If you’ve ever wondered why there are so many (for the love of all that is holy, so damn many) Christmas movies, the answer is the same as for most of what happens in Hollywood: Money. Holiday movies are money lying on the ground, to be picked up every single December; a good Christmas movie that becomes a tradition can generate more continuing revenue than even the most beloved of catalogue releases. But there’s the rub — it also has to be a movie people actually want to revisit year after year. Making a good Christmas movie is harder than it looks; the delicate balance of humor, warmth, and schmaltz has to be just right, and for every Christmas Story or Christmas Vacation, we usually end up with three or four Santa Claus: The Movies. After the jump, a few would-be holiday “classics” to keep the hell off your Netflix queues and cable boxes; add your own cautionary tales in the comments.
Jingle All The Way
There was a time — not that long ago, in fact! — where not only did they let Arnold Schwarzenegger star in big, beefy action movies, but in family comedies as well. This happened in spite of the fact that approximately 62 percent of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s dialogue was entirely unintelligible. Only in America, right? Anyhoo, this 1996 comedy came towards the end of Arnold’s inexplicable box office winning streak, and featured Mr. Schwarznegger as a frazzled workaholic dad (y’know, just an average Joe suit and tie guy, whose suit and tie are covering a fucking tank) who tries to get right with his son by going out on Christmas Eve to track down the season’s must-have action figure: the “Turbo Man” (or, as Arnold says it, “Tyurbo-Min”). Writer Randy Kornfield got the idea from the madness over Cabbage Patch Dolls back in the early ’80s, so, y’know, timely; Jingle wears its 1996ness primarily in its supporting cast, which includes Sinbad, Jim Belushi, and (a mere three years from his immortal turn as “Annie” Skywalker) Jake Lloyd. But let’s put issues of timing aside; this is a manic mess, unimaginatively directed by Brian Levant, whose filmography includes the Flintstones movies, Snow Dogs, and a movie that we couldn’t bring ourselves to watch for consideration on this list: the brand-new, straight-to-video sequel that nobody asked for, A Christmas Story 2.
Christmas with the Kranks
This one must’ve seemed like a holiday slam-dunk on paper: Tim Allen, star of the smash Santa Clause movies, starring in a film version of John Grisham’s bestseller Skipping Christmas, adapted by Chris Columbus (director of Home Alone, aka The Highest-Grossing Christmas Movie of Ever). But that Christmas flick all-star team — under the direction of Joe Roth, the studio head/producer who kept insisting on directing, even though he directed films like America’s Sweethearts and Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise — came up with a listless, sour, and decidedly unlikable picture. “Kranks is a feel-good movie in which every character is hateful (except, sigh, the cancer lady), and a Christmas movie too chickenhearted to mention Jesus,” wrote the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr. “Kranks spends half its running time backing away from its own sting. The movie rails against the tinsel and then rushes to hang some more.”
Deck the Halls
Maybe there are laughs to be gleaned from the barely-subtextual dick-waving contests of suburban holiday lighting one-upsmanship, but we’ll never know; John Whitesell’s 2006 comedy has a cast that includes Danny DeVito, Kristin Chenoweth, Matthew Broderick, and Alia Shwkat, and it still somehow isn’t funny. Two years after Christmas with the Kranks, it also smelled like a trend. As Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman noted , “It’s a holiday ritual: Each year, American moviegoers get the misanthropically stupid, plastic-satire-of-a-plastic-society Christmas comedy they deserve.”
I’ll Be Home for Christmas
Hey, remember when Jonathan Taylor-Thomas was gonna be a big movie star? If you do (and warning: we’re aging ourselves here), you might recall how that notion came crashing to a halt with the critical and commercial belly-flop of JTT’s first big solo vehicle, this syrupy-sweet Disney family “comedy” about a spoiled little shit trying desperately to get home for Christmas Eve — not for warmth or holiday cheer, or even for Jessica Biel (who plays his girlfriend), but because his dad has promised him the keys to his vintage Porsche. JV Planes, Trains, and Automobiles shenanigans ensue, and if you think JTT’s gonna make it home without learning himself a valuable lesson about the true meaning of Christmas, well, you should see a movie every now and again.
Reindeer Games/ Surviving Christmas
Back before Ben Affleck had rehabilitated and reinvented himself, we used to shake our heads at the supposedly bad movies our friends would list as evidence of his onscreen ineptness. Daredevil? Whatever. Jersey Girl? Harmless. Gigli? You watch your mouth. No, if you’re searching for the bottom of the Affleck barrel, none of those films hold a holiday candle to the Christmas Double Feature from Hell: the “edgy” 2000 thriller Reindeer Games, and the “jolly” 2004 comedy Surviving Christmas. The former, an irritatingly convoluted (and, with even the most glancing of examinations, utterly preposterous) crime picture from the golden pen of Ehren Kruger — the Mensa member who wrote Scream 3 and the last two Transformers movies — mostly uses its holiday setting and Santa-clad heist for window dressing and half-assed counterpoint, then takes a woefully ill-advised left turn into feel-good territory with an inexplicable closing scene where Aflleck suddenly turns into Robin Hood, or some such bullshit. Surviving Christmas has an all-aces cast (James Gandolfini, Christina Applegate, and Catherine O’Hara co-star), but its premise is strained, the script is astonishingly bereft of wit, and the direction by Mike Mitchell is as clumsy and tone-deaf as you’d expect from the sensitive auteur behind Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
And now, the “Studio Executive” playlet:
STUDIO EXECUTIVE #1: So I’m zonked out on my couch, in a booze-and-coke fueled haze, when I slowly regain something resembling consciousness and realize that my kids are there next to me, and they’re goin’ apeshit for whatever’s on the big-screen. So I slap myself in the face a couplea times, and I see that they’re watching this “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” thing. You hearda this?
STUDIO EXECUTIVE #2: Oh, my kids go bananas for that thing.
STUDIO EXECUTIVE #1: Right? Mine too, and I swear to Christ, those little bastards won’t sit still for two minutes in front of anything made before 1998. This was made before that, right?
STUDIO EXECUTIVE #2: I think so. Maybe?
STUDIO EXECUTIVE #1: Point is, kids love it, parents remember it, they love it, why the hell haven’t we made a picture out of it?
STUDIO EXECUTIVE #2: Well, for starters, it’s only a half hour long.
STUDIO EXECUTIVE #1: Really? I thought time was just going more quickly for me, what the aforementioned coke and whatnot.
STUDIO EXECUTIVE #2: So how do we turn a half-hour special into a feature length movie?
STUDIO EXECUTIVE #1: You kiddin’? Make it an origin story! Where does this “Grinch” come from? What drives him? What’s his motivation for stealing Christmas?
STUDIO EXECUTIVE #2: You think anyone actually cares about any of that?
STUDIO EXECUTIVE #1: We put Jim Carrey in that green suit, who gives a shit?
And as long as we’re playing the imagined-conversation game, we can’t help but feel like, at some point during the production of Wedding Crashers, Will Ferrell pulled Vince Vaughn aside and, with all the confidence and determination of Mr. McGuire in The Graduate, whispered two words: “Christmas movie.” Since their last collaboration, Old School, Ferrell had starred in Elf, an unexpected hit that would reap new royalties every year. Vaughn’s desire to replicate his buddy’s success is about the only explanation we can come up with for Fred Claus, which found Vaughn reteaming with Crashers director David Dobkin for a dull, dumb, mirthless mess; it’s neither warm nor funny, and it wastes a terrific cast that includes Rachel Weisz, Elizabeth Banks, Kevin Spacey, Miranda Richardson, Kathy Bates, and Paul Giamatti as Santa Claus. (Some will insist that Vaughn’s second try at a Christmas comedy, Four Christmases, was worse, but they’re filthy liars; that film has Katy Mixon and Jon Favreau playing Taboo, which is twice as funny as the entirety of Fred Claus.)
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
In 1991, Joel Hodgson and his wisecracking robot pals thoroughly decimated Santa Claus Conquers the Martians on one of the most memorable episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. In 2008, Hodgson’s MST3K spin-off, Cinematic Titanic, did an entirely new “riff” of Santa Claus. That’s right: this is a movie so incompetent, so loathsome, and so insane that it provided enough material for two entirely different full-length mocking sessions. You can’t blame them: from its bananas storyline to the nuttiness of its Santa to the Martian “comic relief” character of Droppo (the most repugnant film character this side of Casper in Kids), there’s not a moment in this one that plays with a straight face.
Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny
Meanwhile, another MST3K offshoot, Rifftrax (featuring the show’s second cast) took a shot at an all new, horrifyingly terrible Christmas movie in 2011. Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is a stunningly stupid, laughably cheap, and altogether befuddling attempt at a family holiday picture, telling the tale of a Santa stranded on the Florida beach — which is a stupid enough hook to begin with, but then the whole thing shuts down for more than half of the film’s running time while Santa tells the totally unrelated, Christmas-free story of Thumbelina. (That’s a whole different movie, so the Santa Claus stuff is basically just a framing device. Or something.) The whole thing is weird and inexplicable and more than a little disturbing — and, as with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, it’s really only tolerable if you’re watching it with the jeering and jokes already built in.
Santa with Muscles
Hulk Hogan is a meanie who gets amnesia while wearing a Santa suit, which makes him think he’s really Santa, and he saves some orphans. Look, here’s what it comes down to: the best title they could think up for this swill was Santa with Muscles. They couldn’t bother to think up a pun, or a twist, or anything beyond the laziest placeholder description of a title. Santa with Muscles. That’s how much imagination and energy was expended on this one.
Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2
Silent Night, Deadly Night was a cause célèbre upon its 1984 release, and understandably so; it was a vile and sleazy little item, though its appropriation of Christmas imagery for slasher-flick purposes was less offensive than the terrible acting and bargain-basement production values. So why is its sequel on our list instead? Because it’s even worse — beginning with the fact that, in order to make the film as cheaply as possible, the filmmakers recycled (according to Badass Digest) 26 minutes of footage from the original film, in the form of “flashbacks” within this one. The film runs 88 minutes — so, yes, nearly a third of Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 is footage from Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 1. Not quite Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny proportions, but still…
Oh, and it’s got the “Garbage Day” scene.