As we noted several Decembers ago: It's a wonderful life, packed with miracles on 34th Street, bishop's wives, white Christmases, holiday inns, polar expresses and Christmas stories.

But some years, you just need to give the old seasonal war horses a rest and try something new and every bit as wonderful.

For 2017, we've dredged up two candidates from the far ends of the cinema spectrum.

We make no claims to being the first to latch onto these films as possible "Wonderful Life" surrogates/supplements.

But they do carry our personal endorsements ... for better or worse.

From the quality end of the spectrum comes one of the last stylish hurrahs of the Old Hollywood studio/star system.

Though it's best remembered today as the quasi-inspiration for TV's long-running "Bewitched" sitcom, 1958's "Bell, Book and Candle" works for us far more meaningfully as perfect Christmas-to-New Year's-week fare.

This ultra-swank, mid-century-designed film version of the John Van Druten stage hit re-teamed James Stewart and Kim Novak from their ill-fated pairing by Alfred Hitchcock for the same year's "Vertigo."

As if to atone for "Vertigo's" dizzying morbidity, this blithely spirited reunion beats a path from San Francisco all the way cross-country to the Greenwich Village of the late 1950s.

Not only a haven for beat bohemians, this Village is a hotbed for a clan of practicing witches and warlocks, delightfully played by Novak, Jack Lemmon, Elsa Lanchester, Hermione Gingold and a cool cat named Pyewacket.

Into their nest comes Stewart's Shep, a slightly mature bachelor, as he was in all his movies of this period. But he sells it, just as he did for Hitch. 

Shep rents a flat above an exotic African mask shop run by Novak's witchy Gil. It's a stylish front for her family's overall spell-casting activities.

When Gil learns that Shep is engaged to marry her former college rival, she indulges in what her family knows best ... but not with a simple twitch of the nose.

Novak, a peerless vessel for all things ’50s-sensual, uses the whole nine yards of her amazing being; the result is the anti-"Veritgo." No charades, no bell-tower tumbles ... just the star at the very pinnacle of her alluring powers.

So how does any of this qualify as a movie for the season at hand?

The time-frame for most of the action is Christmas/New Year's season in New York, and it's never been evoked more lushly than here, with snowy streets, understated decor and an after-the-office-party atmosphere rivaled only by another New York-set Jack Lemmon movie: the following year's "The Apartment" (not coincidentally our pick for last year's column).

There's a pervading sense of effortless cool about this gorgeously romantic film, done up in the highest studio style, all under the direction of underrated Blake Edwards associate Richard Quine, who would gift Novak with another career high via the following year's "Strangers When We Meet."

Now, away from the Big Apple, across the pond and deep into rural England for our second holiday movie alternative.

It's titled, depending on which credits you read, "Who Slew Auntie Roo?" (on the poster art), or "Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?" (the on-screen title).

Either way, it's a Shelley Winters movie from her horror-hag phase of the 1970s, and probably the most fun ... more so than "Bloody Mama" and "What's the Matter with Helen," at any rate.

Strangely, we assume that Winters is playing Auntie Roo, even though the name appears only in the title, never in the film itself.

Ah, well, it rhymes, and that's what counts.

The setting for this low-key 1971 horror tale is Victorian Christmastime, and it's charmingly evoked on a modestly-budgeted scale that never scrimps on the Dickensian frills.

Winters plays Mrs. Forest, a plump middle-aged matron who keeps the mummified corpse of her long-dead daughter tucked away upstairs in the nursery (she died in a sliding-down-the-banister accident that mom just never reconciled as such).

Now, it's Christmas, and Mrs. Forest is entertaining the kids from a nearby orphanage, including a precocious sibling duo (Mark Lester, of "Oliver!" fame, and Chloe Franks) who become the Hansel and Gretel to Mrs. Forest's witch in this perverse spin on the story.

It's perverse, because the kids are actually creepier in their vengeful survival techniques than the dotty old matron with the mummified corpse upstairs.

We make no claims for the film's redemptive powers or its generating a fuzzy afterglow.

But, trust us, after about the 70th viewing of "A Christmas Story" or "Wonderful Life," watching a shrieking Shelley Winters chase two kids with a meat cleaver through some holly-decked halls is almost ... tonic.

Dan Craft is Pantagraph entertainment editor. He can be reached at 309-829-9000, Ext. 259 or via email at


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