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Adding a Li’l Spookiness to Christmas Eve

By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
and James Shaw (The Windup Geek)

Winter chills can mean deathly thrills for the horror entertainment enthusiast. Just what does Christmas mean for them? There’s plenty of products to choose from, and this list is going to look at what’s truly ghostly to really send shivers done one’s spine. Some history and family friendly watches are also offered.

Ghost Stories for Christmas

Originally broadcasted on BBC One between 1971-78, and revived in 2005, this program hosts a wide collection of shorts by notable authors like, to name a few, M.R. James with “Whistle and I’ll Come to You” and Charles Dickens with “The Signalman.” Although Dickens was the writer who brought the tradition of telling ghost stories back to the fore on Christmas Eve, this fascination by the public with the supernatural during this season existed long before his contribution. The tradition for enjoying a spooky tale at this festive time may trace its roots to as far back as the 16th century, with Christopher Marlowe making references to spirits in his play The Jew of Malta (1589), in Act II, Scene 1 where the character Barabas states:

Now I remember those old women’s words,
Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales,
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night
About the place where treasure hath been hid:
And now methinks that I am one of those;
For, whilst I live, here lives my soul’s sole hope,
And, when I die, here shall my spirit walk.

Thankfully, the British Film Institute has packaged the seminal episodes of this series into a video release. Fans interested in the film version can purchase this item through Amazon or look at the original works in this M.R. James collection, “Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories (The Complete Ghost Stories of M. R. James, Vol. 1)

A Christmas Carol

In all this story’s many variations, from an animated Disney version, Mickey’s Christmas Carol, with Scrooge McDuck playing the seminal protagonist to the Muppets with Michael Cain as the beloved Ebenezer, not everyone is going to agree who can play the best Scrooge. But let’s not forget the seminal 1971 version which offered some gentle frights with Alastair Sim providing the voice of this miscreant. Even Bill Murray makes this list in the hilarious Scrooged. This movie has a surprisingly scary moment with how the Ghost of Christmas Future looks.

But there’s no denying the original is still the best. What fans can take from Dicken’s classic is a great life lesson in how not to let joy pass you by.

Charles Dicken’s
Ghost Stories from
The Pickwick Papers

There is a simplicity in the design of Emerald City Animation’s adaptation of Dicken’s very first work. This cartoon paints a very stereotypical Victorian-age London with its foggy nights and desolate atmosphere for the tales it tells — The Ghost in the Wardrobe, The Mail Coach Ghosts, and the Goblin and the Gravedigger. The last of which sees a story about a miserable gravedigger who is shown the errors of his ways because he does not celebrate Christmas.

This collection of creepy tales was regularly broadcasted back in the early 90’s in Commonwealth countries and although the animation is very dated, the narrative stands the test of time. Sadly, this video is no longer available for purchase.

The last time it was packaged for retail purchase as a DVD, it was retitled Animated Classics: Ghost Stories for the UK market. Sadly this release is no longer in print. Thankfully, this wonderful throwback to a bygone style of animation can be found on YouTube.

Nightmare Before Christmas

No list can be considered complete without mention of Tim Burton’s fond classic of a Pumpkin King. Jack Skellington rules the land of Halloween and when he witnesses the joy of Christmas, he thought he could transform the holiday into something else. Sadly, in his misguided attempts, terror rages across the mortal realm and to save the holiday, both he and Santa have to work together.

This movie is a joy to watch for either Halloween or Christmas. Burton created a fond classic that is a delight to all ages, and it really entertains with its musical numbers, especially with “What’s this?”

Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow 

Festive cheer can give way to holiday fear should fans of horror choose to watch this movie on the fortnight of Christmas —  which is when this film supposedly ends. This detective story expands upon the original narrative Washington Irving wrote and it moves much like the latest small screen imagining on Fox TV’s program using the same name.

What makes this Burton version notable is his trademark surrealistic style of direction and effects work. Adding to the pathos evoked while watching the film is the stygian atmosphere captured by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The grey never relents in showing how encroaching the terror is. Christopher Walken is apropos as the living version of the Horseman, but his performance was nevertheless over the top, almost ruining the perfection of this film.

The Woman in Black

Readers of Susan Hill’s book will recall that the story begins on Christmas Eve. Not every adaptation since then always acknowledges that fact, making this film’s connection with the holiday all that apparent. But for the apparition that appears, it haunts Arthur Kipps to no end. Depending on the version viewers find, the theatrical version or a cinematic cut, he finds either restitution or destitution. And there’s the difficulty of deciding which movie is better. If comparisons had to be made, Herbert Wise’s 1989 film is the superior one of the two. James Watkin’s 2012 version has its moments, but the problem with the update is that it changes a few story points from Hill’s version around.

With a cinematic sequel Woman in Black: Angel of Death due out January 2, 2015, the likelihood of any holiday themed storytelling will be gone. This new tale has Hill involved in crafting a sequel of sorts, but some fans of the classic may well wonder if she sold out? One off tales are often best left just that, than to turn a much-loved original into a franchise.

The Ghosts of Motley Hall

Motley Hall is one of those television gems that is begging for a rebroadcast so a whole new generation of children can discover this timeless series from the same man who created and wrote Catweazle. Richard Carpenter who became dissatisfied with acting turned his hand to writing on series such as Doctor Snuggles, Dick Turpin, and The Baker Street Boys.

With The Ghosts of Motley Hall, Carpenter wrote about a derelict family manor that was haunted by previous occupants of the manor’s owners, the Uproaor family, and their servants. The cast was filled with the names of established actors; Sean Flanagan (The Nearly Man, Play for Today), Freddie Jones (Love and Mr. Lewisham, The Caesers), Sheila Steafal (How’s Your Father?, Cribbins), Arthur English (Crown Court, Follyfoot), Nicholas Le Prevost (The Nearly Man), and Peter Sallis (Last of the Summer Wine, Doctor Who).

In the episode “The Christmas Spirit,” the ghosts return to a time when Motley was inhabited and its halls were filled with laughter. But all is not well for long, Motley is soon haunted by an elemental that is released after an old Beech tree is cut down and used for fuel on the winter fire. Even the spirits that regularly frequent its halls are affected by this unseen force as it feeds off the anger during the season of good cheer.

The Ghosts of Oxford Street

The Ghosts of Oxford Street is one of those Christmas specials that is hard to pin down. Is it a documentary, is it a musical or is it a comedy? It certainly has it comical moments. Professionally produced with more than just a hint of amateur theatrics one can view Shane McGowan propped up in a drunken stupor, The Happy Mondays performing Bee Gees’ Staying Alive in a hangman’s number, and Sinead O’Connor dressed as a 15-year old prostitute.

If anything it is art and entertaining art at that. It will make the audience think and that is what Malcolm McLaren, writer, director and host, wanted.

In Oxford Street, McLaren resurrects the area’s seedy history by inviting the spirits of rogues, villains and notable figures of time long past to a decadent ball held on the grounds of the old Pantheon (now Marks & Spencer).

The Shining

Interestingly, some essays about this film revealed the fact that Stanley Kubrick wanted to reimagine Stephen King’s written work, The Shining, as a Christmas parable. There’s supposed to be a lesson learned by the Torrance family. As for what that is, people who still have not watched this movie will not get the story spoiled here.

The wintry theme is also at the heart of why this scare works. Are there really ghosts lurking in this hotel’s halls or are there just hallucinations being forced upon Jack as he succumbs to cabin fever? Perhaps the best way to find out is to read both the literary and cinematic work to find the similarities.

Ghostbusters 2

This sequel to the wildly popular first film fits more to the holiday tradition better than the first film for the simple reason that it takes place between Christmas and New Year. When the Ghostbusters have a limited amount of time to save their very first client’s baby from the clutches of Vigo the Carpathian of Moldavia.

The themes are right for the season in how goodwill should be shared, and to see everyone get their funk on with some slime to make everyone happy is not without some amusing charm. This caper is fun to watch with the entire family around the television just to get ready for ringing in the next year.

Casper’s First
& Haunted Christmas

To be fair, toddlers need some family friendly fun if they are going to be indoctrinated to this tradition of enjoying ghostly tales before Xmas Day. To begin with a gentle story will have some adults perhaps recalling Hanna-Barbera Productions’ Casper’s First Christmas animated TV special which brings fond gallery of characters, namely Yogi Bear, Boo Boo, Huckleberry Hound, Snagglepuss and Quick Draw McGraw together to celebrate a special day.

The computer animated version, Casper’s Haunted Christmas, is a touch closer to the classical tradition of offering up scares because the King of Ghosts commands that Casper must scare someone before Christmas Day or he will be banished to the netherworld forever, with no further human contact. This latter product is worth noting because Eisner Award–winning comic book creator Ian Boothby (Simpsons, Futurama) helped co-write this film.

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