80s Bits: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacaction

Welcome back to 80s Bits, the weekly column in which we explore the best and worst of the Decade of Shame. With guest writers, hidden gems and more, it’s truly, truly, truly outrageous. 

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

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National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation poster

DirectorJeremiah Chechik

Runtime: 97 minutes

StarringChevy ChaseBeverly D’Angelo, Juliette LewisRandy Quaid, Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Studio: Warner


Rating:  Worth A Look (?)

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Originally inspired by the groundbreaking National Lampoon Magazine, John Landis’ outrageous National Lampoon’s Animal House made the Lampoons a household name and firmly established their unique brand of humour as something that would change the direction of popular comedy in the coming years. Following John Hughes’ unsuccessful attempt to make another film in the same mould with Class Reunion, Hughes went back to the well with his National Lampoon magazine story “Vacation ’58” and turned it into the 80s mega-hit National Lampoon’s Vacation, directed by Harold Ramis. The series has spawned four sequels to date, including this inevitable festive celebration National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) is looking forward to Christmas with his wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), his son rusty (Johnny Galecki) and daughter Audrey (Juliette Lewis), and has gone overboard with buying 250,000 bulbs worth of Christmas lights along with all the regular Christmas frippery. However, as soon as Clark’s extended family starts arriving, things inevitably go wrong, including the arrival of his cousin Catherine (Miriam Flynn), her redneck husband Eddie (Randy Quaid) in their home/RV. With upper class neighbours Todd Chester (Nicholas Guest) and his wife Margo (a pre-Seinfeld Julia Louis-Dreyfus) out to see Clark fall, it’s a roller coaster ride of a Yuletide.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation has become a Christmas favourite over the last few decades thanks to frequent screenings on television around the season to be jolly. Sort of like It’s A Wonderful Life, but without the religious overtones and with more double entendres. Despite the cult status, the film has not aged as well as one might hope. Removed from the road trip motif, Christmas Vacation relies heavily on the events coming to the Griswold house and asks Chevy Chase to carry much more of the comedic burden on this third time around for everyone’s favourite all-American family. Being the 1980s, much of the humour is based around the familiar concepts of the acquisition of wealth and a sub-plot involving Clark’s infatuation with Mary (Nicolette Scorsese), the lingerie counter girl. A fantasy sequence reminiscent of Phoebe Cates in Fast Times At Ridgemont High‘s infamous pool scene is interrupted by Clark’s potty-mouthed niece, in one of the rare moments that gets the balance between sentiment and the National Lampoon’s spirit about right.

In the 1980s, the National Lampoon’s humour was undergraduate but edgy, yet the series gradual watering down was becoming obvious by this third outing. By the time the 1997 Vegas Vacation and the completely forgettable Chase-less Christmas Vacation 2 rolled around, the series had lost most of its original charm. When we live in an age where A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas can literally shoot Santa in the face and have stoned children whacked out on cocaine, the taboos of emptying a chemical toilet into the sewer drain seem somewhat quaint. There are some fine set-pieces in the film, including Clark’s ongoing attempts to get the Christmas lights on his house working. Yet the great killer of comedy is forced sentimentality, and Christmas Vacation crams it in sideways at the end with a literally uplifting conclusion.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation remains a Christmas classic, albeit a faded and somewhat quaint one by today’s standards. Still, there are definitely worse ways to spend the holiday season, and this might just warm the cookies of your heart.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation Trailer