Welcome to Round 1 of Merry Movie Mayhem!! Over the next few weeks we will be looking at 64 of the most notable holiday films & TV specials. Obviously Christmas is the focus of this particular genre, but there have been some prominent stories told about Thanksgiving & Hanukkah, so I am including them as well to round out the field. Most of what you’ll see here is pretty familiar…stuff you’ve watched on TV every November & December your whole life. While that may be an indictment of modern creativity, it is also a testament to the enduring affection that fans have for quality entertainment that soothes the soul, tickles the funny bone, & warms our cockles in a season that encompasses a range of emotions from joy to sorrow to wistful nostalgia. Don’t hesitate to leave feedback. The statements & decisions you’ll see here reflect my preferences & sensibilities, but sometimes I’m wrong. I would love to know what The Manoverse enjoys, so share your thoughts!! We’ll kick off the competition with the Candy Cane Division. Enjoy.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Starring Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, John Payne, Natalie Wood
Director George Seaton (Airport)
Rotten Tomatoes 94%
A cynical retail executive & her precocious daughter befriend the department store Santa that Mom hired. It turns out that Kris Kringle believes he is the REAL Santa Claus, a claim that lands him in court, where he is defended by a lawyer who is also smitten with the jaded Mom.
Silent Night, Deadly Night
Starring no one you’ve ever heard of
Director Charles E. Sellier Jr.
Rotten Tomatoes 31%
Holidays have been horror movie fodder for decades, with deranged serial killers stalking their prey on Halloween, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, et al. Christmas hasn’t escaped, though the sacred nature of the occasion makes such a film a tricky proposition. This campy classic finds a young boy witnessing the murder of his parents by a thief dressed as Santa Claus. After growing up in a harsh orphanage the youngster becomes a homicidal maniac when he gets a job as a department store Santa. There were a few sequels made in which the younger brother also becomes a psycho Santa, but I’ve only seen bits & pieces of a couple of them. I remember the original mainly because our church youth group once watched it at a gathering at Christmastime. Wrap your head around that.
The Verdict: Miracle on 34th Street. Easy decision. I’m not really a horror movie guy, but even if I was it’s difficult to overlook the awesomeness of Miracle.
Starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern
Director Chris Columbus (Only the Lonely, Mrs. Doubtfire, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
Rotten Tomatoes 55%
A mischievous child is accidentally left behind in Chicago while his family jets off to a holiday getaway in Paris. The boy is then faced with having to defend his house on Christmas Eve against two inept crooks who are looting the entire neighborhood while everyone is out of town. There was a sequel made a couple of years later that is pretty good and will be a part of this project, and then a couple of other “sequels” that may retain the title but have none of the magic of their predecessors.
Starring Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Rita Wilson, Adam Sandler
Director Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail)
Rotten Tomatoes 7%
An all-star cast makes this blip on the pop culture radar somewhat memorable. The story revolves around employees of a suicide hotline that’s about to go under right at Christmastime. There are a lot of interconnecting storylines in a madcap adventure that…on paper…should work, especially given the amount of talent involved. Unfortunately it’s a hot mess and has appeared on various Worst Movies Ever lists.
The Verdict: Home Alone. A no-brainer. I assume I’m not alone in adoring the work of many of those involved with Mixed Nuts, but all of those ingredients thrown together inexplicably results in something that I suppose has fans somewhere, but they are surely few & far between. Conversely, Home Alone has become a beloved Christmas tradition.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Starring Boris Karloff, Thurl Ravenscroft
Director Chuck Jones
Rotten Tomatoes 100%
Dr. Seuss wrote Grinch in 1957, and a decade later it was turned into a 30 minute animated special featuring the voice talents of horror icon Boris Karloff and Thurl Ravenscoft, known better as the original voice of Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger. The story is about a bitter cave dwelling creature who hates Christmas and decides to “steal” it from the delightfully optimistic & cheerful villagers in Whoville. We’ve been watching The Grinch every holiday season for over a half century, and it is adored by multiple generations. A live action film was made in 2000 starring Jim Carey as the titular character, and while I am aware that it has its fans I do not count myself among them. I’ll stick with the treasured original.
Christmas Every Day
Starring Erik Von Detten, Robert Hays
Director Larry Peerce (The Other Side of the Mountain)
Rotten Tomatoes 40% (a)
This was a made-for-television film shown on The Family Channel (aka ABC Family, now known as Freeform). I’m not typically a fan of made-for-TV movies. The production values are usually subpar and the writing isn’t always that good. Hallmark shows a ton of Christmas films every December that are mildly entertaining but ultimately forgettable, and Freeform, thru its many incarnations, has made contributions to the sub-genre. This movie is one of the few examples of such entertainment that has tickled my fancy and remains on my radar. The story revolves around a bratty teenage boy who relives the same Christmas over & over until he gets it right. Essentially it is a Christmas version of Groundhog Day, sans the talent of Billy Murray & Harold Ramis. I’m not sure why I like it, but I do.
The Verdict: The Grinch. Another easy decision.
Starring Denis Leary, Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis, Glynis Johns
Director Ted Demme (Blow)
Rotten Tomatoes 71%
A thief on the run on Christmas Eve kidnaps a bickering couple and hides in their house while cops comb the town looking for him. Things are further complicated when the couple’s delinquent son comes home from military school and the dysfunctional extended family drops by for dinner. Kevin Spacey is phenomenal in almost everything he does, and standup comic turned actor Denis Leary is perfectly cast as the acerbic criminal. In contrast to Mixed Nuts the cast of The Ref takes an otherwise pedestrian script and spins it into comic gold.
Starring Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Elizabeth Banks
Director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers)
Rotten Tomatoes 21%
Vince Vaughn stars as Fred, the slacker brother of Santa. When Fred runs into money problems his brother agrees to bail him out only if he pops up to the North Pole to help during the Christmas rush. Hilarity ensues. The conceit here is that Santa, because he is a saint, has been able to make his family ageless, so there is a time travel element that is sort of cool though sadly glossed over. Paul Giamatti is one of my favorite actors, and he puts a unique spin on a character that has been portrayed numerous ways in countless movies. Vaughn plays the same loveable loser that he portrays in almost all of his films, but that’s alright because it’s a formula that seems to work for him. Critics despise Fred Claus, and it didn’t do that great at the box office, but it is a pleasant enough diversion on a cold winter’s night.
The Verdict: The Ref. There is a really funny scene in Fred Claus involving Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton, & Stephen Baldwin, all guys with brothers more famous than them. Outside of that Fred Claus is a rom-com wannabe that just doesn’t stick to one’s ribs, although it isn’t nearly as terrible as you might have heard. The charms of Vaughn & Giamatti are considerable, though not quite enough to make the movie anything close to memorable. Conversely, The Ref is an underrated gem that deserves to be shown on TV a plethora of times every December, but it’s never quite achieved that level of popularity.
A Christmas Carol (1938)
Starring Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart
Director Edwin L. Marin
Rotten Tomatoes 100%
There is no shortage of A Christmas Carol adaptations out there, and we’re going to be discussing several of them. The 1938 version is a jovial take on Dickens’ novella that omits some of the more macabre aspects of the story and takes other liberties in altering or expanding the plot. I’m not a huge fan of needlessly changing a book’s narrative for the film, but I must admit that this one works.
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Lauren Graham
Director Terry Zwigoff
Rotten Tomatoes 78%
Department store Santas provide a convenient jumping off point for Christmas movies, and this one puts a…unique…spin on that particular element. Reflecting a 21st century move toward defining vulgarity as funny, the Santa Claus here is a hard-drinking, profanity spewing horndog who also happens to be a thief. He & his partner-in-crime, a “little person” who can conveniently portray Santa’s elf, are using the holiday season to case a shopping mall that they plan to rob on Christmas Eve. Things get complicated when Santa gets a girlfriend and befriends a strange young boy. Critics…surprisingly…really like the film and Billy Bob Thornton was even nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance. I know there are those that absolutely love Bad Santa and laugh hysterically at every F-Bomb. I don’t consider myself a prude by any stretch, but I do try to be a Godly man and also pride myself on having a somewhat sophisticated entertainment palate. This movie is targeted toward teenagers & 20-somethings with a serious case of arrested development. A sequel was made in 2016, and it’s equally as….ehhhh…let’s just be nice and say neither film really frosts my cupcake.
The Verdict: A Christmas Carol. This is purely a personal choice for me. If you love Bad Santa I won’t judge you, and if you dislike this particular version of A Christmas Carol I completely understand & might even agree with some of your reasoning. That being said, if I’m flipping thru the channels on a lazy Saturday in December and both of these movies are on TV I know which one I’d choose to watch.
Starring Bill Murray
Director Richard Donner (Superman, The Goonies, the Lethal Weapon franchise)
Rotten Tomatoes 68%
I was a little late to the party when it comes to Scrooged, having not ever watched it until atleast a decade & a half after its release. It is a modern, strange, yet oddly faithful retelling of the Dickens tale, with Bill Murray as a greedy television executive who is verbally abusive to his employees and still pines for a lost love. It has become a cult classic that’s not necessarily thought of as being on the same level as other holiday favorites, but three decades after its release it is still shown on television annually and seems to have grown in reputation in the past several years.
Love the Coopers
Starring Marisa Tomei, John Goodman, Ed Helms, Diane Keaton
Director Jessie Nelson
Rotten Tomatoes 19%
There seems to be a growing trend in the holiday movie genre of putting together a large cast of well-known and highly regarded performers in a story that usually revolves around family angst. I get along great with my nuclear family as well as other relatives like aunts, uncles, & cousins, so I can’t really relate to such anxiety. Our Christmas gatherings are normally quite pleasant. However, I assume such dysfunction does actually exist. Love the Coopers is a newer entry into the mix, and though I really like the actors involved, at the end of the day it is a completely forgettable movie that I’m not sure I’d bother to watch again unless I was really bored.
The Verdict: Scrooged. Citizens of The Manoverse will recall that I consider repeat viewings an essential indicator of a good film. If it’s being shown on television years after its initial theatrical run and if I’m still being entertained by it after I’ve seen it dozens of times then somebody somewhere did something right. Scrooged fits that description…the competition does not.
The Santa Clause 2: The Mrs. Clause
Starring Tim Allen, Elizabeth Mitchell
Director Michael Lembeck
Rotten Tomatoes 54%
All three of Tim Allen’s Santa Clause movies are included in Merry Movie Mayhem, and I feel like this one gets shortchanged. You may have noticed that the original film and the third entry in the trilogy show up on TV often enough, but this second film is frequently skipped over. I read somewhere that the notion that Santa must find a wife to keep his job is considered by some to be old-fashioned or even misogynistic, which is utterly ridiculous logic. Elizabeth Mitchell, known by some for her work on the television show Lost, is radiant & enchanting. The biggest issue with The Mrs. Clause is that it came out eight years after its predecessor, which was probably 4 or 5 years too late.
Home for the Holidays
Starring Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr.
Director Jodi Foster
Rotten Tomatoes 62%
Dysfunctional family dramedy isn’t reserved for Christmas…families gather on Thanksgiving too. Another highly regarded ensemble cast is involved, which means that critics praised the film upon its release. It even has a well-known director, a rarity for the genre. I’m pretty sure Robert Downey Jr. was whacked out on cocaine throughout the film, and I find his manic display distracting. Two decades after its theatrical run I don’t feel like Home has really aged well, although it still pops up on TV occasionally around Thanksgiving.
The Verdict: The Santa Clause 2. This matchup would likely generate a spirited debate among film buffs. Home for the Holidays certainly has the stronger cast and is admittedly well-written, but I’ve just never been able to embrace it. Conversely, there are those that consider The Mrs. Clause to be the weakest entry of that trilogy, and it does seem to get shafted as far as being shown on television, yet I find it completely charming.
Starring Albert Finney, Sir Alec Guinness
Director Ronald Neame (The Poseidon Adventure)
Rotten Tomatoes 75%
I generally prefer movies that stay true to the books they are based on, but I understand that when a story like A Christmas Carol is remade over & over people want to try something new and distinctive to stand out from the crowd. This version of Carol is a musical that is actually more faithful to the novella than one would think. It is a testament to the acting ability of Albert Finney that he was only 34 years old when he portrayed the elderly Ebenezer Scrooge, and he was rewarded with a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.
Blackadder’s Christmas Carol
Starring Rowan Atkinson, Robbie Coltrane
Director Richard Boden
Rotten Tomatoes 84% (a)
You probably haven’t seen it and may not have even heard of it. Blackadder is the titular character of a British television series that aired on the BBC in the 1980’s, with comedian Rowan Atkinson starring as Edmund Blackadder, an opportunistic descendant of an unspecified royal family. In this Christmas special Blackadder, in contrast to the traditional portrayal of Scrooge, is “the nicest man in England”, with the twist being that the ghost (there is only one…portrayed by Robbie Coltrane, better known today as Rubeus Hagrid in the Harry Potter films) who visits him on Christmas Eve showing Blackadder that “bad guys have all the fun”, resulting in him waking up bitter, disillusioned, & meanspirited. I am not a huge fan of British humor, but Atkinson is hilarious and this bizarro world take on the familiar story is unexpected fun.
The Verdict: Scrooge. This is a tough one, but I lean toward Scrooge a) due to its award winning pedigree, and b) because Blackadder is tough to find if you’re not really searching for it. Scrooge has shown up on American Movie Classics (or maybe it’s Turner Classic Movies) with some regularity over the years.