Holidays at the Extremes

We had a lot of fun during the Mandated Lockdown—insofar as one can have fun under such circumstances—coming up with lists of Christmas classics, as can be seen here in Christmas Ornaments from 2020, and then again in 2021 when I tried to watch as many of your suggestions as I could throughout the year to produce Christmas Ornaments 2: The Deckoning, and honestly did not have a chance to go through the ever lengthening list for last year or this one.

Nonetheless, as the season kicked off, I noticed an unmistakable holiday flare to the films that were coming my way, so I thought I’d do another roundup of old and new, and normal and…more unusual fare.

I like the mask and outfit. Totally impractical but looks cool.

We kicked the season off with It’s A Wonderful Knife. Michael Kennedy, the writer of Freaky—the horror themed Freaky Friday ripoff where a teenage girl switches bodies not with her mother but with the local slasher—and Tyler MacIntyre, the writer/director of the interesting Tragedy Girls (about two girls who develop an unhealthy obsession with the attention they receive by being in the center of a variety of murders)—team up to give us this variation on the Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life.

The hook is interesting: Winnie Caruthers is a “final girl” who kills the evil serial killer/mayor of her small town (played by Justin Long, who’s having a really good turn playing scumbags), but her life ends up going badly afterwards so she wishes she was never born, and finds herself non-existent in her small town where the slasher is still running amok.

It’s one thing to parody a mid-level Disney live-action flick which wasn’t even original back in the day, and a much bigger challenge to try to parody a meticulously crafted film like IAWL. Whether you like it or not—and I suspect the contrived nature of IAWL is off-putting for a lot of haters—Capra’s film is neatly constructed where everything in the front of the film impacts George’s non-existence (and our experience of it) in the back end.

But IAWK falls apart immediately. Just for starters, our character isn’t the type to kill herself, especially over a cheating boyfriend. (Made even less lightly by the last act “twist”.) In her alternate reality, the killer’s still out there, but her mom’s a slut and her dad’s a cuck, and major changes she couldn’t possibly have impacted are seen all over the place—but she’s also able to prove she’s who she say she is by pulling out some small event that happened in her reality and you just find yourself thinking, “Well, wait, why would THAT be the same, given everything else that’s different?”

We have no angels, of course, so they have to come up with another excuse, but they still kind of cling to the idea of an angel. There’s a star that seems to have opinions about things. But those opinions shift as the plot requires. It’s even dumber than I’m making it out to be. There’s a second act twist (which The Boy thought was going to be the first act twist) involving the killer, and that throws the whole premise into question—i.e., she wasn’t “uncreated”, she’s just been transported into an alternate reality. In which the slasher isn’t the slasher but may be a demon in league with the star and…all desperate dumbness is wrapped up in a cheap ribbon by having a character from the original universe somehow “remember” what happened in the alternate.

As I said, it’s even dumber than I’m making it out to be, and as a bonus we get the now common The Message when our heterosexual lead suddenly goes gay. (Women may now enjoy the inability to have same-sex friends without sexual overtones. Merry Christmas.) The Message compounds an awful earlier scene where two boys who are completely irrelevant to the plot and are killed shortly thereafter have an on-screen make-out session for 30 seconds.. Doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s close to 1% of the non-credits runtime of this undercooked film. (After writing this, I saw Kennedy tweet “this was really a movie for OUR community”. If so, it can go into the bin next to the Christian movies that are made knowing the audience will forgive moviemaking sins because they approve of The Message.)

If you love slashers, I suppose none of this matters, and all that matters is the kills. There are a couple of good ones, including a kind of nice “guy being murdered outside a window where everyone is party”. But it’s a thin gruel to serve for the holidays.

Citizen Kane. I don’t suppose I have to say much about it. It’s fashionable to hate these days (even moreso than It’s A Wonderful Life) but when I told The Boy I was going to see it (alone, if necessary) he tagged along and spent the whole time on the way back talking about what a great movie it is. It really is. Christmas movie? When Charles Foster Kane gets a sled from his caretaker on his first Christmas away from home, you see the whole character laid out before you.

You’re probably only going to get murdered in Grenoble by “crowds of youths” but that doesn’t come up here.

Anatomy of a Fall. A French film. Is it Christmas? I don’t know, but it’s snowing. Snowing in the craphole of Grenoble, France, where a man plummets to his death from the top floor of the couple’s “fixer” in time for their son to find him bleeding out. Did a stranger come in and push him out the window of his remote cabin? Did his wife murder him? Did he jump? This movie is called a mystery-thriller-drama, but the ‘gique’s rule is that if a movie says it’s a thriller and anything else, it’s not a thriller. It’s also not much of a mystery as there can only be one conclusion to the film that makes any sense. It’s actually mostly a courtroom drama, and a good one, but don’t expect it to be thrilling or mysterious. (Grenoble looks lovely, by the way, but it’s the home town of the dead guy who first forces his family to move there, then complains about how awful it is.)

The Sting. This one I did go see alone. I haven’t seen it since I was a teenager, when I loved it. I loved it a little less today, I think because it couldn’t surprise me. I didn’t remember the details of the heist, but I remembered the shape enough to go, “Oh, yeah, here’s where the next twist happens.” That said, it’s a powerhouse cast, besides Newman and Redford, you’ve got Charles Durning, Robert Shaw, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Harry Gould, etc. The writing is tight, as each character has just a little screen time, and they all make the most of it. Costumes by Edith Head earning her her eighth and final Oscar. Scott Joplin’s ragtimes—totally time inappropriate—arranged by Marvin Hamlisch dominated elementary school piano recitals for a decade.

Not really a holiday movie but it was released on Christmas Day, 1973.

Maybe DON’T taunt the mob?

Thanksgiving. The smartest thing about Eli Roth’s slasher is that they didn’t try to make the movie from the trailer of Grindhouse. Instead, they made a good movie, which is the best slasher I’ve seen in quite some time and while gratuitously gory in parts, a far cry from the torture porn teased in the old fake trailer. This movie is actually mysterious and thrilling, even while it’s as trope-y a horror movie as you’ll find. Roth knows his stuff.

A slasher typically has an inciting incident. In the ’80s, the most common one was a high school humiliation. A prank gone wrong leads to a thirst for revenge, or what have you.  (Then the killer isn’t who you think it is, or the killer is who you think it is, but you didn’t know it was that cast member.) In Thanksgiving, the inciting incident is a Black Friday sale gone horribly wrong. A mob breaks into a RightMart and people end up dead and crippled in a scene that was genuinely gripping and disturbingly realistic.

Flash-forward to the next year and you have a whole town of suspects to choose from. And because this small New England town (in Canada) celebrates (the real historical figure) John Carver, everyone runs around in a John Carver mask which looks a little like a cross between Guy Fawkes and the Burger King.

We got tropes, people. So many tropes. But actually done well. For example, a common horror trope is having the characters be so awful, you’re rooting for them to be killed. Here, we start out with some unlikable people but as the movie develops most—the ones not killed immediately—get a shot at redemption. Even the evil stepmother (who had the idea for the Black Friday event to begin on Thanksgiving night) who is portrayed as a soulless gold-digger at first has her moment.

Storytelling tip: If the audience about whether your characters live or die, it’s more exciting when they’re actual in peril.

Anyway, the movie mostly doesn’t cheat on the mystery, so while the reveal involves an obscure motive, it’s actually hinted at repeatedly and I had noted all these “odd” little moments, that made the conclusion pretty satisfying. Roth does cheat in terms of presenting the killer, i.e., it’s a different person behind the mask so you can’t figure it out by body type, but that goes back to Psycho. If you like gore (or can tolerate it) it’s just a solid film.

So many red herrings.

I’ll be back on the 23rd with The HoldoversThe Lion in Winter and more!