Film Torments: The Christmas Tree (1991)

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FOLLOWING an extended hiatus, Torments returns in time for Christmas with this… thing of a movie.

To start us off with the superlatives, Christmas is one of those institutions that, like the Parallax that is Bruce Forsyth*, just won’t die. Of the glut of festive films that flood the market around Yuletide – mostly cheap, straight-to-video cashgrabs like Santa Buddies, or perfect masterpieces like Santa Paws 2 – few seem as wildly off-kilter as 1991’s The Christmas Tree, a bizarre made-for-television spectacle that combines the seasonal paraphernalia of Christmas with relentless Dickensian misery.

Or, at least, it would be miserable if it wasn’t so damn hilarious. Nothing goes un-botched in this travesty of an animation, with dead-eyed children staring into the middle distance like shellshocked ‘Nam vets; recycled scenes – not shots, scenes – shoving their way into the frame, with a villain that’s so unabashedly evil it’s impossible to imagine her antics going unnoticed, and a plot so asinine yet mind-boggling that it passes infinity and loops back into sanity.

To an extent. Really, The Christmas Tree is batshit crazy, framing its fairy-tale premise in a world of unyielding pain and human desperation. Mrs Mavilda (Helen Quirk), a comically evil woman of cosmic proportions, runs an orphanage in the Podunk of nowhere, skeeving the generous donations that the Mayor (Paul Whyte) provides (in the form of literal money bags) in the form of feckless poker games and booze-tinged blackouts. Content with dooming her wards to a lifetime of anguish of poverty, her bliss is shattered when Judy (Karen Drygas) rocks up with her two Aryan children to stay, while her robot husband says, “I’d better go now.”

Judy soon establishes a rapport with the tykes of the orphanage, who, in their hunger pang delusions, have made an idol of the titular pine tree, christening it Mrs Hopewell. “That tree is going to cause me a lot of trouble,” says Mrs Mavilda, and it is never explained why. Judy’s goodness and wholesome virtue begins to rub Mavilda up the wrong way, however. Short of graphically murdering her, which would be consistent with her character, she conspires to rob the children of both Judy and Mrs Hopewell, until she basically says, “Fuck it,” grabs a chainsaw and gets struck by lightning. Then Santa rocks up out of nowhere, presumably wielding the power of Thor, winks at the camera and fucks off. And it’s all narrated by a man who sounds like Microsoft Sam.

I tried to find more exciting images, but this is as exciting as it gets.

I tried to find more exciting images, but this is as exciting as it gets.

If that general plot synopsis seemed forced, unfocused and excessively busy, try watching the bastard thing. Several plot threads are inserted, sometimes simultaneously, like the dog the children adopt that accomplishes approximately nothing; the Mayor’s total ignorance of Mavilda’s wrongdoings; Judy’s children’s trip to the North Pole which ends with one of them falling off a cliff following a bear attack… I can (and later will) go on.

But let’s talk about animation. There’s about 16 frames of it in the entire thing, many of which are recycled from scene to scene, presumably to conserve on the nothing budget. The characters, one and all, stare into the darkest reaches of your soul with their cold dead eyes, and their jittery movements make the animatronic critters from Five Nights at Freddy’s seem welcoming. Shots are regularly repeated verbatim, and sometimes the film cuts to a random shot of an onlooking child for a split-second before immediately whiplashing into the previous frame.

This might honestly be the laziest film – certainly laziest animated film – that I’ve ever seen, but I wonder if the obvious technical hiccups come attached with a language barrier. As a Brazillian production, I have to assume that some of the directorial decisions made more sense with the characters speaking, presumably, Portuguese. This doesn’t explain the instantaneous cuts, but the problem of characters talking over each other and/or having their lines audibly cut off likely wouldn’t have existed prior.

As soon as he leaves, Mrs Mavilda rips the dress off that girl. No joke.

As soon as he leaves, Mrs Mavilda rips the dress off that girl. No joke.

This doesn’t excuse the horrendously bad voice acting from the English cast either way. It’s difficult to describe through the written medium just how appalling the acting is, but lines like, “Mommy mommy comeandsee Mrs Hopewell,” are delivered as written by actual children in the booth, most of whom are incapable of pronouncing Mrs Mavilda correctly. Most of their lines descend into incoherent mumbling – probably because they’re all four years old and have no idea what they’re doing – but the adults are hardly better.

The 90% that aren’t Mavilda speak in monotone, droning out their lines like a conveyor belt of suck. Quirk as Mavilda ratchets up the raspy hiss of Asphodel to the best of her ability, but some of the delivery is rather, er, questionable: “THAT’S RIGHT MAVILDA NOW YOU’RE COOKING WITH GAS!” is a prime example. But there’s a lot of fun to be had with her saying things like, “There goes the children’s bread for the week!” and, “Here goes the children’s money again!” She channels the actual villainy of fairy-tale characters like Maleficent and adds an exploitative layer of throaty pantomime. She’s a good sport, if nothing else, and her rattling cackles provided some of the biggest WTF reactions.

There are a lot of laughs to find with individual lines as well. When Mrs Mavilda frames Judy and threatens to hack down Mrs Hopewell, the children cry, “Poor Mrs Hopewell!” happily ignoring the perilous situation their carer has been embroiled in. One of Judy’s children solemnly intones, like he’s Christopher Lee reading Edgar Allan Poe, “I’m afraid there’s no hope.” Without missing a beat, he immediately perks up and says, “Wait a minute!” with the biggest smile on his face. Another child, hilariously, says, “Nothing’s going to change; miracles don’t happen,” with the nihilism of Nietzche coursing through his veins.

Also, bears.

Also, bears.

The hilarious lines and the delivery with which they’re read mesh with the confused tone of the narrative, which follows a standard wish-upon-a-star premise with flagrantly adult elements, particularly Mrs Mavilda’s poker games and champagne guzzling. It’s difficult to see the joy and wonder in the cutesy story of children overcoming the cruelty of their matron when she’s glugging booze like a broken woman before literally being struck by lightning, Old Testament-style.

The deadpan narrator, fortunately, informs us that she isn’t actually dead, but that the lightning addled her brains and fundamentally warped Mrs Mavilda’s personality and morality. “She learned that you always win when you’re good,” he says, compounding the utter banality of the film’s message with the tragic story of a woman’s lobotomisation.

Irrespective of my own interpretations, The Christmas Tree is a laugh riot that reminds us of the Yuletide spirit in a way that few other films can. A hysterical travesty from muddled start to what-the-fuck finish, it’s the kind of film that can unite whole families in laughter. For all its obvious, relentless badness, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

* Bruce Forsyth is a man whom I love and don’t actually want to die at all. I saw him live. It was lovely.

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