Like the term “Christmas album,” the words “Christmas movie” increasingly dredge up an overwhelming sense of nausea. There’s a broad and growing spectrum of awful when it comes to the genre — from the cardboard acting of Hallmark Channel treacle, to animated morality-tales featuring talking trains. But the idea, often heard among film snobs and amateur cult cinema historians, that holiday movies bottom out with “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” is false. There are other strata in the fruitcake to be probed, haunted attics and basements in the gingerbread house to be explored. These films go beyond banal categorizations like “good,” “bad” and “so bad it’s good.” They approach, and in some cases enter, the territory of “utterly terrifying,” “possibly brain-damaging” and adverb-adjective combos yet to be coined. 

In the spirit of the season, we present you with 14 holiday weirdies guaranteed to trigger a spasmodic Pavlovian response the next time you hear the words “Christmas movie.”

“Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny” (1972)

This holiday-themed musical fantasy arose out of two hourlong 1970 commercials for Pirate World, a shabby and potentially deadly amusement park in Daytona Beach, Florida. Two years later the same team decided to make a Christmas movie. “Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny” begins a few days before Christmas, as the elves toil away at the North Pole while bitching (in song) about working like slaves while that lummox Santa gallivants all over the place. Inexplicably, Santa’s reindeer suddenly return to the North Pole with neither Santa nor sleigh in tow. Cut to Daytona Beach, where a presumably drunken Santa has crashed his sleigh on the beach outside the gates of Pirate World amusement park. Realizing his sleigh is half-buried in the sand and his lousy reindeer have abandoned him, Santa sings a few verses about his plight, then passes out.

There’s some psychic activity, a grab bag of hapless farm animals, a crew of equally hapless children, a gorilla and a Greek Chorus composed of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, who stand to the side and do nothing. The titular Ice Cream Bunny materializes toward the end driving a fire truck.

Smack in the middle of the action, the film makers plop in one of those hourlong commercials for the theme park (complete with credits!) — a re-telling of “Thumbelina” or “Jack and the Beanstalk,” depending on which cut you see. Ultimately, the movie is as cheap and grubby as the long-since shuttered Pirate World, and any kid who’d been nagging his parents to take him likely had an abrupt change of heart.

“A Very Brady Christmas” (1988)

This may very well be the most painful two hours of network television ever broadcast. Fourteen years after “The Brady Bunch” ended its six-season run, producer Sherwood Schwartz had a brilliant idea: “Hey! How about a ‘Where Are They Now?’ TV movie about those beloved Brady kids, getting together for Christmas?” 

The kids fly in from all over the country to join Mike, Carol and even the housekeeper Alice (who’s still working there for some reason) for Christmas. With the exception of Susan Olsen (who was replaced by actress Jennifer Runyon in the Cindy role), rounding up the original cast was easy, as none of them had anything else going on. 

But there’s the cruel twist. After idyllic, squeaky-clean childhoods in a loving and affluent household, the adult Brady kids have fallen into ruin. There are busted marriages, lost jobs, drug abuse (I assume anyway) and assorted dark secrets. A new building that Mike designed collapses on Christmas Eve, and Carol loses her voice right before she’s supposed to sing at the big church pageant. Alice’s husband even runs off with some floozie!

In those terms there’s some real promise in the first 45 minutes. But it doesn’t last. In the most excruciating scene, Mike dives into the rubble of the collapsed building to save two workers, only to become trapped himself. The rest of the Brady clan is watching nervously when Carol miraculously gets her voice back and begins singing Christmas carols. The kids join in. It gets worse, but I’ll leave it there.

“A Cosmic Christmas” (1977)

This animated half-hour holiday special was produced by a Canadian Christian group who tried to disguise their agenda by shamelessly cashing in on the sci-fi craze that followed “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters.” But try as they might, they operated behind a transparent curtain.

Three kindly and super-intelligent aliens (the three wise men, get it?) land in a small rural village in search of the true meaning of Christmas. A young boy and his pet goose befriend them. But, instead of grabbing pitchforks and torches, the townsfolk seem to take three tall glowing extraterrestrials in stride. The kid takes them to a shack in the woods to meet his family. Instead of freaking out and reaching for the shotgun, his grandmother regales them with Christmas stories.

There’s some mild excitement along the way — a young ruffian steals the pet goose, two youngsters fall through the ice — but once those crises are resolved, the aliens return to their home planet having decided the true meaning of Christmas has something to do with the Baby Jesus and being nice. For all its treacle and gentle inoffensiveness, there’s just something profoundly creepy and unsettling about “A Cosmic Christmas.”

“It Happened One Christmas” (1977)

TV director Donald Wrye attempted what is almost always a terrible doomed idea: remake a classic. Not just any classic, but “It’s a Wonderful Life,” considered the gold standard of feel-good Christmas films. Wrye’s gimmick was a gender-reversal, with Marlo Thomas as Jimmy Stewart, M*A*S*H’s Wayne Rodgers as Donna Reed, Cloris Leachman as the guardian angel and a slew of recognizable character actors playing other familiar roles, also with the gender reversed. The only exception to the rule here is Orson Welles in the Lionel Barrymore role. I mean, why not carry the shtick through to the end and cast Shelley Winters? Apart from the switcheroo, it’s the same story down to the post-war setting, but much more embarrassing. Sometimes the only explanation, never mind defense, you can muster for a film like this is, “It was the Seventies.”

“Sint” (2010)

Here’s one for those cranks who hate Christmas on principle. Dutch director Dick Maas took some early steps toward Krampis territory with his re-imagining of the legend of the warm-hearted Saint Nick. Borrowing heavily from earlier Italian, Spanish and American horror films, as well as Danish folklore, the film presents “Sinterklaas” as a bloodthirsty medieval bishop, murderer and all-around brute who oversees a savage reign of terror. Finally fed up with all his nonsense, the ornery local villagers band together on the night of Dec. 5 and lynch him. As per tradition, in the moments before he died, Sinterklaas vows vengeance from beyond the grave, promising to return every 32 years on that very night to do awful things to the villagers’ descendants. In the years that follow, the tale is softened for the sake of the children, and in the local folklore St. Nick becomes a cuddly figure delivering presents.   But wouldn’t you know it? That anniversary creeps around again. Sinterklaas is true to his word, and Amsterdam runs with blood. It was the top grossing film in Denmark in 2010.

“The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives” (1933)

In the midst of the Great Depression, Warner Brothers released this animated Merrie Melodies short in an effort to raise the spirits of an American populace confronting unimaginable hardships and poverty. It concerns a lonely and despondent little boy who lives alone in a shanty town and Santa, who has found himself homeless. Are you humming “Happy Days Are Here Again” yet?  When Santa decides to move into the shanty with the depressed kid, the two have a splendid Christmas party all by themselves complete with a jazz combo, singing toys and dancing dolls in blackface. Then the Christmas tree bursts into flames.

“Santa Claws” (1996)

You do have to wonder what happened to John Russo. Thirty years after co-writing “Night of the Living Dead,” he came up with this sleazy but unoriginal wonderment, which was much more focused on boobs than Yuletide butchery. In what by that point had become a battered cliche of the Slasher Santa subgenre, a young boy named Wayne (Grant Kramer) sees his mom having sex with a man wearing a Santa hat and murders them both. I’m not sure how this transference would work in Freudian terms, but when he gets older he becomes obsessed with a low-budget scream queen named Raven (played by low-budget scream queen Debbie Rochon) and decides he’s Santa. As you might imagine, stalking someone when you’re wearing a Santa suit is no mean feat, but Wayne gives it his best shot. Most of the film focuses on Raven and her extended family as she gets undressed a lot and wonders why that creep in the Santa suit keeps showing up everywhere — and also why everyone around her keeps dying in a particularly bloody fashion. It can feel like there are two films going on here, a by-the-numbers stalker/slasher movie and a holiday horror film. Likely Russo only had one of them in mind, but after some smarty-pants came up with that clever “Clause/Claws” pun, he just ran with it.

“Jack Frost” (aka “Morozko”) (1964)

This Soviet-era fantasy feature might not be a Christmas film per se (it was the Soviet Union after all) but Jack Frost plays a major role, which is close enough for our purposes here. The plot concerns a peasant family with one sweet  daughter, one nasty and lazy daughter and a cruel stepmother. In an unrelated storyline a young man named Ivan sets out to see the world and promptly encounters robbers, gets turned into a bear for awhile by the magical Father Mushroom, and matches wits with a witch named Baba Yaga who appears throughout Russian folklore. There are complex family dynamics, mistaken identities and arranged marriages. While spreading winter throughout the land, Jack Frost, well, does other stuff. More complicated relationships are formed then dissolve. In Big Concept terms, it’s a holiday folk tale written by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Whether or not you’re familiar with Soviet kid’s movies, you’re in for a treat.

“The Little Drummer Boy” (1968)

I firmly believe Rankin/Bass’ animated holiday specials left far more emotional scars on American children than the Disney Corporation. There was just something about the stop motion animation that gave me the heebie-jeebies. In “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” it wasn’t the Abominable Snow Monster who got to me, it was Hermie, that sadistic amateur dentist who’d clearly seen “Marathon Man” one too many times. And don’t even get me started on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Then there was “The Little Drummer Boy,” based on a Christmas carol I’d always despised and featuring the voice talents of Rankin/Bass’ usual array of has beens: Greer Garson, Jose Ferrer, June Foray and Paul Frees.

A young Jewish boy named Aaron lives on a farm with his loving parents and cuddly donkey, camel and lamb. When he’s given a drum for his birthday, his drumming skills delight everyone. Then a band of marauders slaughter Aaron’s parents. Understandably traumatized, he declares his hatred for all mankind. Some other things happen, but I forgot what, at least until a Roman chariot in Bethlehem runs over his pet lamb, Baba, killing it. Merry Christmas everyone!

Rankin/Bass released a sequel, “The Little Drummer Boy, Book 2,” in 1976. A third entry was released in 1979. This time the action was moved to pre-WWII Poland and was called simply “The Tin Drum.”

“Don’t Open ’Til Christmas” (1984)

Seasoned and respected British actor Edmund Purdom was born just a few days before Christmas. Maybe that helps explain why, when given the chance to direct his one and only film, he decided to make “Don’t Open ’Til Christmas.” There had to be a lot of simmering resentment there, right? For over 50 years every last damn birthday had been ruined by Christmas. Here was his chance to exact a little revenge. The Brit slasher film/mystery thriller offers a bit of a twist on the Killer Santa theme in that it concerns a Santa killer instead of a killer Santa. Yes, in the days leading up to Christmas, some knife-wielding maniac with no Christmas spirit whatsoever begins killing off Santas all over London. The cops fear if they don’t catch him by midnight Christmas Eve, he’ll vanish, only to return again the next year to do the same thing. And the year after that. At times playing more like dark comedy than sleazy slasher film, it’s a good deal of grainy, low-rent fun. 

“Star Wars: An Ewoks Holiday Special” (1984)

This may not be the actual special, but it certainly is something special.

After releasing “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980, George Lucas realized the median age of most “Star Wars” fans was eight. He then made the same dire mistake so many franchise filmmakers before and after him have made: He targeted the next entry directly at that prepubescent demographic. This is why 1983’s “Return of the Jedi” saw the introduction of those adorable and fuzzy teddy bears, the Ewoks.

Since the “Star Wars” franchise has always been about marketing above all else, in December of 1984 we got “An Ewoks Christmas,” a cheap and blatant attempt to sell more Ewok toys that was even more excruciating than you might imagine. But good luck finding a copy. All evidence that “An Ewoks Christmas” — like 1978’s “A Star Wars Holiday Special” before it — ever existed at all has been thoroughly expunged.

“Christmas Evil” (aka “You Better Watch Out”) (1980)

In his one and only film as writer/director, Lewis Jackson crafted a smart and clever black comedy that’s more character study than straight horror film. John Waters insists it’s a comedy about shame and gender nonconformity, but it’s much more than that — it’s the “Taxi Driver” of Yuletide shockers. Brandon Maggart plays a man who takes Christmas way too seriously. His home is filled with bright holiday decorations all year round, and all year-round Christmas carols are playing on the stereo. Santa is his role model, a symbol of all that is good and just in the world. He even works at a toy factory. He so identifies with Santa he takes to spying on the neighbor kids, keeping his own carefully annotated naughty and nice lists. But when he recognizes the level of cynicism and hypocrisy among his co-workers and the people around town as the most joyous time of the year approaches, well, he goes a little funny in the head. He reaches for the suit and beard and ax, determined to reward the good and punish the evil. Maggart has since tried desperately to distance himself from the film, but he gives a remarkable performance here as a completely isolated figure with a head swimming with both joy and rage. It’s the only holiday film I watch annually.

“The Magic Christmas Tree” (1964)

Richard C. Parish’s hourlong no-budget wonderment might have something to do with Christmas, but I’m honestly not sure anymore. 

Parish trots out the weary “Wizard of Oz” trick of sandwiching a color fantasy sequence between an opening and closing in black and white, and the attempted parallels don’t stop there. A kid named Mark is knocked unconscious while trying to rescue an old lady’s cat from a tree on Halloween. When he comes to, he learn’s the old lady is a witch, who gives him some magic seeds. If he plants them on Thanksgiving and performs an occult ritual, she tells him, it’ll grow into the titular Magic Christmas tree. Better still, the tree will come to life and grant him three wishes.

I don’t want to give too much away here, so let’s just say Mark reveals himself to be a big jerk who aspires to, well, you’ll see. Santa gets involved at some point. Whether it was filmed in Parish backyard is unclear, but if you’re familiar with the films of Ray Dennis Steckler, you get the idea. Scholars of questionable holiday cinema often cite “The Magic Christmas Tree” as one of the oddest and most hallucinatory of the genre, as well as one of the cheapest.

“Santa Claus” (aka “Santa Claus vs. The Devil”) (1956)

K. Gordon Murray was an American film producer and distributor who made a decent living for himself in the 1950s and ’60s by picking up the rights to foreign genre pictures (mostly from Mexico), dubbing them into English and renting them to U.S. theaters. English-speaking audiences can thank Murray for “The Brainiac” and “Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy.”

In 1956, he bought the rights to a children’s holiday picture directed by René Cardona, a man better known for horror and exploitation movies like “Survive!” and “Night of the Bloody Apes.” Instead of widespread distribution, Murray limited the film to short (two or three-day) runs around the holidays, when the film would only be shown as a children’s matinee. In retrospect I have to wonder if he limited viewings that way because he knew what kind of effect the film would have on people.

In Cardona’s vision, Santa (José Elías Moreno) lives in a cloud kingdom in space, positioned in a stationary orbit above the North Pole. Instead of elves, Santa has collected groups of children from all corners of the world — North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa. It’s unclear who these children belong to or if they’re in space willingly, but they open the film with a painfully long recital of traditional songs from each nation.

Ten minutes later, we cut to Hell. Although this happens in most Christmas movies, few do it so literally. There, amid the flames, Satan informs a minor and bumbling demon named Pitch (José Luis Aguirre ‘Trotsky’) that he is to turn every child on Earth evil — all just to anger “that old goat Santa Claus” and show the people of the world “who their true master is.”

We are then introduced to three storylines: a lonely rich boy whose parents neglect him, a poor girl whose single mother can barely support them both and three young thugs. Behind each story, we hear Santa’s echoed laughter. Santa’s chuckle snakes through the entire film, often at scenes of misery and despair. It’s unclear why. Finally, centrally, we see the core of Santa’s orbiting kingdom — an observatory equipped with a collection of surveillance devices that would put the NSA to shame. As the narrator (Murray himself) describes it, “This is Santa’s Magic Observatory. What wonderful instruments! The Ear Scope! The Teletalker that knows everything! The Cosmic Telescope! The Master Eye! Nothing that happens on Earth is unknown to Santa Claus!” 

He’s not kidding, either. Santa can see anyone he chooses merely by thinking of them, listen to what they’re saying, even watch their dreams. These are powers he abuses freely.

Visually, the film is a thing of deranged wonder, creating a world of remarkable and frightening imagination reminiscent of Japanese films that would be made 10 or 15 years later. The telescope features a large, roving eyeball instead of a lens. Santa’s sleigh is actually a giant windup toy, the living reindeer replaced with carousel reindeer made of white plastic. The color palette throughout the film (if you can find a decent print) is intense enough to trigger seizures, and the multiple dream sequences are jaw-dropping.

It’s also a remarkably subversive movie, which is no surprise given the director’s background. Along with the kidnapped children Santa’s using as slave labor, the cannon he fires at the demon’s ass, and his often-inappropriate laughter, there’s Merlin, another of Santa’s employees. Merlin runs a drug lab, and on Christmas Eve he develops a “magic powder” that will “give people a sound sleep and fill them with wonderful thoughts and good intentions.” Santa is perfectly willing to deliver babies to children who request little brothers or sisters, and one good little boy is set to receive “an atomic lab and a machine gun.” Then there are the demons at play in a world where Santa and his toys have replaced Christianity.

Fools like to mock the film for its cheap sets and bad acting, without pausing to think about the alien imagination at work or the ideas that Cardona sneaks under their smug noses. It’s a deeply strange, disturbing and ultimately visionary film, created on a minuscule budget. It’s also one that says more about the holidays than we may care to think about.

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