Generoso’s Favorite “Fractured” Christmas Films

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Generoso’s Favorite Fractured Christmas Films

There is definitely a felonious element running through this list of our favorite “fractured” holiday films as I have found that the evil that we do really becomes more glittering when placed in a usually festive, “joy to the people,” holiday setting. Three of the five films that I have assembled for you this year represent the following subgenres: Christmas-horror, Christmas-western, and yes, even a really downbeat Christmas-film noir. I truly hope that these five intense Christmas films will help you cut through the noise of the endless array of suburban paradise holiday specials and made-for-tv films that depict a holiday experience that so few of us actually encounter this time of year. Joy to the world!

1) Comfort and Joy / dir Bill Forsyth / 1984
Popular morningtime radio disc jockey, Alan ‘Dickie’ Byrd’s (Bill Paterson) gorgeous kleptomaniac girlfriend Maddy (Eleanor David) unexpectedly moves out a few days before Christmas, which thrusts Dickie into an lonely existential crisis. One night while looking for meaning in his life and perhaps a new girlfriend, Dickie stumbles upon and intervenes between an extremely violent and silly ice cream truck war that is being waged between two rival Italian families in freezing Glasgow. Dickie tries, in vain, to counsel the two warring clans, but more often than not, his prized BMW takes the brunt of the hostility. Forsyth (Local Hero, Gregory’s Girl) is the all-time master of the dry, absurdist comedy, and his film, Comfort and Joy, expertly reinforces the maxim of William Blake, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom…You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.”

Comfort and Joy (Meeting Mr. Bunny)

2) The Day of the Beast (El día de la bestia) / dir: Alex de la Iglesia / 1995
Father Ángel Berriartúa (Álex Angulo), a Basque Roman Catholic priest has been fervently studying The Book of Revelation and is certain that the birth of the Antichrist will happen on Christmas Day. The good father devises a plan which involves his committing every sin in the book in order to attract Satan so that he can sell his soul to the devil and be in a position to kill the Antichrist when he is born so that the world can be saved from the apocalypse. As he needs a crew, Father Ángel recruits the Italian Cavan (Armando De Razza), a TV host of a show on the occult, and José María (Santiago Segura), a shotgun-wielding, drug addicted, death metal shop employee. Day of the Beast is as frenetic as de la Iglesia’s previous feature, Acción Mutante, but it is more focused on its plot and is oddly endearing due to its flawed but intense characters.

Day of the Beast trailer (English dub)

3) Blast of Silence / dir: Allen Baron / 1961
Written, directed, and starring Allen Baron, this grimmest of grim of film noirs takes place during what should be the merriest of seasons. Frankie Bono (Baron), is a Cleveland hitman who decides to spend the holidays in New York as so many do, but instead of wandering the city streets in search cool big city presents, Frankie is trying to find that perfect spot to whack a low-level mobster named Troiano (Peter H. Clune). You can’t whack empty-handed, and as Frankie needs a gat for the big day, he stops by the deplorable digs of Big Ralph (Larry Tucker), a morbidly obese gun dealer who has a bit of a rat fetish to put a heater on order. I should mention here that while all of the gleeful holiday magic occurs before you, the gravelly voice of Hollywood-blacklisted actor, Lionel Stander over-narrates the voices lurking deep inside Frankie’s head, which are as as jolly as you would imagine coming a lonely, cold-blooded killer on Christmas Eve. In fact, these voices go into an even epically darker place when Frankie mires in his depression while having a beer alone in a one-armed joint. While wallowing with brew in hand, Frankie runs into Petey and Lori, who are, of course, childhood friends from the Catholic orphanage where they all grew up in misery together. The pair invite Frankie to a joyful Christmas party as, “No one should be alone on Christmas Eve,” but with Frankie, perhaps an exception should be made for that rule. I have long been a fan of film noir, and there are a few more within the genre that are set during the season of giving (Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday comes to mind), but Blast of Silence may be the best at using Christmas as a loving backdrop to emphasize the grimness of its characters’ circumstances.

Blast of Silence Trailer

4) Will It Snow For Christmas? (Y’aura t’il de la neige à Noël?) / dir: Sandrine Veysset / 1996
A mother (Dominique Reymond) is being exploited, along with her seven children, as slave laborers on a farm in Southern France by the family’s bastard of a father (Daniel Duval), who is taking the profits from their work to fund a life of splendor for his “proper” family that lives across town. What has always set this film apart for me is the bravura performance by Reymond as a mother with few material means who strives to create a loving connection between her and her children as the holidays draw near. With Christmas approaching, things become even more tenuous when the mother’s resolve starts to wane as she wakes up to face her and her family’s grim predicament of being penniless during the holidays. Veysset’s bold first feature is as harsh as it is honest about pain of maternal love when faced with a society that could give less of a damn about the love that you have for those whom you have created.

French trailer for Will It Snow For Christmas?

5) Trail of Robin Hood / dir: William Witney / 1950
This action packed, Christmas seasoned western starring everyone’s favorite singing cowboy, Roy Rogers, might be a bit too violent at times for the Hallmark crowd, but it still manages to come up with a wild cornucopia of outlandish crowd-pleasing ideas to fill its good versus Grinch plot that runs amok through its 67 minutes. Real life silent movie western star, Jack Holt, plays Jack Holt himself, who is now retired from the picture business and is content in playing out his days raising affordable Christmas trees for poor families. Unfortunately, Jack’s altruistic tendencies are being noted by nearby loggers who aren’t so happy with Holt’s undercutting of their budding, high profit tree operation. And, here’s where the film really goes off the rails…The logging goons rough up Holt’s men, going as far as to kill a few, and then the thugs decide to burn down the building where our retired film star is hosting a Christmas tree tying party. Holt goes into a slight coma, and the goal for our protagonists becomes a race to get the Christmas trees to families before the evil loggers cut all access to town. Roy Rogers is of course the gallant hero who comes to save the day, but the tough stuff is mostly handled by thirteen year old Carol Nugent who plays Sis McGonigle. Sis is a gun-toting, shooting fool who straightens out men thrice her weight and keeps company with a giant turkey named Sir Gallahad, who she won in a skeet contest. Bizarrely, this film was released the same year as the 1950 French novel Le salaire de la peur (The Salary of Fear) by Georges Arnaud, so one has to wonder if Witney was mind-melding with his French counterpart, for the final scene of Trail of Robin Hood involves racing wagons filled with flammable Christmas trees over a burning bridge, which creates the same level of precarious tension that fills the pages of the Arnaud’s novel. Indeed, this is some nutty stuff for a Roy Rogers western.

Trail of Robin Hood (full movie)

1979’s “That Sinking Feeling”: The Very Charming and Overlooked First Film Of Director Bill Forsyth

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By 1984, Scottish director Bill Forsyth was getting quite a bit of notice here in the States. His second film released here in 1981, was a painfully funny and sweet coming of age story called “Gregory’s Girl,” which achieved critical, if not commercial success. Local Hero, his second film, and an art house favorite from 1983 starring Burt Lancaster, remains one of the classic quirky, dry comedies of that decade.   So, in 1984, I, like so many other fans of his work were wondering…What was Bill Forsyth’s debut film like? Much to my delight, a limited release of “That Sinking Feeling” premiered in Philadelphia in 1984 at Sansom Street’s Roxy Theater, which meant I immediately had to go see it after school that Friday.

“That Sinking Feeling” begins with the tagline, “The action of this film takes place in a fictitious town called Glasgow. Any resemblance to any real city called Glasgow is purely coincidental.” Truly, Glasgow seems a dreary, sad place in the late 1970s or at least the “Glasgow” depicted by our Mr. Forsyth, as our hero Ronnie (played by Robert Buchanan who would later portray Gregory’s close friend in Gregory’s Girl) is quite down about his inhabitance of this particular “Glasgow.” So much so, that he tries to commit suicide by drowning himself (with a bowl of cornflakes of course) which after he fails in achieving that small task, propels him into the idea that there might be another way out.   He proposes to his friends Vic and Wal the idea of a burglary involving the theft of many stainless steel sinks to bring in much needed cash. They are so broke that even the paltry sum of 45 pence for a burger and coffee seem galaxies out of their grasp.

BFI Trailer for “That Sinking Feeling”

In the formation of their master plan is the gathering of their crew, most specifically their friend Bobby, who will make a drug that will allow them to obtain a vehicle for their crime and a little boy called the “Wee Man.” The plot saunters forward with the usual quirky pace of any Forsyth film, allowing you to pick up the odd character or two with the plot almost becoming secondary to the small moments that Forsyth does so brilliantly in later films. The red jogger who comes through scene after scene without any backstory or explanation is reminiscent of the phantom dirt bike racer in “Local Hero” who seems to appear just to remind the viewer that there is a reality of some sort existing outside of Forsyth’s lackadaisical but always entertaining plot.

As the film progresses, we do not see a Bressonian attention to criminal techniques, what we do see is a dozen or so maneuvers that will have you have you laughing sideways. From Bobby’s over doping of a bakery truck driver, to Vic, who gets into drag every night to sexually lure the night watchman into distraction. You won’t go more than a few minutes in “That Sinking Feeling” without a moment of pure Forsyth silly invention made real by his clever actors, who were selected directly from the Glasgow Youth Theater and who would be again be thrust into service in “Gregory’s Girl.”

That Sinking Feeling Poster

Though only given a small release back in 1984, one has to wonder if a young Wes Anderson had watched this film as he was writing “Bottle Rocket,” Wes’s debut film. “Bottle Rocket” is also the story of a group of hapless, lost young people who are using crime as a means of escape. Though “That Sinking Feeling’s” Ronnie, Vic, and Wal kind of need the money a bit more than just something to give them an identity, it still means a same outcome in terms of a good laugh at a group of likable boys who are trying to escape their youth by going for whatever they can steal.

Forsyth himself would revisit this theme of youthful clueless thievery in his hysterical, and also overlooked, 1989 film “Breaking In,” his next to last American film and one that contains an Oscar-worthy performance from Burt Reynolds and a punchy script co-written by Forsyth and John Sayles.  I so wish Forsyth had continued making crime films, because as perhaps, as his character Eddie suggests to his young cohort in “Breaking In”,…“You may have some larceny in your blood, kid.”