Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, December 4, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 4

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

If you were to ask me what my all time favorite Christmas movie was, I would not hesitate to answer. I have watched “The Muppet Christmas Carol” every year since I was at least five years old. I can recall the red and blue VHS box, with the poster art replicated under a border, with perfect clarity. It’s also the Christmas movie I’ve seen more then any other and that’s including some of the television specials. I love the film so much that I’m having difficult putting these thoughts into words. To me, “The Muppet Christmas Carol” is Christmas. The two are irrevocably linked.

We all know the plot of “The Christmas Carol.” Of greedy old miser Ebenezer Scrooge, the three ghosts corresponding to his past, present, and future, his loyal employee Bob Cratchit, Bob’s sickly son Tiny Tim. What’s especially impressive about “The Muppet Christmas Carol” is that it doesn’t soften the sadness or spookiness of the story. It might actually ratchet the former up. Usually, Scrooge is unmoved by seeing his finance Beth leave him. In this version, he’s reduced to sobs. When he sees his cousin Fred and friends making fun of him, he nearly cries as well. Upon hearing that Tiny Tim may die, his lines “How can we endear it?” ring with a whole new level of emotion. The Cratchit household during the Christmas when Tiny Tim dies is solemn and quiet. As for the spookiness, “The Muppet Christmas Carol” gets surprisingly chilly in its last act. An air of foggy uncertainty hangs over that final third. Even the Marley brothers, played by the quibbling Statler and Waldorf, are kind of spooky. That was something Henson and company were great at. “Family friendly” doesn’t necessary mean “simpering kids’ stuff.”

One of the reasons I’ve always loved the original “Muppet Movie” was Paul Williams’ beautiful, funny, melancholy songs. Williams didn’t compose the songs for most of the Muppet sequels but he did, thankfully, return for this one. The opening number, “Scrooge,” has a driving melody and clever lyrics. “One More Sleep ‘till Christmas” should be every kid’s theme song on December 24th, with soft, hum-worthy music. “Marley and Marley” is maybe my favorite number in the film, with a foreboding melody and some of Williams’ most caustic, memorable lyrics. “It Feels Like Christmas” is an incredibly sincere Christmas song, summing up much of what the holiday means to many people. “Bless Us All” is probably the weakest song but still packs an incredibly powerful message. “Love is Gone” is excised from the theatrical version which seemed like a loss to me. It’s a heartbreaking number.

There are laughs too, because no muppet movie is complete without them. Something incredibly smart that “The Muppet Christmas Carol” does is introduce Gonzo as Charles Dickens, a narrator placed within the story. This allows the adaptation to progress fairly straightly, while Gonzo and Rizo provides the chuckles. My favorite gags involve Gonzo directly addressing the story’s status as fiction. Such as when he refers to the story as “culture,” so it’s okay if kids get scare. Or that he’s an author and thus omniscient. Some of the looser gags, such as Rizo chased by a cat, freezing in a bucket of ice, or falling down a chimney are harder to take. Yet even these sometimes work, such as when he easily navigates though a gate. Or a slow pan across the busts of literary greats in a school house. That also leads to Sam the Eagle’s brief role, one of the funniest bits in the film.

Casting a famous literary story with characters from an established show can be tricky. “The Muppets Christmas Carol” carefully approaches this. Smartly, it doesn’t cast one of the muppets as Scrooge or any of the ghosts. Instead, Michael Caine plays Scrooge. Though arguably not old enough, Caine happily embodies every emotion the character goes through. He’s a more human Scrooge, the hurt and pain that have led him here all too apparent. I also love the original designs for the ghosts. The spectral, floating Ghost of Christmas Past has always impressed me. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is unapologetically creepy, silent and judgmental. Truthfully, neither feel like a traditional muppet. Only the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present feels muppet-y. It adds an entirely different flavor to the film then what you’d expect.

The production design is beautiful as well. The film embraces the artificiality of its set, creating a world where man and muppet can easily co-exist in Dickensian England. Though other adaptations are truer to the text or handle the story in more nontraditional ways, “The Muppets Christmas Carol” will always be my preferred version of “A Christmas Carol.” Funny, meloncholey, touching, and with beautiful songs, it impresses me every single time I watch it. Nothing gets me in the Christmas spirit quicker. [9/10]

Tales from the Crypt: And All Through the House

When I first started reviewing “Tales from the Crypt” episodes for Halloween two years back, I intentionally skipped “And All Through the House.” Though only the show’s second episode, a Christmas-themed story struck me as inappropriate. My initial plan was that I would review “And All Through the House” as part of that year’s Christmas festivities. After all, this episode has become an annual part of my seasonal viewings anyway. Well, we all know how well that worked out. So anyway, two years later, here I am finally getting around to writing my review for the missing episode of “Tales from the Crypt.”

On Christmas Eve, a wife murders her newest husband, in hopes of inheriting his fortunes. The young daughter, meanwhile, can barely sleep, she’s so excited for Santa’s visit. This definitely disrupts the wife’s plans. Also disruptive: The deranged axe murderer, dressed as Santa Claus, that has escaped from the local insane asylum. Now, the wife has to cover up her own murder while trying to survive the serial killer attacking her.

Like most “Tales,” “And All Through the House” revolves around an evil-doer getting punished in turn. The episode seems to happily delight in putting Mary Ellen Trainor’s murderess through increasingly stressful scenarios. As she’s disposing of her husband’s body, the corpse springs back to life for another scare. In a well-orchestrated jump scare, she bumps into the killer Santa. While she steps outside, in a quickly formed plan to frame the Santa for her husband’s death, she drops the keys in the snow. Later, while reaching inside a closest for a gun, the doorknob comes loose on the other side! The misfortunes are so increasingly contrived that the episode quickly reaches a hysterical, comic pitch. This is helped along by Trainor’s performance, who never stops scheming even while panicked.

As a horror story, “And All Through the House” is nicely assembled. Considering the episode turns traditional holiday imagery on its head, Robert Zemecksis’ picturesque direction is appropriate. The fireplace, Christmas tree, and snow-covered home look practically out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Larry Drake’s drooling, demented performance as the mad Santa killer is extremely effective, matched to the material. The twist ending is a classic, providing a fittingly nasty fate for the duplicitous protagonist. While not the scariest or most clever “Tales” episode – screenwriter Fred Dekker would do better work with the show later on – “And All Through the House” remains a classic, a twisty and darkly funny half-hour. [7/10]

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