Ho ho horror: Why a dark Finnish fantasy has the best cinema Santa

Is it too early for a feature on Santa Claus in cinema? Well, tough. You’re getting one anyway. The decorations are up. The latest version of the Grinch is out there. It’s time we pulled apart the semiotics of Father Christmas on the big screen. This stuff doesn’t analyse itself.

You might reasonably argue that the role offers few challenges for the accomplished actor. After all, each year, relative amateurs – required only to be stout of belly and resonant in their laughter – play the role lucratively in the basements of department stores. No method Santas prepare for the part by making toys in Lapland.

Yet there have, through the decades, been a stunning variety of Fathers Christmas in our cinemas. We could fill many pages with consideration of characters merely dressing up as the great man in projects otherwise unconnected with Yuletide. Think of Dan Aykroyd slumming it in Trading Places, from 1983. The merry costume adds ironic misery to his reduced status. Christopher Plummer dresses as Santa when playing a psychopathic thief in the heist movie The Silent Partner, from 1978. And of course there’s The French Connection, the 1971 film. The awareness that Popeye Doyle, played so memorably by Gene Hackman, is no sort of jolly fat man adds to our appreciation of his undercover garb. “You ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie? Huh? Huh?”

Are the actors playing the real Father Christmas or not? The question can still provoke furious philosophical debates on social media

At the other end of the Santa purity scale we have actors playing uncorrupted, fully mythological versions of the character that smart children, eyes on groaning hauls of loot, pretend to believe in right up to their early teens. There is little leeway here. The performers playing Christ in Mediterranean passion plays have less opportunity for innovation. We think of David Huddleston in the famously dire 1985 film Santa Claus: The Movie. Ho, ho, ho! In 2005 the great Scottish actor James Cosmo got to swell up warmly in the successful The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mel Smith voiced Raymond Briggs’s grumpy version in the 1991 short Father Christmas. And there’s John Call.

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I know little of John Call. The Internet Movie Database details a long list of minor roles that failed to trouble the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But he achieved immortality as the title character in an unintended classic of postwar kitsch (one associated with a season very much at home to that phenomenon). Santa Claus Conquers the Martians lurked in relative obscurity until the irony-slugging “bad movie” fetishists of the late 1970s happened upon its dubious charms. You are now as likely to see Call – a merry, corpulent Santa of the old school – on the Sky Christmas channel as many more respectable incarnations. The film, which was made in 1964, is terrible, but it’s still better than Santa Claus: The Movie. Hey, it features an eight-year-old Pia Zadora as a Martian child. You don’t get that in It’s a Wonderful Life.

One might be tempted to add both versions of Miracle on 34th Street to the preceding paragraph. Edmund Gwenn is Kris Kringle opposite lovely mum Maureen O’Hara in George Seaton’s 1947 version. Richard Attenborough took over the beard for the glossy John Hughes production, in 1994.

But are the actors playing the real Father Christmas or not? The question can still provoke furious philosophical debates on social media. A lawyer proves in court that Kris Kringle, who has taken the job in a department store, is who he pretends to be, but there is a sense the judge is merely acknowledging the validity of the myth. It’s like the ending of Michael Haneke’s Hidden: you see what you want to see. Okay, maybe not.

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Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: terrible, but features an eight-year-old Pia Zadora as a Martian child
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: terrible, but features an eight-year-old Pia Zadora as a Martian child

Then there are those films that believe in Santa while stretching the worn conventions. Paul Giamatti is great as an overworked, overserious Father Christmas, brother to dissolute Vince Vaughn, in the otherwise useless Fred Claus, from 2007, a film that somehow cost $100 million to make. The “succession” is also an issue in Arthur Christmas (2011), a funny animation from Aardman, and in the tedious series of films that began, in 1994, with The Santa Clause. Tim Allen was irritating as a version of his usual suburban grump in that trilogy. He was preposterous as the supposed font of white-bearded goodwill.

No actor is going to strain a muscle playing a traditional version of Father Christmas. No film-maker will get a headache overthinking the structure surrounding such a performer. The rules are as ancient – that’s to say they’ve been around for a century and a bit – as those governing arrangements for the Xmas Grotto in Kash-Grabber’s department store. But we have seen some interesting subversions. Nobody has much bothered with the character’s origins as a generous saint in fourth-century Turkey. (It gets cold there in winter, so he might have needed that coat after all.) Film-makers have, nonetheless, poked away at the cosiness of the creation. Billy Bob Thornton is not playing the real thing in Bad Santa (2003), but the drunken, thieving lout teases preconceptions very prettily: take the traditions, marinate them in rubbing alcohol and spread liberally across modern miseries. Jack Skellington becomes a disturbing replacement for Santa in Tim Burton’s 1993 film The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The most fascinating of all anti-Santas may, however, be that found in Jalmari Helander’s excellent Finnish horror Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010). An archaeological dig unearths a being that seems a malign version of the real Santa Claus. It transpires that our seasonal myth is a tidied-up version of a truly horrible ancient truth. The picture is imaginative, nasty and hilarious. It is better than White Christmas; it is much better than Love Actually; it captures the “true meaning of Christmas” better than either. Rare Exports’ continuing failure to secure its own dedicated TV channel during the annual gift frenzy is a scandal. Raise it with your TD.

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