NEWS
12/23/2013 12:00 EST | Updated 02/21/2014 05:59 EST

How 'A Christmas Story' became a cult film classic

There were no epic, Oscar-winning performances in A Christmas Story. The 1983 slice of Americana filmed partly in Canada faded from theatres within a few weeks.

Yet the movie, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, has become something of a festive cult classic.

Fans recite lines with great fervour — "You'll shoot your eye out" is a favourite — and cherish every adventure or misadventure young Ralphie has, whether it's taking on bullies, putting up with a partially drunk and perhaps lecherous department store Santa or dreaming of finding a Red Ryder BB gun under the tree.

It is a curious cinematic evolution, one that speaks to how a relatively low-budget movie consumed with the simplest things from a 1940s life can have lasting appeal.

"I think at the heart of it is that it's a great mixture of wackiness, and then it hits you at the end with just a touch of sentimentality," says Tyler Schwartz, an Oakville, Ont., man who has become something of a superfan of the film.

"Really the whole movie is universal. Whether you're young or old, or you grew up in '40s or the '80s or even today, I think so much of it you can relate to, especially at Christmas time."

Remember the frozen-tongue scene

Maybe your mom bundled you up so tightly in your snowsuit and scarf that you could hardly move or breathe. Maybe there was a bully with a mouthy sidekick who tried to terrorize you on the way home from school.

And maybe there was one present you really, really wanted Santa to bring, even if your parents didn't seem to think it was such a good idea.

All that happened in A Christmas Story, and it is those kinds of timeless details that have helped the movie resonate no matter a person's age, says Peter Lester, an assistant professor in the department of communication, popular culture and film in Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

Brock was where the movie's classroom and iconic tongue-stuck-on-the-flagpole scenes were filmed.

"Younger audiences, I think, certainly can relate to the young character of Ralphie as he undergoes his overwhelming sense of excitement and anticipation," says Lester.

"But also the fear, anxiety, and disappointment and even humiliation that he undergoes over the course of the film."

Period piece

The movie is also a period piece, so it holds a strong nostalgic appeal.

Even those people who grew up in later times "can relate similarly to fathers obsessed with furnaces and Oldsmobiles, or the ever-present threat of schoolyard bullies, or the horrifying experience of barely concealed drunk mall Santa Clauses," says Lester.

For all the nostalgia, however, he sees another factor that could contribute to the movie's lasting appeal and which sets it apart from the greeting card sentimentality of other holiday film fare like It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol.

"There is a kind of dark, sort of subversive element to it that I think distinguishes the film and can speak to a lot of its appeal," says Lester.

"No one really learns the true meaning of Christmas by the end. The stakes are different ... ghosts don't revisit anyone to look back at their life. No one's saved from suicide.

"The true meaning of Christmas effectively is not the final scene of the film, which I think a lot people forget is actually Ralphie sitting in bed hugging his BB gun."

Lester also sees another historical reason for the lasting appeal, one that is not tied to the movie, but more to the expanding television and cable universe of the 1980s and 1990s.

"A lot of movies particularly around Christmas time tended to benefit from networks repeatedly playing them over and over," says Lester.

A Christmas Story in particular became the focus of a 24-hour Christmas Day marathon on U.S. cable TV, which continues to this day.

Lester doesn't hesitate to call A Christmas Story a cult film, even if its subject matter is considerably milder than other fare that earns that moniker.

Everyone, Lester says, has a different understanding of what makes a cult film, but if the term is taken to mean a movie that gathers a devoted fan base with an intense dedication to it, then A Christmas Story fits that bill.

That dedication has not gone unnoticed for Zack Ward, the Toronto native who played bully Scut Farkus in the movie.

Now based in Los Angeles, Ward has gone on to roles in television shows and movies such as Almost Famous and Transformers. But those experiences were very different.

"No one's going to be watching these movies in 24-hour marathons. No one's going to be showing them to their kids in 10 years. No one's going to be collecting items from the film because it reminds them of their cherished childhood," Ward says.

"I think it's going to be here long after I die and if I have a tombstone and it says here lies Zack Ward, you know, that guy from A Christmas Story, I would be very, very happy."