Whether you’re an It’s a Wonderful Life-r, a National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation-er, or even Die Hard-y, you’ve got a favorite movie that you pull out every December as part of your holiday celebration. But for every Elf and A Christmas Story, there are dozens of duds like Christmas with the Kranks and Deck the Halls and The Santa Clause 3 to put a damper on your cinematic fun.
You may, of course, enjoy one or all of those movies: We tend to fall in love with our favorite Christmas films as children, and in some ways, every December that we revisit them, we watch through those same innocent eyes. All of which is to say: If you watched Surviving Christmas or The Family Man on cable when you were seven years old, you will most likely love those movies your entire life. Even if they’re terrible. Which they are.
I’ve come around to appreciating the bizarro 1959 Mexican Santa Claus as less of a bad movie and more an odd gem of low-budget kiddie surrealism. If you want a terrible example of the latter, check out this super-cheap film (apparently, almost no one involved in its production ever worked in the business again) about a kid and a witch and an enchanted seed that grows the titular tree, which talks like Charles Nelson Reilly and grants wishes that lead to slapstick mayhem and the kidnapping of Santa.
Look for: The kid’s first wish is for “an hour of absolute power,” which he uses to make police cars and fire trucks run amok, culminating in a big pie fight. Because who wouldn’t use omnipotence for that?
Mean old millionaire Phineas T. Prune (Rossano Brazzi, who also directed) buys the North Pole so he can foreclose on Santa Claus (Alberto Rabagliati) and cancel Christmas. (This is one of those stories where the underlying premise is no Christmas presents = no Christmas.) Santa turns to kindhearted lawyer Mr. Whipple (screenwriter Paul Tripp) to help out, and after several botched attempts, they eventually teach Prune to love Christmas again. This happy turn of events is capped off by a musical number in which Santa and Prune ride off in the sleigh and sing a song called, I kid you not, “We’ve Got a Date with Children.”
Look for: The ladies wigs that all the elves are wearing.
There’s precedent for Christmas stories going bleak, whether it’s the horrors witnessed by Ebenezer Scrooge or it’s George Bailey yelling at his family, groveling before his rival, and getting punched in a tavern before attempting suicide. But dag, this Disney movie gets really, really dark before the requisite happy ending, and it’s a textbook example of how not to handle a tonal shift in a holiday story. Any movie where Harry Dean Stanton plays a guardian angel is clearly planning to take you to some uncomfortable places, but the underlying message seems to be that if you don’t believe in Santa Claus — like Mary Steenburgen’s harried housewife and mother — everyone you love will be killed horribly on Christmas Eve. Or something like that.
Look for: The moment when a getaway car that may contain Steenburgen’s children as hostages skids off an icy bridge and into the water. Magic Christmas, everybody!
After raking in the bucks on their late-70s Superman franchise, producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind turned to another universally beloved figure with the power of flight: jolly old Saint Nick himself. Once we get past the origin story of how a kindly 14th century woodcutter winds up living at the North Pole, the movie detours and spends a great deal of time on an inventive but clumsy elf (played by Dudley Moore) and his decision to run away to New York City, where he falls in with a greedy toy manufacturer (John Lithgow, giving what may be the one terrible performance in an otherwise distinguished career). Throw in a streetwise urchin and some eye-assaulting polka-dot outfits on the elves, and you’ve got one humbuggy holiday stinker.
Look for: The blatant McDonald’s product placement. Ho Ho Hamburglar!
Based on one of the most cringe-inducing songs ever recorded, it’s no surprise that this made-for-TV movie is hard to stomach in its own right. As comedian Patton Oswalt so accurately sums it up, this is a story about God killing a woman so a grumpy man can rekindle his Christmas spirit. Inflating the ditty’s simple tale to two hours of television, however, requires a gargantuan lattice of coincidence, mostly woven around Rob Lowe as an emotionally detached family man and Kimberly Williams-Paisley as a choir director whose days are numbered. When a movie has to play the “mommy dying at Christmas” card — looking at you, Stepmom — it’s a sign of desperation.
Look for: The kindly shopkeeper who, in this movie’s universe, may or may not also be the Supreme Deity.
If you must: Available on DVD.
The first credit in this movie isn’t for a movie studio or a distributor — it’s for a bank, which reveals that a.) this film probably only got made for some complicated deal involving frozen assets or money laundering and b.) only a fat paycheck could get this many talented people involved in an enterprise so soul-crushing. Director Andrei Konchalovsky (in happier times, he directed arthouse fare like Runaway Train and Shy People for Cannon Films) gives us an “updating” of the classic ballet that includes hip-hop orchestrations of Tchaikovsky (with new lyrics by Tim Rice), toy-destroying rats strutting about in Nazi-esque uniforms; and Nathan Lane camping it up as Albert Einstein. This isn’t just one of the lousiest Christmas movies ever made but one of the singularly worst films of all time. And not even in a fun way.
A new addition to the canon, this screed from former child star turned endlessly quotable evangelist Kirk Cameron barely even counts as a movie. Its 80-minute running time is padded with a lengthy introduction from the sitcom veteran, closing credits jammed with unfunny outtakes, and an extended dance sequence in which Cameron and costar-director Darren Doane get to bust out their freshest 1986 breakdance moves. The rest of the film offers Cameron’s crackpot theories — with no regard for history or science — about how everything we think is pagan about the holiday (trees, Santa, etc.) was really Bible-based all along. Oh, and that materialism is awesome since Christmas is about the divine manifesting itself as human. Saving Christmas is the kind of Sunday School lesson you sneak out of in the hopes of finding lemon bars in the fellowship hall.
Look for: Cameron talks a lot about cocoa, but it’s obvious that the mug he’s “drinking” out of is completely empty.