We Wish You a Scary Christmas

From Raspberry World – Volume 2, Issue 4 (December 2006 / January 2007)

 

   Hiya – if you haven’t figured it out by now, The Season is upon us once again. And as you also know, it won’t be long before you can’t turn on your television without getting hit in the eyes with such holiday fare as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947 and/or 1973 and/or 1994), The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) and similar, um,… stuff. Now, these are all fine films, of course, and certainly worth your time and attention – but you might find your blood-sugar levels rising to dangerous heights, even if you try evening it out with a dose of A Christmas Story (1983).

    Not to worry. We here at Raspberry World and, in particular “Midnight”, are all sharp and shiny, ready with some holiday alternatives that will nevertheless give others the impression that your Christmas spirit is as ripe as anybody’s.

   At times like these, it pays to look to history for inspiration. For many years now, it has been a seasonal tradition in the United Kingdom to pass the Yuletide, and specifically Christmas Eve, with the most grim and ghoulish ghost stories one can summon to mind. And of course, the most famous and least objectionable to other Earthlings is the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol. The problem, though, is which one to select. There are more versions out there than most people have fingers and toes to count them on. So which is the most suitable to our purposes, here? That is to say: which is the scariest?

   Hmm? Well, I hardly thought I’d have to remind you that A Christmas Carol is, after all, a ghost story. Oh, certainly. All that stuff about Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit and what-have-you has overrun your memory. Old Scrooge is visited by four spirits, the first being his old friend and partner, Jacob Marley, and frankly, his scene is the most chilling of the lot – or should be. The most famous film version is, probably, the 1951 British version, starring Alistair Sim and a raft of English character actors, but the 1938 production, starring Reginald Owen, with Leo G. Carroll as Marley has many fine points to recommend it.

   A sadly neglected triumph, however, is the 1935 British production, Scrooge, starring Sir Seymour Hicks as the archetypal miser. His confrontation with Cratchit at the end is truly a joy to watch, Sir Seymour is having such a good time.

   And there will surely be the endless flood of animated Christmas Carols to agitate your acid reflux. For the most part, you can safely give them a miss, but two stand out: Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962) is mostly harmless and less comedic than one might expect. Aimed at kids, there’s still plenty for adults to enjoy.

   The other animated Christmas Carol is Disney’s 1983 release, Mickey’s Christmas Carol. What more perfect casting than Scrooge McDuck as his namesake? Some other characters are shoehorned in, but for the most part, everything runs smoothly, with a minimum of annoying songs, and a few trademark Disney chills. One thing about the folks at Disney, they can scare the bejunior out of you, when they put their minds to it, and Black Pete might seem as appropriate to the role of Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come as Goofy is as Jacob Marley, but I assure you he has some intimidating moments.

   I mentioned annoying songs. I am aware that there are musical versions of this Dickens classic out there, but I beseech you, if you must have music, check out Albert Finney in Scrooge (1971) and leave it at that. It has been frowned upon, but for my own taste, it’s as entertaining a production as Sir Carol Reed’s 1968 release, Oliver!, even if it doesn’t boast Jack Wild and Ron Moody.

   There you have your supply of holiday Dickensiana.

   Let’s move on. In a more modern, er, “spirit”, I now refer you to The Woman in Black (1989), as produced by BBC-TV for their annual Christmas ghost story. Scripted by the late Nigel Kneale from Susan Hill’s novel, it is a hair-raising affair, for those of us content to do without pyrotechnics. It’s subtle, and you might miss a lot if you don’t pay attention, but the cumulative effect is downright debilitating, and you don’t see the end coming until far too late.

   Another Christmas ghost story, also from the typewriter of Nigel Kneale (and original to him, this time) is The Stone Tape (1972). With consummate skill, Kneale manages (once again) to pull the rug out from under his audience, turning everything you thought or suspected about how hauntings work on its ear. And as usual, the final scene is devastating.

   For those who enjoy a little more meat in their Christmas mince pie, I recommend You Better Watch Out (1980), recently out on DVD as Christmas Evil. There is an entirely-too-long list of Christmas themed horror films that present us with killer Santy Clauses, but I do have to say, this one is effective and disturbing, while remaining quite entertaining. And for those of you who know who Brandon Maggart is, you’ve never seen him like this. If this is your thing (and for most of you, even if it isn’t), you’ll find it most rewarding. And the ending – well, see it, and if you believe it, let me know right away.

   Then, we have an interesting though (because?) troubled production, Silent Night, Bloody Night (1974). Boasting a cast of known vets of the genre (Patrick O’Neal, Mary Woronov and John Carradine, among others) whose appearances are admittedly brief, it tells the tale of a man coming to claim his inheritance – an old mansion that was formerly an asylum – and discovering that the dearly departed might not have departed to such a distance after all. The main trouble is, one of the prominent characters had cancer which, at the time he began shooting, had gone into remission. Unfortunately, it came right back out of remission and the poor fellow died. There is, therefore, quite a bit of “shooting around him” as they say in The Biz. That was only the beginning of the difficulties. One mystery, to me, was in fact planned, however – John Carradine, he of that beautiful, sonorous, stentorian voice, is cast as (are you ready for this?) a deaf-mute. I have nothing against deaf-mutes, mind you; it just seems like a waste of a perfectly good John Carradine.

   Finally, I have a Christmas surprise for you. One hears a title like Black Christmas (1974), and one is immediately swamped with visions of axe wielding maniacs in Santa suits. However, I am here to tell you – and I give you my word – you have been lead astray. Oh, there are murders, yes, indeedy. And there is an especially psychotic killer involved. But what you get in this package is a taut suspense thriller, a minimum of blood, and a mystery that, if you’ve never seen the film, doesn’t seem like a mystery to anyone but the people onscreen. But brother, have you got a surprise coming! Right up until the end credits roll, I was sure I had it figured out – and the creeps double-crossed me! Well, that’s not really true. In Black Christmas, the audience is never outright lied-to; rather, the viewer is furnished with perfectly valid information and left to draw his or her own (wrong) conclusions. It’s as clever a bit of 90-odd minute long misdirection as I’ve seen – ever. And when the credits finally roll, and the realizations and implications start slamming home, all you can do is sit there with your chin in your lap and marvel.

   Right then – we’ve kept each other long enough. You have Christmas shopping still to do (admit it!), and I have my own discomfiting schtuf to attend to. Meanwhile, until we meet again in the New Year, I hope you will all have a happy holiday season. Merry Christmas, where appropriate, and to the mishpoche, a Happy Hanukkah.

– K.C. Locke

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