Brian Henson’s dystopias are the source of many childhood nightmares for me. And if you grew up in the UK, it’s almost a guarantee that you’ve been subject to the horrors of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Whether you performed it as your annual Christmas play (I did, I was a charity worker), or you remember evenings gathered around the TV watching one of the many adaptations, it’s definitely been part of your festive season at some point.
As a child, I was generally terrified of most things, but nothing more than Henson’s rendition of the classic tale featuring the Muppets. From the opening sequence, it’s evident that IMDb has misled the audience dubbing it a “family, drama, comedy”. Within minutes, muppets are shrieking “I’m being stolen, help me” from the back of carriages. There is chaos on the streets, and Gonzo (taking on the role of Charles Dickens) proclaims “Marley was dead, to begin with”. You’d think they’d tone down the opening line of Dickens’ novella to comply with its PG rating, but instead, Gonzo alludes to us experiencing some dead people. Just what a child wants at Christmas.
The opening’s also a place for the Muppets to prove themselves the original internet trolls as Scrooge’s commute to work is narrated in song:
And the worst of the worst,
The most hated and cursed,
Is the one that we call Scrooge.
We’ve not even spent a moment with this man before receiving the equivalent of a quote tweet on Donald Trump’s Twitter. The man’s just trying to get to work. Of course, he then goes on to prove himself as mean as they say. Within seconds he’s throwing a Muppet out on the street by the scruff of his neck, proudly touting the use of prisons and “poor houses” and wishing to cook and bury those who utter Merry Christmas.
The crux of the film is when the real horror settles in. Gonzo once again reminds us that the Marleys “are dead and decaying in their grave,” before Scrooge’s doorknob morphs into the face of a deceased man, shocking Ebenezer into lighting lamps to ascend the stairs while gothic shadows paint the walls. It looks like the pages of a Mary Shelley novel, dark as night with the occasional candlelit flicker. The ominous, voyeuristic camera implies Scrooge is not alone, and we watch from the nooks and crannies of his home while he peers quizzically before settling down for some bread and cheese.
Tonight, this man will not rest for the bubbling and rattling disturbs him, and in an instant, the Marley brothers appear before him tied in chains taunting him for the error of his ways. Michael Caine is excellent in this role, “Don’t criticise me. You always criticise me,” he jeers as the spirits sing, entwining him with their shackles before being choked down to the ground, cackling about leaving orphans on the street with “frostbitten teddy bears”.
As the ghosts evaporate, Rizzo The Rat says what we’re all thinking at this point; “this is scary stuff,” to which Gonzo replies, “It’s culture.” I guess the politics of fear and hatred of the poor is British culture, even here in 2020.
At this point, as a child, I was ready to switch the movie off and burn the videotape but no, the only thing I’d erased from my memory as a child was the hauntingly frightful Ghost of Christmas Past. This half cherub half-demon barely has a face and moves like she’s drowning at all times. She takes Scrooge back in time to revisit his childhood trauma of being an abandoned child in a boarding school, building the foundation of his Tory ways. Scrooge wants to know “why do you delight in torturing me?” to which the Cherub-demon replies “do not blame me,” okay, well you brought me here so technically it’s your fault, but whatever. We watch as Scrooge experiences his first heartbreak, before being plummeted back to the present.
Feeling as though his night is over, Scrooge revels in delight to be back within the comfort of home before a booming voice fills his halls with “come in and know me better, man”. The GIANT Ghost of Christmas Present has folded himself into the tiny partitions of Scrooge’s living room where he leads him on a casual stroll to Ebenezer’s nephew’s home. They’re playing a game of “yes and no” which results in Scrooge witnessing his only living relative calling him “an unwanted creature.”
This is one of the lighter moments in the film before the real horror kicks in. Tiny wheezing Kermit as Tiny Tim is nightmare-inducing. He cannot get through a song without his mother fussing, asking him to calm down. We’re left to watch in terror alongside Scrooge, as the Ghost of Christmas Present foreshadows his seat being empty come next year, leading us into the eeriest and most macabre spectre of all; The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
At this point, as a child, I’d be in the kitchen looking for a comfort snack avoiding the terror of this hollow-faced entity gripping Scrooge’s shoulder and tossing him into a vortex. Even Gonzo and Rizzo abandon us, “this is too scary,” so we’re left alone without the comic relief as we walk into the final act.
The streets are darker and more menacing than they have been throughout, and Muppets gather in small gangs pawning items of an unknown dead man, simultaneously mocking his existence. Scrooge asks to see something else, something lighter, and the Ghost complies, taking him to the hallowed street where the Cratchits live. Scrooge is practically jumping in glee, ecstatic to revel in the warmth of Tiny Kermit once more but he is, instead, greeted with the prophecy of a tiny crutch and hat donning the chair instead of Tiny Tim. Scrooge realises the lesson all modern-day billionaires need to learn; that his own ill-gotten gains rely on the poverty of others.
And, to ensure this lesson becomes permanently etched in Scrooge’s mind, Mr. Christmas Yet To Come leads him once more to the empty graveyard to show him his real prophecy; the Muppet gangs had been celebrating his death. Within an instant, Scrooge wishes his legacy to be something different and, awaking on Christmas morning with a thankful heart, immediately rushes into the street with wishes of spreading Christmas cheer. He is Buddy the elf personified, throwing shillings at anyone who will take them before bombarding the Cratchit home with feasts and warm company.
The film may have a pleasant, life-affirming ending, but it takes a horror story to get there. As Scrooge experiences his worst nightmares, we, too, are plummeted into that feeling of dread. Even the endearing, charming muppets cannot cloak the terror of Dickens’ tale and the looming doom that peppers the narrative. Nevertheless, I’m sure this film will haunt generations to come as it remains a classic family favourite, even getting another round in cinemas this December. As Dickens says, “that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.”