Magic Christmas Tree (1965)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Santa Claus

Christmas Evil

Magic Christmas Tree

Lava Lamp

Our rating: one LAVA® motion lamp.

You'll go blind if you sit that
close to the Christmas tree.
A few years ago in our annual Yuletide review we marvelled at the vast array of reviews that slap the label of “Worst Christmas Movie Ever” on a little movie called Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). One need only do a Google news search of the name “Pia Zadora” around December to see a dozen newspaper columnists and bloggers dumping on the film in an annual frenzy of half-felt hatred, but as we said then:

We can’t help but wonder if, among all the toy-inspired cartoons and other dreck foisted on kids by slavering marketers in the name of holiday joy, there isn’t some other film more deserving of the title “Worst Christmas Movie Ever.”

When we saw the trailer for Magic Christmas Tree, we knew we’d found our flick. The budget is lower, the actors less apt, and the story more offensive. And like most films of its ilk, it barely makes any sense at all.

"Hand over the money or I give
you the dreaded Rear Admiral."
The film opens on a trio of boys eating lunch in a schoolyard. After some dispensable joke dialogue involving the contents of their lunchboxes and a meticulously detailed portrayal of the ensuing trades, the bossiest of the three, Mark (Chirs Kroesen), challenges his pals to an evening excursion. Since it is Halloween today, he reasons, why not check out “the old Finch place,” the local haunted house? Dave and Tommy make their excuses, but Mark drags them along after school to the home of Miss Finch, an aged spinster with a cat named Lucifer. Actually, the actress playing Miss Finch is probably no older than forty-five, but with the aid of a poor wig and an even poorer impression of Dorothy Hamilton, she is presented as an ancient and frightening creature.

Tommy and Dave have long since bailed when Mark is captured in Miss Finch’s talons, and by the time he climbs the tree on her front lawn to bring Lucifer back to earth, we are resigned to the fact that the bossy and peevish Mark is the film’s main character. A script with a kinder heart might have turned Mark into a catalyst for an adventure starring one of the more sympathetic boys, but Magic Christmas Tree is a parable about greed and so we are stuck with Mark.

Is she starting for the
Chicago Bears or something?
(A quick note about Mark’s apparent gluttony—reference is occasionally made to the fact that Mark is a pudgy boy. Even his Mother makes comments like, “The only time that boy isn’t eating is at regular mealtimes.” By today’s standards, however, Mark is positively svelte – his alleged portliness is barely noticeable. In other words, when it came to fat kids, America hadn’t yet seen the results of video games, DVD players, and parents so terrified of neighborhood pedophiles that they never let their children out of doors.)

Mark’s reward for his good deed (performed under however much duress) is a knock to the noggin when he falls out of the tree, and the chance to see Miss Finch as she “really” is – decked out in full witch regalia, pointy black hat and all. In an odd structural rip from The Wizard of Oz (1939), all of the footage up to this point is in black and white, and after Mark wakes up it is in color. Without the lush look of Technicolor, however, the effect looks more accidental than fanciful.

Isn't that the tree
Charlie Brown bought?
Miss Finch gives gives Mark a magic ring. The magic ring has a secret compartment, and in the secret compartment is a magic seed. All Mark has to do plant the seed underneath the wishbone of a Thanksgiving turkey by the dark of the moon and say three magic words (no, not “Klaatu Barata Nikto” you clowns), and a magic tree will grow. Hopefully Miss Finch throws in a free year of telephone tech support, because no kid is going to remember all that months later.

Mark does as instructed, and by Christmas Eve a scrawny tree has grown in the back yard. Mark’s father finds it first, while he tries to mow the lawn. The tree causes Dad to careen around the yard until the mower explodes (or something, this movie has no budget to show anything so complicated as a mower gag) while Mark’s pet turtle eats some grass to a goofy soundtrack.

Again with the finger!
On Christmas Eve Mark’s slacker family hasn’t bought a tree yet (“hilariously” henpecked Dad mutters something about wanting a fresh tree on Christmas), so everyone but Mark goes out to look for one. While Mark is home alone the tree transports itself into the living room and dresses itself in tinsel. Then, in a voice somewhere between Rip Torn and Rip Taylor, it talks to Mark, telling him that if he says the magic words he’ll get three wishes.

Mark’s first wish is to be the absolute god of all he surveys. For one hour, all Mark has to do is point at something and his desires come to life. Mark starts out by turning night into day (and on the first day, Mark said: Let there be light!), then causes some emergency vehicles with important places to be to go crazy for some more low budget comic relief. This is the point at which we understand that Mark is not only selfish and bossy, he’s also a complete idiot. You have the power to make anything happen, and you choose to will a pair of bakers to pie each other in the face? Not that we don’t appreciate a good pieface gag, but even the dullest of imaginations could come up with a laundry list of better ways to spend one’s almighty capital than to recreate a Keystone Cops routine. But alas, this is the sort of screenplay with which we are faced.

"Santa just need to take
a rest kid. Do your parents
happen to have a liquor cabinent?
I could really use a scotch."
For his second wish Mark wants to have Santa Claus all for himself—something he obviously couldn’t have done with his godly powers in the previous hour. The tree complies, and a cut-rate Santa find himself glued to a chair in Mark’s house. It’s sort of like a yuletide version of that scene in Reservoir Dogs (1992), but our secret wish for Mark to brandish a straight razor while the tree sang “O Tannenbaum” went maddeningly unfulfilled. Apparently Santa gives Mark all the toys he wanted, though it’s a little hard to tell. Perhaps something is missing from our copy of the movie, because the movie cuts suddenly to Mark, who has inexplicably teleported to a forest.

Mark wanders around the woodland for a little while until he runs into a large man wearing a fur toga. No, not Elton John, but some sort of mythological incarnation of greed. The giant informs Mark that he can’t leave the woods, but he can be as greedy as he wants. Oookay, that makes sense. Then the giant says, “I have something to show you,” (Nooooooooo!) and a reporter’s voice and some stock footage informs us that the world has noticed that Santa Claus is gone. Did Tim Burton see this before making a similar scene in A Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)? In any case, Mark now feels remorse for his behavior, so he gets to leave. We’re not so lucky, however, and the giant informs those of us watching that we shouldn’t be greedy or we’ll be trapped in the wilderness with a big sweaty guy too.

It's true, Johyn Rhys-Davies is
in every film.
Newly repentant and just as inexplicably back at home, Mark now chooses his third wish, and that’s to take his second wish back. Wait a minute, he can do that? Doesn’t that mean he can wish for a thousand more wishes! Mark, you fool!

Of course, the upshot of all this is that the Christmas tree disappears (goes back to the land of magic, it says) and Mark wakes up to the colorless drone of his everyday existence. Of course Miss Finch is still there, and she offers him cookies. Having learned his lesson about greed, he of course accepts the offer of surplus food enthusiastically. (That was quick!) Then the movie ends on a sting that was presumably added long after the fact. Mark sees something that surprises him, and the camera whip pans to color footage of a pine tree, which then says something about it all having really happened. The only problem is it isn’t the tree we saw before, nor is it the same voice. Ah, we didn’t want to leave this movie understanding it, anyways.

Is this a worse movie that Santa Claus Conquers the Martians? Well, yes. Magic Christmas Tree was obviously made by amateur filmmakers working with whatever they had at hand ("OK, we have a Santa Suit, a turtle, and a guy too fat to fit into the Santa Suit...), kind of like a yuletide version of El Mariachi (1992). The most important element in that situation is talent, and the filmmakers here simply had none. The story doesn’t make sense, the comedy style was out of date 20 years before the movie was made, and the acting is bad even when it’s dubbed. The greatest Christmas gift we ever got was when this movie was consigned to well deserved obscurity.

Review date: 12/25/2005

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