Classic Cult: Christmas

Christmas is a time for family, fires and forgiveness, and no more is this apparent than in the films televised during December each year. Endless showings of Toy Story and Love Actually illustrates the public’s fundamental desire to see something light hearted and fun, whilst also managing to capture the Christmas spirit. However, for the cult enthusiast, there are a multitude of options which allows for alternative viewing, so long as you don’t rely on the TV guide to make it happen.

Regularly featuring on lists of worst films ever made, Santa Conquers the Martians (1964) is an alternative Christmas tale that sees Santa kidnapped so he can bring Christmas joy to the people of Mars. Featuring a young Pia Zadora and one of the most entertaining attempts at creating a polar bear in cinema, it remains a great cult classic. For fans of The Flaming Lips, Christmas on Mars (2008) is a definite must see. Written and directed by the band’s frontman Wayne Coyne, and featuring the entire band in the cast, this is arguably the most psychedelic science-fiction Christmas feature around. Containing an almost indecipherable plot and frequent bouts of superfluous colours and foetuses, Christmas on Mars epitomises cult cinema.

A Muppet Christmas Carol would be the obvious film from the Jim Henson Company to watch at this time of year, yet they boast a number of other great Christmas features. Most notable of these is made-for-TV movie The Christmas Toy (1986). In a world where toys play when people aren’t watching, but who are frozen forever if caught out of their normal place, Rugby the plucky tiger plush toy is on a mission to try and be this year’s Christmas present, so he can remain the favourite toy for another year. With more than a passing similarity to Toy Story, it is undoubtedly one of the best low-key Christmas family films. Babes in Toyland (1986) is another television film and features all the necessary elements for a top notch cult film: a young Drew Barrymore, Keanu Reeves, singing, nursery rhyme characters, a villain who lives in a bowling bowl and Pat Morita (aka Mr Miyagi) as the Toymaster. Despite being a relatively atrocious film, it remains entertaining nonetheless.

Horror is a genre which dominates cult Christmas films, from the slashers of the ’70s and ’80s to more recent attempts at bringing a scare factor to the festive season. Some of the classics include Black Christmas (1974), Christmas Evil (1980), Gremlins (1984), Santa’s Slay (2005) and Jack Frost (1997). However, Silent Night Deadly Night (1984) is one that particularly stands out. The development of the lead character, who becomes increasingly psychotic after witnessing the massacre of his parents, justifies it as one of the better horror Christmas classics.

Good cult Christmas films have been relatively sparse in recent years, however, Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) breaks the mould with its slick combination of comedy and horror. A tongue-in-cheek film that looks at the ‘secret’ behind Santa, it is an entertaining foray into the alternative Christmas story.

Remembered for its iconic line, “You’ll poke your eye out,” A Christmas Story (1983) is a coming of age story that rivals Home Alone. Following a nine-year-old boy named Ralphie, who despite the best efforts of everyone around him, does everything in his power to ensure he gets a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas. Watchable time and time again, it is one of the top cult comedies to see at this time of year.

Finally, no cult Christmas is complete without Scrooged (1988). It’s fantastic blend of horror and comedy, starring Bill Murray as a conceited, cynical TV executive, makes it the first stop for anyone looking for alternative Christmas viewing. There have been countless productions of A Christmas Carol but few are as original or entertaining as Richard Donner’s adaptation.

There is no need for anyone to watch endless re-runs of overplayed and clichéd films at this time of year. The alternative possibilities available will provide enough entertainment to far exceed the festive period. It simply remains a difficulty as to where the best place is to start.

An expanded version of an article first published in The Student, Tue Dec 6th 2011.

Interview with Muppets Producer Martin G. Baker

Within the film and television industry, there are a number of people who often go unrecognised by the general public. Whilst directors and actors get the lion’s share of the praise and recognition, it is the producers who are integral to a production’s success – but they often go unnoticed.

Martin G. Baker is one of those people. As a television and film producer, he has worked on a number of productions that have become loved by people both young and old. His affiliation with the Jim Henson Company  lasted 20 years, and he saw The Muppet Show rise to fame, received an Emmy for his work as a producer on The Muppets Tonight, produced three Muppet feature length films and was an associate producer for the feature film Labyrinth.

After introducing a number of the films he has worked on as part of a Jim Henson retrospective at the Filmhouse, I caught up with him to ask a few questions about the Muppets legacy and on working with such a unique creative force as Jim Henson.

Baker first met Henson in the ’60s, when working on a weekly variety show called the Tom Jones Show where he recalls, “One week we had an act called the Muppets, nobody knew who they were, nobody had a clue what they were about. Jim Henson and Frank Oz arrived with Rowlf the dog and that was my first introduction to the Muppets.”

But it wasn’t until 1974 and the creation of The Muppet Show that Baker, after working on various other variety shows, began directly working with Henson.

“This time I knew who Jim was,” he notes. “He asked me, along with a few of my other colleagues, to be a part of The Muppet Show production team. That’s how I got into the Henson world, and through that Jim went on to ask me to come and work for him as we came to the end of The Muppet Show in 1979. So I took the leap and went to work for Jim and I was there for 20-odd years.”

The atmosphere surrounding a studio run by Henson seems to have been an incredible experience to be a part of. “It was total madness,” Baker comments, “but it was the best time. Jim’s ethic was all about working hard but having fun whilst you’re doing it. He believed that if you’re not having fun, then we should call it a day and go home. This permeates to what you see on screen: when you watch those shows and today when you watch Muppet stuff, you’ve got to believe that people are having fun making it, because otherwise, I don’t think we could do it.”

Baker is currently involved in the first muppet film to be made since 2005, which finished production two months ago. Although he doesn’t want to reveal too much information about the upcoming release, he affirms, “It’s going to be a wonderful movie, with Jason Segal and Amy Adams as the stars. It takes place in Hollywood and we have a new character called Walter, who’s not a Muppet but a puppet character we created who’s Jason’s best friend. The story takes them from their small town USA into Hollywood and how they hook up with the Muppets.”Whilst Jim Henson is best know for his work with the Muppets, his feature films, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, show that there were clearly two distinct sides to his work. But as Baker comments, “He was equally comfortable in both arenas. You couldn’t get two more distinct identities than The Dark Crystal and The Muppet Movie but they were very much a part of who Jim was, he was just such an amazing man creatively. He was able to span that spectrum from the esoteric fantasy world of Labyrinth to the warm and wonderful world of the muppets, but he had earned the ability to do that on the success of The Muppet Show and creatively he was given that freedom. Trying to make The Dark Crystal 20 years before, he most probably wouldn’t have got the money.”

When asked about the future of the Muppets, he remains positive: “Personally I’d love to see them back on television in a sustained presence, but it depends on how one thing does that leads to another thing.”

Clearly the possibility is there for more collaboration, and fans can but hope that Baker will remain a part of this much loved franchise.

The Muppets will be released in the UK on February 17.

Taken from The Student published Tue May 3rd 2011.