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What makes a Christmas movie?

The movie that launched a thousand arguments.

Over the last few years, as the Die Hard debate reached peak internet meme status, there seems to have been some degree of confusion as to what constitutes a Christmas movie. “Well if Die Hard is a Christmas movie,” says some joyless homunculus, “then so does Lethal Weapon! So does Gremlins! So does Batman Returns!”

To which I reply, “Yeah, okay.”

To my way of thinking, there are three qualifications for being a Christmas story, and any film which matches at least TWO of them can rightly be called a Christmas movie. These qualifications are:

  1. The film must primarily be set during the Christmas season. The vast majority of great Christmas movies have their climax on Christmas Eve, but any time in the stretch from post-Thanksgiving until New Year’s qualifies. The key word here is “primarily.” A film that has only one scene at the holidays, such as Toy Story or several Harry Potter movies, does not meet this qualification, no matter what the Freeform network tries to tell you. The classic It’s a Wonderful Life sneaks in because, although large parts of the movie are non-Christmas flashbacks, the framing sequence and the entirety of the film’s action take place on Christmas Eve. In a fantasy setting where Christmas would not logically exist, I will accept as substitute their local equivalent, such as Hogswatch (Hogfather) or Life Day (The Star Wars Holiday Special). 
If we don’t see Santa, does it still count?
  1. The film must include traditional Christmas figures in a prominent role. These figures include but are not limited to Jesus (remember him?), Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty, and Krampus. The figure does not necessarily have to be the protagonist to qualify, but they must feature in a large way. In Ernest Saves Christmas Santa is a supporting character, whereas in Christmas Eve on Sesame Street he never appears on screen, but as the story is about Big Bird’s quest to discover how Santa enters a home with no chimney, it still meets this requirement. Interestingly, this qualification can be applied to a film retroactively, if it becomes beloved as a holiday classic. Upon their original release neither the Grinch nor Jack Skellington would have been considered “traditional” Christmas characters, but nobody would dispute their status today. 
Yep. It counts.
  1. A film must feature one of the traditional Christmas themes, such as love, hope, generosity, faith, redemption, family, or fear. Yes, fear. What, did you think that line in the song about “scary ghost stories” is just a throwaway? Before Halloween grew into the holiday it is today, scary stories were a Christmas tradition. It is no coincidence that the most re-told Christmas story of all time is about four ghosts trying to scare a miser straight. This is also the reason horror movies such as Silent Night, Deadly Night are acceptable as Christmas films. (If you’re into that sort of thing. If you don’t like horror movies, there’s no requirement that you watch them.)

So there’s our litmus test. Pick a movie and ask yourself if it fits at least two of these qualifications. If it does, it’s a Christmas movie. Some examples:

  • A Christmas Story.  About a family at Christmastime with a main character hoping for a special gift from Santa. Meets all three qualifications.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life. As mentioned before, it sneaks in on #1, and as a tale of redemption, meets #3.
  • Any traditional retelling of A Christmas Carol meets all three qualifications. It takes place on Christmas Eve, it’s the story of Scrooge’s redemption, and the story is so universally known that Scrooge and the ghosts all count as traditional characters, even if interpretations of them vary significantly. Most non-traditional versions, such as Scrooged or A Flintstones Christmas Carol also qualify.
  • Home Alone. Set at Christmas, with its major character arc being the redemption of a family (focusing on a child and his mother) with a strained relationship. Try not to think too hard about the fact that they had to re-learn the same dang lesson the next year.
  • Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Meets #1 and 2. I will not venture to make an argument that this film has anything that counts as a “theme.”
  • The Sound of Music. While inarguably a classic film, the only qualification it meets is #3, so sorry, it’s not a Christmas movie. Please remove “My Favorite Things” from your holiday playlist immediately. 
It’s got a guy in a red suit that can fly around the world…
  • Shazam! Set at Christmastime (the climax, in fact, takes place at an actual Christmas fair), with a surprisingly strong message about the family you choose rather than the family you’re born with. It’s a dark horse candidate, but I say this superhero film counts as a Christmas movie. 
  • Die Hard. The argument that started it all, but honestly, I don’t even know why there’s a question. Set at Christmas, and features the redemption of John McClane as well as the film’s true hero, Sgt. Al Powell. Set up your gingerbread  Nakatomi Tower, it counts.
  • Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny. The film is expressly set five days before Christmas and features Santa Claus, as well as other holiday figures such as the Ice Cream Bunny, Thumbelina, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry… Finn? Look, this movie is a brain-torturing mess and watching it should never be attempted without the assistance of Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, but it still technically qualifies.
  • Miracle on 34th Street. Goes from Thanksgiving until Christmas, it’s all about faith and family, and it stars Santa Claus. Boom, boom, boom, done.
It’s surprising how close this one is.
  • Holiday Inn. This 1942 classic almost doesn’t make it. While it is undeniably a love story, it time skips to several holidays over the course of the year. I say it meets standard #1 because it both begins and ends at Christmastime. It also gets bonus points for giving us the classic song “White Christmas,” 12 years before the movie was kinda-sorta remade with that title in a version that is more clearly a Yuletide film.
  • Any Hallmark/Lifetime/Netflix movie about a no-nonsense businesswoman who finds love with a small town boy and his adorable dog and/or child at the holidays qualifies. Go ahead and cue ’em up.
  • Avatar. This meets none of the qualifications. That was stupid, why did you ask?

So there you have it, your litmus test for Christmas movies. You’ll notice this test says nothing about the quality of any such movie (I’m lookin’ at you, Ice Cream Bunny), just whether it has enough Christmas flavor to count in your yuletide marathon. Hope this was helpful!

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Santa Week Day 2: John Call in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Santa Claus Conquers the MartiansNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Nicholas Webster

Writer: Glenville Mareth, based on a story by Paul L. Jacobson

Cast: John Call, Leonard Hicks, Vincent Beck, Bill McCutcheon, Victor Stiles, Donna Conforti, Chris Month, Pia Zadora, Leila Martin, Charles Renn, James Cahill, Ned Wertimer, Doris Rich, Carl Don

Plot: On the planet Mars, a pair of Martian children watch a TV broadcast from Earth featuring Santa Claus (John Call) as he prepares for his yearly rounds. Their father, Kimar (Leonard Hicks) realizes that the children of Mars are restless and unhappy, and turns to the ancient Chochem (Carl Don) for advice. Chochem explains that the Martian children are upset because they don’t have Christmas, so Kimar takes the logical step of invading Earth to kidnap Santa. The incompetent Dropo (Bill McCutcheon) stows away, having never seen Earth before, and the Martians are soon discovered in orbit by the United States government, which scrambles to shoot the spaceship down.

Landing on Earth, the Martians encounter a pair of children, Billy and Betty (Victor Stiles and Donna Conforti), whom they abduct after interrogating them about where to find Santa. One of the Martians, Voldar (Vincent Beck) continues to express his displeasure with the plan, and the human children make his disposition even worse. When they arrive at the North Pole, the children escape the ship, and Kimar sends a robot to catch them, because for some reason Nicholas Webster thought it would be a better use of his funding to spray-paint some cardboard boxes silver than to pay a writer to take a second pass at the script. The robot also fights a guy in a really bad polar bear costume that the child actors fail to convince us is real. Once the robot recaptures the children, he and the Martians get Santa as well, using their previously unmentioned weapon that allows them to freeze time.

On the journey back to Mars, Santa comforts Billy and Betty and begins to win over all the Martians except Voldar, who we know by now is the villain because he has a black mustache. As a rocket from Earth follows the Martians, Voldar discovers that Billy sabotaged the radar screen, and decides to take care of things by shoving Santa and the kids in an airlock. No really, that’s what tries to do. And if it weren’t for Santa using his magic to save them – off-screen – they’d be dead and the audience would be happier. On Mars, Santa is given a large, elaborate machine consisting of a few chutes, buttons, and lights, intended to make his toys for him. As Santa and the kids try to make their peace with their new life of slavery, Dropo puts on one of Santa’s suits and begins dancing around like a lunatic, before being mistaken for the real Santa and kidnapped by Voldar, who sabotages the machine.

Voldar’s “forces” (such as they are) attack Santa and the kids in the toy room, where he is summarily humiliated by being beaten back by children and their playthings. Somehow, this convinces Kimar to take Santa home to Earth and make Dropo the Santa Claus on Mars. Don’t think about it too much, it’ll give you a holiday nosebleed.

Thoughts: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is, by any reasonable standard, an absolutely terrible movie. The story is absurd. The acting is incompetent. The special effects, make-up and set design look like they were all done by the same seven-year-old child who is desperately attempting to convey his vision of both the North Pole and Mars, all on a budget of approximately four dollars and eleven cents after remembering about it at 2:30 a.m. the night before it was due. And yet, despite that, it’s such a deliciously stupid movie that it has been riffed not only by Mystery Science Theater 3000, but by both of its successor franchises, Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax. (Yes. I own all three versions.) Anything so bad has to be good.

But goodness, where to begin with the badness? Well… with Dropo, I guess. He’s a stupid character, to be sure, one that flashes around bland slapstick and over-the-top antics that nevertheless manage to be completely underwhelming. But it’s rather hypocritical of the Martians to attack Dropo – at least he’s open in his incompetence. The rest of the crew is just as stupid as he is, but less obvious about it. When Dropo is wearing Santa’s clothing, our main antagonist Volar is too idiotic to tell the difference, even though his skin is still green and the Santa hat is literally dangling from the antenna on Dropo’s permanently affixed Martian helmet. Their kidnapping plan is idiotic on the face of it, and from the moment they enter Earth orbit they make one mistake after another. They have a “radar screen,” but fail to use it early enough to prevent becoming targets. They show themselves to a pair of children in order to find out where Santa Claus lives, even though the answer to that question (it’s the North Pole, guys) was included in the very news broadcast that alerted them to Santa’s existence in the first place. They kidnap those same children so that they can’t tell the authorities what the Martians are planning, even though they do absolutely everything out in the open and in full view of the world, then put the kids in the care of the imminently stupid Dropo, who immediately starts breaking the rules by showing them around the ship and hiding them in a surprisingly spacious radar box. As alien menaces go, these guys rank somewhere below ALF.

Speaking of the radar, that’s the next thing that drives me crazy about this movie, and it’s a flaw in a lot of bad science fiction (which this most certainly is). At assorted points in the movie, the Martians use technology that would make the predicaments in other scenes way easier to resolve if they would only remember that such technology exists. Besides the aforementioned radar screen, which nobody remembers exists until it’s too late to keep the humans from discovering them, we also have a hilariously stupid robot that is never used except to fight a polar bear that makes the one that hangs out at the Coca-Cola store look convincing. Here’s a basic rule, people: if you control a battle robot, you use that robot all the time. And as for the time-freeze gun… why don’t they use that constantly? The situation with the children, the confrontation with Voldar at the end… hell, if I could make somebody freeze I would be waving that gun around on my way to the checkout counter at Walmart.

John Call, our Santa Claus, is probably the best thing about this movie. He’s not bad in the part, but the role is poorly written and he desperately tries to make the most out of the awful material. He sounds like a Santa, he has a dance in his step that feels like a good match for his jokes, which are so bad that even your father would be embarrassed to repeat them to anybody. But he doesn’t save the movie from the depths of mediocrity, and in truth, that’s probably a good thing. If it were even slightly better than it is, it probably wouldn’t have become the classic of cheesy cinema that it now is.

Also, in case you didn’t know, Pia Zadora is in it as one of the Martian kids. It doesn’t get goofier than that.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!