Holiday Tension Plays Well On The Big Screen

The holidays can be a special time, full of family fun, love and reflection. But they can also be incredibly stressful, marred by failed expectations and family feuds. Movie buff Murray Horwitz joins NPR's Linda Wertheimer to discuss the best worst moments in holiday disaster movies.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

We get it, the holidays are special. But now, a few days after Christmas, maybe we can be a little more honest. The holidays are in a category of their own when it comes to stress, failed expectations and family feuds.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AVALON")

LOU JACOBI: (as Gabriel Krichinsky) You cut the turkey without me?

WERTHEIMER: And they're practically in their own category when it comes to film. That was Gabriel played by Lou Jacobi in the movie "Avalon," after missing the annual carving of the turkey.

NPR commentator and movie buff, Murray Horwitz joined me to discuss the pantheon of holiday disaster movies and why we love them.

MURRAY HORWITZ, BYLINE: There's an instant dramatic tension that lends itself to drama and comedy and romance -and even to horror. I mean it's that tension between the promise of the holiday - whatever holiday it is - and the nearly inevitable disappointment with it...

(LAUGHTER)

HORWITZ: ...especially among grown-ups. I mean think of the suspense, you know, is the turkey going to be done on time? You know, but I get the present I wanted? Is somebody going to get too drunk at the office party? All these questions are great fodder for screenwriters and directors.

WERTHEIMER: If we're going to put these movies into categories, let's begin with the straight-up disaster.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CHRISTMAS VACATION)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHEVY CHASE: (as Clark) Catherine, if this turkey tastes half as good as it looks, I think we're all in for a very big treat.

HORWITZ: And there are a lot of those we really love. The exploding turkey in National Lampoon's "Christmas Vacation."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CHRISTMAS VACATION)

(SOUNDBITE OF NOISE AND MOAN)

HORWITZ: Barbara Stanwyck flipping flapjacks in "Christmas in Connecticut."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT")

BARBARA STANWYCK: (as Elizabeth Lane) Oh, Felix, what am I going to do?

HORWITZ: And, well, I guess the most extraordinary Christmas office party ever was in "Die Hard."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DIE HARD")

BRUCE WILLIS: (as John Maclane) Welcome to the party, pal.

HORWITZ: To be hoped that not everybody's been through a terrorist takeover of the office as you are in "Die Hard." But, we've all been to a - or almost all been to an office holiday party. And so immediately there is a kind of identification with what's going on on screen.

WERTHEIMER: But for years, what was categorized as a quintessential holiday movies were about another category, the averted disaster.

HORWITZ: Absolutely. We think of the great Christmas movies, in the '50s and '60s, what you saw endlessly on television was George Seaton's "Miracle on 34th Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET")

EDMUND GWENN: (as Kris) You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Don't you realize there are thousands of children lining the streets waiting to see you?

HORWITZ: And then that got supplanted by "It's A Wonderful Life," which became a cliche, and now that's been supplanted in a way by Bob Clark's "A Christmas Story." Dad tries to take a nibble of the turkey and the turkey crashes to the floor and the neighbor's dog devoured the bird and Darren McGavin curses the whole time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A CHRISTMAS STORY")

DARREN MCGAVIN: (as The Old Man Parker) (Unintelligible)

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Yeah.

HORWITZ: And the averted disaster is great because, I mean it's the holidays, after all, and we kind of want a happy ending - or at least something like justice. I mean there's even a sort of rough justice in one of my favorite holiday movies "Bad Santa," from 2003.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BAD SANTA")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAX VAN VILLE: (as Skateboard Bully) Hey, loser. I'm talking to you, fat ass.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: What about the category that's been on the camp side maybe, the horror holiday.

HORWITZ: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: I mean how did we, how did we get lumbered with that?

HORWITZ: There's several reasons. First of all, there's quite a few of. You mentioned camp. My personal favorite is the perfectly - and I mean perfectly - dreadful, "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHN CALL: (as Santa Claus) What have we here? More toys?

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Those are Martians.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) We don't want to hurt you, Santa Claus, so come along quietly.

(LAUGHTER)

HORWITZ: I'm cheating. It's not really a horror movie but I really wanted to mention it. But second, it must say something about us that people actually make our movies about the holidays. And yet, there's a third reason. It's kind of taking the bleak side of the holidays to its most extreme. And there is at least one classic in a bunch, which is "Gremlins" from 1984.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "GREMLINS")

HOYT AXTON: (as Randall) (Singing) Tra-la-la-la-la-la.

ZACK GALLIGAN: (as Billy) Oh thanks, dad.

AXTON: (as Randall) You're going to like this.

GALLIGAN: (as Billy)It's a puppy, isn't it? Yeah, it is. I can tell.

HORWITZ: Talk to anybody who grew up in the 1980s and "Gremlins" is like an icon.

WERTHEIMER: So we're coming up on New Year's Eve...

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Which means we've got to end on a good note here. New Year's Eve movies tend to be less disaster and more deus ex machina.

HORWITZ: I guess you could call the Cuban revolution a deus ex machina.

(LAUGHTER)

HORWITZ: That's the disaster that befalls the Mafia in "The Godfather II." But you're right, Linda. New Year's Eve traditionally is one characters, especially lovers, get together. I think of "Waiting to Exhale," Forrest Whitaker's film from 1995, certainly "When Harry Met Sally."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WHEN HARRY MET SALLY")

BILLY CRYSTAL: (as Harry Burns) I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich.

WERTHEIMER: So is that your favorite, Murray?

HORWITZ: No. My favorite is to holidays in one - both Christmas and New Years. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond had this fantastic run in the late '50s and early '60s of some of the funniest movies ever made: "Some Like It Hot," "One, Two, Three," "Kiss Me Stupid" and in 1960, "The Apartment," had seven Oscar wins - best picture, best director, best screenplay, best actor and actress for Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. It's just an amazing movie and in it, a Christmas office party disaster is redeemed on New Year's Eve. As a lot of folks remember, it has one of the most famous final exchanges in the history of the movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE APARTMENT")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JACK LEMMON: (as C.C. Baxter) I love, Miss Kubelik.

SHIRLEY MACLAINE: (as Fran Kubelik) Three. Queens.

LEMMON: (as C.C. Baxter) Did you hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you.

MACLAINE: (as Fran Kubelik) Shut up and deal.

WERTHEIMER: So Murray, are you going to have a big New Year's celebration?

HORWITZ: I think it'll be not so quiet as Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine playing gin rummy, but I don't think we're going to have the Cuban Revolution at my house. But whatever it is, I want to wish you a very happy 2014. And may it, for all of us, be filled with great movies.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much, Murray.

Murray Horwitz is a playwright, a lyricist and an NPR commentator. Very nice of you to come in.

HORWITZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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