Ed. note– I’m going a little beyond fright here, but SCROOGED is a supernatural tale that has redemption at its heart. And it’s also on my yearly Christmas viewing list. It should make it to yours too. This one’s for my friend Jeff Konopka.– P.F.
Retelling Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” is almost too easy. It’s universally known, Christmas themed, and it takes a rotten character and redeems him. Everyone from Albert Finney to the Muppets have done it, and there’s that creepy version with animated Jim Carrey. In 1988, director Richard Donner and Bill Murray took a shot at the wheel with SCROOGED. Their version updates the film, and makes Scrooge a bigshot TV executive in New York City. They also make one crucial change by turning it into a comedy, and therein lies why this is my favorite version. It’s funny, in a very twisted sort of way, and never loses sight that redemption is always there for us, if we want it badly enough.
If you know “A Christmas Carol,” then you know SCROOGED. Frank Cross, its main character, is a terrible human being. Leading up to his TV studio’s live production of Dickens’ piece, he fires an employee who thinks his warmongering commercial for the play is more Reagan than Jesus; makes his secretary Grace stay late at work when she’s got to take her son to a doctor’s appointment; sends out cheap Christmas presents to everyone, including his own brother; and even dictates to an employee to staple antlers onto a mouse’s head. He’s smarmy, loud and overbearing, and to top things off, he’s played by Bill Murray. Christmas isn’t a holiday to him, just another chance to make ratings and piles of money. He’s emotionally bankrupt inside, and perhaps not worth saving. But we know the story behind the story, so SCROOGED will do its damnedest to save him.
Murphy is perfect for the role. Known for his roles in which he’s smarmy, loud and overbearing (GHOSTBUSTERS, WHAT ABOUT BOB?, this flick), he does a great job of portraying just what a jerk Frank Cross is. Even when his old boss Lew Hayward comes back from the dead, played brilliantly by John Forsythe and an effects team, Cross refuses to accept the message, and when Hayward disappears, then refuses to accept his visit. But he won’t be able to deny the three ghosts who visit him, in the form of a crazy cab driver, a sadist angel and the Grim Reaper. They’ll force Cross to reexamine his life as he goes through the night, and Murray does a brilliant job as the arrogant price we met at the beginning becomes a fearful twerp who thinks he may be losing his mind. When redemption arrives at the end, Murray’s fully bought into it, and sings it to the audience.
It’s not just about Cross though. Many good people touch his daily life, and though he discards them offhand, we get to take a peek. Grace is a hardworking single mother of several kids, including our proxy Tiny Tim, her son Calvin. Calvin hasn’t spoken in five years, since he saw his father shot to death. As Grace, Alfre Woodard has mothering down pat. Watch when she straightens out Cross’ collar and fixes his pants. She’s nurturing, even when her rambunctious charge Frank is at his worst.
And then there’s Karen Allen’s Claire, who’s about as kindhearted as a person can get. While Frank is running a network, she’s running the food drive at a homeless shelter. Later, we’ll see the flashbacks to how they got together, and how he left her on Christmas Eve for his professional advancement. But in the shelter, when Frank tries to do something right and reconnect, he’s still selfish and refuses to cow to the demands of starving people, which would delay their lunch a total of two minutes. He’s overtly unworthy of the caring of these women, and yet they still see enough in him to stick around for his redemption.
There’s also Eliot the studio exec, who questions Cross about the commercial. Cross has security summarily dispose of him, even though he’s clearheaded enough to see what a disaster the ad is. Eliot’s life becomes a train wreck after his firing, and he decides to take vengeance. But even he plays a role in Cross’ redemption. Bobcat Goldwaith is not exactly a subdued actor, but here Donner tones him down enough so he doesn’t steal the movie away from Murray’s Cross.
Along the way, Frank also has to contend with his nutty boss, who suggests they start programming for the untapped demographic of pets who watch TV, and a potential arrival in Hollywood boy wonder Brice Cummings, portrayed by the always wonderful John Glover. Obviously, Frank’s worst antagonist is himself, but these two add fuel to Frank’s paranoid fire, and some funny scenes to the film.
But hey, this is a horror site, right? So why am I reviewing this Christmas comedy on DE (nothing to do with Donner directing THE OMEN, my favorite horror film, I swear)? Well, there are ghosts, supernatural trips to the past and future, and because it’s a damn fine movie. As Cross says at the end of the film, it’s never too late to change oneself, and that’s a great message. In making it a modern retelling, it’s the best version of “A Christmas Carol” I’ve ever seen. And yes, once it gets to the Ghost of Christmas future, it’s got some chilling stuff. Having taken Frank’s advice to “Scrape ‘em off,” Claire has become a heartless monster. Grace’s son has no hope of ever being normal. Oh, and as for Frank… well, watching a character privy to his own cremation is never pleasant. As much as I have to admit that I prefer when horror movies end badly for the characters, I’m happy this one ended up on the right track. I’m no Scrooge, after all.
In 1993, Murray would basically play Frank Cross again as Phil the reporter in GROUNDHOG DAY, a film most Americans love. It’s got some funny moments as the unlikable lead goes through a supernatural situation on his path to redemption, but I find it among the most overrated film in all of film. For me, SCROOGED is the better take on the material. It’s got a superb supporting cast, and invested Murray, some great direction from Donner, and Annie Lennox singing “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” alongside Al Green over the end credits. It’s yearly holiday viewing for me, and holds up almost 30 years later. It’s also the movie version that best distills Dickens, and for that, I say God Bless Us Everyone.