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Santa's Film Wishlist for Grown-Ups

All mentioned films in article
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One of the most readily recognisable figures in popular culture, Father Christmas has been starring in films since they first started flickering. In 1897, the American Mutoscope company released two short subjects, Christmas Eve and Santa Claus Filling Stockings, which were followed a year later by the first British film to feature the man in the red suit, George Albert Smith's Santa Claus, or The Visit From Santa Claus. Edison's Santa Claus' Visit (1900) told a similar story, as a nocturnal visitor trims the tree before delivering some presents.

An intriguing variation on the festive theme was presented in Willard Louis's Santa vs Cupid (1915), as Raymond McKee and Billy Casey both don Santa suits to try and impress Grace Morrissey at her wealthy mother's Christmas party. Yet, while Santa Claus has racked up dozens of screen credits over the last 125 years, it's only comparatively recently that the festive feature has become a staple of both film and television production.

Family Festivities

A still from One Magic Christmas (1985)
A still from One Magic Christmas (1985)

Christmas is a time for families to come together and forget any petty differences and rejoice in seasonal goodwill. But numerous knotty issues usually have to be resolved before everyone can enjoy a cosy celebration around the hearth. Young mother Ginny Grainger (Mary Steenburgen) needs the help of both a guardian angel named Gideon (Harry Dean Stanton) and Santa Claus (Jan Rubes) to rediscover the joy of the holidays through the eyes of her six year-old daughter, Abbie (Elisabeth Harnois), in Philip Borsos's One Magic Christmas (1985), while New York siblings Thora Birch and Ethan Randall have to ask Leslie Nielsen's Santa to help reunite their estranged parents, Harley Jane Kozak and Jamey Sheridan in Robert Lieberman's All I Want for Christmas (1991).

Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis are so blighted by empty nest syndrome when their daughter joins the Peace Corps that they decide to cancel their festivities and go on a Caribbean cruise in Joe Roth's Christmas With the Kranks (2004). But they still manage to throw a Christmas Eve party, which umbrella salesman Marty (Austin Pendleton) has to leave early because he not only guards a secret, but also has a very busy night in front of him. The fates align in Michael Feifer's A Nanny For Christmas (2010), as Ally (Emmanuelle Vaugier) lands a job with Beverly Hills advertising executive Samantha (Cynthia Gibb) and not only brings some Christmas cheer to her well-behaved kids, but she also helps chocolatier Danny (Dean Cain) with a new campaign, with a little help from Santa (Keith Dobbins).

Humbug Krissy Kringle (Hilarie Burton) has never forgiven parents Walter (Michael Gross) and Carol (Meredith Baxter) for her festive name. However, it seems to work to her advantage in David Mackay's The Christmas List (2012) when she gets hold of the Naughty and Nice ledger that should have been delivered to Kris Kringle (Googy Gress), as she realises it gives her power over everyone she knows, including her nasty neighbour and her boss.

When Santa (Abraham Benrubi) loses his magical powers and finds himself grounded in the back end of beyond in Dustin Rikert's The Great Santa Rescue (2013), farming siblings Zach (Benjamin Stockham) and Miley (Caitlin Carmichael) have to restore the festive faith of mother Renae (Joey Lauren Adams) and their country neighbours in order to get the sleigh airborne again. Former basketball player JB Smoove attempts to impress the kids when he volunteers to repair an electrical Santa decoration in David E. Talbert's Almost Christmas (2016), which centres on widowed waiter Danny Glover's efforts to persuade bickering siblings Kimberly Elise. Gabrielle Union, Romany Malco and Jessie Usher to cease hostilities for five days over the festive period.

You'd Better Watch Out

Blink and you could miss the man in the red suit in certain movies. Especially if he's in black and white, as is the case in Gus Meins and Charles Rogers's March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934), a reworking of the Babes in Toyland story that sees Stannie Dum (Stan Laurel) and Ollie Dee (Oliver Hardy) encounter Santa (Ferdinand Munier) while trying to keep Bo Beep (Charlotte Henry) out of the clutches of the evil Barnaby Barnicle (Henry Brandon).

Joseph J. Greene has a walk-on as Santa in Henry Koster's The Bishop's Wife (1947), but the focus is on the relationship between an angel named Dudley (Cary Grant) and Julia (Loretta Young), who is married to anxious cleric Henry Brougham (David Niven). Frank Johnson puts in an uncredited appearance as Santa in Don Hartman's delightful department store picture, Holiday Affair (1949). But there's something decidedly dubious about the Santas that indebted gambler Bob Hope sends around New York to raise funds for the Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls in Sidney Lanfield's spirited Damon Runyan adaptation, The Lemon Drop Kid (1951). The same year also saw Virgil Johnson take the bit part of Santa in Irving Cummings's Double Dynamite, which stars Groucho Marx as a waiter who helps bank teller Frank Sinatra out of a jam so that he can marry sweetheart Jane Russell.

A still from White Christmas (1954)
A still from White Christmas (1954)

There's a surfeit of red suits trimmed with white towards the end Michael Curtiz's White Christmas (1954), as Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen join Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye on stage for an irresistibly kitschy rendition of Irving Berlin's signature tune. Despite the presence of a man in a Santa suit (Hal Smith), lift operator Shirley Maclaine had little to be cheery about after she discovers at the Christmas party that boss Fred MacMurray is a serial philanderer who exploits the hospitality of meek employee Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960).

Eddie Murphy plays Billy Ray Valentine, a homeless hustler with more attitude than conscience in John Landis's Trading Places (1983), a reworking of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper that sees the broking Duke brothers (Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy) conclude a holiday wager to determine whether Valentine has more street smarts than company bigwig, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), whose reputation they destroy as part of their 'nature vs nurture' experiment and who memorably turns up at an office party in a grubby Santa suit and attempts to eat salmon through his soiled beard.

When it comes to festive hard-luck stories, however, nothing can top the one told by Phoebe Cates in Joe Dante's Gremlins (1984), as she recalls how her father died when he broke his neck while trying to come down the chimney in a Santa suit. But friend Zach Galligan soon has much more to worry about after he breaks the strict rules about light, water and post-midnight snacks while taking care of his pet mogwai, Gizmo.

There are lashings of dystopian science fiction satire on offer in Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), a cautionary tale about the evils of acquisitiveness that includes lots of crummy decorations and a sequence in which a family is attacked by the secret police for watching A Christmas Carol on television. There's also a scene in a department store that sees a group of people carrying a banner that reads 'Consumers For Christ' and a little girl sit on Santa's knee and ask for her own credit card.

People tend to forget the festive setting of John McTiernan's Die Hard (1988). But NYPD cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) gets into the seasonal mood during a hostage crisis by sending the corpse of Tony (Andreas Wisniewski) to Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in an elevator wearing a Santa hat and a shirt emblazoned with the words: 'Now I have a machine-gun. Ho-ho-ho.'

Al 'Red Dog' Weber and Jean Speegle Howard get caught up in TV executive Bill Murray's spectral redemption in Richard Donner's Scrooged (1988), while Michael Kinney's Santa has a passing part to play in self-obsessed book editor Ally Walker's change of festive heart in Alan Metzger's If You Believe (1999). The peerless John Hughes was responsible for the screenplay for Chris Columbus's Home Alone (1990), which earned nine year-old Macaulay Culkin a Golden Globe nomination for his inspired performance. Culkin, as Kevin McAllister, asks a man dressed as Santa (Ken Hudson Campbell) to tell the real Father Christmas that he wants his family back together again after he is accidentally left behind from a trip to Paris and has to defend the family's Chicago homestead from burglars Harry Lyme (Joe Pesci) and Marv Merchants (Daniel Stern).

A still from About a Boy (2002) With Nicholas Hoult
A still from About a Boy (2002) With Nicholas Hoult

Hugh Grant has been living off the royalties of 'Santa's Super Sleigh' since son Nicholas Hoult was a child in Chris Weitz's adaptation of Nick Hornby's About a Boy (2002), Gary Sinise and his gang plan to turn Christmas into a time for taking, as they rope Ben Affleck (who is regretting assuming his old cellmate's identity) into donning a Santa suit to participate in a casino robbery in John Frankenheimer's full-blooded thriller, Reindeer Games (aka Deception, 2000).

Frozen road means that there are no easy ways out for shady lawyer John Cusack and confederate Billy Bob Thornton when they make a $2 million Christmas Eve snatch from boss Randy Quaid in Harold Ramis's amusing tale of bungling villainy, The Ice Harvest (2005), which features an uncredited Rick Touhy as Santa. Mall security guards Ice Cube and Mike Epps face an equally tricky assignment when they go on a hunt for the Santa who burgled their home in Marcus Raboy's Friday After Next (2002).

Being out late on Christmas Eve can be highly dangerous, as Santa (Richard Riehle) discovers when he is repaid for reuniting Harold Lee (John Cho) and Kumar Patel (Kal Penn) by being accidentally shot in the head in Todd Strauss-Schulson's A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas (2011). One of Hollywood's busiest Santas, Riehle had previously donned the red suit in Jonathan Kesselman's comedy, The Hebrew Hammer (2003), in which Damian Claus (Andy Dick) is thwarted in his bid to ruin Hanukkah by the oddball alliance of Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg), Esther Bloomenbergensteinenthal (Judy Greer) and Mohammed Ali Paula Abdul Rahim (Mario Van Peebles).

The eternal winter created by the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) gives a bleakly unfestive feel to Andrew Adamson's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), which was adapted from the first of CS Lewis's beguiling religious allegories. However, Father Christmas (James Cosmo) still manages to put in an appearance to give Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) the gifts they need to help restore Aslan the lion.

Super-spoilt Rubie (Athena Baumeister) is so used to getting whatever she wants that she has failed to realise she's developed a mean streak. However, Santa (Freddie De Grate) sees everything and changes Rubie's appearance to reflect her spiteful spirit and she has to earn a gift from a true friend to return to normal in Jeff Solema's Santa and Me.

A still from The Night Before (2015) With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie And Seth Rogen
A still from The Night Before (2015) With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie And Seth Rogen

Joel McHale wishes someone like the Hobo Santa (Oliver Platt) would deliver him from the grimmest of fates when estranged father Robin Williams insists on joining him on an eight-hour road trip to fetch a forgotten present in Tristram Shapeero's A Merry Christmas Miracle (2014). A couple of drunken Santas give Joseph Gordon-Levitt a pasting for espousing the spirit of Christmas, as he and pals Seth Rogen and Anthony Mackie seek the location of New York's legendary Nutcracka Christmas Eve party in Jonathan Levine's The Night Before (2015), which is narrated by Father Christmas himself (Tracey Morgan).

Having dealt with alpha mothers Christina Applegate, Annie Mumolo and Jada Pinkett Smith in Jon Lucas's Bad Moms (2016), Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn have similar misgivings about spending the holidays with mothers Christine Baranski, Cheryl Hines and Susan Sarandon in the same director's A Bad Moms Christmas (2017), which sees the daughterly trio seek sanctuary at a Sexy Santa contest.

Feuding stepdads Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg also have doubts about asking fathers John Lithgow and Mel Gibson to join them in celebrating the season in Sean Anders's Daddy's Home 2 (2017), especially when the latter persuades grandson Owen Vaccaro to ask a store Santa (Naheem R. Garcia) for a shotgun. If you'd rather keep things factual, why not try Tommy Avallone's I Am Santa Claus (2014), a documentary that profiles five men who make a living by growing a white beard and being holly jolly for a few weeks each year?

Bumps in a Silent Night

Once the kids are tucked up in bed, there's no better way to end a festive day than with the lights out and a few jolts to the system. Why not ease yourself in slowly with Joan Collins's murderous antics in 'And All Through the House', an episode in Freddie Francis's Amicus portmanteau, Tales From the Crypt (1972), which sees her cower from a homicidal maniac in a Santa suit after dispatching her husband on Christmas Eve? The men in the red suits are on the receiving end in Edmund Purdom's cult British horror, Don't Open 'Til Christmas (1984), which sees the director double up as the Scotland Yard inspector baffled by the senseless, but diabolically inventive slaughter of so many disparate Santas.

Flashing forward 20 years after a blaze engulfs a mansion on the outskirts of East Willard, Massachusetts on Christmas Eve in 1950, Theodore Gershuny's Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) follows what happens when lawyer Patrick O'Neal arrives in town to sell the old dark house. Another maniac goes on the rampage in the sorority house where Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder are partying with their friends in Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974), while the shock of seeing mommy kissing Santa Claus turns an innocent boy into a crazed killer deciding who's been naughty and nice in Lewis Jackson's Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out, 1980).

A still from Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
A still from Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Another psycho discovers that a Santa suit doesn't show bloodstains in Charles E. Seller, Jr.'s Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), which was followed by the bleakly comic sequels. But Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) is too astute to fall prey to the mall Santa he encounters after heading back from Angel City in 2247 to Los Angeles in 1985 to capture psychic mastermind Michael Stefani in Charles Band's Trancers (1984), which not only features Helen Hunt in an early role as a grotto elf but also a throbbing punk rendition of 'Jingle Bells'.

Jan Sint may only be a fleeting presence in Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder (1990), but the Salvation Army Santa is on screen long enough to steal the precious wallet belonging to traumatised Vietnam War veteran Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins). Having lost a bet to an angel over a curling match, Santa (former WWE wrestler Bill Goldberg) is finally freed from his annual jaunt after a thousand-year hex is lifted in David Steiman's Santa's Slay (2005) and he embarks upon a killing spree by drowning Fran Drescher in eggnog. Store Santa Donal Logue becomes the prime suspect when a masked maniac in a red suit starts stalking sheriff Malcolm McDowell's patch in Cryer, Wisconsin in Steven C. Miller's Silent Night (2012), which loosely reworks Charles E. Sellier, Jr.'s controversial 1984 slasher, Silent Night, Deadly Night.

Jason Hull puts a new twist on holiday horror by reviving the Austro-Bavarian terror who hunts down naughty children in Krampus: The Christmas Devil (2013). Subsequently, Robert Conway cashed in on the concept with Krampus: The Reckoning (2015) and Krampus Unleashed (2016), while James Klass and Eddie Lengyel respectively provided a fresh slant with Mother Krampus (aka 12 Deaths of Christmas, 2017) and Mother Krampus 2: Slay Ride (2018). However, Michael Dougherty has made the best fist of conveying the sinister mood of this malevolent sprite in Krampus (2015), which plays up the myth's Germanic origins as Toni Collette and Adam Scott's constant bickering prompts son Emjay Anthony to lose faith in the festivities and rip up his letter to Santa. Big mistake!

Europe has also contributed a clutch of rousing horrors, including Dick Maas's Sint (aka Saint), which is set on 5 December and dwells on the Dutch tradition of Sinterklass and his helper Zwarte Pieten to show the benevolent 15th-century bishop going rogue. Taking us further north, Jalmari Helander's Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (both 2010) exploits Krampus mythology in centring on the Finnish figure of Joulupukki, as the son of a reindeer herder becomes convinced that all is not right with the iconic Lapland peak, Korvatunturi, after a British research team drills into the rock.

When they find themselves trapped in the North Pole, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) seek help from Santa (Nick Frost) to confound some sinister dream crabs in Paul Wilmshurst's Doctor Who: Last Christmas (2014). Fifteen years after a neighbour's young daughter mysteriously disappeared, college student Ashley Mary Nunes is faced with unmasking a slaughtering Santa when she comes home for the holidays in Todd Nunes's All Through the House (2015).

A still from A Christmas Horror Story (2015)
A still from A Christmas Horror Story (2015)

It's always nice to get a selection box over the holidays and there are several stories to choose from in Grant Harvey and Steven Hoban's A Christmas Horror Story (2015), which sees Rob Archer go on the rampage as Krampus and Santa George Buza have to deal with some zombie elves. Homeless war veteran Colin Murtagh has to rely on his combat skills when three psychopaths wearing Santa suits attack the down-and-outs seeking shelter in a courthouse in Stuart W. Bedford's Blood Tidings (2016). And finally, proving that giving is always better than receiving, someone spikes the punch at the Pope family gathering with a truth drug that sparks a frenzy of brutal honesty in Adam Marcus's Secret Santa (2018).

For more special holiday recommendation, visit Holidays Film Collection and celebrate the season!

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