Crackers and turkeys

From classic seasonal schmaltz to forgotten festive flops, Tim Cooper remembers the Christmas movies we love and hate
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The Independent Culture

Like politics and sport, there is a compelling argument for keeping Christmas and films as far apart as possible. Despite the fact that Christmas movies rarely do well at the box office, every year Hollywood churns out a new batch of oven-ready stinkers. At a cinema near you, as December began, there was a choice between The Polar Express, Bad Santa, Christmas With the Kranks and Surviving Christmas.

Like politics and sport, there is a compelling argument for keeping Christmas and films as far apart as possible. Despite the fact that Christmas movies rarely do well at the box office, every year Hollywood churns out a new batch of oven-ready stinkers. At a cinema near you, as December began, there was a choice between The Polar Express, Bad Santa, Christmas With the Kranks and Surviving Christmas.

Tempting as it is to see seasonal-themed films as part of a growing commercialisation, in fact cashing in on Christmas is far from a new phenomenon. Way back in 1897 there was a silent film called Santa Claus Filling Stockings, while the legendary film-maker DW Griffith was making the most of the season of goodwill with A Trap for Santa Claus in 1909.

A century later, the trend for Christmas films has reached a new peak. Or perhaps a more accurate word is trough. Of course, not every Christmas film is a turkey. Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life remains a classic, guaranteed to warm the cockles of even the most Scrooge-like heart. Perhaps, though, the secret to its success is not its sentimentality but Jimmy Stewart's suicidal depression as Christmas Day approaches. Now that's surely something with which we can all identify at this time of year.

Then there's The Apartment, arch-cynic Billy Wilder's monochrome melodrama of lonely souls drawn together over Christmas in New York. Less cloying than Capra's film, there's a darkness beneath its sentimental heart, with Jack Lemmon as the exploited office worker falling in love with Shirley MacLaine's exploited mistress when her lover - his boss - deserts her to spend Christmas with his family.

Cynicism similarly rubs shoulders with charm in Miracle on 34th Street, a thought-provoking fantasy about a department-store Santa ("Kris Kringle") who believes he is the real Father Christmas, gets certified insane for saying it, and goes to court to prove it. And if that's not dark enough for you, there's always this year's surprise package, Bad Santa, with Billy Bob Thornton as a foul-mouthed con man giving Mr Claus a very bad name. Don't take the kids!

There are other great Christmas films, or at least films that are great to watch at this time of year, from Bill Forsyth's tale of Glaswegian ice-cream wars, Comfort And Joy, to Tim Burton's dark animated fantasia The Nightmare Before Christmas. But far more pleasure is to be found in some of the heroic (and not-so-heroic) failures of the Christmas-film genre.

Take, for example, Santa and the Ice-Cream Bunny. What kind of loon, you might ask, could come up with the idea of a film in which Santa gets his sleigh stuck on a Florida beach and has to seek help from the local children, until he is rescued by that well-known festive character the Ice Cream Bunny?

Yet this is by no means the worst Christmas film. Feeders 2: Slay Bells, is a straight-to-video job in which Santa is ambushed by aliens while a family - played by the film-maker's own family to keep costs down - prepares for Christmas. Thank goodness Santa has a child's toy laser gun to zap the aliens back to where they came from.

The other Big Idea is the Christmas-horror category, which brings us the likes of Silent Night, Deadly Night, in which a teenage boy sees his parents murdered by a man in a Santa suit and, growing up in an orphanage run by strict nuns, develops some sort of sexual perversion which sets him off on a killing spree that involves plenty of gratuitous breast shots.

In the same genre is Christmas Evil (tagline: "He'll sleigh you"), in which a boy grows up haunted by the discovery that - look away now kids - Santa may not actually be real. He becomes a toy-maker and goes on a yuletide killing spree.

And no list would be complete without this year's two prize turkeys. Christmas With the Kranks simultaneously attacks Christmas as a commercial sell-out, then attacks you, the viewer, if you don't buy into it and celebrate with your lovely family. And let's save a place for Surviving Christmas, with Ben Affleck as an obnoxious millionaire who pays a family to let him spend Christmas with them. Since they seem to find this satisfactory, one can only assume they had not seen Gigli.

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