Most years around this time I settle down to a re-read of Ellery Queen’s The Finishing Stroke, a 1957 mystery that I consider one of Queen’s best and that takes place during the course of Advent in 1929. Building a Christmas mystery for Ellery to solve was a temptation that even two Jewish cousins from Brooklyn, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, could not resist. The temptation has also lured virtually every other classic mystery writer. Agatha Christie gave us not only Hercule Poirot’s Christmas but also a Miss Marple short story Christmas Tragedy. Rex Stout contributed the 1957 Nero Wolfe novella Christmas Party and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle jumped into the fray with Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. (The Holmes story is now available to Audible subscribers this month as a free holiday download.)
Christmas stories are not the sole province of Golden Age mystery authors. Our own Elizabeth Zelvin has contributed such a volume, to the holiday shelf Death Will Trim Your Tree. The temptation to offer up Yuletide tales is also apparent from the works of other modern popular authors. John Grisham has Skipping Christmas, and David Baldacci has The Christmas Train.
many adaptations of my personal favorite, Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and our family’s Christmases usually are not complete without at least one screening of Irving Berlin’s 1954 musical White Christmas – this year my wife and I even attended the stage version at the Kennedy Center here in Washington – and we also always manage to find an evening to devote to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
My family has always celebrated the Yule on Christmas Eve – when my brother Graham and I were kids that was the evening Santa visited our home, just after dinner. The same was true when my own two sons, now well ensconced into their twenties, were kids. And now, with my immediate family having dwindled down to four (all adults), six including my brother and his wife, we gather at Graham and Nikki's restored Victorian home near the St. Louis botanical gardens each year for the holiday. We do all of the expected things – listen to carols, open presents, dine in front of the tree. But we have a darker side to our Christmases as well. When the presents have all been opened, and the room is a hopeless clutter of torn metallic papers and ribbons, we pour ourselves a couple stiff ones and turn on the TV in search of bad Christmas movies.
With on-line movies, YouTube and obscure DVDs readily available, finding almost any given movie is not that difficult. But finding the right one is not always an easy task. Not just any bad movie will do. Just as you can get too much of a good thing, it is even easier to get too much of a bad thing. What we search out each year are movies that, while failed, offer something camp; something so awful that it is funny but not so awful that it is unwatchable. We have been laughing “with” all evening; now it is time to laugh “at.”
Candidates for this year, together with some that have already been rejected, include the following:
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians This incredibly cheesy 1964 movie makes every list of “ten worst Christmas movies” as well as “ten worst movies ever.” The premise: The Martians kidnap Santa Claus because there is no one on Mars to give presents to the Martian kids. Apparently no one cares about the rights on this one, so if you are tempted you can see the whole debacle, including the original title song "Hooray for Santy Claus," at this YouTube site. (Watch closely -- an eight year old Pia Zadora plays one of those mini-Martians.) Special effects include what charitably appear to be five dollar masks and action sequences where everyone leans to the right when the spaceship veers left. We’ve seen this one before. I’m still looking for the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode featuring the movie. Score; Watchable, but two or more scotches will likely be required.
Santa with Muscles Hulk Hogan stars in this 1996 film about an evil millionaire who gets amnesia, hides from pursuers by donning a Santa costume, and then believes that he is Santa after seeing himself in a mirror. Ed Begley, Jr. also stars as an evil scientist intent on taking over an orphanage for some obscure reason. Movie critic Joe Leydon wrote “John Murlowski directs with all the enthusiasm of someone going through the motions to pay off a debt.” Score: As yet unseen, but a candidate for a two scotch watch.
Jingle All the Way Yet another 1996 Christmas movie that consistently makes the “worst 10 Christmas movies” list. More money was spent on this film than on any other in the list but, by all accounts, it still does not work. Arnold Schwwarzenegger in his pre-governator days stars as a harried parent trying to secure the hottest toy of the year. Comparing this movie to the Hulk Hogan opus discussed above, film critic Chris Hicks said that the Hulk’s movie "makes Arnold Scwarzenegger seem like Laurence Olivier.” I have yet to see this movie, but it is a favorite of our kids and a likely watch this year. Score: Sight unseen, but a candidate for watching with the first scotch of the evening.
the whole film is a click away on YouTube. Score: sight unseen, but we will likely take a peak this Christmas. A candidate for a two and a half scotch watch. Also a film where one senses the remote should be kept handy just in case.
Christmas Vacation 2 – Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure This 2003 TV movie sequel to the classic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation was apparently shown once, and only once, on network TV. The sequel, as the name implies, jettisons the Griswold clan, leaving us only with Cousin Eddie and his . . . “brood.” What were they thinking? The WebSite DVD Verdict calls the film a "bedsore of a movie" and suggests that any copy should be "thrown into a burlap sack, weighted down with rocks, and tossed into the closest body of water." Score: I’m not going to even try it.
A Christmas Carol – the Musical Not to be confused with Albert Finney’s very passable 1970 musical Scrooge, this 2004 made-for-TV film stars Kelsey Grammer as Scrooge and has Jason Alexander playing Marley’s ghost. And – worse – the movie is not just a musical, it is virtually an opera – almost everything is sung. I mean everything. One reviewer summed up the film as follows: “Never in all my days have I ever seen such a turgid remake of what can only be described as one of the most heartwarming Christmas events.” Score: As noted, I’m a huge Christmas Carol fan (I even liked Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, which, by the way, featured better music than this version.) I tried to watch this film when it aired in 2004 and turned it off within 10 minutes when it became evident that no one was going to (1) stop singing, or (2) sing adequately. Score: Unwatchable. Cannot be saved even by scotch.
This one contains the first ten minutes, which, in truth, is all you need. Score: Unwatchable. But having said that, you should try just the first few minutes, scotch firmly in hand, to see how a group of talented people can come up with something this totally wrong-headed. Jaw dropping is the only response to the overly long and totally incomprehensible segment set in Chewbacca’s home near the beginning of the film. As actor and critic Ralph Garman observed, “it's so bad that it actually comes around to good again, but passes it right up.”