- Year: 1964
- Director: Richard C. Parish
- Starring: Chris Kroesen, Valerie Hobbs, Darlene Lohnes
Why do filmmakers who have no budget always go after genres that require a lot of money? Well, you’ve got $10,000 and no actors of note, what will you make? Big budget sci-fi! A fantasy epic! A monster movie!
One reason Carnival of Souls became a cult classic is that it avoided common pitfalls like this. It’s a horror movie, sure, but it relies on atmosphere, tension, and a good script rather than effects. You can do those for very little money. Today’s Christmas special, The Magic Christmas Tree, was also made on very little money, but it’s clear that director Richard C. Parish envisioned having more.
That said, the film starts off cheaply enough with three bad child actors trying to trade their lunches.
One of their sandwiches is bologna, one is meatloaf, and one is… cheese. Just cheese. It’s not a grilled cheese, which would actually be a thing, but it’s just bread and cold cheese. Do his parents hate him?
Anyway, it’s Halloween and the kids discuss their plans. Mark (Chris Kroesen), the kid in the middle, makes fun of one of his friends for going to a party with girls, but then makes fun of the other one for having to babysit. What age are they at where they haven’t hit puberty, but their parents trust them to stay home with their siblings? I suppose there’s a small window, and it was the ’60s, but it’s a weird dichotomy. Anyway, Mark insists he’s going to spend Halloween by going to an allegedly haunted house where he believes a witch lives. Isn’t this special just putting you in the holiday spirit? Haunted houses, witches, autumn. I mean, Halloween, but hey it’s still a holiday.
Mark convinces the other two boys to go with him, but they quickly run away. When Mark gets to the house, he finds out that the old woman’s cat, Lucifer, is stuck in a tree. Wait a second. The old woman who lives in a dilapidated house who people already think is a witch named her cat Lucifer?
Either she is a witch, is the single most oblivious woman alive, or she is trolling the entire patriarchal ’60s suburban community. I’m hoping it’s that third one. Mark falls out of the tree and wakes up…
In the land of Oz? I mean, it’s color and there’s a witch. For his assistance, the witch (Yeah she’s just a witch in this world.) gives Mark an extremely convoluted gift. I’ll just show the quote where the witch describes it, because it would take just as long to summarize. “This is a magic ring… within that ring is a secret compartment, and within that compartment is a magic seed. If you plant this seed beneath the wishbone of a Thanksgiving turkey in the dark of the moon, a magic tree will grow, and when the tree is full grown, it will grant you three wishes.” ALL OF THAT FOR THREE WISHES? Why not a lamp to rub? If she’s a witch, why can’t she just give him three wishes? What does Thanksgiving have to do with it? How about Veterans Day? That’s in between Halloween and Christmas. Winter solstice? Hanukkah? The kid also has to say magic words, so I have no earthy clue how he’s supposed to remember all of this.
Mark asks the witch why things have changed, and she says nothing has changed but it’s all his perspective. This could be some kind of commentary on how the town views her, but unfortunately it’s not that kind of movie.
We get a quick cut to Thanksgiving where Mark gets the wishbone, because the movie felt the need to shoehorn that in. In the middle of the night, Mark gets up to plant the seed that will grow into a tree so he can make his three wishes by high school graduation, presumably.
Also, I know it’s the ’60s and suburban parents might not be all that invested in their kids’ lives, but they’re going to notice a tree growing in the yard. Why is he going out in the middle of the night and doing it in secret? Just say “Hey, my teacher wants us to plant a tree for a science project.” Instead, Mark plants the tree, a crash of thunder hits, and the tree magically grows in one night.
The next morning, Mark’s parents are discussing the strange weather from the night before over breakfast. Mark walks in, take some donuts, and leaves, and we continue to watch the parents’ conversation.
Now, this wouldn’t be too weird except for what’s revealed later, and it’s pretty obvious from the get-go—This is all a dream. Sure, I suppose a kid could dream scenes that they don’t play a part in, and of course it’s a movie, but what child dreams about the banal conversations of their parents?
Mark’s dad goes out to mow the lawn and doesn’t see the tree right away. There is a full-grown tree in the yard that wasn’t there the day before, and yet Dad doesn’t notice it upon walking outside.
How dense is this family? He clearly has a newspaper for the day too, so he really should have spotted the brand new tree when he opened the door. We saw earlier that Mark planted it right on the front lawn!
We are then treated to FOUR MINUTE SCENE of Dad trying to work a broken lawnmower. This movie is an hour long, and more than 5% of it is this sequence. It constantly cuts between 1) Dad trying to fix the mower, 2) Mom on the phone inside, and 3) Stock footage of a turtle (The family’s pet turtle Ichabod). Again, this goes for four minutes! Was the director forced to shoot an hour of footage and just padded it with this? Was the film funded by a lawnmower repair company? Was the producer a turtle? What is the point of any of this? The screenwriter could have simply written “Mark’s father goes out and sees the tree,” but it takes four minutes to get there! The wife then comes out and asks the husband why he planted the tree, but he insists he didn’t and tells her to stay in the kitchen. He then tries to cut it down, but it won’t come down with a saw or an ax. I assume the production team’s goal was for it not to budge at all, but since the prop guy didn’t get a sturdy enough prop tree, it still moved.
We then cut to… Christmas Eve.
Well alright then, four minutes with a problematic mower but nothing important between Black Friday and December 24. The family is going out to buy a Christmas tree, because wow they definitely don’t have their priorities in order and are on the verge of divorce. Mark’s mom is surprised to find out that his dad hasn’t bought a Christmas tree despite the fact that they are CURRENTLY IN THE LIVING ROOM. Where does she think it is? Does she think it’s in the garage or something? He’s clearly a terrible husband and father, but why is she so oblivious to this?
Mark’s mom and sister aren’t that much better though, because they haven’t done their shopping yet. It’s Christmas Eve, and it’s already dark! This is a horrible family. Is this some weird deconstruction of 1960s society? Again, I doubt it but it would make this movie a lot more interesting.
With his parents doing the most last-minute shopping imaginable, Mark is home alone on Christmas Eve (It’s not even the best Christmas movie where that happens), so he goes outside to put on the ring that will unlock the tree to unlock his wishes to unlock the bump on the branch on the log on the plot hole in The Magic Christmas Tree.
However, when he goes to make his wish, we’re all treated to a lovely little scare—The tree talks. Despite all the intricate details the witch gave, she never told him the tree would talk! Not only does it talk, but it’s sassy, like it’s supposed to be some Old Hollywood coded gay stereotype.
The tree insists Mark says the magic words, and when he does the tree disappears and re-appears in his living room. When he does it again, the tree is decorated.
The boy’s first wish is for “an hour of power,” which thankfully does not result in the tree granting the boy a 3rd-rate televangelist show. Instead, he gets the tree’s power for 60 minutes. What exactly does this mean? He tests out his new powers by pointing at a vase…
…and turning it into…
…a slightly different vase! This kind of power cannot be tamed. He also uses his power to make it light outside, so I don’t know if it’s now Christmas morning or still Christmas Eve.
All Mark really does is go outside and cause some minor chaos. He makes a delivery truck run away from its driver…
And then makes the cops go after him. This is definitely a dream, because the police need cause to go after an unarmed black man. Mark goes full Benny Hill when he makes a few random people fight, and then brings the fire department in for good measure. It’s a very random sequence that makes me wonder if the director just had some of this on file and had to find a way to incorporate it into his movie.
Deadbeat dad gets home, disappointed he couldn’t find a Christmas tree (IT’S CHRISTMAS EVE), so he plans to go out in the yard and cut the tree down. Again, shouldn’t he have noticed it wasn’t out there when he came home? He wants to call the police, because this exists in a ’60s sitcom and not real life, but when he walks inside he sees the tree all decorated. He wonders how Mark could have cut it down and decorated it, but he just kind of accepts it.
Even though Mark has had two months to think about his wishes, he doesn’t even know what he wants for his second wish! When the tree tells him it’s almost time for Santa to arrive, Mark wishes for Santa all to himself.
If this tree is powered by the magic of Christmas or whatever, how does it have power over Santa Claus? Is there a darker power at work here? Was Lucifer the cat actually Lucifer?
When Santa Claus appears and asks where he is, Mark says “You’re at my house, Santa” which I’m sure really narrows it down for the old guy. The tree and Mark explain that Santa is their prisoner for the night. After chatting with the tree for a moment, Santa says, “Where is the lad now?” and then we cut away to something completely random.
With no real buildup (except that one line), Mark is suddenly by a mountain somewhere. This wasn’t part of his wish. Also, it’s daytime again, so how did he get there? He also has a gun, because of course. When he sits down by a stream to drink some water, a giant walks up… Wait hold on.
WHERE IS THIS GOING? Mark wishes for Santa to be his prisoner, then he suddenly is by a mountain and a lake, then a giant appears? Did we lose some of the film? Were scenes cut out to make room for that crucial lawnmower sequence?
The giant creepily tells him, “You’re my little boy now,” and that he has to stay there forever but can have whatever he wants, and I think this is supposed to be a lesson from the tree not to be greedy. However, there is just no segue into it.
The boy is even shown a vision of a world where Santa Claus is missing. A news report shows that the entire NYPD is dedicated to finding Santa Claus (I don’t know, try Macy’s.). When Mark sees this and shows remorse, the giant just lets him go, saying “I lost him, but I’ll find another greedy child to be my slave.” Wow. I don’t know, maybe send one of the thousand police officers looking for Santa Claus to look into this guy. He even points into the camera and says “Maybe you!” like it’s the end of The Devil and Daniel Webster (but I have a feeling the director hadn’t seen that one).
So wait, this kid is dreaming of a giant breaking the fourth wall to an audience?
Mark uses this third wish to wish it was Christmas Eve again and to undo his second wish. The tree disappears and Mark wakes up at the old woman’s house in black-and-white again. She goes inside to get some milk and cookies for him, and Mark looks up and sees a Christmas tree (in color) in the distance saying “There’s a bit of magic in every Christmas tree.”
How does this world have both black-and-white and color? Anyway, that’s where this thing ends, because why should it make sense?
I have watched some weird things in my time reviewing bad Christmas specials, so I won’t act like this is the weirdest one of all. However, the transition to the scene in the forest with the giant and the 4-minute lawnmower scene are hands down two of the strangest moments in any of these specials. Was Ms. Velma the editor on this thing? It’s the worst one this year so far, no question.