“Christmas Cracker” consists of three segments that have very little in common with each other, besides the fact that they are Christmas based, and are each introduced by a mime-like jester. Charming and now aged to fine quality weirdness, it may not surprise you that fifty years ago this nearly won an Oscar.
In 1992 some damn silly, so-called Christian organization threw a bullying hissy fit at McDonalds for its Happy Meal deal tie-in with Tim Burton‘s Batman Returns. McDonalds, true to form, prematurely withdrew its merchandising. Rumor has it that McDonalds issued a stern warning to Warner Brothers not to tap Burton for the next Batman film. For whatever reason, Warner Brothers caved into the golden arch and, consequently, put its franchise into a decade long grave with the unwise hiring of director Joel Schumacher.
Only the fundamentalist mindset can associate Big Macs with a certain brand of morality. Looking at Batman Returns (1992), one wonders what the Christian organization was bitching about. The Bible is all throughout the film and, actually the good book itself has far more sex and violence than Batman, Tim Burton, Warner Brothers and McDonalds combined.
Regardless, Batman Returns remains the greatest cinematic comic book movie to date and one of Tim Burton’s most uniquely accomplished films. Admittedly, I am not a fan of comic book movies, even if I did read comics some when I was kid, but then most kids I knew did. I was in the minority in preferring DC to Marvel, and I guess I am sort of looking forward to the new Green Lantern movie, mainly because the Green Lantern/Green Arrow comic was a favorite when I was a wee lad in the 1960s and 1970s. That was a comic that was delightfully of its time, a bit like Star Trek in espousing an ultra-liberal message with all the subtlety of a pair of brass knuckles. Even though Green Lantern himself was a bit too righteous and bland, I liked that he was obsessed with the color green and was rendered impotent by the color yellow. There was something surreal in that, and I find the insistence of realism in comics to be a huge oxymoron. Perhaps that’s why the dark surrealism of Batman Returns did not bother me like it did mainstream audiences, comic book geeks, and militant pseudo-Christian organizations.
Even though I will acknowledge that Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight (2008) was well crafted, it would not have worked without Ledger’s performance holding it together. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, however, pales compared to ‘s much more intense, internalized, subtle and complex Wayne. Finally, Nolan’s film feels like it has one subplot too many. Comparatively, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is a Continue reading BATMAN RETURNS (1992): A SUPERHERO BURLESQUE
AKA Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas
DIRECTED BY: Henry Selick
FEATURING: Voices of Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, , Ken Page
PLOT: Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, discovers Christmas and tries to recreate it, with ghoulish results.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: As a children’s film, The Nightmare Before Christmas has a high hurdle to overcome. Since it’s aimed at kids, the movie is permitted to indulge in imagination and fantasy, so long as it uses a conventional story framework and takes a stab at conveying a useful moral lesson. Nightmare has a great, morbid motivating idea and is a triumph of macabre art design, but at heart it doesn’t stray very far from the childrens’ film format. If it’s eventually to be counted amongst the weird, it will be solely for its incidentals and visuals.
COMMENTS: The opening song introduces us to the ghastly denizens of Halloweentown, including the expected assortment of witches, vampires and ghosts, but also a creature with black and white striped snakes for fingers, the “clown with the tearaway face,” and a two-faced mayor with a spinning top for a head and a freakishly phallic stovepipe hat. This legion of scary weirdos are ruled over by Jack Skellington, an elegant but spindly skeleton in a pinstripe suit. A grim gray pallor hangs over the town, which features an Expressionist pumpkin patch/boneyard with slanted tombstones and a curlicue hill permanently posed before a giant yellow moon. Bored with the repetitive routine of Halloween, Skellington seeks new vistas and finds one when he stumbles onto Christmastown, an eye-popping festival of lights and toys set among blinding white snowbanks ruled over by a jolly fat man; the town provides the perfect visual and spiritual contrast to gloomy Halloweentown. A holiday architect looking for a new challenge, Jack decides to “take over” Christmas (incidentally kidnapping Santa Claus). After futile attempts to ferret out the meaning of Christmas by dissecting teddy bears and placing crushed ornaments in boiling beakers, Skellington hatches a plan to pose as Kris Kringle and deliver toys himself, which leads to the film’s keystone sequence: a horrific Christmas Eve sleigh ride through a doomed village, where the Santa-suited skeleton leaves ghoulishly inappropriate gifts for Christmastown’s tots, including a severed head and a tannenbaum-swallowing snake. It all ends in disaster, as Jack, who began with the best of intentions, realizes that his amateur staging of Christmas was a Nightmare and that he has to set things right and reaffirm his devotion to the Satanic rites of All Hallow’s Eve. The moral seems to be, attempts to understand other cultures are doomed to failure; stick to your own kind.
The character designs and intricate, almost hidden gruesome details (like the skeletal Halloween cock that crows the dawn) are the triumph of Nightmare. With a couple of exceptions—the bubbly, Broadwayesque “What’s This?” when bemused Jack first discovers Christmastown (“There’s children throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads/They’re busy building toys and absolutely no one’s dead!”) and a deviant number sung by three mischievous trick or treaters who plan to kidnap “Sandy Claws” (“Kidnap the Sandy Claws, throw him in a box/Bury him for ninety years, then see if he talks”)—Danny Elfman’s songs are flat and unmemorable, advancing the plot but not thrilling the ear. The story is also exceedingly thin, even at its trim running time of under 80 minutes. The original concept came from a Burton parody of Clement Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas;” to pad out the running time, a romantic subplot and an antagonist were added. The love interest is Sally, a stitched-together female Frankenstein forever losing her limbs. She’s constantly scheming to escape her creator, a duck-billed mad scientist with a detachable brainpan who wants to keep her locked in his castle, and she acts as a cautionary voice for Jack, trying to warn him off his insane Yuletide scheme. There’s no spark to their relationship, though, and though their romantic ending is pretty, it’s also pretty meaningless in story terms. The villain, Oogie Boogie the Boogeyman, is another wonderful character in search of a plot function. A burlap sack stuffed with creepy crawlies, gruff Ken Page gives him a 1920s boogie-woogie singer’s voice, and he makes a hell of a hellish impression. But he’s introduced late and has no real motivation: it’s unclear why he thinks that bumping off Santa Claus will help him unseat Skellington as king of Halloweentown. He pads the film, but his main purposes are to set up an unnecessary, anticlimactic action sequence for the finale, and (more importantly) to provide Selick the opportunity to build another magical set. And Oogie’s lair is it’s own freaky, fun world: his hideout is casino themed, with living gunfighter slot machines and worms crawling through the pips of dice, and it’s bathed UV lights to give the puppets an eerie glow. Though the script could have done much more to make him a meaningful antagonist, the awesome visuals this boogeyman inspires are reason enough for him to take up space in Nightmare‘s world. The entire story takes a back seat to the cute, Gothic animation, so why should Sally and Oogie Boogie be any different?
The idea for Nightmare was originally sketched out by Tim Burton at Disney Studios, before they fired him for “wasting company resources” by making Frankenweenie. After the director found success outside the Magic Kingdom, Disney was willing to work with him again, and he served as Nightmare‘s producer and even got his name in the title. In a case of history repeating itself, the studio again found the finished work too morbid and were afraid it would frighten young children, so they released it under their Touchstone subsidiary. Despite rave reviews, Nightmare was not an immediate success, but it has found a cult audience on video. Disney has since fully re-embraced the movie, removing all traces of the old Touchstone logos and prominently slapping the Disney name back on the prints, just as if they had been 100% behind it before it became a hit.
Related: Alfred Eaker’s A Few Odd Yuletide Favs.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“[Burton] pulls adult minds down to the surreal darkness of childish imagination — where the real nightmares are. But through Burton’s eyes, these dark dreamscapes aren’t bad places at all. In fact, they’re quite wonderful.”–Desson Howe, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)
We celebrate the season a little bit differently around these parts. Please enjoy this disturbing tribute to the holidays from I Can See You‘s Graham Reznick. It features a creepy doll with perpetually downturned eyes, graphics and sound that are reminiscent of a “Sesame Street” segment, and irrational Satanic rituals.
This short, along with Voltaire’s X-Mess Detritus, was part of Beck Underwood’s “Creepy Christmas” project. There’s plenty more where these came from, so please visit the Creepy Christmas site to see all 25 films!
And have a very creepy Christmas!
Voltaire gives his audience a different perspective on Christmas in his short, “X-Mas Detritus.” Like many of the shorts posted here, “Detritus” contains some frightening images. So, even though this short contains some great insight into the impact of this holiday season on our world, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is very squeamish.
1. Rankin & Bass’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) : There’s a reason this has become a perennial cult and popular classic. Hands down it is the best of the Rankin & Bass holiday shorts. Most of the team’s holiday specials, such as Year without a Santa Clause (below), have memorable moments, but don’t really add up to a great whole. Rudolph does. It’s a great (probably unintentional) weird mix.
A bigoted, misogynist, unlikeable, bitchy Santa, an equally unlikeable reindeer coach (with a baseball cap, no less), Rudolph’s jerk of a father, an abominable snow monster, a winged lion, straight out of apocalyptic literature, who oversees an island of dysfunctional toys, including a polka-dotted elephant, a Charlie-in-the-box, and a cowboy who rides an ostrich. On top of that is Burl Ives as a talking snowman, a too-cute girlfriend reindeer for our hero (with a bow atop her head), an elf who wants to be a dentist and a prospector by the name of Yukon Cornelius, who steals the entire show. Yukon “Even among misfits I’m a misfit” Cornelius has rightly become a cult figure all by himself. Oh, and then there’s Rudolph himself, who is understandably a bit bland in comparison but is the necessary catalyst for such a brew.
No amount of eggnog is going to help this fav seem traditionally orthodox. Max Fleischer did a more straightforward version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948), although Max’s style is still all over it.
2. Pee Wee’s Christmas at the Playhouse (1988) : Pee Wee Hermann’s holiday gathering at the playhouse with guest stars Dinah Shore, Charo (!!!), Little Richard, Grace Jones, K.D. Lang, Za Za Gabor, Magic Johnson, Cher, Frankie Avalon, Santa himself and the normal Playhouse gang.
Its almost as divine a time capsule as Paul Lynde’s Halloween Special. The only disappointment is not getting to see Pee Wee looking up the girls’ dresses with his mirrored shoes. Fans of the Playhouse will walk away beaming.
3. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964): You know we had to include this one. Before Pia Zadora had her ten seconds of fame (10 seconds too long), she “starred” in a film so abysmal, so bad, so weird that only the bravest can get through it. Try to watch the MS3TK version, it almost makes it bearable.
4. The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974): Rankin and Bass again, but this one doesn’t altogether work (as mentioned above). We could care less about Santa, the elves, or the reindeer, BUT, the sight of Mr. Heat Miser, son of Mother Nature, doing a jig in the pit of hell Continue reading A FEW ODD YULETIDE FAVS
AKA You Better Watch Out
DIRECTED BY: Lewis Jackson
FEATURING: Brandon Maggart
PLOT: After young Harry sees his father making love to his mother while dressed as Santa Claus, he grows up obsessed with jolly old St. Nick; one Christmas Eve, he snaps.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Christmas Evil has a few nice, weird little touches scattered throughout. Several times the film seems to switch perspective from an objective view to Harry’s skewed subjective view without giving the audience notice. The darkly witty Santa lineup scene, the out-of-left-field Frankenstein homage, and of course the memorable final shot, where Harry completely breaks with reality and takes the viewer with him, are memorable enough. There is also an eerie atmosphere throughout, helped greatly by an unsettling electronic score. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough such high points to justify placing Christmas Evil on the overall list of 366.
COMMENTS: Christmas Evil is a serious character study—or, at least, an honest attempt at a serious character study—of a middle-aged loser who lives in a dangerous fantasy world of his own making. There are many little subtle details (catch, for example, the vintage Santa poster depicting St. Nick as a forbidding judge with a gavel) that provide a black comedy feel. On the other hand, it’s very slow to get started and the cheapness of the production often shows to its disadvantage–there’s one terrible editing glitch at the company Christmas party that’s so obvious and jarring, it suggests a loss of financing during post-production. Overall, it’s not nearly as bad as detractors would have it, or as as good as its few defenders (like John Waters) would like to believe. If Christmas Evil were a gift in your stocking, it wouldn’t be a lump of coal, or the keys to a new Mitzubishi Lancer; it would be a pair of cheap but comfy socks in a crazy color scheme that’s not to everyone’s taste.
When it debuted, Christmas Evil (then known as You Better Watch Out) was an oddity: the first film to depict the previously jolly ol’ St. Nick as a homicidal killer. Since then, the holiday vidscreens have been decked with Santa-slasher dreck such as Santa Claws (1996), Santa’s Slay (2005), and the Silent Night, Deadly Night series (1984-1991, with a remake on the way), greatly diminishing the novelty of a psycho Santa. Christmas Evil has little in common with it’s bloody progeny, and is probably the best entry in the sleazy sub-genre it inspired.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “…the best seasonal film of all time. I wish I had kids. I’d make them watch it every year and, if they didn’t like it, they’d be punished!” -John Waters, Crackpot