Saturday, December 26, 2015

Cards Against Humanity: Eight Sensible Gifts for Hanukkah

I'd hoped to get to this by Christmas, but the eighth day didn't reach me in time. I just got it today (12/26), so I'm wrapping up this article and posting it now.

I've only played Cards Against Humanity once, and I'd describe the experience as somewhat mixed. Cards Against Humanity is an intentionally offensive card game where players try win points by shocking or disturbing each other. I don't actually own a copy of the game though I do now have an expansion (more on this later).

This promotion ostensibly has nothing at all to do with the game, though. The company advertised that, for fifteen dollars, they'd send people eight "sensible" gifts over the month of December. While I'm not a huge fan of the game, I've been extremely impressed with other promotions the company has done over the years, so I signed up.

I honestly had no idea what to expect. I hoped for something fascinating but half expected eight pairs of socks.

Night One
I got a pair of socks.

White socks, to be specific, with a small menorah symbol at the top containing one lit candle. The socks were attached to a paper card containing a sock-related quote.

In addition, there was some info about the promotion, explaining why these were showing up in case the recipient was getting it as a gift.

There was also a letter enclosed, written by one of the game writers' Jewish fathers. Each subsequent gift contains one, as well. The content of the letters varies. Most, but not all, are typed. I've at least skimmed through these: they're generally clever and some are humorous. About what you'd expect, actually.

Night Two
A second pair of socks, identical to the first, save that these have two candles lit. There was another quote and a different letter from a different writer's Jewish father. I wasn't entirely surprised at the prospect of getting eight pairs of nearly identical socks. And, of course, I wasn't certain that was what was going on. But it seemed likely.

Night Three
Take a guess. A third pair of socks, this one with a quote against socks attributed to Adolf Hitler. The letter accompanying it was probably my favorite of the batch, featuring some geeky Star Trek references. I resigned myself to the probability I'd be getting nothing but socks for Hanukkah.

Night Four
That's what they wanted, actually. That sense of disappointment, of complacency. But that's when the socks stopped and the promotion got interesting.

Night four essentially had two gifts. The first, which was the "official" sensible gift, was a US Treasury bond valued at $1. In addition to this and the letter, there was also the first part of a "Jew Pack" of Cards Against Humanity expansion. Here's the exterior:

And, here are the cards. This should provide a good sense of the game itself:

Night Five
The next envelope I received introduced another twist. The gift this time was a little more nebulous: they'd taken the money from Night Five and donated it to Chicago Public Radio, which has the added effect of making Mainlining Christmas an official member of the station. In keeping with public radio donations, we got a membership gift.

The notebook is a fun addition, but mainly I'm amused by the decision to donate the cash. They were clearly expanding their concept of a gift, and I was getting more and more curious to see where this went over the next three days.

Night Six
If you've already heard about the gifts of this promotion, I'm betting this is the one you heard about. This, like several others, essentially has a two-part gift: the official and the thing they spent money on. The official gift was a newspaper-style page of comics commissioned from cartoonists. Some of these were funny, though I wasn't overwhelmed. Also, the vast majority were about Christmas tropes, which was a little odd given the Hanukkah theme. But who cares - that's not the interesting part.

The interesting part is that they took the day's money and essentially paid the Chinese factory that produces their cards to give their workers a week off. Along with the "Funny Pages," they included an envelope full of photocopied letters and pictures from the workers offering brief descriptions of what they did over their vacations.

The information detailing this explains that this is unprecedented, that the factory didn't even have a policy for paid vacations. It doesn't point out that this only cost a trivial amount of money - I guess they trusted us to figure that out for ourselves.

All told, it was a surprising and moving twist to the promotion.

Night Seven
Here's the other one you might have heard of. For night seven, Cards Against Humanity purchased a Picasso titled Tete de Faune. I've read subsequent articles which clarify that this is likely a signed print, one of fifty, not the original. Still, a rare piece from a famous painter. Here's the photocopy they sent me:

"How is this a gift?" you might be wondering. Well, that's actually up to me and the other 149,999 subscribers. Here's what the back of the card says:

So, depending on how the vote goes, this is either getting donated or chopped up in minuscule pieces and mailed to us.

Based on a quick web search, the conventional wisdom seems to be that everyone plans (or claims to plan) to vote for donation, but everyone expects the vote to go the other way.

As much as I'd enjoy owning 1/150,000th of a Picasso, I went ahead and voted to donate it. But... yeah. We'll see.

In addition to this, they also sent the other half of that "Jew Pack". Interestingly, the front implies this was intended for the fifth night, not the seventh:

Here are the cards contained in this part of the set:

Night Eight
Well. Mainlining Christmas is now royalty. Or, at least we're going to be royalty this August:

So on August 13th, from 10:48 to 10:51 AM PST (who the hell uses Central?), Mainlining Christmas will officially be crowned the ruling monarch of Castle Sensible, which is apparently a real castle in Ireland. What does this mean for us practically? Bragging rights, I suppose. When we come back next Christmas, we'll have formerly been king of some tiny castle Cards Against Humanity bought.

Aside from the decree, we received yet another letter from a writer's father and a fold-out map to our castle. Sort of:

So, it would be less useful for locating the castle (or whatever it is they're calling a castle) than for standing in as a map for a D&D campaign, but - honestly - I prefer fantasy maps to real ones, anyway.

Closing Thoughts
Honestly, this exceeded my expectations. In an odd way, the promotion had a narrative structure, starting with the three pairs of socks, before going in some jarring directions. There was a mix of comedy, shock, and genuine intelligence to the whole thing. Using some of the cash to provide a factory's workers with a week off made a powerful point about how little money it takes to do something wonderful for workers. Holding a Picasso hostage is obviously a bit more controversial - I'll be interested to see how that resolves in a few days. Either way, it's certainly interesting.

Value is obviously a subjective concept in a situation like this, but I absolutely feel like I got my money's worth. Even setting aside the intangibles - the donation to Public Radio, the week's vacation, and the "king for three minutes" - this generated an impressive stack of artifacts I plan on keeping around.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Reflections On Another Christmas Gone

It was a close one this year, what with the Grinch armed with a machine gun holding Santa Claus hostage in the old McCallister home. For a while there, it looked like Christmas might have to be cancelled. But some quick thinking from Dooley and the Christmas Narwhal saved the day, and...

You know what? I don't need to recap this. You caught the news last night; you know the gifts were delivered, the Grinch is safely back in Arkham, and Santa Claus destroyed that asteroid before it reached orbit. We don't need to go over all the details or spend more time mourning Donner.

What matters is Christmas 2015 came on schedule, and - aside from a few mishaps - it was a merry one. Here at Mainlining Christmas, we spent the season as we always do, force-feeding ourselves holiday cheer. Overall, our slate of movies was surprisingly good this year: we really weren't expecting that.

That's not all, though. We hung out with reindeer, marveled at sculptures of Christmas dinosaurs, went to a fantastic concert performed by the Seattle Men's Chorus, and hung out on a beach while carolers on a cruise ship blasted songs over a PA system.

Oh, right - we didn't actually write up any of those adventures. I guess we were too busy with the movies. Well, no time like the Ghost of Christmas Present.

The Cougar Mountain Zoo has a "Reindeer Festival" every year, which is essentially a clever way to extort $14 a ticket to see eight or nine exhibits that aren't closed for the winter. The centerpiece of this is the reindeer, in all their glory.

I'd like to say these pictures don't really do the experience justice, but other than a handful of kids hurling bits of apple at the animals, this is pretty much the extent of this particular exhibit. The male deer were on the other side of the path. They didn't label which were male or female, presumably to prevent contradicting the specials which show Rudolph with his antlers on Christmas Eve (males lose their antlers for the season).

The whole zoo was holidayed up. Well, the portion that was open, anyway. The decorations were somewhat tacky, but you really have to admire the commitment. Here's the outside of the bathrooms.

In addition, the zoo made a point of lying to children through the use of these signs. All the animals had them.

Did you know Santa uses tigers to make candy canes? Clearly the North Pole needs sanitation experts:

Whining aside, they had the cougars and tigers on display. The tigers were especially active, and that alone was probably worth the entry fee.

This is video we took in Carkeek Park of the Seattle Christmas Ship Festival. The main ship is the one in the center blasting holiday music. The others were smaller decorated boats which tag along with fun. It's a cute concept, but the actual effect is pretty cheesy. I'm sure the singers are talented, but by the time they're run through a PA system and broadcast over the Puget Sound, you lose most of the nuance. Lindsay discovered we could get a really cool effect turning our heads ninety degrees so the echo on the shore created a sort of harmony.

The performance only lasted about twenty minutes. By the end, we were happy to get back in a warm car.

We also got out to see decorations, went shopping, and all that. It's been a full Christmas, and yet... I wish there were more. I know that will seem crazy to most of you. Hell, it seems crazy to me. But it's true: these late Thanksgivings are irritating me. I want more time to enjoy the holiday.

Ah, well. There's always next year. Until then, keep Christmas in your heart (or really any blood-soaked organ of your choice). Hope your yuletide was a jolly one.

In Memory of Donner
1807 - 2015
Your Sacrifice Will Ever Be Remembered

Is It Really Christmas Already?

It seems like it was just Black Friday last week.

Even though we crammed a lot of holiday cheer into this season, our list-of-things-to-watch is only getting longer. As I mentioned this year, researching one holiday special keeps leading us to more and more. Netflix sees our patterns and recommends more Christmas-themed stuff. We buy obscure movies and specials all year long whenever we find them cheap. So don’t worry about us running out of material anytime soon.

The thing that most surprised me this year was how many honestly enjoyable, quality movies we watched.

Some of the highlights of this year for me were:

  • Meet Me in St. Louis - a classic movie musical, expertly crafted and gorgeously filmed
  • The Apartment - another classic, this one quietly subversive, biting, and extremely clever
  • 8 Women - a french film about family, anger, passion, and the judgement of women by women
  • Mrs. Santa Claus - a sweet family musical about feminism and social justice in the 1910s, starring Angela Lansbury
  • A Christmas Horror Story - a series of interlocking dark fantasy stories full of interesting characters and bloody twists

Of course, in the spirit of the holiday, we put up with a bunch of crap, too. But even terrible films and specials are fun to write about.

Some of my favorite reviews to write or read this year were the low-lights, like:

And then there were things that defied characterization.

We hope you had fun following along with the insanity this year. As always, we’re not going far, and you’ll see some off-season posts for things which are particularly timely or on the margin of ‘Christmassy-enough’ for us.

P.S. Did you get your gift yet?

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

I'd been meaning to rewatch Edward Scissorhands for a while, though I bumped it back because I was a bit skeptical of its status as a holiday movie. Now, I feel pretty confident describing it that way.

The movie opens with a brief frame story of an old woman telling a story to her granddaughter. Since we're talking about holiday connections, I'll add that it's snowing outside and the patterns on the wallpaper bear a resemblance to the Star of Bethlehem.

We soon cut to Peg Boggs, an Avon saleswoman going from door-to-door in a town of pastel houses laid out on a curved road ending in a cul-de-sac. It's a sunny, bright day in what looks like a suburb of LA in the 1960's. When she doesn't have luck with her neighbors, she turns her attention to a giant castle atop a dark mountain that sits just beyond the cul-de-sac.

You really have to admire Burton's flair.

She drives up and discovers a courtyard of stone gargoyles and meticulously maintained topiary bushes. No answers, so she barges in and comes across Edward, whose hands are made of knives. His skin is pale, his face is covered in scars, and his clothes appear to be done by the same designer who handles Pinhead's wardrobe: visually speaking, he's a horror monster.

But Peg quickly realizes he has a gentle spirit and the mind of a child, so she brings him back home with her. He's of course confused and frightened by the world he's introduced to. At a barbecue, he's introduced to several of the town's housewives, one of whom takes a romantic interest in him. But Edward only has eyes for Kim, Peg's daughter, who's involved with Jim, the movie's primary antagonist.

At first, things look good for Edward. His skill at topiary quickly gets him attention, and soon he moves to grooming pets, then cutting hair. He winds up on television and seems headed towards opening his own salon. But things take a turn for the worst when Jim convinces Kim to ask Edward to help them steal some of his father's expensive equipment. Edward's caught, and Jim prevents Kim from helping him.

Everyone assumes Edward arranged the theft to cover the costs of opening his salon, since his loan application was denied. To protect Kim, he keeps quiet as other characters reprimand him. Kim breaks up with Jim, who's furious she's choosing Edward over him.

At this point, we shift to the holiday season, as the Boggs - with Edward's help - prepare for their Christmas party. In one of the movie's most iconic scenes, Edward is carving an angel in the backyard while Kim dances in the snowflakes falling off.

Jim sees this and shouts at Edward, startling him, which causes Kim to get cut. This results in Edward running away while Kim tells Jim to leave and not come back.

Edward, furious at the injustice he's seen, throws a tantrum, wrecking several of the topiary bushes he's made around town. He also punctures a tire then carves a bush into a demon's head on the lawn of a woman who'd been especially cruel to him. When he sees a police car searching for him, he runs back to the Boggs' house, where he finds Kim waiting. For a brief moment, it seems like everything will be alright, but then Edward sees Kim's younger brother crossing the street in front of a swerving van. He pushes the boy to safety, but cuts him in the process.

Kim, realizing the townspeople will blame Edward, tells him to run. He heads back towards the mountain and castle, followed by a mob. Somehow, Kim beats them there, but Jim shows up soon after. He attacks Edward, who finally fights back to protect Kim. He kills Jim, who falls out of a window into the courtyard, where he's found by the mob. Kim tells Edward she loves him, a connection that seems to offer Edward peace, then she runs out and convinces everyone Edward was killed, as well.

The movie closes with a return to the old woman relating the tale. Of course, the grandmother is Kim, and - while she never saw Edward again - she knows he's still alive because of the snow, revealed to be caused by him carving ice sculptures in his castle.

It's a good movie, though it's not exactly a consistent one. The first act, where the setting is unveiled, is fantastic, as is the ending. But it's the middle portion that falls a little flat. There's a lot of time devoted to the woman who falsely accuses Edward of assaulting her, and I'm convinced there were better uses for that time (no disrespect intended towards the actress, who does a great job with the part - it's just an unnecessary subplot). Likewise, a great deal of Edward's rise in the community feels like it's part of a different movie: the core of this story is Edward's relationships with Peg, Kim, and the inventor: the rest of the script seems to be killing time. It's not bad; it just doesn't add much beyond a repetitious condemnation of suburban America.

First and foremost, this is a movie about being an outsider. Edward is viewed first as curiosity, then as something special, and finally as a threat, and none of it is really his fault. He's just who and what he is; the judgments of others reveal more about their own limitations than his.

The last thirty minutes of the movie are clearly set at the holidays. Actually, there's an argument that might be true of the entire movie. Since it's set in an area based on southern California, the pleasant weather doesn't necessarily imply summer, and it's unclear whether any significant time passed between Edward being released by the police and the Christmas party. It's entirely possible that the movie starts, for all intents and purposes, in early December and unfolds over weeks, not months. It's just not clear.

But the decorations don't go up until the final act. Other than that, the only times Christmas elements come into play are in flashbacks. Edward's creator was inspired to make him while watching an earlier automatic contraption produce what appeared to be holiday cookies. In a later flashback, he tries to present Edward with hands, which he calls an early Christmas gift. Unfortunately, he dies before he can attach these, which gives Edward some negative associations around the holidays.

Between the climax and these flashbacks, it's clear Christmas plays a significant role in the movie, though it's not immediately clear why. It may have had more to do with the visual imagery than anything else. The character of Kim, played by Winona Ryder, is depicted as something of a Christmas angel, and the image of Edward literally creating snow as he carves away ice offers some connections to midwinter.

In fact, you could interpret the story as one about a winter god descending into the world of man, judging us lacking, then returning to his castle and sending down snow in memory of his visit. The closing moments outright state that there was never any snow in the town prior to Edward's presence.

But you could also interpret this as a variation on the nativity story. Connecting Edward's creation to Christmas offers potential Christ parallels, which are also echoed in the depiction of his hands. He holds these open at times in ways reminiscent of Christ displaying the stigmata, an image also invoked when he inadvertently pierces his own hands over his dying creator. Burton may have wanted to draw a connection between the crucifixion and the mobs that have hounded monsters in movies since the start of the genre. This is a movie about being an outsider, a description that fits Jesus. There's a sense in which humanity's response to Christ was the same as their response to Edward and all who don't fit in.

It's admittedly a stretch, but - whatever the reason - Burton seemed to go out of his way to give his movie a holiday feel. In addition to the story elements, the movie was originally released in December, which may have helped it gain a foothold as a Christmas movie, even if it lacks most of the usual holiday tropes.

Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas (2009)

This is adorable. It's adorable and charming and whimsical and sweet. It's fun and it's funny, it's safe for all ages without being insipid.

In short, it's quality children's programming.

I've seen a few episodes of the show this special is spinning out of, because I watch kids' shows on PBS. If my vague recollections are accurate, this is equivalent to an especially good episode.

The special opens with some friendly narration explaining how excited George is about Christmas. Soon he wakes up and runs into the other room to jump on the Man with the Yellow Hat, only to be told that like yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, it is not yet Christmas. The Man (it's so awkward to call him that, but take it up with H.A. Rey) gives George a chart to track the rest of the days (12) until the big day, and reassures him that they have a lot to do to get ready, so the time will pass quickly.

Cue the first musical number! It's all about getting ready for the holiday and the different things people are doing. It's not brilliant songwriting, but it's cute.

George and the Man run into most of the recurring characters from the show during and after this sequence to find out how their holiday preparations are going, including some of the other animal-human partnerships: the doorman and his dachshund, the chef and his cat, and two kids and their dog talking about presents outside the toy store.

Talking about gifts brings up the central plot thread of the piece. The Man asks George to point out what he wants for Christmas in a catalog, but George 'writes' a list and insists that the Man can read it. Considering George's art skills, that's asking a lot. Meanwhile, George wants to get the Man something really special, but he doesn't have any money, and he doesn't know what to make.

Funny and clever scenes follow as the days pass. Some examples: George finds out one of the Man's favorite holiday treats and attempts to recreate it with somewhat messy results. The Man takes George to the museum to meet with their genius researcher friend in the hopes that she can help decipher George's list. (Professor Wiseman gets some of the best jokes in the whole special - she's awesome.) George causes a snow machine to go haywire, then tries to build one himself. George's friend Betsy (one of the dog owners) mentions that she's trying to write an original Christmas song as a gift for her aunt, but she's having trouble. In the meantime they also get a unique tree for their apartment (it comes decorated with a free chair!) and run other holiday errands.

George and the Man are both running out of time, and the day before Christmas Eve they each get the idea to follow the other, hoping for a clue to a good gift. That goes about as well as you'd expect. The humor throughout is deftly-handled; we found it thoroughly amusing.

They perform in the community recital where Betsy is supposed to premiere her song, and she's finally inspired to write a funny ditty about a Christmas Monkey.

Finally George has a bright idea and makes his gift, but the Man has a nightmare. He dreams about all the other animal-human partnerships and how well they understood each other, and he dreams a 'what if' that pictures George living with other humans, trying to see whether he would have a better life with someone else. This dream is hosted by the Ghost of Time Going Sideways, by the way.

The dream gives him the key to reading George's pictograph, and everyone has a merry Christmas. A very monkey Christmas seems like an awfully nice thing to have.

A Cadaver Christmas (2011)

We've had this one sitting in our DVD stack for more than a year after picking it up for a buck or two at a dying video store. We meant to watch it last year, but decided at the last minute we didn't want to devote our limited time and energy to something that looked quite this unpleasant.

We assumed too much. A Cadaver Christmas is far better than I'd seriously hoped for. It's not a great movie - 'good' might be pushing it - but it's a solid low-budget indie horror/comedy. In fact, as long as you preface it with 'low-budge' and 'indie,' you don't have to qualify the label 'good' any further. Within its limitations, it's a resourceful, fun movie.

The back of the packaging describes it as "A cross between 'It's a Wonderful Life' and 'Night of the Living Dead'", which I think is more than a little misleading. I'd describe the zombie aspects as being more in the vein of Evil Dead 2 than Night of the Living Dead. The reference to It's a Wonderful Life centers around a single character who spends the movie drunk. In the opening scene, a bartender alludes to this character undergoing an annual yuletide suicide attempt, which I take as a subtle nod to George Bailey.

We meet these two for a few minutes, sitting together on Christmas Eve, when the movie's hero walks in. He's got a name, but everyone calls him, "The Janitor," almost like he's a superhero (which, in a sense, the movie makes him into). When we first see him, he's covered in blood and irritated. The bartender refers him to the bathroom, then calls a friend he thinks is a cop - we'll later learn he's left the force, though this is less a plot point than a joke.

Most of the characters are essentially jokes; only the Janitor and drunk live long enough to start getting any development, and even then only just a bit. This isn't necessarily a problem - the movie is more interested in entertaining us than engaging us emotionally, anyway.

In addition to the cop, some shambling corpses follow the Janitor into the bar. He manages to subdue them and offers some backstory. He works at a nearby University and was attacked by a bunch of cadavers. He resists other characters' instincts to dub them zombies, though he eventually makes an exception for faster, still living versions they fight towards the end.

The cop freaks out and refuses to believe what's happening. He forces the Janitor to take him and the others to the University at gunpoint. The cop also has a suspect he arrested for bestiality in the back of his car, so he's dragged along, as well.

The group is separated, and they run into various mishaps. There's also a rather stupid scene where the suspect has sex with a corpse, which of course turns out to be undead. Most of the comedy in this worked for us, but this seemed aggressively idiotic.

Eventually, they all meet up with a student security guard, but she's not with them long. They find notes in a professor's lab explaining the outbreak - it's an experiment gone wrong, of course - then quickly start getting picked off. I was actually a little surprised how long it took them to start killing characters, but the movie works its way through the cast pretty quickly once they get going.

In the end, it comes down to the Janitor and the drunk, who's been bitten by a zombie. They kill what they think are the rest then have a moment where they reflect on the holidays. The drunk then reveals his bite and asks the Janitor to kill him quickly. He almost does, before stopping at the last minute to make sure the wound's infected. Much to both their surprise, it's actually started to heal: the copious amounts of alcohol he'd been drinking all movie killed the infection.

They're relieved for a moment or two before realized they just killed a dozen or so infected individuals they could potentially have saved, including several of their friends. Oh, and there's really no evidence they didn't simply murder those people.

The movie's resolution continues this story-line into the closing credits. This sequence was actually my favorite in the movie: arguably, there were more twists here than in the film itself.

The movie's synopsis doesn't really offer a sense of the experience, though. This plays out as sort of a throwback to 70's grindhouse pictures, both in the artifacts added to make it look like old film stock (cigarette burns, scratches, etc.), and in the writing. It works pretty well overall, though it's hard to deny this joke wears thin over time.

The movie's as much parody as homage, with characters directly challenging genre conventions. More than once, minor characters bring up the option of simply leaving, only for the leads to look at them like they're idiots. Again, this kind of thing gets a little tired by the end of the movie, but it works often enough to sell the conceit.

The effects are impressive given what I assume was a very low budget. It's a grisly, gory movie, though the end effect is (intentionally) much more silly than gross.

The Christmas elements are a little difficult to identify in some cases. There's a decent amount of surface stuff - warped holiday music, weaponized decorations, and zombiefied carolers - but there may be more going on here. Specifically, I'm thinking about the archetypal situation, where characters survive Christmas Eve, one of the darkest nights of the year, to emerge with a new outlook on their family and friends. This conceit is used quite often - Die Hard is a principal example, though it's really a variation on A Christmas Carol.

But it's not at all clear whether the filmmakers were considering any of that. Characters surviving the night is also the basic premise of Night of the Living Dead and countless other zombie movies: there's no reason to assume they were conscious of the subtler holiday connections. Regardless, it works on that level and further provides a bridge between zombies and Christmas.

Ultimately, this is an impressive low-budget throwback to cheesy horror flicks of the past. I definitely wouldn't recommend it to everyone, but if the concept sounds appealing to you, I will say this was much, much better than I anticipated.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Unaccompanied Minors (2006)

We shifted this to the top of our Netflix queue after seeing it on a list of relatively well-known Christmas movies (Lindsay and I are geeks and therefore completists: the notion there are any famous holiday films we haven't gotten to continues to torment us). We knew the premise, which centers around a group of kids stuck at an airport on Christmas Eve during a blizzard, and felt like we had a pretty good idea what to expect.

Fortunately, we hadn't realized this, unlike damn near every other holiday kids movie, was directed by someone competent. It turns out that the reason all those other movies suck isn't the premise; it's that they're written and/or directed by hacks. This one, improbably enough, was made by Paul Feig. Oddly enough, this is the first of his movies I've seen, despite hearing good things more or less across the board.

Before I get into the film, I want to say a few things about the short story it's based on, a non-fiction piece that appeared on This American Life called, "In The Event Of An Emergency, Put Your Sister In An Upright Position." You can listen to it here, if you're interested. It's by Susan Burton, concerning an experience she had as a child in 1988. It's a brief piece - just nine minutes long - and it's more reflective than funny. The setting and some of the themes were reused, particularly those relating to children of divorced families. But several other factors shifted for film.

Of course, they modernized it, which isn't too surprising. They also moved the storm up two days, so the characters were stuck the day before Christmas instead of the day after. The more troubling alteration concerns the gender of the POV character. Like in Burton's story, the main character is traveling with a younger sister, but in they movie they made the lead a boy. To be fair, this is really a new story loosely based on Burton's account, but it's still a problematic choice.

Given Feig's subsequent career decisions, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess he probably wasn't the cause for the gender swap. It feels like a business decision made for the usual sexist, short-sighted reasons. Pity: the movie was actually pretty good, and a female lead might have helped it stand out from the sea of inferior productions with similar premises.

It's worth noting that, while the lead is a boy, the extended cast is more of a mix. Two of the four kids who get the most screen time are girls, and the movie does a solid job subverting gender stereotypes.

There's not a huge amount of plot to this thing beyond the premise. On December 24th, a large number of kids, mostly from divorced families, are stuck while flying alone during the holidays. They're corralled into a crowded concrete room, which a handful of them escape. The five who ran off are eventually caught and returned to the room, which has now been emptied. The other kids were all taken down the street to a hotel to spend the night, but these five are told they'll be stuck in this room as punishment.

The aforementioned lead, wanting to get a gift to his kid sister so she doesn't think Santa abandoned her, comes up with a plan to break out. One of the kids takes off on a personal journey of self-discovery revolving around finding a Christmas tree and moving past his Aquaman action figure. The others more or less stick together, trying to outmaneuver the head of Passenger Relations, played by Lewis Black. If you've ever seen Lewis Black's routine on The Daily Show, you know exactly what to expect here: he's funny, but they didn't ask him to leave his comfort zone.

The usual shenanigans ensue, complete with heists and slapstick sequences. The kids eventually make it to the hotel and deliver a doll they found in the Unclaimed Luggage warehouse before finally getting caught and locked in separate rooms. They escape pretty quickly, using walkie talkies equipped with cameras. Instead of causing more mayhem, they set out to decorate the airport and try to give everyone the best Christmas possible. Lewis Black finds redemption, as well, and dresses up as Santa Claus.

There are a handful of subplots, including the main character's eco-friendly father borrowing a Hummer to reach them and the weird kid locating a Christmas tree. The supporting cast is composed of various recognizable comedians: few get much time to shine, but it's an impressive assortment.

The movie isn't perfect by a long-shot. Plenty of the jokes fall flat, including a couple fart gags and some that come a little too close to fat-shaming kids for comfort. But, that being said, the comedy works more often than not, including several genuinely hilarious scenes. The kids' characters were well developed, and the young actors delivered solid comedic performances.

The more sincere aspects were almost lost among the jokes, but just enough of the film's central theme - of finding a family when one isn't present - makes it through to work without getting sappy. It's a good movie, far better than its thirty-one percent score on Rotten Tomatoes would suggest.

Despite the hijinks, this is closer in spirit to The Breakfast Club than Home Alone. It's a solid holiday kids movie, and - while I wouldn't list it among the all-time best Christmas comedies - it's far more enjoyable than most of its peers aimed at this age bracket.

Nerdtivity: Landing Bay

I know I'm repeating myself here, but since then I picked up a DS9 set, and I figured that would make a better space ship manger than the nativity scene I used last time. I was never really happy with that picture, anyway.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

I read and watch a lot of things. Most of us do, today. Which is why it's so special to find something I've never seen that is this magnificent.

I had a general awareness of Meet Me in St. Louis. I know the Trolley Song. I know the history of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (more on that later). But I'd never sat down and actually watched the movie.

Now I want a copy to put into permanent rotation. This isn't just me speaking as a lifelong fan of movie musicals; Erin loved this film as well.

For one thing, it's beautiful. The Technicolor is sumptuous, the use of light and shadow evocative and delicate. The sets and costumes are extremely detailed (it is a period piece, after all).

The writing and performance is wonderful. The script is clever and quick and the comedy hasn't diminished with time one smidgen.

The plot is simple and charming. It's based loosely on a series of short reminiscences about living in St. Louis in early 1900's, and follows one family through the year leading up to the 1904 World's Fair. While their troubles may not ever be so terrible in the scheme of life, there is a lovely sincerity and realism about the way the cast approaches each situation.

The main characters are the four daughters of the family. There's also an elder brother leaving for college, a caring and pragmatic mother, a distant but loving father and a grandfather and a cook.

The two older daughters' misadventures in love are funny and sweet; Rose (Lucille Brenner) waits for a long-distance call, but keeps her options open, while Esther (Judy Garland) tries to win the notice of the boy next door. The two younger girls, meanwhile, are written hilariously throughout. They are morbid and callous in the way young kids often are, particularly the youngest, who holds funerals for her dolls and declares that her Halloween costume is a horrible ghost who lies unburied. Much of the plot also revolves around the father’s distance from the family and whether he will move them all out of state for his job.

Most of the music is integrated into the world, in a time and place where people sang in public more often than they do now. Often movie musicals step into a surreal place where whenever a character is expressing themselves through song, the viewer understands on a certain level that if the situation were real, the song would translate into an internal monologue or an emotional conversation. It wouldn't really be a literal song. That isn't the case here. Much of the time the instruments are physically there. The characters singing are actually singing, in the way you or I might sing in the shower or in the car, (or with friends or by yourself, if you are/were a musical person like I am). The songs that weren't written for the movie date from the time it takes place.

There are two scenes I want to point out particularly, both because they're very strong, and because one is the reason we watched this movie in the first place.

The second season depicted is autumn, and there is a long sequence set on Halloween. This was absolutely fascinating. I have no real reason to doubt any of the events as depicted, but I have never before learned so much about the history of Halloween celebrations at the turn of the century. Margaret O'Brien as the youngest daughter, called "Tootie", absolutely steals the show with a creepy, beautifully filmed sequence.

The climax of the film falls at Christmas. The family may be leaving their home, leaving their friends, and possibly even leaving each other. It's then that the world is introduced to the song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. You may know that there are a few alternate lyrics to the song, and this is why. In the movie, Esther sings it to Tootie, and it's a song about both hope and loss: the hope that next Christmas will be better than this one and the fear that life won't ever be that happy again. The songwriter originally even wrote a more depressing version, but it was deemed too downbeat for the film. As it stands, it's a beautiful and moving scene, although I admit to being briefly distracted by how lovely Judy Garland's scarf is.

The final scene (of the World's Fair in the spring) is a bit lackluster compared to all that comes before it, but still sweet.

Put this one in your Christmas rotation, or your Halloween rotation! Either way, we think you'll enjoy it.

Fiction: Old Gods of the North

I wanted to push the boundaries a bit for this piece of short fiction and try writing a Christmas sword & sorcery. Here's what I came up with:

Old Gods of the North
By: Erin L. Snyder

Alnur’s knees shook as he knelt. He felt old joints pop and his muscles creak. He dipped one hand into the desert ground and clutched a handful of sand, which he brought before his eyes. Grains sifted between his fingers as he studied them in the dim light of the setting sun. He squinted to be sure his hopes weren’t deceiving him. “There is magic here,” he proclaimed in a booming voice. Behind him, the consumists chattered their teeth in a sign of applause.

“Kill them!” the consumist named Ducoris exclaimed. Like the others, he wore dozens of necklaces, sashes, bracelets, rings, and other assorted objects. “That we might take sustenance from their corpses and send their souls to the fields promised to the devoured!”

“No!” another shouted. “Leave them a touch of life. Their journey will be easier, if their souls aren’t trapped in frozen bodies.”

Alnur glanced over his shoulder. The consumists were fanatics, but he needed their loyalty. In most matters, he had it without question. But their faith always came first, and the holiest season of the year was upon them. He shuddered. It was far too late to change his mind. He gazed out across the horizon. Who or whatever was after them was too far to be seen. Briefly, he considered a spell that might scare them off, but this was too dangerous. He could not appear weak to those tracking him, let alone to the consumists. He would do his worst and hope it was enough. They’d lost several of their number against the spiked bear they’d stumbled across, and he didn’t want to lose any more slaughtering whoever was coming for them.

“I will call a storm and hurl it at them. It may kill them outright or drive them off. Or it may deliver them to your mercy. First, we will need cover.”

“Do not chase them away!” one of the consumists begged. “They have come to us to seek a brighter path! Whatever they think drives them, it is the will of Vallmar they be redeemed!”

“I can make no promises,” Alnur replied. He pressed his hand into the sands and leaned close to whisper the incantation. There was no need to do this so quietly, but the last thing he wanted was for one of the consumists to learn his secrets. If they ever felt they could do as he could, they might seek to show him the mercy they’d showed so many others; the path to redemption running through the digestive tracts of the chosen.

Three sets of glowing runes appeared before the wizard. The first set surrounded a symbol that looked like a small cabin, the second circled a picture of a larger building, and the third, a massive complex. He tapped the middle one, and the others vanished. Then he swiped at the ground over the symbol, scattering the glowing sands towards the north.

“Stay away from the light,” he instructed. Around where the sands struck, large sections of ground began to glow a faint yellow. The grains shifted, turning over en masse, as those imbued with ancient magic came alive. The lights spread out over the ground, forming patterns and shapes, the outlines of what would be his conjured building. The consumists fled from the inscriptions. The building rose up a moment later, four stories tall with glowing walls. Every ten feet, a symbol of a piece of a fruit stood as a reminder of the divine power that allowed such a spell to work at all.

“They will see,” Ducoris said, pleased. “If your magic cannot kill them, they will come for us.”

“They might try,” Alnur said. “The storm will not be easily overcome, and I should think they’ll be ready to receive your mercy by the time they reached us.”

“Then it shall be the will of Vallmar,” Enikia said. She was the smaller of two women in the group. Alnur had once seen her wrestle a two-hundred pound man to the ground and bite into his neck hard enough to sever an artery and bleed him to death.

“Go inside,” Alnur commanded. “I will follow when the second spell is cast.” The consumists hurried in, leaving him alone in the cold desert. He looked to the northwest, where they’d last seen smoke trails rising into the sky. “For what it is worth,” he muttered, “you have my sympathies.” Then he uttered the ancient spell, spoken in a language lost to time. This spell was longer, more complex. Tiny flecks of light floated out of the ground from hundreds of feet in all directions and hung in the air before him in a compact circle. He reached out to touch the ring, then began turning it to one side. The lights followed his movements, and as they did images appeared in their center, formed by specks of enchanted sand. He continued until the image formed into a cloud with lightning bolts extending downward. He touched this image then drew a line from the center of the circle to one edge. He spoke a final magic word, and the lights flew into the air, vanishing into the clouds overhead. He paused a moment as the winds shifted towards the northwest and flashes appeared in the clouds. Then he nodded, turned his back, and stepped into his fortress.

From across the expanse of desert, Vysil watched in horror through his sole remaining eye as the lights rose up. “Sorcery,” he pointed. “Can you counter it, Dalgith?”

“I don’t even know what it is,” the young wizard replied, tensely. “It may be nothing. In fact. Yes, it’s a shelter spell. My old master used to conjure structures like those. It’s really nothing to be concerned about. Unless….”

“Unless what?” Irisa demanded. The huntress carried a bow across her back and a sword at her side.

“Unless they’re taking shelter for a reason.” Dalgith flipped his long, brown cloak over his shoulder to free up his arm, then he dropped to all fours and grabbed a handful of sand. He stood up, dusting himself off with his spare hand. Finally, he held the handful of sand in front of him and allowed a trickle to drain out of his palm. His two companions watched silently as the line dropped down. After a moment, the stream began to bend, pushing back the way they’d come. “They’re altering the winds,” Dalgith whispered.

“Open your eyes!” Vysil snapped. “Look to the clouds! They’re swallowing the moon!”

“They’re calling a storm down on us,” Irisa said. “Can you change its course?”

Dalgith shook his head. “I can make us a wall,” he offered. “I don’t know what good it’ll do, but it might block the wind.”

“It’s better than nothing,” Vysil said, pulling his pack and axe off and setting them aside.

Irisa removed her weapons, as well, then pulled free an oiled tarp. “I have faced winter storms before. Will this be worse?”

Dalgith shrugged. “I don’t know. It depends a little on the wizard and a lot on the air. I have no idea how rich they are with magic and snow.” He focused and began a chant the others didn’t understand. As he finished, a line of glowing sand appeared and rose into an embankment, about ten feet long and four feet tall. “I’m sorry. That’s the best I can do.”

“It will have to suffice,” Vysil said. He staked an end of Irisa’s tarp tight against the wall on the side facing the wind and began stretching it over the other side.

“I can create a source of heat,” Dalgith offered, apologetically.

“Later,” Vysil scoffed. “Keep an eye out in case their conjurer throws worse at us.”

“It’s unlikely,” Dalgith said. “He’ll have expended whatever magic surrounds him by now. To do more, he’d have to go out into the desert. And that would put him at the mercy of his own storm.”

“He’s a consumist,” Vysil replied. “Cannibals aren’t known for reason.”

“Enough!” Irisa commanded. “Bickering gets us nowhere. Their shelter is already being swallowed by the winds.” She was right. A mix of falling snow and overturned sand obscured the distant structure. “Will your warning runes work here?” she asked Dalgith.

“I’ll try to conjure them,” the young wizard said, moving away from their camp. Already, the winds were picking up, throwing flakes of ice and sharpened grains of sand in their faces.

Outside, the winds howled, but Alnur’s fortress was protected. Still, it was growing bitterly cold. The consumists had been praying silently, but they finally looked up. “This is now sanctified as a temple of Vallmar,” Enikia proclaimed. “All that we need is within, if we should be so bold as to ask for it. Enlightenment. Hope. Joy,” she said, gesturing from side to side, as if these were objects to be gathered from various empty corners.

“What of food?” Ducoris asked, and some of the others chuckled.

“Your food may arrive come morning,” Alnur said. He was hungry himself, but didn’t dare eat any of his dried pork in front of the consumists. Their religion prevented them from eating any flesh save that of men until after the holy days. The last thing he wanted was to remind them just how hungry they were. It had been three days since they’d “redeemed” the last of the pilgrims they’d found in the river delta, and they were beginning to eye each other.

“I grow weary of this,” one of the others said. This was Lazdole, who’d been silent until now. “This is no time to be hiding. It is near the end of the holy season, and there are seekers in the storm. We should not have left them,” he said, sternly, while glaring at Alnur.

“If the blizzard does not kill them outright, it will weaken our stalkers. They will be ripe for your mercy.”

“If we are able to find them in time,” Lazdole argued. “What if they run into the desert and the snows cover their trail? What if Argek’s unclean beasts happen upon them first? Their souls will never know Vallmar’s graces. They will be lost to the red rings of hell for all time!”

Ducoris cleared his throat. “If Vallmar wishes them to find peace, he will provide them to us.”

“Vallmar has provided them! It is we who are too timid to grant them what they seek.”

Alnur looked around. He did not like the direction this was turing. “It is death to go into the storm,” he said.

“It is not for a consumist to fear death,” Lazdole said. “So long as one of us remains, they will perform the rites.”

“And if you all die out there, what then?”

“Vallmar provides for those with faith.”

“I have often heard you say Vallmar provides to those who are prudent. What if we send four. Four of the twelve of you, to find these pilgrims and redeem them. Would that be an acceptable compromise?”

“If I am one of the four,” Lazdole said.

“Shouldn’t that be up to fate?” Alnur asked. He reached into a pouch on his pack and removed a handful of small sticks. Then he motioned to Lazdole. “You first. There are four short. If you draw one, you go.”

He plucked a stick out and held it up: it was one of the short ones. The crowd cheered, giving Alnur a chance to palm that set, which were all short, and ensure the next three to draw, all of whom were among the cult’s less rash members, wouldn’t be going. He switched back for the next two, partly to break the pattern and partly because the second was one of the consumists he’d have happily done without. For the rest, he simply passed a single short stick into the bundle and allowed them to draw fairly.

He watched the four go with mixed emotions. Assuming they died in the snow, he’d be free of the worst of the group; better a resolution than losing a random few. But they’d be weaker as a whole, and would have to find converts soon. That was always dangerous. Even more so was the thought they might find their pursuers, kill them, and return. If that occurred, Lazdole would be a hero, and Alnur’s already tenuous spot as leader would be even less stable.

Beneath the sagging tarp, the three travelers huddled around a small section of sand glowing red. It barely offered any heat, certainly not enough to push back the cold pouring in from either side. “Can you do no more?” Vysil asked.

“We’re lucky we scraped enough magic for this,” Dalgith said, absently tracing a finger over one of the symbols of glowing fruit on his wall. “Between the warning spell and the shelter, the power in this spot was almost spent.”

“Dalgith,” Irisa said, calmly. “Use your store.”

Dalgith grimaced at the words. He opened his mouth to reply, but Vysil was quicker. “You’re hoarding magic powder?” He asked, furiously.

“Easy,” Irisa said to the old warrior. “Dalgith gathered some enchanted silt from the River of Misery, after we slew the giant eel. He’s been saving it for an emergency. Isn’t that right?”

The wizard nodded. “We don’t even know if it will work here. Some magic won’t do anything if you take it too far from its source. I was going to take it out if we needed it.”

“We do need it,” Irisa said, immediately, before Vysil could say it more forcefully. “We might live through the night without it, but we’ll be in no condition to fight a pack of consumists come morning. I know I won’t be. This isn’t just about revenge anymore. It’s about survival.”

The young wizard nodded and leaned to grab his pack. Meanwhile, the winds picked up, whistling past the edges of the tarp. He glanced at the piling snow seeping its way in and sighed. Then he pulled out a small pouch and shifted back to the center. “I’m going to use just a little at first, to test whether it will work at all. If it does, I’ll add more.” He removed a pinch of the silvery dust and sprinkled it onto the glowing section. As the specks neared the runes, they began glowing and flew to the illuminated areas.

“It’s working,” Vysil said. “Now dump the rest.”

“Back off,” Irisa told him, before turning to Dalgith. “Add enough to make it warm, at least.”

He nodded and removed a small handful, about a third of the contents of the pouch, and sprinkled it on the floor. “We’ll want to save the rest, if we can. I have some spells that might be useful against the consumists.”

Vysil simply rolled over, covered himself with a fur blanket, and shut his eyes. The other two sat quietly around the source of heat. Some wind slipped in and tossed the mundane sand about, but the magical grains remained still.

“This wizard. Will he be a problem?” Irisa asked quietly, after a few minutes had passed.

Dalgith shrugged. “We’re better out of a fight than in one. War magic… real war magic, anyway… it’s mostly a myth.”

“Mostly,” Vysil mumbled and rolled over to face them. “I saw a man crack open the earth once.”

“Outside the blotted lands?” Dalgith asked, shocked.

“No. Inside. But that’s more than you can do.”

Dalgith relaxed a bit. “Of course, it’s more than I can manage. I never pretended to be more than an orphaned apprentice. But magic works differently in the blotted regions. I’ve heard it said they’re spots where a dark god pissed eons ago, before being chased off.”

“Rubbish,” Vysil said. “The dark gods were lies told by the ancients to absolve themselves of the magic they made. They realized what that power was doing to the world, so they made gods to blame.”

“Since when were you an atheist?” Irisa asked. “Why are you waiting out a conjured blizzard if not to avenge an insult against the Great Red Lord of the Northern Air?”

Vysil made a sound that could have been a laugh or a cough. “I said the dark gods were lies. The old gods, the ones of the south who rule the summer and those of the north who claimed the winter months… they’re real enough.”

“I hope not,” Dalgith said. “They say if you’re killed by a consumist, you’re claimed by their god. By Vallmar. I don’t think I’d like that.”

“Then make sure you don’t get eaten by them,” Irisa laughed. “They are not great warriors. They swarm their prey and fight by numbers, trusting in fear as an ally. Against steel, they fall easily enough.”

“How about it, Wizard,” Vysil said. “Which of the gods do you fancy?”

Dalgith shrugged. “I do not know that I trust any of them. The southern gods are all strange. As for the northern… I’m not certain. The Child of the Nativity is better than Vallmar. But I do not see how a baby could offer salvation.”

“That is the wisest thing I have ever heard you say,” Vysil said. “What do you think of the Red God, then?”

Dalgith started to reply, but before he could get a word out, he was interrupted by a screeching sound around them. He let out a yelp and started to stand, forgetting the tarp, weighed down by a foot of snow, was just above him. Before he even had time to speak, Irisa had grabbed her sword and crawled by him. On the other side of the runic fire, Vysil was rolling out into snow, having grabbed his axe. Pouch of magic powder in hand, Dalgith crawled out after Irisa. He reached the edge of the tarp and looked out to see her staring down three figures shrouded by the storm. A flash of lightning offered a brief look at their opponents, who were covered in blood. Consumists, of course, and from the look of things, they’d just eaten. However, they were also shaking. Their clothes weren’t suited to this kind of weather, and the decorative metal objects they were covered in only made matters worse.

“Hear us,” one of the consumists stuttered through chattering teeth. “We have come to offer you the redemption of the grandest lord of the north. Those consumed will find peace in the fields of Vallmar. Those given this gift in the holy season will be honored upon their arrival. Our companion has already begun the journey. Lay down your weapons, and pass with him to the fields of peace.” As he spoke, the consumists approached slowly.

Irisa held her ground while Vysil joined her. “Where is your wizard?” she demanded.

“He waits in the temple with our brethren,” the consumist replied. “Do not fear. It is only necessary for us to consume your heart. The three of us will be enough.”

“I have another idea,” Vysil said, squinting against the wind blowing against him. “We cut you down and burn your bodies. Your friend’s spirit won’t have had time to pass through your bowels, right? So what will be befall him? Same as you, I’d warrant: lost to the cold wind.”

The three consumists traded worried glances. “Do not say such things,” one whispered, raising his sword.

“There’s three of you and three of us,” Vysil taunted them. “And we’re rested and warm. Come on then.” He raised his head to expose his bare neck. “Come try for our souls!”

The consumists charged forward, wildly swinging their swords in an attempt to wound or throw their opponents off balance, but neither looked impressed. Dalgith stayed where he was, hopeful he hadn’t been seen. He had a few tricks that might help, but using them would almost certainly give away his position. Still, he reached into his pouch, in case the consumists proved more dangerous than they appeared.

But it was quickly clear they wouldn’t be a threat. Numbed by the cold, their attacks were awkward and slow. Irisa disarmed one with cuts to the elbow and forearm. He seemed oblivious to the pain, but both blades fell from his grip and landed in the snow. The consumist fell seconds later, clutching his throat which Irisa’s blade had cut open.

The other two charged at Vysil, who batted their clubs aside with his axe. He struck one in the nose with the blunt top of his axe to stun him, then chopped into the chest of the third. The one bleeding from the nose staggered backwards a few steps and looked up at Vysil. “Do not do this! We offer redemption!”

He never saw Irisa walk up behind him, and a second later he fell in the snow. Vysil spat on the body.

The storm had long since worn itself out by the time the sun began to rise. From the top of his stronghold, Alnur surveyed the white expanse. The four he’d sent out had never returned, which was of course part blessing and part curse. He could see three distant dark specks against the light snow: the trackers had outlasted his storm. That meant they must have a wizard with them, a fact which presented even more danger. The consumists had need of arcane power, but there was no reason Alnur had to be its conduit. He could not allow the wizard to be taken alive.

“We must find the others’ bodies,” Ducoris said. Alnur hadn’t even heard him approach from behind. “We must perform the rites to ensure they go to the fields of Vallmar, where all things are in abundance.”

“Soon,” the wizard replied. “The men who are tracking us will arrive soon. We should confront them here rather than on the snow. Nothing will befall your companions. They would want you to wait.” He felt reasonably sure this was a lie, but he spoke the words convincingly and smiled. The consumists, like most unfamiliar with wizardry, still suspected he had some connection with the dead.

Ducoris ran his fingers over a golden chain looped around his wrist. “It does not feel right to leave their spirits in the cold. Especially on the holy days.”

“There is plenty of time. The solstice is days away. Is it not true Vallmar will not rest before then?”

“It is,” Ducoris admitted. Then he paused and looked Alnur in the eye. “You only speak of him when there is something you want.”

“I respect your god,” Alnur said quickly. “But I follow a different path.”

“There is only one path to redemption,” Ducoris replied. “In the end, there are only those consumed and those who are damned.”

“I am not at my end yet,” Alnur said, forcefully. “Do not forget our arrangement. Do not forget your oath.”

“I will not forget,” Ducoris said. “But it is not the only oath I have taken. I have promises to keep to my brethren, too.”

“They will be kept,” Alnur assured him. “Once those coming for us are dead, we will retrieve your companions.” He saw that Ducoris remained skeptical. “There is a chance the trackers confronted them last night. If so, we may learn more from them.”

“All the more reason to meet them on the plain.”

“If they are as dangerous as I suspect, we would do better to face them here. I do not doubt we could best them on the snow, but we may be forced to sacrifice some of your people.”

“Death is not a sacrifice.”

“But it would mean fewer sets of eyes to look for your lost brothers. If we wait until the trackers reach us, when they are cold and we are ready, it will be easier. Easier to compel their help. Easier to perform your rites. Then easier to find the others and send them to the fields.”

“You may be right,” Ducoris said. “But I do not like this. I fear sometimes Argek’s lies infect you.”

Alnur smiled. “Argek’s lies are strewn all over this land, are they not? We must do our best to pierce the illusion and perceive the truest value. I learned that listening to you.”

Ducoris nodded and wandered out of the room Alnur had claimed for his own. The wizard sighed uneasily. All of this was worrying. He turned back to the open window and gazed out. The trackers, whoever they were, would reach them within the hour.

Irisa notched an arrow and approached slowly. A few feet ahead of her, Vysil carried his axe in one hand and a shield in the other. A dozen feet behind them, Dalgith clutched his pouch of magic sand and looked around anxiously. Before them, the glowing citadel of the consumists rose above the icy ground. A thick layer of snow was visible on window sills, and its light, though fading, reflected off the ground below.

“They might not have seen us yet,” Dalgith said, just loud enough for the others to hear.

Irisa and Vysil shared a brief amused glance, then Vysil bellowed, “Come out and answer for your crimes! For the burning of the evergreen woods of the eastern pass! Or would you rather hide in your hut until it falls down around you?” He laughed.

A moment later, two consumists appeared in the entryway holding spears. “Hold,” the first said. “We mean you no ill. Our only wish is to deliver the lost souls of this world to a greater one beyond. Whatever hate is in your heart, know that it was put there by Vallmar to lead you here. He cares not for your anger or sins. He seeks only to redeem your spirits and give you all you have dreamed of. Before we consume you and send your spirits onto him, we ask only that you tell us what you know of our four brothers.”

“We slit their throats and fed their carcasses to wild hounds,” Vysil spat. Irisa shot him an angry look - in reality, they’d just dragged the bodies a hundred yards from their camp and tossed some snow on them.

“You lie,” one of the consumists said.

“Do I?” Vysil asked. He fished a bracelet out of a pocket and flung it towards the startled consumists. One bent over to pick it up. “The one who wore that was the last to die. He forsook his god at the end.”

“I will not be deceived!” the consumist cried out and stepped forward, drawing a short sword as he did so. The other fell back to the doorway and traded whispered words with others inside.

Irisa began to draw back her bowstring, but Vysil shook his head. The consumist threw his spear, but Vysil dodged easily. “Your god’s fields are barren!” He called. Behind him, there were now three watching from the doorway.

“Throw aside your weapons!” The man charged.

Vysil waited until he was a dozen feet away then lunged. As he did so, he called out, “Irisa! Door!” He batted the consumist’s blade aside with his axe then grabbed the smaller man’s neck with his free hand. At the same time, Irisa released her arrow, burying it in the stomach of one of the three by the door. That consumist dropped, and she fitted another arrow, took aim, and shot another in the shoulder when he ducked to help the one who’d fallen. The others dragged those two inside while Vysil wrestled his to the ground, knocked him senseless with his axehandle, then killed him quickly. “Is that all the might the great Vallmar can throw at us? He is weaker than the Child of the Nativity!”

“Vysil!” Irisa snapped. “They’re angry enough already!”

“They are cowards serving a false god!” he cried out.

“Enough!” A woman appeared in the doorway. She held no weapons but approached with open hands. “You are unworthy of Vallmar’s gifts,” she said, extending a finger towards Vysil. Barefoot, she staggered forward on the bloody snow. “Will you kill an unarmed woman?”

“I’d kill a tree burner,” Vysil replied, striding forward.

“Stop!” Irisa howled, but Vysil ignored her. The consumist opened her arms, as if to offer the approaching warrior his choice of target. Then, when he was only a dozen feet away, she dropped face-first into the snow. A warrior leapt out from the opening behind her and hurled a spear over the woman. The shaft struck Vysil in the side, and the warrior fell. The two consumists charged full speed towards him.

Irisa loosed an arrow, striking the man dead center in his chest. The woman kept crawling, as Vysil wrenched the spear from his body and righted himself on one foot. The woman reached him and jumped, pushing away his axe and clawing for the open wound. Vysil screamed and struck the woman, who did not relent. She tore at his wound, trying to rip off pieces of meat. Behind him, three more consumists dashed out the door, and Irisa fired another arrow into their midst, catching one in the leg.

Dalgith pulled a handful of dust from his pouch and whispered an incantation. The dust formed into a floating, glowing ring, which followed his finger as he pointed directly at the woman on top of Vysil. The ring shot forward and swarmed around her before pouring into her mouth. She cried out as she fell back, crawling towards the opening.

“Kill her!” Vysil shouted, but Irisa ignored him and shot one of the armed men, instead. When the last reached Vysil, the warrior managed to sweep his legs out from under him using the axe, then finished him in three brutal strokes. He clutched his side and made his way to the doorway, where the consumist Irisa had shot in the leg was attempting to retreat. He cut downward into the back of the man’s neck, nearly severing his head. After, he leaned against the outer wall and panted. Irisa and Dalgith caught up a moment later. “I may have gotten carried away,” Vysil said when he saw Irisa staring at him.

“Can you do anything for him?” she asked Dalgith, who nodded.

He poured out another handful of the magic powder he’d saved and whispered to it, then directed it towards the warrior. It fluttered around him, before coalescing against the wound. “This may hurt a bit,” Dalgith warned. The dust glowed red-hot, and the warrior screamed.

Enika was gasping and choking when she found Alnur on the second level. She pointed to her mouth frantically. The wizard spoke three words loudly, and the dust collapsed, allowing her to spit it out.

“Be careful,” Alnur said. “We may be able to use this.”

“It was eating my teeth,” Enika said, horrified. “You told me magic could not do such things, not outside of Argek’s lands.”

“The spell was trying to clean your teeth, not devour them,” Alnur said. “This mage is clever. We must finish him quickly.”

Enika shook her head. “Ducoris is dead. Most of us are wounded.” Below them, they heard the shouts of combat as the warriors fought their way into the building. “You need to listen to me. I have heard it said a chosen of Vallmar can pass a believer’s spirit to the fields of plenty in a moment if the need is great enough and the heart is pure. I cannot promise it will work, but this may be our only chance.”

“You can’t give up,” Alnur said, stepping back. “This is a test of faith. You must stop this before they destroy everything. There is still time to fix this.”

Enika nodded solemnly. “This is a test of Vallmar. I think I am true enough. Set aside your fear and accept his redemption.”

The wizard opened his mouth to call a spell out to the magical dust that remained on Enika’s clothes, but she shoved her hand between his teeth first. She cringed as he bit down, but she did not relent. She grabbed for his shoulder and pulled her mouth towards his neck and bit deep into the side. Alnur fell back, wrenching himself free for a moment, but she was upon him once again.

“This is a gift!” she cried out. “To be consumed in the name of Vallmar! As thanks for your years of service!” She wedged her fingers between his jaw again and began forcing his head back. The wizard managed to pull a knife and stab her in the shoulder, but she simply pulled it free and stabbed him three times in the chest and stomach. “This will serve us!” she said, preparing to drive the point into his eye.

But she never had the chance. She jerked forward as an arrow plunged deep in the center of her back. She fell over as a warrior woman entered the room, followed soon after by a wounded fighter and a young conjuror. Alnur pushed himself backwards against the wall. “Wait,” he said. “They made me conjure the storm. I never wanted… never wanted to help them. They’re cannibals.”

“You are a poor liar,” Vysil said. “Your name is Alnur, the conjuror sworn to serve Vallmar. How many hundreds died at the hands of your followers?”

Alnur shook his head. “It is not like that.” It wasn’t, at least not exactly. But it was closer to the truth what he had originally claimed.

Dalgith moved around the others and approached. “I can do a little for the stab wounds, but I don’t know if he’ll live.”

Vysil laughed. “I was just planning on tossing him out of the window, to be honest. Is there a reason we want him alive?”

“You’re standing in it,” Dalgith replied, removing some magic powder, which Alnur eyed, greedily. “If I keep you alive, I want to know the spell that makes this.”

Alnur nodded. “Each day I live, I will teach you a spell I know. If you cannot conjure shelter, I do not expect to exhaust my knowledge before death claims me.” He opened his hands to accept the powder, then cast the same spell Dalgith had used to bind Vysil’s wounds. He bit down as the sands scorched his skin.

“He has crimes to answer for,” Vysil said sternly.

“Dalgith is aware,” Irisa said. “If Alnur’s wounds don’t bring him to his end, others will. If you wanted to do the deed, you should have kept your senses. You lost your claim to the wizard’s head.” She stared the old berserker down until he nodded and slumped back to tend to his own wounds.

It was evening, and the stars overhead were beautiful. A few days had passed since the consumists had been slain. They’d started south and had yet to reach an end to the expanse of snow and ice left by Alnur’s conjured storm. This, too, was beautiful in a way, though the frigid air had given the old wizard a cough that upset the stab wounds.

Alnur stood outside a building identical to the one his magic had summoned before, though this was created by Dalgith, who was learning the incantation quickly. It had still taken him a dozen tries to speak the words correctly, but he’d managed it in the end.

The older warrior still eyed him menacingly from time to time and occasionally gestured threateningly, but he’d yet to actually harm Alnur. He suspected that was more due to the interference of Irisa, who seemed willing to let him live for a time.

But only for a time. Magic had cleaned the stab wounds, but it could not heal them. Every day, they seemed to grow worse and worse. If they didn’t reach civilization first, he would eventually be unable to go on. Perhaps they would stay with him as he died. Or perhaps Irisa and Dalgith would relent and allow Vysil to cleave off the wizard’s head.

It would go no better if he survived to reach a village. He was well known throughout these lands, and would be made to answer for the crimes of those who had followed him. They would pass judgment quickly, he was certain, and execute him before his injuries and sickness made the matter moot.

But that would take a few more days. Dalgith had wandered out to keep an eye on him, which amused the old wizard. “Dalgith,” Alnur said with a cough. “That cloud. Try and clear it.” As he’d promised, Alnur had taught him the charm to conjure shelter on the first day and the magic to manipulate the weather the next. It was a costly spell for larger effects, but clearing a single small cloud from the sky would remove only a trivial portion of the land’s magic power.

Dalgith spoke the words slowly, mispronouncing a syllable. Alnur corrected him and waited for him to go through the spell again. This time, the ring of weather appeared, and he watched closely to make sure Dalgith chose the correct one. Then lights rose into the air, and within a few minutes the cloud had dissipated.

“Good,” Alnur said, nodding. “Good. Come. I have another incantation to show you. Irisa may want to see this, as well.” He began walking across the sands while Dalgith called into the shelter to tell the others something was happening. Alnur suppressed a grin - it pleased him, so close to the end, to be able to elicit a sense of mystery.

Dalgith caught up to him almost at once. “You have already shown me a spell today,” he reminded him. “That was the arrangement. One a day.”

Alnur chuckled. “I am aware. But this cannot wait. It can only be cast tonight, and I would show it to another before I die. I have not been able to use it in years. If I’d used it around the consumists, they would have killed me on the spot.”

“What is it?” Dalgith asked.

“It is a spell of conjuring. I will call on the likeness of the Red God, and he will appear. It can only be done once, and only on this night.”

“That’s impossible,” Dalgith said. “Only the southern gods appear to men, and only in the ruins of their cities. The northern gods, if they even exist, stay hidden beyond the stars.”

“Not this night,” Alnur replied. “Magic is different this night. I do not understand it, but I will show you. I can only call the Red God: I once saw my master invoke the Child of the Nativity, as well, along with his host of donkeys and servants, but he never taught me that spell. I do not know if Vallmar can be summoned. I have heard such disparate descriptions, I almost doubt it. But the Red God, on this night, I can call. Listen to the words. Listen carefully.” Alnur glanced over his shoulder to confirm Irisa and Vysil had emerged from the fortress, then he began. It was a short incantation, as far as they went, and the old words, whatever their meaning, had an almost whimsical meter and rhyme.

Then, in the desert before them, the sands began to glow beneath the snow. They formed patterns like those of a giant snowflake, an evergreen tree, and finally a box with some sort of knot on top. Then the box burst open and out flew the Red God on his sled, pulled by a team of deer. It was as strange and incredible as the old stories described, and Alnur gazed in wonder, as he had so many years before. He turned to see the same look on the face of Dalgith, who could not believe what was above them. The Red God turned, waved, and called out in the ancient tongue of the north. His words were like the stuff of magic themselves: indeed, it was the same lost language.

Alnur did not need to look to confirm the same look of astonishment was on the faces of the two warriors. The old wizard laughed, which turned into a cough, then back into a laugh. Of all the spells he’d ever known, this was by far his favorite. Even though he knew this was only the visage of the Red God, not the god, himself, as the appearance, path, motions, and words never deviated. He did not know what the spell meant or why it existed, but that did not matter.

Yes, he was dying. Almost all who knew of him wanted only to see him dead, and he could not deny their desire was just. But this was the most magical night of the year, and he had an apprentice to pass his secrets onto.

This was certainly to be the last time he set eyes upon the Red God, in this life, at least. So he laughed, as the Red God laughs, and Alnur waved back at the figure above.

The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood (1965)

Wow! Late in the season, a tip came through about a crazy-looking little-known TV special, so we tracked it down. And it was unexpectedly delightful!

This musical-comedy-fantasy is the type of thing that wasn't uncommon on television in the 60's, although it's all but unknown today. It stars Liza Minnelli and Cyril Ritchard. (If you don't know the latter, he won a Tony in 1955 for playing Captain Hook on Broadway. If you don't know the former, I don't know how to help you.)

From the start this is a bit of a subversion: the wolf is the narrator of this piece, here to explain 'what really happened.' He's living in a cage in the zoo, but he's sick of being ostracized from society because of the Red Riding Hood story.

Ritchard as the Wolf is exquisite. His dialogue is snappy, his mannerisms right on that line between charming and creepy. His costume includes big sleek sideburns, large pointed ears, and a furry suit jacket. He introduces the premise and then tells us that Red Riding Hood, aka Lillian, was a girl a bit too obsessed with fashion.

The film cuts to Minnelli (only 19 at the time!) as Lillian, talking to her mouse friend (dancer in a costume) about how much she really wants something striking and red in her wardrobe, to attract some attention.

Her mother gives her a new riding cape for Christmas, and it's... blue. But it's lined in red, so Lillian flips it inside out and sings about how much she adores it.

The songs in this, by the way, are a huge cut above most holiday special fare. They're by Broadway composer Jule Styne, and they are packed with clever rhymes and wordplay.

Bonus Holiday Connection! Jule Styne is the composer of Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.

Lillian is sent of by her mother to deliver Christmas presents to her Granny. She enters the woodland set and the next sequence is an extended dance, as all the various animals of the forest travel alongside her. The choreography is really solid: the different animals showcase different styles. (Lee Theodore did the choreography, she was a dancer and choreographer for Broadway and film.) The costumes are fascinating, too. The whole thing really gives it that fairy tale feel.

We cut to the wolf and his pack, played by British band The Animals. Wolf wants to be friends with Lillian, be a more refined, civilized sort of fellow. The pack tell him he's being foolish.

Lillian comes along and the wolf introduces himself with a card reading "Lone T. Wolf." He explains that the T stands for Timber and makes a joke about being related to 'Virginia.'

Unfortunately for the potential friendship, Lillian doesn't trust wolves, and runs off.

The wolf and the pack sing a funny song about the tension between the instinct to eat people and civilized behavior. It includes a Hamlet pun. One of the elements I loved overall about this was how clever the writing is. It's packed with delightfully complex vocabulary, puns and sly jokes.

Lillian travels onward and meets a woodsman, who mostly sings instead of speaks, and thinks he might be a prince under a spell - but he's not sure. She's smitten by him, and gives him the knitted kneewarmers she had made for Granny. He gives her a song, and she's half-charmed by this and half-freaked out. He has a stellar voice.

He closes with a little cheek kiss, and she runs off to do a monologue song about being flustered by the attention. This was probably the weakest song in the special; some of the words were confusing or awkwardly placed.

The wolf, meanwhile, has been watching this interchange, so he disguises himself as a second woodcutter and re-uses bits of the other guy's speech and song to try to flirt with Lillian. But after a while she realizes the trick and rejects him. He declares that he'll get revenge.

The Animals next do a song in their style. This part didn't age so well, and it doesn't really mesh with the tone of the rest.

We cut to Granny's, the wolf has already stuffed granny in a cupboard and disguised himself. After a bit more snappy dialogue, the wolf gives Lillian one more chance to consider that all wolves aren't bad, but she is firmly species-ist, and slanders all wolf-kind. Of course she's immediately proven right. After a zany number with a humorous counterpoint and a lot of double meaning, the 'what big eyes you have' sequence plays out as a tango, and a chase sequence ensues all around the cottage.

Meanwhile, Lillian's mouse friend has gone for help from the woodsman, and he runs in just in time. And he sings.

And the wolf gives up, because he can't fight a voice like that.

In the closing sequence we return to the wolf in the cage, and while he doesn't seem sorry for having tried to eat Red Riding Hood, he is lonely. However, the skunk family next door invites him to a Christmas party, as a bit of a consolation.

Everyone comes back on stage for a brief closing number and we're done. We really enjoyed this. The film isn't in the best condition, and every so often the fact that the wolf is so charming strays into unpleasant implications. But this is a quirky, relatively unknown piece that is smart and funny and had a lot of talent behind it. Check it out if you're a fan of musicals or clever writing or fairy tale retellings. We rented it on Amazon Instant Video.