The red-hatted, beard-wearing character in Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa is bad indeed. How bad is he? When we first encounter this degenerate St. Nick, a.k.a. Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton), he's in a back alley puking up whatever holiday cheer he had managed to imbibe at the corner bar. Later, the bleary-eyed, sharp-whiskered Santa--who somehow retains his seasonal gig at the mall even after crowing to the kiddies about his "fuck-stick"--sneaks into the department store after hours and robs the joint. And look, boys and girls! There's Santa giving a sleigh ride to a lucky sales clerk in the changing stall! There's Santa in the food court spitting lettuce at a scrawny tyke who dared to ask for his autograph! There's Santa gently urging his little helper (Tony Cox) to get another poor whippersnapper off his lap--"before he pisses on me."
And how bad is the movie? Well, if you have to ask, then you're probably the sort of sick puppy who got a kick out of Crumb, Zwigoff's ingenious documentary portrait of the artist as a cruelly misanthropic court jester. It does seem inevitable that the Christian right will come down hard on the director's latest ode to the irreverent outsider, not only for having been funded by the brothers Weinstein and released within a month of Christmas by Dimension Films, subsidiary of (gasp!) Disney. At the risk of emboldening the Pat Robertsons of the world, Bad Santa is in fact the most belligerently crass and profane comedy to slither out of the studio system in at least a year--although it's also much less interesting than that sounds. Zwigoff reportedly tussled with the Weinsteins over how to pull an R-rated film out of an even filthier sack of assorted goodies. But contention in the cutting room can't fully account for the fact that Bad Santa looks and feels like a bad sitcom even in those moments when it succeeds in smelling like a pee- and peppermint schnapps-stained strip of padded felt.
"Mrs. Santa caught me fucking her sister," deadpans Thornton's Willie by way of explaining to a pudgy grade-schooler (Brett Kelly) why he's suddenly in need of a place to crash for the holidays. Could a man as skuzzy and surly as this be moved by the spirit of Christmas to seek companionship from a prepubescent loser? Do Santa's reindeer shit in the snow? If pummeling the bullies who picked on his fat young host is what apparently helps Willie to "turn the corner" from naughty to nice, Zwigoff's motivation to be merry in the third act is even more suspect. No doubt there's money at the mall for someone willing to put on a red suit and holler "Ho ho ho," however much his breath stinks. But coming after the genuine, hard-won humanity in Zwigoff's Ghost World, Willie's slapdash redemption--with the added help of a sexed-up bartender (Lauren Graham) and a scene sluggishly pilfered from Bad Lieutenant--registers as phony and cheap.
Of course it also registers as part of the joke: Hip director on the rise halfheartedly fills the studio's seasonal order for warm fuzzies, snickers all the way to the bank, then blows a raspberry before the end credits just to make sure he still looks cool. Unfortunately, a final dedication to the late John Ritter--whose brief turn as a straight-arrow store manager shows signs not of impending illness, but terminal boredom--can't really be trusted, either. Ghost World's Enid Coleslaw would see the words "In Loving Memory of John Ritter" and roll her eyes for sure.
In the regrettably meager annals of bad-Santa cinema, Zwigoff's yuletide atrocity has nothing on Silent Night, Deadly Night, whose toy-store Kris Kringle (Robert Brian Wilson) freaks out and goes on a killing spree. Among the dozen or so victims of Santa's slay ride is a man who's choked to death with a string of Christmas lights and a young woman who's impaled--topless, of course--on a pair of moose antlers.
Released by Tri-Star Pictures at the tail end of 1984, pulled from theaters a month later, and newly issued on DVD by the irrepressible schlockmeisters at Anchor Bay Entertainment (who boast that theirs is "the most complete and uncut version ever released"), Silent Night, Deadly Night is more fun than a stocking full of sharpened candy canes. The disc's hilarious collection of supplemental material includes a letter from an outraged mom in Brooklyn Center, who wrote Tri-Star in '84 to complain that her three-year-old, after seeing the trailer on TV, would no longer sit on Santa's lap for pictures. "What's next?" she asked. "A marauding turkey at Thanksgiving?" As a matter of fact, yes: It was called Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.