Arts & Culture

Dimmer Bait and Switch: “Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage”

Next time you’re thinking of telling a tedious anecdote about how “crazy” your family gets during “the holidays,” ask yourself: Am I from Austria? In the March 1958 issue of Folklore, Maurice Bruce relates that “Saint Nicholas’ Eve—the fifth of … Read More

By / December 12, 2008

Next time you’re thinking of telling a tedious anecdote about how “crazy” your family gets during “the holidays,” ask yourself: Am I from Austria? In the March 1958 issue of Folklore, Maurice Bruce relates that “Saint Nicholas’ Eve—the fifth of December—is celebrated in the Styrian valleys of Austria with performances of the ‘Nikolospiel’. The white-bearded Saint Nikolaus, dressed in splendid robes and complete with mitre and crosier, enters each house in order to fill the children’s shoes with small gifts.

“Behind the good saint hovers the black, shaggy, goat-horned figure of the Krampus. Cloven hooves and a long tail are conspicuous features of this roaring, prancing Satyr who rattles the chains that hang from his wrists, and brandishes a bundle of birch-twigs which he wields with more energy than discrimination. . . . His habit of throwing naughty children into the wooden tub which hangs at his back, and thence into the nearest stream, earns him deep respect.”

You’ve got an alcoholic uncle who didn’t vote for Obama. Austrian kids have to put up with the village pederast dressed as the villain from Legend. “The birch—apart from its phallic significance—may have a connection with the initiation rites of certain witch-covens.” Terrific. There are also those delightful “Krampuskarten,” greeting cards whose verses “stress the importance of good behavior if one hopes to . . . escape the attentions of Krampus.”

St Nikolaus schickt Dir die Schuh’,

Krampus läszt Dich heut in Ruh’!


That means something like, “Congratulations, you didn’t get carted off in a bucket.” Now for the bad news. The Krampus lives, and he’s graduated to more loathsome punishments for naughty boys and girls. Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage (2008), directed by Michael Campus (clearly a corruption of Krampus), is just such an ingenious torment. After this, you will beg for the birch-switch.

In case you’ve never been to a shopping mall, Thomas Kinkade is the Painter of Light™, which is what Lucifer would call himself if he had a PR firm and patent office at his disposal. Kinkade is famous for painting idyllic scenes using proprietary opalescent pigments that respond to the tender touch of a dimmer switch. Edward Hopper he is not. His online gallery lists such categories as “bridges,” “cottages,” “gardens,” “lighthouses,” and “gazebos,” which are “always the center of attention at big family events. And they’re also ideal for those relaxing lazy mornings with the newspaper and coffee. These images remind us that gazebos provide shelter from the elements and soothe us with their charms.”

I hear gazebos are also swell for conducting a Black Mass. Christmas Cottage is no stranger to deals with the devil: How else did Michael Krampus get Peter O’Toole to act in this direct-to-DVD miscarriage? (He plays young Thomas Kinkade’s artistic mentor; his platitudes make Jack Handey’s sound positively Emersonian.) Apart from starring in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), O’Toole appeared in Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968). He even played Jeffrey Bernard (1999)!

You don’t have to be an art lover to hate the Painter of Light™ and his gingerbread hellscapes, but it helps. You don’t have to be a film buff to hate The Christmas Cottage; you just have to be a human being. This is essentially It’s a Wonderful Life updated for our crummy times. We’ve got to have a giant bake sale / bikini carwash / treasure hunt / bachelor auction to save the skate park / endangered salamander habitat / Goondocks / Grandma’s house from evil real estate developers! Except that in this case it’s far less interesting than that: Maryanne Kinkade (Marcia Gay Harden), the Blessed Virgin Mother of the Painter of Light™, is about to be foreclosed on.

What will become of the Christmas Cottage?

At this point, you could feed a million ant farms with the treacle dripping out of your screen. Who will save us? The real Thomas Kinkade couldn’t paint his way through a picket fence, but the titular hero of this film (Jared Padalecki) sweeps into Placerville, California, in a goddamn motorcycle sidecar, then paints a mural that blows everyone’s mind and saves Christmas. Oh, really? The only town I know of that was ever saved by beautiful murals is Philadelphia, and I don’t think I saw any paintings in here of Benjamin Franklin fist-bumping Mumia Abu-Jamal.

In terms of sheer contempt for reality, the most wonderful character in this movie is Thomas Kinkade’s deadbeat father, a cartoon character in a leisure suit who speaks in Esperanto and throws cherry bombs at emotional moments. You keep wanting him to save everyone with a blue movie called Christmas Frottage, à la Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008), but instead he learns a valuable lesson or something. Then, we can only assume, he goes back to a lucrative career in copper-wire theft.

Let me put it this way. Imagine that you’ve just been given the worst greeting card ever—a hideous mélange of red doilies and green crêpe paper—and you’re sitting there nodding and smiling and staring at the lapidary sentiment: May your holiday wishes burn you with the fire of a thousand suns. Now imagine you have to keep on faking it for 103 minutes. Sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? Maybe—but the Painter of Light™ has to keep on faking it until he dies. There are some fates worse than the Krampus. Just don’t walk toward the light.