I can’t wait to have kids so I can relive Christmas vicariously through them. I like the parties and the togetherness of the adult version, but I’m also starting to suspect that one is missing something until one has progeny of one’s own in whom to inculcate the innocuous ib-fay of the benevolent boreal boogeyman and his airborne ungulates. (Note that I’m using code, here, lest precociously prying eyes find grounds to question the established wisdom.)
Until that happens, I’ll make do with the postmodern. Over the weekend, I retrieved the wrong unmarked videotape from a friend’s house and, instead of what I’d been expecting, got 20 real-time minutes of an animatronic Santa being immolated with lighter fluid at a Wyoming house party instead. The next day, another friend was showing us the results of her snow-globe crafting project, including the ones that didn’t quite work out. A plastic caveman wearing a wreath around his neck had come unglued from his Superglue moorings and was floating lifelessly on the surface. As I pondered the caveman, drifting face down and butt up as though drowned while investigating a mysterious cistern of glitter and mineral oil, I realized the Christmas spirit had found me at last.
Gremlins (1984, dir. Joe Dante)
The perfect antidote to the maudlin annual routine of watching It’s a Wonderful Life. Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates) has shunned Christmas ever since her father turned up dead in a chimney after an ill-advised attempt at playing Santa Claus. But it’s not every Christmas that a horde of reptilian hellions goes loose on the sleepy town of Kingston Falls when an exotic family pet gets wet. Director Joe Dante is a movie-lover’s movie lover; this wickedly clever movie is packed with movie gags, sly tributes and nostalgic asides (in one scene, students are shown watching Hemo the Magnificent, the Frank Capra-directed Disney science film that compares blood to “Sea water!”). It’s also a bit darker that your average family entertainment and, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, generally credited with the introduction of the PG-13 rating.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993; dir. Henry Selick)
Most people instinctively associate The Nightmare Before Christmas with Tim Burton, although he didn’t actually direct it. In fact, it’s got the most amazing production design (not to mention the astounding stop-motion photography) of any Burton-affiliated movie, but absent Burton’s direction it’s just kind of a charming fizzle. Ultimately, your enjoyment of Nightmare depends on your tolerance for the musical histrionics of Danny Elfman—ugh. Still, you have to admire any Christmas movie with a Clown with the Tearaway Face character just on principle. In the German version of this movie, the part of Sally is voiced by Nina Hagen!
Los Olvidados (1950; dir. Luis Buñuel)
This holiday-viewing recommendation comes straight from a divorced acquaintance who watched it after dropping his daughter off with her mother one Christmas Eve. Orphans beaten with sticks and dancing Chihuahuas interposed as stand-ins for sex, he says, did much to brighten his foul mood. Hey, I’m just putting it out there.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964; dir. Nicholas Webster)
A plot so diabolical no Christmas-loving earthling could possibly have dreamt it up: Martians kidnap Santa Claus to keep human kids from running around being so happy all the time. Of course, earthlings did dream up this 1964 curio, which stars Pia Zadora and future “M*A*S*H*” cross-dresser Jamie Farr.
Black Christmas (1974; dir. Bob Clark)
Four years before John Carpenter’s Halloween and a full 10 before Silent Night, Deadly Night (which was picketed—naturally—on its release by concerned-citizen types who took issue with the film’s depiction of Santa as an axe murderer), holiday horror made its debut with this 1974 slasher flick about sorority sisters terrorized by a murderous crank-caller. Stars Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea and Olivia Hussey. Director Bob Clark would go on to helm two Porky’s movies and, more recently, Baby Geniuses.
The Sound of Music (1965; dir. Robert Wise)
It might seem a bit gratuitous to mention The Sound of Music as holiday viewing, since chances are you’d already seen it five too many times at Christmas by the time you turned 10. Two things recommend a fresh appraisal, however. First, for the secular-minded, Robert Wise brings a little bit of “the true meaning of Christmas” to all of his movies; from The Day the Earth Stood Still to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, there’s no mistaking his mile-wide streak of big-hearted humanism. Second, the movie has a rich body of “what-ifs” that are fun to entertain even if you find yourself stuck with “Edelweiss,” “Doe, a Deer” and the puppet show with the goat and the girl with the pale pink coat decidedly against your will: Yul Brynner was considered for the role of Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer, who got the role and hated it, still refers to the film as The Sound of Mucus), as were Sean Connery and Richard Burton. Billy Wilder and William Wyler were both considered to direct. A young Mia Farrow auditioned for the role of Liesl, and Audrey Hepburn was in the running at one point for the part of Maria that eventually went to Julie Andrews.
Okay, so maybe the “what-if” game isn’t that entertaining. Yodelay yodelay yodelay hee-hoo on you.