Everybody loves a good holiday movie. When we wrote last week about the beginning of the season, and our favorite annual Christmas movies (Die Hard and It’s A Wonderful Life), our readers threw in their favorites: A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation, Bad Santa, Muppets Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, etc. But, lest we forget, every film of the season ain’t White Christmas; there are plenty of rotten holiday movies. (And, in fact, one of them is coming out tomorrow: steer clear of New Year’s Eve as though your life depends on it.) As many great Christmas movies as there are, it’s also a very tricky style to get right, requiring the proper mix of holiday cheer, sentiment, laughs, and warmth. It is pretty easy to screw that elixir up, and end up with something sickly sweet and utterly unwatchable. After the jump, we’ll gather up a few lumps of coal from our previous Christmas stockings.
Santa Claus: The Movie
The producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind had created a blockbuster franchise with 1978’s Superman: The Movie, but sensing that series was running out of gas, they were on the lookout for a new venture. They landed on perhaps the only pop culture icon more beloved than the Man of Steel: the Man from the North Pole. Team Salkind engaged longtime Superman screenwriters David and Leslie Newman to cook up an “origin story” for St. Nick (not, of course, the actual St. Nicholas story), which was then paired up with a contemporary story of a beloved elf (Dudley Moore) and an evil toymaker (John Lithgow). David Huddleston (later a beloved figure in cult circles for playing the title role in The Big Lebowski) stepped into the big red Santa suit, the Salkinds threw buckets of money at the project (between $30 and $50 million—big bucks for 1985), and waited for the big payoff. It didn’t come. The film opened against Rocky IV and barely pulled in a quarter of that 91-minute montage’s weekend numbers; the $23 million total gross didn’t even cover the budget. Critics were underwhelmed as well, with the New York Times’ Vincent Canby noting that the film “manages to look both elaborate and tacky… It has the manner of a listless musical without any production numbers.”
Fred Claus/Four Christmases
We have a theory. It goes like this: at some point during the making of Wedding Crashers, Will Ferrell pulled Vince Vaughn aside and offered him a little bit of career advice — something along the lines of, “You know where the money is? Christmas movies. Elf made an assload of money—and then, the next year, it made money again.” And Vaughn stroked his big chin, and decided he would put together his own comic take on the North Pole. His eyes wandered across the set, and settled on director David Dobkin, and Fred Claus was born. This 2007 film sounds irresistible — Vaughn playing the no-good, underachieving brother of Santa (played by Paul Giamatti — great casting!), with Kevin Spacey pulling villain duty, and Rachel Weisz, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins, and Kathy Bates rounding out the supporting cast. Only problem: it wasn’t funny, or charming, or sweet, or much of anything. Well, it was one thing: successful, grossing just shy of $100 million. So Vaughn went back to the well, churning out Four Christmases the very next year. Paired with Reese Witherspoon as an unmarried couple forced to visit both pairs of their divorced parents, the film squanders the opportunity for familial insight and holiday cheer (to say nothing of a cast than includes Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Jon Voight, Kristin Chenoweth, and Vaughn’s Swingers buddy Jon Favreau) for cheap slapstick and gross-out yuks. But once, again, cash registers rung ($163 million this time), so there’s probably nothing keeping Vaughn from returning to holiday movies — except, y’know, good sense and taste.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas/A Christmas Carol
Another comic actor who’d be wise to steer clear of yuletide cinema is Jim Carrey, who first invaded the holidays with Ron Howard’s big-budget 2000 adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Howard and company spent $123 million to recreate Whoville, but couldn’t replicate the heart of the original story (or the 1966 special); “This is a movie that devotes enormous resources to the mistaken belief that children and their parents want to see a dank, eerie, weird movie about a sour creature,” wrote Roger Ebert. But, again, money talks, and The Grinch made a lot of it — $345 million, making it the second-highest grossing Christmas movie of all time (behind only Home Alone). Frankly, it’s a little surprising the Carrey took that long to make another holiday flick — but when he did, it was a doozy. The 2009 version of A Christmas Carol was Disney and Robert Zemeckis’ attempt to reimagine Charles Dickens’ timeless story as a 3-D IMAX blockbuster, using that awful, creepy “performance capture” animation technique that Zemeckis had previously used for The Polar Express (which missed this list by that much). The result was “a calamity,” according to Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal. “The pace is predominantly glacial — that alone would be enough to cook the goose of this premature holiday turkey — and the tone is joyless.” But with a worldwide gross of $318 million, Carrey probably found some joy after all.
Jingle All the Way
The scramble for the must-have holiday toy — from the Cabbage Patch Kid to the Tickle-Me Elmo — would seem perfect fodder for a holiday comedy; y’know, little slapstick, little satire, little sentiment, roll credits. Alas, in the hands of a perpetually mugging Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Brian Levant (the auteur behind Problem Child II, The Flintstones, and Beethoven), Jingle All The Way was a relentlessly stupid, astonishingly unfunny waste of a juicy idea and a solid supporting cast (including Phil Hartman and Rita Wilson). The New York Times’ Janet Maslin called it a “schlocky, sluggish comedy,” and that sounds like holiday kindness to us.
I’ll Be Home For Christmas
Hey, remember Jonathan Taylor Thomas? His Teen Beat star couldn’t have been higher when Disney hired him to front this would-be feel-good Christmas comedy, a sort of junior Planes, Trains, and Automobiles for one, but without the laughs. Even with the Disney imprimatur on it, audiences didn’t bite (it grossed a meager $12 million), and critics were ruthless: Roger Ebert called it “cinematic Ovaltine,” the kind of bland entertainment perfect for “people who fail to care if nothing good happens in a movie, just as long as nothing bad happens in it.”
Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
“Hey,” someone in charge of a studio apparently said when they saw director Richard Attenborough step out from behind the camera to play a supporting role in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, “that guys looks like Santa Claus!” And that’s about all it takes to get a movie made anymore. Lest you worry that unnecessary remakes are a recent phenomenon, recall that this 1994 revamp was actually the fifth version of the classic tale of the Macy’s Santa who turns out to be the real thing — the classic 1947 original was remade for television on three occasions (including a 1973 version starring future Good Morning, America cohost David Hartman). For Les Mayfield’s 1994 version, Fox presumably took a look at the box office figures for Home Alone and hired John Hughes (a long way from Ferris Bueller) to pen the new version; I suppose we should be relieved that there were no wacky burglars trying to break into Macy’s. (Seriously, he did that in like five different movies.) But that’s about all that’s good about it; the Washington Post’s Desson Howe called it “a slow-moving, overblown, never-better-than-competent rendition of the original.”
Why yes, we would like to see a holiday comedy starring Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Cameron Diaz, and Jude Law! What’s that? It’s written and directed by Nancy Meyers? The Nancy Meyers who did Something’s Gotta Give and What Women Want? Oh, no thank you, Santa, we’ll pass. Unfortunately, most audiences did no such thing; this mirthless, overlong (2 hours and 15 minutes!) portrait of rich, dull white people was another of the filmmaker’s inexplicable smashes. But it’s still a terrible movie, folks. “Obviously intended as a romantic throwback to the good old days of Hollywood,” wrote Tom Long of the Detroit News, “The Holiday instead comes off as a self-indulgent, insipid piece of seasonal trash.” Hear, hear.
The Santa Clause series
With three films — 1994’s The Santa Clause, 2002’s The Santa Clause 2, and 2006’s The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause — and not a single, honest laugh among them, the Santa Clause series have a lot to answer for. To wit: the employment of Tim Allen, the continued solvency of said actor (he makes money every year of these movies, you guys), and a generation that spells Santa Claus’ name wrong.
If Die Hard has become the unlikely favorite on the best Christmas movie lists, then we can certainly make room for this borderline-unwatchable holiday-set action film on a list of the season’s worst. The general public was starting to get over Affleck fever when the prolific actor appeared in this astonishingly stupid heist movie by director John Frankenheimer (once capable of the greatness of The Manchurian Candidate). Even a frequently-naked Charlize Theron (who calls this her worst film) couldn’t distract from this picture’s plodding screenplay, gaping plot holes, and comically incongruent feel-good ending.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
What’s worse than a movie that’s taken apart by Mystery Science Theater 3000? How’s about a movie that’s taken apart by Mystery Science Theater 3000 twice? Joel and the ‘bots first took on this putrid 1964 cheapo in 1991, during the third season of their classic comedy series; that episode helped cement SCCtM’s reputation as one of the worst movies of all time. But in 2008, the “Cinematic Titanic” crew — comprised of five former MST3K cast members — took another swing at Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, proving that this was a holiday film so irredeemably terrible that it could warrant another 81 minutes of relentless abuse.
What about you? What horrible holiday movies make you reach for the remote?