'Twas the week before Christmas and all through the town,
Seasonal classics are playing, both upstairs and down.
We re-watch them all yearly (on big screens and small),
Mesmerized by our favorites, heart-warmed by them all,
But that gets rather boring, so we need something new,
So let's watch Santasploitation and quaff a strong brew.
Christmas movies are unjustly neglected. Fantastic Holiday films are one of the oldest, most consistently popular film genres and deserve more respect. The audience's appetite for them has remained constant since 1898 when George Albert Smith released Santa Claus.
Edwin S. Porter's adaptation of Clement Moore's 1823 poem "The Night Before Christmas" was released in 1905, just two years after The Great Train Robbery—one of the first narrative films.
Charles Dickens inspired the 1901 release Scrooge (Marley's Ghost) and another version of A Christmas Carol appeared later that decade (1910).
Most low-budget domestic and imported Christmas tales were created as disposable commercial enterprises designed for brief cinematic engagements, so they usually have low (or no) production value, and the existing prints are often far from pristine. But, like Frosty the Snowman (1954), occasionally one of these yearly Saturday matinee screen-fillers was imbued with something special: joyful infectious peculiarity. These rare gems continue to find new audiences online and in sporadic theatrical screenings at extremely cool venues.
Prepare yourself to forgo the familiar danger of a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. Leave behind the comforting sagas of George Bailey, the Grinch, Charlie Brown, Rudolph, Ebenezer Scrooge, the Heat Miser, Jack Skellington and "Sparky" Griswold—and cross the threshold into a far stranger realm of outlandish entertainment: the wonderful world of Santasploitation. Holiday exploitation breaks down into three broad categories: Holiday Horror, Santa: Man of Action and Misfit Toys. The entire genre is rich with surrealism, exotica, bizarre musical choices, bright colors, technical ineptitude, little people, shiny things, love and compassion, and screaming. The great works of Santasploitation range from the sublime to the ridiculous—and beyond.
The following festive selection of peculiar Seasonal treasures are for cinephiles with a hankering for truly unusual cinema. A word of warning: fortify your eggnog to more fully appreciate the unique charms of Magic Christmas Tree and Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny.
The Spirit of Christmas: Jesus vs. Santa (1995) is the funniest personal video Christmas card ever commissioned by Fox executive Brian Graden—and it's the origin of South Park.
The Star Wars Holiday Special—This gets better every year. In 1978, everyone except Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing were (somehow) convinced to reunite for this completely misguided television special. To no one's surprise, it was never officially released after its initial broadcast on CBS. Art Carney, Diahann Carroll, Harvey Korman and the Jefferson Airplane join Han, Chewie and the rest of the gang on Kashyyyk for a "Life Day" Wookie reunion. But that's not all! Bea Arthur breaks into song in the Mos Eisley cantina, and stalwart Canadian character actor Don Francks (working steadily since 1954) voiced the first appearance of Boba Fett in a short segment from acclaimed Canadian animation house Nelvana.
The Junky's Christmas (1993)—William S. Burroughs wrote and narrates this award-winning stop-motion masterpiece produced by Francis Ford Coppola. This is a touching, consistently rewarding film that demands to be seen—every year.
The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)—L. Frank Baum's little-known tale of the origin of Santa. For many years, this was the weirdest Christmas special I'd ever seen (even topping Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976)). Thankfully, this one still receives an occasional television broadcast, so watch for it!
Stalking Santa (2006)—Dr. Lloyd Darrow is in search of Santa Claus. However much the government conspirators try to cover it up, the shocking truth of the man-in-red will be revealed! Narrated by William (T.J. Hooker) Shatner.
Santa Claus (1959)—In 1960, Saturday Matinee exploitation impresario K. Gordon Murray released (and narrated the English dub of) Mexican director René (Night of the Bloody Apes) Cardona's foray into Santa Action. The classic weird Santa film is the colorful bizarre, creepy, surrealistic musical fable of Santa Claus and Merlin the Magician vs. the old Devil Pitch (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Satan). SPOILER ALERT: Santa's magic key, sleeping powder and dreaming powers eventually save Christmas Day. This one is guaranteed to jingle the bells of the hardest-hearted Grinch. For more about the Godfather of Kidsploitation, check out The Wonder World of K. Gordon Murray (2010) in COLORSCOPE.
He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special (1985)—Two children from Earth are marooned on the Planet Eternia at Christmastime, but they are far too cheerful for Skeletor and Horde Prime. He-Man and She-Ra to the rescue! Who will survive and what will be left of them?
True Boo (1952)—The restless spirit of a dead child walks the earth fruitlessly searching for a playmate to ease his eternal, inescapable loneliness. After writing a letter to Santa Claus to ask for a friend, three sadistic demons steal it and torment the doomed young phantom. He sets off to find a friend and stops when he hears the wracking sobs of a young boy. Santa Claus has never visited, so Billy doesn't believe. The ghost disguises himself as Santa and creates toys until Billy's mother (who seems to be a showgirl) wakes up, disrupts her neglected child and banishes the restless soul. Thankfully, overcome by the Christmas Spirit, she invites the Phantasm to return and create more toys for her lonely abused offspring.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)—Santa Claus gets kidnapped and taken off-world by jealous Martians in Pia Zadora's film debut. Arguably, the best Santa Claus vs. invaders from Mars film ever made.
A Cosmic Christmas (1977)—The debut film from Nelvana (the animators behind Boba Fett, Droids, Ewoks, and Rock & Rule), is deeply weird. Very much a product of the post Star Wars cultural shift, this is a spacey—not really aimed at kids—late 1970s cartoon. Three aliens (who could pass for the rhythm section of any late '70s prog-rock band) visit Earth to investigate a mysterious 2000 year-old stellar phenomenon and hang out with troubled street youth (with great '70s hair).
Magic Christmas Tree (1964)—A witch, a young boy, a magic ring and an indestructible (though well-trimmed) talking tree who uses arcane spells grants three wishes to a young lad who promptly changes night to day and raises a real ruckus with driverless out-of-control vehicles—and then he (and the evil tree) use a wish to selfishly kidnap Santa Claus. Then a giant appears and threatens to enslave the boy and mete out terrible punishments. Good grief!
Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972)—Santa's sleigh gets stuck on a beach in Florida, so he psychically wills children and animals to come help him. He's still stuck so he introduces a completely different hour-long film, until the ratty Ice Cream bunny arrives on a fire engine. Simply jaw-dropping.
Other Ho Ho Horror treats include Silent Night Deadly Night (1984) (although you may want to watch Silent Night Deadly Night 2 (1987) instead, since it includes all the gruesome violence from the first film plus all-new kills). James Caan, Fran Drescher and Robert Culp join former WWE wrestler Bill Goldberg as he dons the red suit and kills everyone in the pitch-black comedy Santa's Slay (2005). Jack Frost (1997) sports a pre-American Pie Shannon Elizabeth facing off against a horny, homicidal snowman. Digging up Santa Claus from a giant burial mound in Finland proves to be a terrible mistake in Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010), and jolly old St. Nicholas is definitely not to be fooled with in the stylish Sint (2010), from Dutch director Dick Maas (The Lift, Amsterdamned).
Last but not least, the late Bob Clark (Porky's, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things) deserves a shout-out for directing two perennial Holiday classics: the utterly charming, and eternally delightful A Christmas Story (1983), and 1974's influential slasher masterpiece Black Christmas with Olivia Hussey and Kier Dullea. The ad campaign traumatized an entire generation of latch-key kids. Even the 30 second tv spot was disturbing and absolutely unforgettable. "If this movie doesn't make your skin crawl, it's on too tight." Ho Ho Ho!
Bruce Fletcher owns all of the stop-motion Rankin/Bass Christmas Classics and has an extremely odd collection of ornaments on his Christmas tree.