One Magic Christmas (1985)
Directed by: Philip Borsos
Written by: Philip Borsos, Barry Healey, Thomas Meehan
A co-production of Walt Disney Pictures and Telefilm Canada
Suggested tagline: Merry Christmas…or else!
We open on a pitch black screen. Not the faintest glimmer of a distant star relieves the smothering cloak of darkness, and we begin to feel the cold grasp the hoary netherworld dragging us down into a pitiless void. But don’t get used to it, because pretty soon they’re going to remember to take the lens cap off and then things are really going to start to suck.
Gradually, a sliver of light appears; it’s the moon, hanging low in an inky sky as black, clouds drift across its face. And what happened next? Well, in Whoville they say that my heart grew three sizes that day at the thought that the Netflix screwed up and accidentally sent me The Howling instead.
But no. We pan down and find Harry Dean Stanton in a tree, sporting a Stetson and a cowboy’s duster, and playing O Tannenbaum on a harmonica. Sadly, his frontier ensemble is not accessorized by a noose.
Suddenly, the moon borrowed from a werewolf movie calls down to Harry Dean and says, “It’s Nicholas! Tonight is the night when I give the Christmas angels their assignments!” So according to One Magic Christmas, St. Nick uses the moon as a public address system, and for some reason has an accent like Apu from The Simpsons. But more important is the news that Harry Dean, with his shabby overcoat, unshaven face, and sunken, bloodshot eyes shaded by a hatbrim, is a Christmas angel, even though when he appeared in Bethlehem upon the first Noel, and found the Christ child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, it triggered an Amber Alert.
Anyway, Harry Dean draws the Mary Steenburgen file. “It’s a most difficult case,” Kris Kringle tells his creepy cherub, because, “she never says ‘Merry Christmas.’” And if they don’t help her to find the spirit of the season before Christmas Eve, Bill O’Reilly is going to have her killed.
Cut to a mall, where Harry Dean hangs around the line of kids waiting to see Santa, reveling in their innocent joy, while giving the police a new lead in the Jon Benet Ramsey case. Enter Mary Steenburgen. She’s rushing through the mall to buy socks, yet still isn’t too busy to ruin Christmas for her two small children by refusing to let them visit with Santa. But her husband Jack points out that it only costs $4.50, and since Mary is our protagonist and really needs to be likable, she agrees that as soon as her deadbeat husband gets a job, then he can perch his spawn on some stranger’s rented lap for two minutes. Even Mary seems to realize that came out a bit harsh, and she tries to defuse the situation by strongly hinting to her six-year old daughter, Abbie, that the whole Santa thing is a myth. She’s hastily contradicted by her son and husband, and Mary spends the rest of their time at the mall sulking that they never support her when she wants to do something as a family, like spoil a holiday.
But why isn’t Mary suffused with the spirit of Christmas? Well, she’s the sole breadwinner, husband Jack having been fired by Mr. Potter back in July, and instead of looking for a new job he spends all his time in the basement building bicycles for poor children. And since they apparently live in the town Tennessee Ernie Ford sang about in “16 Tons,” the Company owns their house and is kicking them out. But her biggest problem, although she doesn’t realize it yet, is her refusal to say “Merry Christmas.”
Back home, Jack wants to work on his Bikes for Tots, while Mary snaps that they need to start packing so all their stuff will be neatly arranged in boxes when the Pinkerton men arrive to toss it into the gutter and club the family senseless with axe handles. As it turns out, Jack is a velocipede genius, and could make a fortune selling his technologically advanced designs (even now, his work in streamers and banana seats is considered revolutionary) if he just had $5000 to open his own shop. But he’s too busy building bikes for the local Dickensian urchins and raising funds to buy the town a community Christmas tree. What a swell guy Jack is – the sort of caring, selfless person who really deserves a yuletide miracle. If only a Christmas angel would appear and magically arrange for Jack to realize his dream and save his family. We cut expectantly to the angel Harry Dean, but at the moment he’s preoccupied, staring hungrily at a group of adolescent boys.
Mr. Potter arrives to show around the new tenants and to rub in the impending eviction. Mary is so depressed by their imminent homelessness that when next we see her, she’s in the shower, wet, glistening, and dancing and singing along to “Stop! In the Name of Love.” Thanks, Disney, like I wasn’t having a crappy enough holiday season. Anyway, the viewer enjoys a small measure of revenge when Mary goes to her job as a checker at one of those moribund Mom and Pop grocery stores. It’s the kind of place that smells of old cabbage and sour milk, where an 80-year old woman will dump a Cup O’ Noodles, a bag of frozen okra, and a can of off-brand cat food on the conveyor belt, then spend ten minutes laboriously writing a check that will later be returned for insufficient funds while the patrons lined up behind her slowly sink into a fugue state. And that’s a good day. That’s a day you go home and brag to the family about.
But this is no ordinary day at work, for today Mary is being Stalked by an Angel, and instead of the usual drudgery, she gets yelled at by a customer, a seedy bum in one of those weird earflap hats, whose stubbled face, shifty eyes, and furtive demeanor is so creepy and unsettling that it’s hard to believe he doesn’t work for Santa.
That night, daughter Abbie asks Jack if there are really angels, besides the one in the cowboy hat and smelly overcoat who hangs around her elementary school. Because her mom says there isn’t. But Jack believes in angels. What’s more, he believes they’re part of a post mortem employment program, and whenever anyone dies, “they go up to Heaven and become an angel. A guardian angel, a Christmas angel – all kinds.” Some are even ground up to become Angel Food Cakes, which are used as feed for other angels, leading to periodic outbreaks of seraphic spongiform encephalopathy.
That night, after the children have gone to bed, Mary and Jack sit down to dinner and an argument. Jack wants to dip into their last five grand (the exact amount he’d need to open his bike shop! Hmmmm…) and buy presents for Abbie and Cal; Mary, on the other hand, think he’s an idiot for squandering their meager savings on crap from Taiwan, and can’t believe she helped to propagate his obviously substandard genes. But the kids are eavesdropping, and Abbie decides to help by writing a letter to Santa demanding to know if he’s real, and if he is, would he stage an intervention?
Later, things are tense in bed, but Mary grudgingly tries to entice Jack into a bout of make-up sex because it’s free and they haven’t paid the cable bill.
Meanwhile, Abbie sneaks out of the house to post her letter, but is accosted at the mailbox by Harry Dean, who tells her he’s an angel, then describes his death in excruciating detail while snow gently falls and the adorable moppet’s core temperature drops. It’s a weird, depressing scene, but it does have a happy ending when Social Services later present Abbie with a new doll so she can point out where the angel touched her.
The next night, Abbie hugs her anatomically correct toy and sighs, “Mom will never like Christmas.” Suddenly, the Angel Harry Dean appears in her bedroom (feel free to scream) and in a voice full of whispered menace, tells the child, “Your mom still hasn’t found the Christmas spirit.” But she will, because he’s about to give her a present that “only angels and little children can give.” Presumably it involves broken kneecaps, or a severed horse head.
At that same moment, Mary and Jack leave their children to the mercy of pervy seraphs and take a walk. Mary pauses to sing an a cappella version “Lost in the Stars,” while Jack sensibly decides to leave her there and take another lap around the block. Suddenly, the angel Harry Dean materializes at the mailbox and drawls, “Don’t sound like you have the Christmas spirit,” making it sound like the kind of threat that’s usually punctuated with the word, “Draw!” As she reaches for her mace, the angel turns off every Christmas light on the block, magically making Canada look even more bleak and depressing than usual.
It’s the day before Christmas, and Mary has to pull a double shift at the Edvard MunchMart, while Jack has to go be a pawn in the sinister game of a rogue cherub. On her way to work, Mary pulls into a gas station, where she watches Mr. Earflaps try to sell his car to the mechanic for 50 bucks so he can buy his boy a present. The pump jockey turns him down, but the earflapped fellow is still filled to the brim with the Christmas spirit, so he abandons his son at the Greyhound terminal and goes to rob a bank.
Jack leaves the kids in the car and runs into the bank to withdraw some cash for toys, while the angel follows him. Meanwhile, Abbie runs into the super market to rat out her dad for buying a Christmas tree, causing Mary to freak out in front of the clinically depressed patrons and get fired. She dumps Abbie back in the car and runs into the bank just as Earflaps takes a hostage and starts to flee with his loot. Jack decides to interrupt the gunman’s desperate escape by telling him all about the true meaning of Christmas, and Earflaps shoots him dead right in front of Mary. Then he steals Jack’s car with the two kids still inside. Hey Mary, starting to feel that Christmas Spirit yet?
Mary jumps into the back of a police cruiser and they set off in hot pursuit, while the soundtrack tries to turn O Tannenbaum into pulse-pounding chase music. Earflaps runs a roadblock and plunges off a bridge and into the icy river below, killing everyone in the car. Suddenly, Daddy going slightly over budget on a Christmas tree isn’t Mary’s biggest problem. But you know what they say: God works in depressing ways.
Cut to Mary, standing alone in her bathroom, widowed, childless, jobless. Perhaps turning on the shower and belting something by the Supremes would help…Oh and hey, the bank robber’s 8-year old son is sitting alone in a bus station on Christmas Eve, waiting for his daddy who will never ever come…I bet right about now you’re wishing you’d switched over to CBS to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas again, huh?
But wait! It turns out that Harry Dean, after arranging for the kids to plunge into a frozen river and drown, pulled them out just before they died, so Mary is only jobless, soon to be homeless, and widowed. It’s a Christmas Miracle!
Mary sits her reanimated kids down for a talk. “You know how sometimes bad things happen?…Well, this is about a bad thing that happened to your father.”
Abbie adorably lisps, “What bad thing, Mommy?”
“Well,” Mary replies, “His agent sent him this script, then…”
Okay, not really. She just breaks the news that the man who kidnapped and took them on a terrifying high speed chase which culminated in a violent crash and a near-death experience also shot their father. “Your dad got killed,” she says, helplessly.
Her son Cal chirps, “You mean dad’s in the hospital?”
Well. Yeah. In drawer. In the basement. Man, she was right about Jack’s seed doing the gene pool no favors. Is it too late to take back her ova? But the kids are adamant; Dad’s got to come back! It’s Christmas! With exquisite sadness, Mary tells her children that Dad can never come back, barely concealing her glee that they’re all finally on the same page as regards the holidays.
But a stubborn Abbie races off to confront the angel, while Mary, who’s had kind of a stressful day already, gets to top it off by running aimlessly around in the snow, trying to find her daughter before Abbie finds the magical pedophile.
Unfortunately, Abbie meets up with Harry Dean, and demands her dad back. But the angel says he can’t help her, and offers to transfer her to the Saint Nicholas Department, prompting Abbie to utter the one line that I’m pretty sure none of the screenwriters ever wanted on their resume: “We gotta go to the North Pole to see Santa so he can make my dad not dead!”
Harry Dean drops Abbie off at the North Pole, but Santa refuses to help, and passes the buck to her mom, which is pretty much the way it is anytime you call Technical Support (and suddenly it makes sense that Santa Claus sounds like he’s from Mumbai). The jolly old elf takes Abbie into his workshop, which, contrary to expectations, isn’t a warm, cottage-like affair decorated with whimsical wood carvings and staffed by joyful, rosy-cheeked dwarves. It’s a sooty, steam-powered factory that makes the seething industrial underworld in Metropolis look like Candyland.
Abbie spots the recently deceased janitor from her school, and learns that when we pass away, we don’t go to heaven or hell, we get sent to work for pennies a day in Santa’s maquiladora. At least, until the dead get underbid by Chinese slave labor.
Santa digs out an old letter Mary wrote to him when she was little, and gives it to Abbie to flaunt in her mother’s face. Mary is so astonished by this piece of blackmail that she immediately goes to mail the letter Abbie wrote earlier to Santa Claus. Apparently, that was just the sort of repentance the Angel Harry Dean was looking for, because he turns all the Christmas lights back on, and suddenly Jack isn’t dead anymore and we’re back at the night before Christmas Eve again, in a moment that’s a sort of cinematic hobo stew of A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Back to the Future III.
The next day, Mary intercepts Earflaps at the service station and buys some random crap off the guy who murdered her husband and abducted her children, giving him the cash he needs to buy a present for his boy. It just goes to prove that anyone can enjoy a Christmas miracle, so long as they shoot the right person.
That night, the town celebrates Christmas Eve by lighting the town tree. Meanwhile, Harry Dean has been promoted to Angel of Death, and hangs around the festivities waiting for someone to slip on a patch of black ice and crack their head open.
From all of us, to all of you…Merry Christmas!
No. Seriously. Merry Christmas!
You better say it with me, or Santa’s going to have your entire family killed.