What is it about Christmas that brings out the humbug in moviemakers? While there have certainly been some excellent films centered around the holiday — It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, even Bad Santa — there have been far more execrable ones.
Whether wallowing in insincere sentiment, offering barely disguised cynicism, or simply displaying aesthetic incompetence, countless Christmas movies seem to have been produced with the intention of waking our inner Scrooge. It’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing down-- last holiday season saw the release of the abominable Love the Coopers, while this year has seen audiences shun the sporadically funny but ultimately disappointing Bad Santa 2.
Straight-to-DVD titles and movies made for television have resulted in a sizable number of eggnog-curdling efforts, and those will be addressed in time. Here, though, are 15 of the worst theatrical releases centered around the most wonderful time of the year.
15 Surviving Christmas
In 2003, moviegoers received a gift in the form of Bad Santa; the following year, they got a lump of coal in the shape of a Bad Movie.
Unlike the Billy Bob Thornton hit, which for the most part keeps its dark heart pumping bile right through to the end, this misguided farce tries to have it both ways by dribbling watery drops of black comedy into the more familiar bedrock of sweet sentimentality. Ben Affleck delivers an embarrassingly eager-to-please performance as Drew Latham, a millionaire so dead-set against spending Christmas alone that he offers a suburban family $250,000 if they'll just pretend to be his family for the holidays.
It’s a feeble foundation for an entire film, and its four screenwriters did the project no favors by making both Drew and the dad (James Gandolfini) who pimps out his own family thoroughly obnoxious. Of course, Drew is supposed to make a miraculous transformation from a self-absorbed jerk into an empathic human being by the final reel, but given the character's unwavering smugness (not to mention sadistic bent), it's hard to tell exactly how, when, or why he's been redeemed.
14 Babes in Toyland
This 1986 musical was actually produced for American television — it originally aired on NBC — but we’re slipping it onto this list since it was released theatrically in Europe. (Quick, how do you say, “I want my money back” in German?)
Incorporating elements of The Wizard of Oz, this movie finds Drew Barrymore playing a little girl who’s knocked unconscious and awakens in the magical realm of Toyland. There, she teams up with plucky young couple Jack Nimble (Keanu Reeves) and Mary Contrary (Jill Schoelen) as they try to outwit the dastardly Barnaby Barnacle (Richard Mulligan).
Toyland merely looks like a studio backlot and the anthropomorphic animals that populate it are about as convincing as those animatronic critters that used to overpopulate children’s pizza parlors. Reeves displays the clumsy quality that has somehow sustained him for three decades now, while Pat Morita appears as the Toymaker, a benevolent being whose true identity is only expo-ho-hosed toward the end. Needless to say, those expecting a reveal on the level of Keyser Soze will be sorely disappointed.
13 Santa Claus: The Movie
This expensive production was a notorious critical and commercial underachiever when it debuted back in 1985, with one reviewer helpfully suggesting it be renamed Santa Claus: The Bomb. But the proliferation of television airings, the bustling video market, and the nostalgia factor have all allowed it to pick up a number of fans over the years.
Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with David Huddleston’s portrayal of the title do-gooder, with the actor radiating the proper degrees of good cheer and goodwill. Unfortunately, he’s practically a supporting character in his own film, with far too much of the action centered around the tiresome exploits of a mischievous elf (Dudley Moore) and the dull dealings of a miserly toy mogul (a hammy John Lithgow). For a film that cost a then-whopping $50 million, the sets frequently look chintzy and cheap, with Santa’s workshop bringing to mind a prison sweat shop as much as a toy factory.
12 The Nutcracker
Between the silver screen and the small screen, there have been dozens of productions based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story and/or Tchaikovsky’s ballet, including several in the animated field. (Who’s up for Care Bears Nutcracker Suite? Or Barbie in The Nutcracker?) But none have a reputation for being completely satisfactory, doubtless because the tale’s endearing qualities when performed live on stage — particularly the sense of magic and wonder that permeates the theater — are lost when the story is flattened out for the screen.
The 2010 adaptation The Nutcracker in 3D, starring Elle Fanning and Nathan Lane, was particularly savaged by critics, but it’s 1993’s The Nutcracker (aka George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker) that ranks as the biggest disappointment. Balanchine’s annually performed stage show, featuring the New York City Ballet backed by Tchaikovsky’s classic music, deserves better than this surprisingly dour and overcast adaptation, indifferently directed by Dirty Dancing helmer Emile Ardolino. Macaulay Culkin, cast purely for marquee value, is particularly ill-at-ease as the Nutcracker Prince.
11 Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
The original Home Alone was so successful upon its 1990 release that it was briefly the third — yes, third — top-grossing film of all time, behind only E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Star Wars. Such blockbuster fortunes demanded not only a sequel but a sequel that changed as little of the formula as possible.
With director Chris Columbus and scripter John Hughes both returning for the 1992 follow-up, that was no problem. As in the first film, young Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) again gets accidentally abandoned by his irresponsible family at Christmas and again has to contend with two bumbling crooks (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern).
Aside from the change in locale (the Big Apple instead of Chicago), the key difference in this otherwise recycled junk is that of temperament. A sweet tyke in the first film, Kevin here comes off as progressively more cruel toward the hapless crooks (the slapstick is applied with a heavier hand) and more insufferable to everyone else (he smugly lectures a homeless woman).
Just when it appears this can’t get any worse, along comes Electoral College and Razzie Award winner Donald Trump in a pointless cameo.
10 A Christmas Carol
Officially, the title is Disney's A Christmas Carol, which makes sense since it sure as heck isn't Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. While this 2009 animated version admittedly retains more of the literary classic than might reasonably be expected, it's also accurate to state that a key ingredient of the novel — namely, its humanist spirit — is largely missing from this chilly interpretation.
Writer-director Robert Zemeckis, who used to make terrific movies in which the special effects served the story and not the other way around (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump), had already mixed Christmas and the motion-capture process by helming the stagnant 2004 feature The Polar Express. This endeavor is even more joyless, and Zemeckis pads the material with such silliness as Scrooge being blasted into the stratosphere or a chase scene through the cobbled streets of London.
Jim Carrey is in his element — he zestfully provides the voices for Scrooge and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come — but the rest is decidedly dispiriting.
9 Silent Night, Deadly Night
What was basically a standard slasher flick became a lightning rod of controversy once the nation got wind that this 1984 release featured a killer who wore a Santa suit while embarking on his reign of mayhem. Young Billy, who (not unlike Batman) witnesses his parents being murdered by a thief, is particularly disturbed that the assailant is sporting a Santa suit. Years later, the 18-year-old Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) loses it at Christmastime and begins slaughtering almost everyone he encounters — all while donning a Santa outfit.
Parents protested, Gene Siskel read out the names of the key creative personnel on an episode of At the Movies (“Shame on you!” he admonished), and Leonard Maltin, in his annual Movie Guide, assigned the film his BOMB rating and wrote, “What next — the Easter Bunny as a child molester?” Faced with mounting criticism, the picture was pulled from theaters after a couple of weeks.
Witless even by slasher-film standards, Silent Night, Deadly Night did emerge as a hit on video, and it was followed by four sequels (one starring Mickey Rooney!).
8 Jack Frost
In 1998, Michael Keaton hit rock bottom so hard that a body cast was probably in order. He began the year by starring in one critically panned box office flop, the thriller Desperate Measures, and ended it by starring in another critically panned box office flop, the seriocomedy Jack Frost.
The latter finds Keaton playing the titular Jack, a struggling blues musician who doesn’t spend enough quality time with his wife (Kelly Preston) and son (Joseph Cross). While rushing home to be with his family for Christmas, he dies in an automobile accident, returning a year later in the form of the snowman that his kid built.
One sight gag involves a dog urinating on the mobile snowman — while such a scene would be the low point in about 1,000 other films, here it’s merely the norm. It also took four screenwriters to come up with dialogue so horrendous, it could have singlehandedly ushered in a new era of silent cinema. “You the man!” “No, you the man!” “No, I’m the snowman!” Pass the spiked eggnog, stat!
7 Mixed Nuts
Lengthy lists of terrible Adam Sandler movies always leave off this 1994 abomination, and with good reason. Released the year before he started building his fan base with the double-barreled assault of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, the picture finds Sandler only essaying a supporting role. The top-billed star is Steve Martin, cast as one of the good Samaritans manning a suicide prevention hotline on Christmas Eve. In addition to the usual callers, they also have to deal with a ukulele-strumming ninny (Sandler), a lonely transvestite (Liev Schreiber in his film debut), and a serial killer on the loose.
Even with such high-caliber comedians as Martin, Madeline Kahn, Garry Shandling, and Jon Stewart at its beck and call, Mixed Nuts is a shockingly laughless affair. The film represents the nadir of the late Nora Ephron’s career as a writer and director, and fans of her work on Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally… knew well enough to stay home and roast chestnuts on an open fire instead.
6 Santa Claus
This one definitely falls into the so-bad-it’s-kinda-awesome camp. A 1959 Mexican production, Santa Claus was released in the U.S. in a dubbed version so that kids could enjoy it. Over 30 years later, the film was added to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 roster so that adults could likewise luxuriate in its heady splendor.
The entire movie plays like a particularly vivid fever dream, full of such disturbing sights as robotic reindeer, an oscillating fan with a human ear attached to it, and a prancing red demon who seems to perpetually be auditioning for A Chorus Line. This Santa eschews the North Pole for some undefined spot in the clouds, where he employs kids instead of elves (doubtless breaking various child-labor laws), solicits neat inventions from no less than Merlin the Magician (basically the Q to Santa’s James Bond), and uses all manner of intrusive devices to spy on children all over the world. The film turns into a classic “good vs. evil” saga as Santa battles the dancing devil Pitch for the soul of an adorable little moppet named Lupita.
5 Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
Unlike the aforementioned Santa Claus, which only became widely known after its MST3K enshrinement, this 1964 boondoggle was already familiar to bad-movie buffs thanks to those popular "worst film” festivals during the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians centers on a plot by the Martian rulers to kidnap Santa Claus so that he may cheer up the sad little kids on the Red Planet. Unbeknownst to the powers-that-be, three despicable Martians plot to (gasp!) assassinate the jolly red giant.
Just how incompetent is this picture? Its ineptitude applies even to the opening credits, which lists a “custume” designer. John Calls plays Santa, and his maniacal leer and continual groping of the children is a far cry from Miracle on 34th Street's Edmund Gwenn. There’s a laughable robot named Torg, the wacky (and painful) antics of “laziest man on Mars” Dropo (Bill McCutcheon), the tacky theme song “Hooray for Santy Claus," and room-clearing jokes like “What's soft and round and you put it on a stick and you toast it on a fire and it's green? A Martianmallow!”
4 Saving Christmas
While watching a group of teens awkwardly attempt to dance in 1964’s The Horror of Party Beach, Crow T. Robot (on MST3K, natch) cracks, “I had a generally positive impression of white people before this movie.” The same can be stated about the climactic scene in 2014’s Saving Christmas (or: The Horror of Sanctimonious Message Movies). Watching Kirk Cameron and friends shimmy and shake to a hip-hop rendition of “Angels We Have Heard On High” is ghastly enough to leave even teetotalers feeling like they’re suffering from the DTs.
Put together so incompetently that it barely qualifies as a film (critic Christy Lemire famously dubbed it “The Room of Christmas movies”), this holiday howler is basically 80 minutes of Cameron lambasting Christians for not being intolerant and close-minded enough. According to Saint Kirk, the true meaning of Christmas can be found not in charitable deeds but at the bottom of a hot mug of cocoa.
Far more entertaining than anything thrown on the screen is what transpired after the film’s release. Pouting over the film’s 0% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Cameron implored his Facebook groupies to flood the site with raves for his stinky stocking stuffer; instead, naysayers went to both RT and IMDb and voted the film all the way down to the pits of Hell.
3 Jingle All the Way
A movie about a neglectful father who tries to get his son a Turbo Man action figure on Christmas Eve certainly had the potential to serve as a reminder that the true joys of the season aren’t material possessions. Instead, this 1996 turkey prefers to push the notion that all it takes is to restore “family values” is a hunk of plastic— and for all its faux-grandstanding against commercialism, actual Turbo Man dolls were being sold at stores nationwide (and now on eBay).
Watching Arnold Schwarzenegger take a stab at light-hearted comedy was often like watching a whale try to maintain its balance on a gymnastics beam, although he’s admittedly funnier than co-stars Sinbad (cast as a mentally unbalanced postal worker) and Jim Belushi (as a shady store Santa). There’s also Phil Hartman as Arnie’s neighbor — he does such “girly-man” activities as bake cookies, lovingly dote on his son, and accept responsibility, so naturally he’s the villain of the piece.
If nothing else, Jingle All the Way offered viewers of the day a sneak peek at Jake Lloyd, who portrayed Schwarzenegger’s son — three years later, he would be essaying the role of little “Annie” Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace.
2 Deck the Halls
There have been numerous holiday hack jobs that champion cynicism and mean-spiritedness before tacking on a phony redemptive ending. This 2006 dud is particularly unbearable, as its imbecilic storyline centers around the desire of obnoxious car salesman Buddy Hall (Danny DeVito) to put enough Christmas lights on his house so it can be seen from outer space. Buddy’s plan thoroughly disgusts his tightly wound neighbor Steve Finch (Matthew Broderick), who tries to undermine Buddy’s efforts but instead is humiliated in predictable sitcom fashion.
This nonsense seems to have been conceived on the back of a snot-soaked tissue by a none-too-bright third grader. Deck the Halls desperate gags are all on the order of having Buddy climbing buck-naked into a sleeping bag with Steve in an effort to warm him up, or the two men leering and hooting at teenage girls ("Who's your daddy?") who turn out to be their own daughters.
Clearly, nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a smattering of gay panic and allusions to incest!
1 Christmas with the Kranks
Forget the 12 Days of Christmas; there are at least 12,000 ways that 2004’s Christmas with the Kranks earns the honor as the worst Yuletide film ever made.
Based on John Grisham's book Skipping Christmas, this celluloid atrocity casts Jamie Lee Curtis and Tim Allen as a suburban couple who elect to bypass Christmas altogether and use the money to treat themselves to a Caribbean vacation over the holidays. It's a decision that draws instant revulsion from their friends and neighbors, as everyone unites to make the couple's lives miserable in an attempt to force them to renounce their decision and again embrace the commercialism of the season.
On a purely comedic level, the movie fails to deliver a single, solitary laugh. Dig a little deeper, though, and there lies a repugnant yarn whose idea of morality wouldn't be out of place at the Nuremberg rallies. The Kranks aren't allowed to think or act for themselves lest they upset their upper-middle-class burg's status quo, and the intrusive, overbearing, conformist neighbors are ultimately depicted as heroes for "converting" the pair to their narrow-minded way of thinking.
With fascism in Hollywood movies like this, who needs politics?
What's your least favorite Christmas movie? Let us know in the comments.