Friday, December 26, 2014

2014's Christmas Movie: The Magic Christmas Tree (1964)

The Christmas movie tradition continues. Like last year, I started the month by inflicting a Christmas-themed movie on the Warhammer 40,000 gang. Despite repeated warnings beforehand, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972) earned a lot of groaning and cries of despair. For the evening of Christmas itself, my mother and I watched the RiffTrax take on The Magic Christmas Tree (1964).

The movie is awful, of course. Not Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny awful, though, which is the cinematic equivalent to the time I had an ingrown toenail treated in Mexico and the doctor didn't think local anesthetic was necessary. No, The Magic Christmas Tree is more like the esophageal motility and pH study I had a couple years ago. The one where they put a probe up my nose and down my throat.

Good times...

Again, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett of MST3K fame try their best to get us through this movie. Before the feature presentation, though, they treat us to some vintage toy ads, at least one of which my mother remembered. They follow this up with a hilarious cartoon from 1933 called The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives. I suppose I should rephrase that; the cartoon itself isn't funny in the least. It's one more example of the "wacky animated characters sing and perform slapstick comedy to a jaunty tune" genre of shorts that were so common in the early '30s. It's the riffers' jokes that make the film worth watching.

The film proper starts during Halloween when a husky kid named Mark convinces his two friends to check out the rundown house on the hill. (Once Mark is referred to as "husky", Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy can't help but to constantly refer to that particular character trait.) The home is owned by an older woman who the kids believe to be a witch.

At the same time that the friends are approaching the home, the woman is trying to get her cat, Lucifer(!), out of the tree. The friends eventually chicken out, but Mark eventually comes face to face with the woman. She convinces/frightens/bribes him to get the cat down. I honestly don't remember why he ends up doing it since the film has more padding than almost any movie I've ever seen and my attention started to wander.

Mark succeeds in getting Lucifer down, but he loses his grip and falls. When he wakes up, the world has transformed from black and white to color a la Wizard of Oz, while the old woman is now wearing a literal witch's hat. (Note: do not attempt to emulate a classic movie in your zero-budget film, as it only reminds people of how much they would prefer to be watching that movie than this one.)

Despite her literal witch costume, the old woman says that she's a good witch and wants to reward Mark for getting her cat out of the tree. She gives the boy a box containing a magic ring. Also inside the box is a seed that will grow into a magic Christmas tree when it's buried with the wishbone of the Thanksgiving turkey, the ring is spun around the wearer's finger nine times, and three magic words are spoken. Or something. The whole thing is ridiculously convoluted and is the butt of several of the riffers' jokes. I was surprised that none of them suggested that the three magic words would be "klaatu, barada, nikto".

Well, it's more of a "color" film than it was before 

A cheap calendar effect shows us that most of November has passed and the next thing we know, Mark is planting the magic seed. Well, "next thing we know" is a bit too generous to the film's editor. Marvel as Mark pulls the seed out of his drawer! Thrill as the husky boy explains to his pet turtle what he's about to do! Sweat with anticipation as Mark puts on his slippers, crawls out his bedroom window, eventually finds a place to plant the seed, slowly digs a hole, plants the seed, spins the ring, and says the magic words! All in real time! Seriously, the time it takes for Mark to actually plant the seed is given more screen time than major plot points later in the film.

By the next day, the tree is fully grown. The movie then "delights us" with the endless sequence in which Mark's dumb-as-dirt father struggles to get his lawnmower started, haphazardly trims the grass while "humorous" sound effects (mostly circus horns) fill the soundtrack, and then destroys the machine by running it into the 7 foot tall tree that sprung up on his property overnight. Unable to cut down the tree with a saw or an ax, dad decides the tree is there to stay.

Fast forward to the night of Christmas Eve. Mark's parents and sister (I guess, I don't think the character is ever introduced) find themselves entirely unprepared for Christmas. They don't even have a tree. The family goes out to find one while Mark stays home under the pretense that he has gifts to wrap. Once they're gone, the boy tries to figure out how to use the tree, which the old woman claimed will grant three wishes. The tree begins talking to Mark, its tone and unintentional innuendo providing the riffers with a wealth of material to work with.

Mark's first wish is to have "just an hour" of the kind of power that the tree has. No, the tree doesn't impose any time limits on his wishes, nor does it immediately act on his statement, preventing him from asking for more than an hour. The boy is apparently too stupid to realize that he could just as easily ask for a day, or a week, or a lifetime of near omnipotence.

Once given phenomenal cosmic power, Mark turns night to day (nobody seems to notice) and proceeds to play silly pranks on people. In fact, other than making a woman throw a pie into a baker's face, all he really does is make people's vehicles drive away from them, forcing them to "comically" run after them. A deliveryman, a cop, and several firemen all find themselves chasing after their cars or trucks in another excruciatingly drawn out scene.

"I wish I had never agreed to star in this movie" 

Mark, having utterly wasted his first wish on a single "hour of power" that he used to commit budget-friendly tricks, has to think hard for his second wish. When the tree says that it doesn't have all night since Santa Claus will soon be there, Mark decides that his second wish will be to have Santa Claus all to himself for a day. Not only does this selfish act conjure up Kris Kringle in the boy's living room, but it confines him to a chair located next to the magic tree. Mark declares that Santa will spend the day giving him whatever he wants, which leads to... nothing really. I'm certain I was fully conscious during this scene, but I have no idea what happened. I know Mark told the jolly fat man that he was there to give the little brat whatever he asked for, but in the very next scene the kid is nowhere to be found, leaving Santa to talk to an obnoxious magic tree.

Everything that follows this is tremendously confusing and makes the amount of time spent establishing the planting of the tree and the dad's first encounter with it even more absurd. Sure, when a couple minutes of footage and a line or two of dialog could have established that the seed had been planted, had fully grown in a day, and was indestructible, the filmmakers instead give us endless footage that suggests the editor was out for a coffee break. But when events that are essential to understanding the plot are involved, the movie skimps on the exposition. I suppose it could have been worse; Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny revels in overabundant explanatory dialog, all delivered in the most stilted manner possible.

Anyway, the tree sadly informs Santa that he can't be freed until Mark comes back. Mark is next seen in broad daylight in the woods with what appears to be a pellet gun. Presumably it's Christmas day, Santa missed his annual trip, and the extent of Mark's demands from Santa has been... a pellet gun? So, not only is this kid a selfish brat, but he's immensely stupid to boot, squandering effectively limitless power on stupid tricks and a single toy he could have gotten for any given Christmas.

While wandering around the woods, Mark runs into a giant who declares him to be his slave because the boy is so selfish. Huh?

Up to this point, we had indeed seen a witch, pointy hat and all, a magic, wish-granting tree, and Santa Claus himself. But with those few exceptions, nothing else about the world of The Magic Christmas Tree has led us to believe that child enslaving giants roam the woods. Thus threatened, Mark reneges on his behavior, wishes that it were the day before (this line is the only real indication that this part of the movie takes place on Christmas day), and that his previous wishes had been undone. The disappointed giant declares that he'll have to wait for another selfish little boy.

Having thus learned his lesson (i.e., that selfishness leads to enslavement by giants), Mark wakes up in black and white land to find the old woman looking over him. As we all suspected, he had been knocked unconscious by the fall from the tree and all the color sequences were a dream. Nevertheless, his actions had gotten Lucifer out of the tree and the woman wants to reward him for it. The boy balks initially, afraid that he'll start the whole cycle over again, but instead of a magic ring the woman offers him milk and cookies.

On a side note, while the cheap Christmas novelty that passes as the magic ring gets a lot of attention, it has little to do with the magic tree itself. All Mark does is spin it several times before saying the magic words, which just seems overcomplicated.

This movie further confirms what I suspected with Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny; MST3K did the best of the bad Christmas movies with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) and the Mexican-produced Santa Claus (1959), leaving the worst films in the public-domain for RiffTrax to mock. I assume that Mike Nelson and the gang prepare for each RiffTrax episode the same way they they prepared for MST3K; by watching each movie multiple times and writing down the jokes as they came to them. I can't imagine those guys make enough money off RiffTrax to justify doing that to themselves.

F (the movie is an atrocity, but the riffing is top notch)

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