-century America. It is a testimony to the film that my mother still refers to any house that has way too many Christmas lights as a “Griswold house.” The film was one of the National Lampoon “vacation” series about the Griswold family, which always featured Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo as the parents and different actors each time playing the son and daughter. (In this case it was Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki.) Other characters that hit home were Randy Quaid and his motor-homing family camped out front of the house for what seems like eternity. Just to show that life sometimes imitate, uh, art, the sequence about the squirrel brought into the house with the Christmas tree actually really did happen a few years ago to my aunt Betty.

Scrooged (1988), directed by Richard Donner. Of all the different takes on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, this is one of the most interestingly bizarre. The story of Scrooge is updated to take in 1980s style yuppie greed, with Bill Murray as the head of a television network. The spirit of the thing is pretty much summed up in the way that the name “Scrooge” becomes a verb in the title. The tone is perversely dark as, I suppose, befits any good ghost story. Highlights include the participation of screen legend Robert Mitchum as a loopy network CEO, Carol Kane’s deceptively sweet-looking Sugar Plum Fairy of Christmas Present, and a soundtrack by frequent Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman.

-S.L., 21 December 2000

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