If You're Feeling...Festive
"It's Christmas!" So said Noddy Holder in 1973 and, it would seem, every year since as halls have been decked and people have been getting jolly to Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody since it's release almost twenty-five years ago. But in amongst the tinsel, the mistletoe and the holly, the tang of stale alcohol on morning-after mouth and the smell of pine trees dying in the waterless warmth of someone's living room, Christmas is a time to make something of those early evenings, the flicker of Christmas lights and warm fire to settle down, leave the cold outside and enjoy a seasonal film. Accompanied by a mince tart, a glass of mulled wine and presents underneath the Christmas tree, even hokey old movies with a mere smattering of snow can become festive treats, something that television stations realise more than most.
More often than not, the five main television stations don't let their viewers down at Christmas. Granted, some films, those that one might expect to get at least one airing over Christmas, come and go. It's A Wonderful Life and White Christmas, both of which ought to be shown every year, are sometimes conspicuous by their absence. Home Alone is as sweet a Christmas treat as a film in which a child arranges for a hot iron to smack a grown man in the face can be but it's rare that it's actually shown in the festive period, sometimes limping out earlier in the year when it's still bright outside and it's Christmassy charm wears thin. And, of course, for every one who's looking forward to a Christmas showing of Holiday Inn, The Christmas List or any one of a number of films starring Richard Thomas, who, more than any other actor, seems to have made it his life's work to feature in Christmas films, including his role as John Boy Walton for The Homecoming: A Christmas Story.
Like the VHS era before it, DVD allows one to ignore the schedules of the television stations almost completely and to arrange for one's own evening of entertainment. There are very few times of the year in which a set of festive films are quite so welcome. Hallowe'en is just the one night, leaving one picking just the one film to celebrate all things ghostly. Easter, whilst not short of biblical epics, does tend to test one's endurance for watching a man crucified on a hilltop, which leaves Christmas as the one season in which we can gorge on movies, from those for children, for adults and for old Scrooges who like a bit of misery to be served with their turkey and cranberry sauce.
At DVD Times, we've occasionally celebrated Christmas with a couple of reviews and at least one feature but this piece catches up with all of that in an effort to fill your plate with Christmas reviews. With Christmas being a time for children, it's best to start there, suggesting reviews of Santa Claus: The Movie, Mickey's Twice Upon A Christmas and Home Alone: Family Fun Edition. An often overlooked little Christmas special is the Matt Groening-produced Olive, The Other Reindeer based on the Vivian Walsh and J Otto Seibold book of the same name - it's much better known in the US than in Europe - in which a Drew Barrymore-voiced dog heads to the North Pole to help after Blitzen draws up injured, mishearing Santa's, "...maybe all of the other reindeer could pull the sleigh" as, "...Olive the other reindeer!" For a classic Christmas story, complete with monsters, a choir and the making of a posset, you could do much worse than the release of The Box Of Delights, one of the finest of Christmas stories brought to the screen wonderfully by the BBC. However, there aren't many laughs in it, which is where National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation comes in with its tale of the Griswold's suffering through Christmas and yet in amongst the crispy-baked turkey, it still finds time for the kind of heart-warming tale that goes down so well at Christmas, as does (apparently) Christmas With the Kranks. Then again, so too, in spite of the name, does The Nightmare Before Christmas with its story of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin king, stumbling upon Christmas Town and deciding that he'd rather plan for Christmas this year than his usual Hallowe'en. Cue a lot of crying children opening rather horrid presents on Christmas morning. Much nicer gifts come with The Polar Express, which, if you can get past what some have described as very lifeless computer animation, is a fine Christmas tale as an unnamed boy, who's having his first doubts about Santa, is called north on the Polar Express to meet the man himself. Many adventures follow and it's a good film to get excited children in the mood for Christmas and for going to bed early.
Mention of the BBC brings to mind all of the Christmas specials they've released over the years. DVD releases of the Morcambe & Wise and Two Ronnies specials are pending from 2|Entertain but in the past they've released The Office - Christmas Specials and a good many seasonal specials for Christmas including, Teletubbies: Happy Christmas, Balamory: Panto And Other Stories and Seeking Santa and CBeebies: The Ultimate Christmas Collection. Although Lazytown: Surprise Santa And Other Stories would be in the running for the best Christmas special they've released for children, that honours goes to Volume 8 of Charlie And Lola, which includes How Many More Minutes Until Christmas, a twenty-two minute special that sees Lola going to the North Pole to meet with the elves.
Of course, Christmas is not all about children and there are some notably dark tales set at this time of the year. There's the grumbling Santas of The Ref, Bad Santa and Unrated Version and the sight of Death in the famous red costume in the DVD release of Sky's adaptation of the Discworld tale of The Hogfather. There's slaughter in mind in two versions of Black Christmas, one being the original Black Christmas while the other dating from last year, Black Christmas (2006). Die Hard and Die Harder ought to get a mention, as should Brazil, which makes it into this category given its seasonal setting and from a few years back, we off a review of the non-anamorphic, original Criterion release. Another suitably nasty story for Christmas comes with Gremlins, which might open with snow falling on a Capra-esque town but ends in bloodshed, monsters and the story of Santa dying in the chimney space. Finally, one of the very best Christmas tales of recent years comes with The League Of Gentlemen: Christmas Special, which is probably the best thing they've ever done. Dark, sinister, festive and funny, vampires, voodoo and the curse of Karrit Poor are all included as are the nastiest characters from the television show, all produced with the League's typically high standards to produce a Christmas special that's more than an equal for anything put against it. Perhaps it doesn't warm the cockles of one's heart but not every Scrooge has to learn a lesson.
Speaking of Scrooge, we are rather amiss when it comes to the many versions of A Christmas Carol, only finding ourselves able to offer the really quite awful A Christmas Carol: The Musical, which stars Kelsey Grammer as Ebenezer and Jennifer Love Hewitt as Emily. The lowest point of this particular version is not the terrible computer-generated London but Jane Krakowski as the Ghost of Christmas Past, twirling herself around Scrooge's four-poster bed in the manner of a pole-dancer. Dickens would be shocked. Much better comes with the Japanese Daiteiden no Yoru ni, a portmanteau of stories set in Tokyo on a Christmas Eve when a young boy tracks a rogue satellite falling out of orbit towards Tokyo, which knocks out the lights and leaves the city in darkness. In the dark, a series of magical stories happen, including one of Ginji and Reiko that's as heart-warming as the very best of Christmas and which ends with Santa creeping around in the snow and leaving a present that's so precious it can't be gift-wrapped.
As BBC4 has been showing us this week, Christmas isn't always about Santa as there are plenty of us for whom Christmas can't pass without a ghost story. MR James was the master of this, settling himself down on Christmas Eve by candlelight to tell a ghostly tale to his students and the BFI have seen fit to release two of the BBC's adaptations of his stories on DVD, Whistle and I'll Come To You and A Warning To The Curious. A few more exist in the archives, not least Lost Hearts, The Stalls Of Barchester Cathedral, No 13 and A View From A Hill, all of which were shown by BBC4 in the past few days, but these and others are yet to be made available on DVD. A box set for next Christmas would be most welcome. However, the BFI have also seen fit to release The Signalman and Nigel Kneale's ghost story for Christmas '72, The Stone Tape and a better ghost story you may not ever come across. "What I want for Christmas is please go away!"
Finally, proving that we have had something of the festive spirit before now, we compiled a list of our Favourite Christmas DVDs for Christmas 2006. Yes, there are some notable films missing from this list, The Muppet Christmas Carol, It's A Wonderful Life and White Christmas amongst them, but it's not quite Christmas yet and the next few days might bring surprises still.