Today is officially the Feast of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. The religious festival is celebrated in countries across the European continent in a manner very much as English speaking countries celebrate Christmas Day. St Nicholas or Sinterklass has a long white beard and dresses in red like the bishop Nicholas did in life. He carries a book in which is indicated whether a child has been good or not. He also has an assistant, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Children put out shoes or clogs he will fill with presents.
It is not difficult to see where our image of Santa Claus or Father Christmas came from. It goes way back before Coca Cola’s red and white livery, and the beginning of cinema. But Sinterklass is a figure who has lasted, whom the movie screen still has room and an audience for. As I reported on my last blog, Santa takes centre stage on the Rise of the Guardians posters to tie in with this month’s release. He is a broad-shouldered hulk of a man given a Slavic accent by Alec Baldwin. He appears an intimidating gruff figure with his Naughty/Nice tattoos on his arms (not having enough fingers on which to spell it out, presumably), but he assures Jack Frost that he has not forgotten the sense of wonder at his core. Baldwin’s choice of accent seems an attempt to drag back Santa Claus close to his Old World roots, a rare decision in Hollywoodland. The only other similar portrayal that comes to mind is Leslie Nielsen’s Macys Store Santa in the dire All I Want For Christmas.
What is notable about Rise of the Guardians is that the problem of children’s unbelief is exactly the same problem faced by Santa in Jon Favreau’s delightful Elf. His sleigh after all runs on their faith. In both the 1947 and 1994 versions of Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street, it is initially one little girl’s (a very young Natalie Wood) whose sense of wonder and magic is at stake: is the twinkly-eyed store Santa, otherwise known as Mr Kris Kringle the real deal? But it ends in court over establishing who this old man really is. Even in gritty drama Frozen River, hardbitten Ray cannot imagine how her Native American friend cannot celebrate Christmas: it is the children who miss out when there’s no Santa, she muses.
Santa in the movies tends then, to be the fat red-suited good guy. So much so, that it’s a challenge to put a new spin on the story. There are only so many times that you can retell the age-old ‘of course he exists!’ tale and maintain its freshness. Enter stage left Billy Bob Thornton as Bad Santa. Foul-mouthed, cynical, child-loathing, hard-drinking safe-cracker and he’s appearing in the local department store’s toy department this holiday. He’s a very unlikeable character but he’s also very funny. And by the end we know he’s a got a soft core revealed by his ‘odd couple’ friendship with an unloved lost boy. (This film is the dark, dubious flipside of Miracle on 34th Street where a child believes in a Santa who isn’t…) There might be a Hollywood cop out in the last reel. Or it might be my own cynicism at the true spirit of Christmas breaking into the film.
But my favourite Santa-twist is that in the poorly directed & scripted and very low budget 1984 British horror fiick, Don’t Open Til Christmas. The premise is that a serial killer is on the loose in London – and he’s murdering store Santas one-by-one in extremely violent ways. There’s something very seedy about this film, and the Fangoria website ripped it to shreads. But it has two redeemiing features. Firstly, for women such as myself who were girls in the 70s, it features the first and final feature film role of tv teen heartthrob, Gerry Sundqvist (his life sadly turned to tragedy). And secondly, that premise. There is still to be written a quality horror script around this Christmas theme. There. That’s your challenge.