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Image: Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas
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Not all Christmas movies are sappy, beloved classics. Alonso Duralde's new book looks at the weird, wild and wonderful of Yuletide cinema.
TODAY contributor
updated 12/16/2010 5:34:42 PM ET 2010-12-16T22:34:42

Sure, everyone loves "It's a Wonderful Life" or "White Christmas," but what about the time Martians kidnapped Santa, or when his reindeer abandoned him on a Florida beach because they couldn’t take the heat?

TODAYshow.com contributor Alonso Duralde has published a new book, “Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas” (Limelight Editions), which explores every imaginable kind of Yuletide cinema, from standards such as “A Christmas Story” to slightly more out-there suggestions such as “Die Hard,” “Gremlins,” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” We asked Duralde to share the five strangest Christmas movies from his book with us.

'The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t'
On the eve of his annual trip around the world to give out presents, Santa Claus gets the bad news that mean old millionaire Phineas T. Prune has bought the North Pole and plans to foreclose on Santa’s workshop in order to cancel Christmas. (This is one of those stories where the message is: no presents, no Christmas. Did we learn nothing from the Grinch’s assault on Whoville?)

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Santa asks kindly attorney Mr. Whipple for help; Whipple’s big idea is to get his client a job as a department store Santa so he can raise the money to pay back Prune — only to have Prune buy the store and force Santa and Whipple to hand over their salaries to pay for toys they broke. When all seems lost, the children of the world are there to give Santa a hand — but can St. Nick teach Prune to love Christmas?

Weirdnesses: The elves are played by short men wearing women’s wigs; cast members speak either Italian or English, so the dubbing is all over the place; Santa sings a song called “I’ve Got a Date With Children.”

'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians'
The children of Mars, who are treated like adults and have never been allowed to laugh and play, spend their days glumly glued to TV broadcasts from Earth, particularly those shows dealing with Santa Claus. Concerned about the young people, Martian ruler Kimar organizes an expedition to kidnap Santa and to bring him to the red planet. Clumsy Dropo tags along, and the Martians also wind up kidnapping Earth kids Billy and Betty for their valuable Santa-related intel.

Back on Mars, the evil Voldar tries to eliminate Santa, but he accidentally makes off with Dropo, who is dressed in the red suit, instead. Santa eventually realizes that Dropo can become the new Martian Santa, so the jolly old man bids farewell to the kids of Mars — including Kimar’s daughter, Girmar (Pia Zadora, in her screen debut) — and returns to Earth with Billy and Betty.

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Weirdnesses: The Martians — all of them green skinned and bearing antennae, of course — carry advanced weapons that look suspiciously like Wham-O Air Blasters, and their deadly robot is so obviously made of cardboard boxes you can almost see “Kenmore” on the side. Also, you will never, ever get the theme song, “Hooray for Santa Claus,” out of your head.

'Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny'
Santa’s elves sing an incoherent song (sample lyrics: “Tra-la-la-la-la-la/But where is Santa Claus?/Tra-la-la-la-la-la Santa isn’t here”) and manhandle store-bought toys. Meanwhile, Santa Claus finds himself stuck on a Florida beach, abandoned by his flying reindeer, who couldn’t take the heat of the Sunshine State. Santa rallies the local kids — including one who’s jumping off the roof of his house holding a giant patio umbrella; don’t try this at home, kids! — to come help him out. (Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn drift in as well. Don’t ask.)

The kids try attaching various animals (a cow, a pig, a sheep, a guy in a gorilla costume, etc.) to the sleigh, but none of the beasts can budge the thing. Santa tells the kids they’ve got to believe in their dreams and never give up, which prompts him to launch into the story of Thumbelina, which is clearly a whole other movie — a featurette filmed at the now-defunct Florida theme park Pirate’s World — that’s been stuck inside this one. Once the cheesy fable has ended, the kids figure out a solution — they go to Pirate’s World and fetch the Ice Cream Bunny, who rides an old-timey fire truck to the beach. He picks up Santa in the truck and takes him home.

Weirdnesses: Who is the Ice Cream Bunny? What are his powers? Why is the Ice Cream Bunny costume so mangy and grimy looking? Why does it take this movie more than an hour to resolve five minutes’ worth of plot?

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Slideshow: Movies for the holidays (on this page)

'The Magic Christmas Tree'
So these kids have a long conversation about Halloween at school, and later that day, one of them helps the neighborhood’s weird old lady get her cat Lucifer out of a tree. The kid bumps his head and suddenly the movie’s in color and the old lady says she’s a witch. To thank him, she gives him a ring with a magical seed inside — if he plants the seed under the wishbone of a Thanksgiving turkey, he’ll get a Christmas tree that will grant three wishes.

So then there’s this talking tree that the kid’s dad can’t chop down, and then the kid’s parents and sister choose the evening of Christmas Eve to go out shopping. The kid asks the tree for “an hour of absolute power,” which apparently gives him the ability to redecorate and to play stupid pranks that involve firemen and pie fights. Then he asks to have Santa all to himself, so the tree kidnaps the jolly old man, but then the kid meets a giant in the forest and realizes he’s been selfish so he uses his third wish to cancel the second wish. And then he wakes up. THE END.

Weirdnesses: Occult storytelling plus low-budget surrealism plus a tree that talks like Charles Nelson Reilly equals one ice cream headache of a Christmas movie.

Slideshow: Winter movie guide

'Santa Claus'
As Christmas Day approaches, Santa Claus prepares to brings toys to all the good children of the world with the assistance of his staff of magical helpers. Satan hopes to destroy Santa Claus and sends the demon Pitch to Earth to create havoc on Christmas Eve. Pitch focuses on three mean little boys, encouraging them to make mischief, and he also tries to convince poor young Lupita to steal a doll rather than to believe that Santa will bring her one.

Santa makes a little rich boy’s wishes come true by sending the child’s parents home to spend more time with him — it involves a “cocktail of remembrance,” long story — but Pitch sabotages Santa’s magic sleep powder and the flower that allows him to become invisible. Can Merlin the Magician save the day before the sun rises on Dec. 25?

Weirdnesses: In this take on jolly old St. Nick from “Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy” director René Cardona, Santa lives in the clouds with a bunch of child slaves who make all the toys before going to Earth in a sleigh pulled by creepy wind-up toy reindeer. And did I mention that Satan is a major character?

Alonso Duralde is a frequent contributor to TODAYshow.com. His book, "Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas," is available at bookstores everywhere. TODAYshow.com readers who order at MusicDispatch.com can get 25 percent off plus free shipping. Enter promo code NY9 at checkout. (Free shipping is by least expensive ship method and applies to U.S. orders only.)

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Photos: Movies for the holidays

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  1. A 3-D holiday

    In "Disney's A Christmas Carol," Jim Carrey plays Ebenezer Scrooge in this animated retelling of Charles Dickens' classic novel about an old miser who goes on an eye-opening journey with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. Other renditions of this story include "A Christmas Carol" in 1938 and 1951, "Scrooged" (1988), "The Jetsons Christmas Carol" (1985) and "The Muppet Christmas Carol" (1992). (Walt Disney Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Four-legged Santas

    "Santa Buddies: The Legend of Santa Paws" (2009) is the fourth installment of the "Air Buddies "film series. (Walt Disney Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Too much family time

    In "Four Christmases" (2008), Reese Witherspoon, center, and Vince Vaughn play a San Francisco couple who have to go to all four of their divorced parents' homes on Christmas. (New Line Cinema) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Holiday teamwork

    A daughter asks a department store Santa (played by Morris Chestnut) to help find a husband for her divorced mom in "The Perfect Holiday" (2007). (Yari Film Group) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Singing along

    Jason Lee stars as David Seville in "Alvin and the Chipmunks" (2007), the CG/live-action hybrid film, based on the 1950s cartoon series about chipmunks Alvin, Simon and Theodore, who lay waste to Seville's surroundings and sing in three-part harmony. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Playing around

    In "Fred Claus" (2007), Santa's bitter older brother, played by Vince Vaughn, is forced to move to the North Pole. (Warner Bros. Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Getting competitive

    In "Deck the Halls" (2006), Matthew Broderick, left, and Danny DeVito, right, play neighbors in a small New England town who clash when one decides to decorate his house for the holidays so brightly that it can be seen from space. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. All aboard

    Tom Hanks stars in the screen adaptation of "The Polar Express" (2004), which tells the story of a boy who believes in Santa Claus despite getting teased by his friends. One Christmas Eve, a steam train appears in front of his house and brings him and his disbelieving friends to the North Pole. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Holiday reluctance

    In 2004's "Christmas with the Kranks," Tim Allen, second from right, plays Luther Krank, a man who decides to skip Christmas and go on a vacation with his wife Nora (Jamie Lee Curtis, right) instead. But he is forced to do Christmas anyway when his daughter decides at the last minute to come home for the holiday. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Saving Christmas

    Life in the big city is not all sugarplums and candy canes as Buddy (Will Ferrell, left,) finds out in "Elf" (2003). In New York to find his real family, Buddy realizes everyone has forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, and it's up to him and his simple elf ways to save Christmas for New York and the world. (New Line Cinema) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A Christmas con

    Can a con man change his ways? In the 2003 film "Bad Santa," Billy Bob Thornton disguises himself as a mall Santa Claus while plotting to rob the mall. But an 8-year old boy comes into the picture and complicates the matter by teaching thim and his elf sidekick (Tony Cox) the meaning of Christmas. (Dimension Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Spelling it out

    In the weeks before Christmas, "Love Actually" (2003) tells one story that weaves together a number of love stories. The cast includes Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Keira Knightley, Colin Firth and Bill Nighy. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Stop, you holiday thief!

    Jim Carrey stars in another holiday move, this time playing the Grinch in "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" (2000). (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Finding the perfect gift

    Many parents go all out for their children on the holidays. And Howard (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is no different in "Jingle All the Way" (1996) when he stops at nothing to get the hottest action figure of the holiday season for his son just before Christmas Day. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A real holiday transformation

    Tim Allen plays a divorced yuppie dad who sees his strained relationship with his son change when a bizarre twist of fate turns him into the new Santa in the 1994 film "The Santa Clause." (Walt Disney Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. From another world

    In the 1993 stop-motion fantasy "The Nightmare Before Christmas," Jack Skellington, right, is a being from "Halloween Town" who opens a portal to "Christmas Town." (Touchstone) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Holiday mischief

    In the 1990 blockbuster holiday hit "Home Alone," Macaulay Culkin plays a young boy who fends for himself after his family accidentally leaves him at home while they go to France for Christmas. (20th Century Fox via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. No real vacation

    The Griswold family, led by parents Clark and Ellen (Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo,) plans a big family Christmas at their house that turns into a big disaster in "Christmas Vacation" (1989). (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Action-packed holiday

    There's no lack of action in 1988's "Die Hard" when Bruce Willis plays a New York cop trapped in a Los Angeles high-rise occupied by terrorists on Christmas Eve. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Rule breaker

    A wholesome town is turned upside-down when a boy named Billy (Zach Galligans) breaks three important rules about his new pet and gremlins are accidentally unleashed and wreck havoc in 1984's "Gremlins." (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Stuck on Christmas

    Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) dreams of owning a Red Rider BB gun. He sets out to convince the world this is the perfect gift. But along the way, he runs into opposition from his parents, his teacher, and even Santa Claus in the 1983 classic "A Christmas Story." (MGM via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. 'Christmas Time Is Here'

    Charlie Brown nurtures the thinnest, scraggliest Christmas tree ever in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965). At first the gang makes fun of Charlie for choosing such an ugly tree for the holiday but a timely assist from Linus makes the true message of the season come shining through. (CBS) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Lighting the way

    "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1964) recounts the tale of a shy, young reindeer whose Christmas spirit is dampened because his shiny red nose makes him the laughing stock of all Christmastown. But when bad weather threatens to cancel Christmas, Rudolph's headlight -- his illuminated nose -- saves the day by serving as a beacon to guide Santa's sleigh. (Classic Media) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. What are you dreaming of?

    In the 1954 holiday classic "White Christmas," Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby star as two song-and-dance men who team up after World War II with a sister act (Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney) and trek to Vermont for Christmas. (Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. The real deal

    Kris Kringle -- unbeknownst to cynical, market-minded adults, the real Santa Claus -- is hired to play himself at Macy's Department Store in New York. His gentle, joyous spirit and magical powers soon transform those around him, including a little girl (Natalie Wood) and her world-weary mother in 1947's "Miracle on 34th Street" (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Touched by an angel

    George Bailey (James Stewart) is a small-town man whose life seems so desperate he contemplates suicide until a guardian angel intercedes, showing him what life would have become for the people in Bedford Falls if he had never lived in "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946). (Liberty Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Holiday silliness

    Oliver Hardy, center, and Stan Laurel, right, star in 1934's "Babes in Toyland" as Ollie Dee and Stanley Dum, who try to borrow money from their employer, the toymaker, to pay off the mortgage. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
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