12/9/09

A Christmas Carol (1984): Ghosts, Horror, and Humbug!

One hundred and sixty six years ago, Charles Dickens first published what would become his most famous work, A Christmas Carol. Twenty-five years ago, CBS first aired George C. Scott’s adaptation of the classic tale. When it aired, my family taped the classic production on our massive VCR for posterity, and I have watched it every year since. So for this week’s It Came From Video Tape, I am very happy to be reviewing this film from that very same tape. It takes me right back to when I was eight years old, and I love it that the tape contains the intact commercials. ( IBM sponsored the showing, and each break contained all kind of great commercials for their new fangled personal computers.) As I’ve grown older, not only do I appreciate how fine this version is, but also it has a great many wonderful actors with strong ties to genre films.

If I have to tell you what A Christmas Carol is about, then you must have lived most of your life in a room by yourself. Seeing a few people on the internet might just fit that description, then I suppose I should include the briefest of synopsis. Ebenezer Scrooge (George C. Scott) is an old miser who treats everyone he meets with contempt. This includes his clerk Bob Cratchit (David Warner) or his nephew Fred (Roger Rees), and no one should get him started on Christmas which he thinks is a lot of old humbug. One night the ghost of his old partner Jacob Marley (Frank Finlay) visits Scrooge. Marley warns Scrooge of the fate awaiting him after his death and tells him he will be visited by three ghosts, and he should learn from each of them if he wants to avoid eternal punishment.

While I definitely enjoy the performances of Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, Patrick Stewart, and Uncle Scrooge McDuck in other versions of the tale, George C. Scott seems to fit the role like a well-worn glove. It’s incredible how perfect he is. With his gruff demeanor and commanding voice, there was no one more suited to growl, “Humbug!” than Mr. Scott was. He also made demands on the production that greatly influenced how good it looked. In most other versions, when Scrooge is yanked out of bed to gallivant with the three spirits, he is dressed in a sleeping gown and cap. In this version, he wears slacks, a shirt, and vest along with a dressing gown that is in line with Dickens’ own description of the character. With this attention to detail (and a massive, massive set of muttonchops), Mr. Scott is exactly what I see in my mind when I think of Scrooge.

As I mentioned earlier, there are a ton of other great actors in this film with genre film connections. First off, David Warner, who played Bob Cratchit, had parts in Straw Dogs, The Omen, Time Bandits, and TRON, and he would later appear as Gorkon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Warner exudes nice guy charm in this film that is quite surprising considering he so often was cast as a heavy. Frank Finley. Marley’s Ghost, also has a good many genre credits with appearances in Shaft in Africa, Twisted Nerve, and The Deadly Bees. His Marley is frightening, and it always makes my skin crawl when he ties his loose jaw back together with an audible clacking sound.

The three actors who play the ghosts also have quite the résumé of genre roles. The Ghost of Christmas Past was played by Angela Pleasance who also shows up in the 1973 Amicus anthology film From Beyond the Grave and more recently playing the Queen in an episode of Dr. Who. I really like how her ghost is portrayed with vast amounts of light emanating from her. It gives her a spectral quality that I don’t think I’ve seen the likes of in anything else. Next up is the Ghost of Christmas Present played by the recently departed Edward Woodward. I’m sure he needs no introduction to most folks, but in case its slipping your mind, Woodward played Sgt. Howie in the classic film The Wicker Man and was well known for his role in the TV series The Enforcer. His ghost is presented as a giant, and Woodward was another inspired piece of casting. He line delivery is only matched my Scott’s for being the best in the film. He also takes part in one of the most harrowing scenes in the film, but more on that later. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (not the Future as he is often erroneously labeled) is played with silent menace by Michael Carter. While Carter stays silent and hidden in massive robes in this film, it is another film where he resides under layers of makeup that has brought him notability. Carter appeared as Jabba the Hutt’s advisor Bib Fortuna in Return of the Jedi, and he would later go on to appear in Michael Mann’s horror flick The Keep.

While the acting is magnificent by everyone involved, there are far too many actors to mention them all. Suffice it to say I don’t feel there is a weak performance among them. Also showing great vigor is director Clive Donner. In a strange coincidence, Donner actually started his career as a film editor and 1951’s Scrooge with Alastair Sim is among his credits. As a director his film credits include 1965’s What’s New Pussycat?, 1974’s Vampira, and 1981’s Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Lady starring Peter Ustinov as the Asian detective. Working with cinematographer Tony Imi (Enemy Mine, Wired), Donner created a beautifully realized version of Victorian England. It eschewed the typically glossy version of the past in favor of a dank, dark, dirty vision of times long ago. Not only does this give the film great realism, it also adds something missing from other versions of the tale, horror.

At its core, A Christmas Carol, in any version from novel to film, is a ghost story. I think this is something that is overlooked. Marley tells Scrooge plainly that he will be haunted by three spirits, and Donner’s version makes sure that each of the ghosts is damn creepy. The Ghost of Christmas Past with her otherworldly glow seems almost delighted with Scrooge chooses to stamp out her light, Christmas Present opens the folds of his robe to reveal two emaciated children who are the embodiment of pestilence and famine, and there’s no mistaking that Christmas Yet to Come is none other than the Grim Reaper himself. From beginning to end, Donner’s version is a dark affair that only becomes bright and sunny in the expected conclusion. This film captures the horror of the story as well as the redemptive quality of the tale, and that is what I think makes it stand out above the rest of the adaptations.

If you have never seen this version, I can’t recommend it strongly enough. For a production seen on the TV in the US (although it received theatrical release in the UK), it is a wonderfully realized film. I’ve been watching it now for 25 years on this ancient tape, and here’s hoping that it lasts me many, many years. I know I’m going to be covering many Christmas films in the weeks to come, but if you only take one recommendation from me, then let it be this one. I can guarantee you won’t be sorry. When a film can make an old humbug like me say, “God bless us, every one.” then you know it must be doing something right.



Bugg Rating


For obvious reasons there's no trailer out there for this one, but I found a nice chunk of it on YouTube featuring the scene with Scrooge and Marley's Ghost. I think it is very representative of the film as a whole so check it out.

2 comments:

  1. I agree absolutely; this is the best version of the tale. What I like about Scott's Scrooge is how fully realized a character he is; other Scrooges, no matter how well played, come off as caricatures... Scott's Scrooge feels like a real person. Like when he delivers the "Bah! Humbug" line, he doesn't scowl, he laughs, with a bitter edge; his whole life an the choices he's made (which we learn about later) are audible right there.

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  2. I, too, find this one to be the best of the Christmas Carol movies. Although, now I really, really want to see your IBM commercials. Great review, and I love George C. Scott1

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