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Hollywood tries edgier - even scary - Christmas films in search of new classics

This photo provided by Columbia Pictures shows, Seth Rogen, left, as Isaac, and Jillian Bell as Betsy, in Columbia Pictures' "The Night Before."
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Columbia Pictures, Sarah Shatzvia
November 28, 2015 - 6:00 AM

TORONTO - The test of a truly great Christmas movie is not in its opening weekend, it's in the years that follow.

It's with that understanding that "Love the Coopers" writer Steven Rogers will evaluate how his ensemble family flick does, noting it's the film's afterlife that will really determine whether he has a hit on his hands.

"Absolutely (making an enduring favourite is) what you aspire to," says Rogers in a recent interview from Los Angeles, listing some of the Christmas-themed films that have become personal staples over the years.

"I remember watching 'It's a Wonderful Life' when I was really young for the first time and just going around to everyone saying, 'Do people know about this?' I thought it was the most remarkable movie."

The canon of beloved holiday fare is deep and diverse, with well-worn family faves including "Miracle on 34th Street," "Home Alone" and "A Christmas Story" and newer entries like "Elf" and "Frozen." Meanwhile, more tangential Christmas-set flicks like "Die Hard" and "In Bruges" have staked their claim to audiences looking to escape overly cloying fare.

But that hasn't stopped Hollywood from trying to create a new holiday classic year after year, and there's a bevy of contenders this season including the Seth Rogen comedy "The Night Before" and the upcoming horror flick "Krampus." Meanwhile, the Canadian spine-chiller "A Christmas Horror Story" continues a theatrical roll-out to Edmonton, Ottawa and Saskatoon on Dec. 11 in addition to its recent DVD release.

"You always hope that your holiday movie will become a classic because then it can be the gift that keeps on giving every year when people go to seek it out and download it or buy it," says box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian.

But "Scrooged" scribe Mitch Glazer says it's not easy to craft a holiday tale, noting it can easily veer into saccharine territory if you're not careful.

"You don't want to be cynical and sentimental — meaning manipulative in a crass way — but you are dealing with the Christmas season," says Glazer, who scored a holiday classic with his 1988 adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel "A Christmas Carol," starring Bill Murray as a pompous TV boss.

"That's why we felt confident having 'A Christmas Carol' as the basis for 'Scrooged,' this kind of eternal, perfect Dickensian structure and the three ghosts. It had a real rock-solid proven (premise), and then it has a real hard edge to it, given the season and all."

Catherine O'Hara says making a Christmas classic all comes down to the story, in explaining the enduring appeal of "Home Alone," in which she played the panicked mom to Macaulay Culkin's eight-year-old Kevin, who is left behind during Christmas vacation.

"There is something really special about empowering children to feel like when everything falls apart they can actually still — not only survive — but be the hero," says O'Hara, whose film marks its 25th anniversary this year.

Story has to be paramount, agrees Glazer, noting that's how he and his longtime pal Murray approached "Scrooged."

"I'm not exactly sure what the chemistry is of it but I do know that we had faith that the story was going to end up in an emotional place so we had the freedom to be as funny and dark and black as we could be," says Glazer, who recently reunited with Murray for Netflix's upcoming musical special "A Very Murray Christmas," premiering Dec. 4.

If there's a checklist for holiday fare, it would include "snow, and family, and a little bit of magic," says Rogers. But film programmer Jesse Wente points to a marked tonal change that distinguishes modern-day favourites from days of yore.

"Whether it was 'Scrooge' or 'Miracle on 34th Street' or 'Holiday Inn' or any of the ones that I loved, they are pretty Pollyanna," says Wente, a programmer at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre where more offbeat offerings this year include "Black Christmas" and "Gremlins."

"They're pretty hopeful and the good always wins out and they're very respectful of the holidays, which I think is pretty reflective of the time. When those movies were made, Christmas probably had an even tighter relationship to Christianity and those sort of religious connotations."

Flash forward to "Love the Coopers," which includes an atheist character, and "The Night Before," which features Rogen as a drugged-out father-to-be tearing through New York with a giant star of David emblazoned on his Christmas sweater.

"Krampus," meanwhile, upends the genre altogether by focusing on the antithesis of Santa Claus — a Christmas demon who terrorizes a family, led by Toni Collette and Adam Scott.

That harder premise could help the film extend its appeal beyond the typical family crowd and into the non-Christmas period, says Dergarabedian, a senior analyst with the film and TV audience tracker Rentrak.

Selling a Christmas movie's ability to survive beyond the season is key.

When pitching "Love the Coopers," Rogers says he found some studios feared a Christmas movie narrowed the audience too much.

"A lot of countries don't celebrate Christmas so that cuts them out, supposedly. But I think (the film is) about family, so I didn't necessarily agree with that," he says.

Any calculated approach to create the next big holiday classic, with guaranteed TV airings every year, is doomed to fail, says Wente.

"As soon as you decide, 'I'm going to make a cult classic,' you are immediately opted out of ever making a cult classic," he says, citing the 2011 Garry Marshall film "New Year's Eve" as smacking of that kind of artifice.

"Cult classics are something defined by the audience."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2015
The Canadian Press

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