Stop me if you’ve heard this before: an uptight woman is so focused on her career that she has no time for love. But it’s Christmas time, and a plot contrivance has brought her to a sleepy old town. Will she unexpectedly fall in love? With the accursed ghost who’s haunted an old manse since his untimely Christmas murder?
Maybe that last part was a surprise, but that’s what you’re in for with the Lifetime Channel movie The Spirit of Christmas, which takes its title very literally. It’s batshit and I’ve watched it three times, which is not a brag, just a sad glimpse into my life.
The movie starts with a flashback to Olden Times, wherein a dashing bearded man treks through the snow and sees his beloved embracing another on the steps of a lovely inn. Suddenly an unseen attacker whacks him on the back of the head, and the force of the blow knocks him…backwards, where he lands dramatically in the snow. That’s not correct, as a matter of physics, but neither is any of the plot of this movie, so take that disbelief and suspend it right now.
In Modern Times, our uptight protagonist is a lawyer whose name I forgot so I Googled it and it’s Kate, of course. Of course the Lifetime Channel Christmas movie protagonist is named Kate. I could have guessed that. She’s introduced via a breakup scene that, like every detail of the movie and indeed its entire premise, turns what should be a boring cliche into something confounding and wrong. As her soon-to-be-ex tentatively begins his breakup speech, Kate cuts him off to rattle off a list of all the men who have broken up with her for the same reason: she just doesn’t know to love since she’s so obsessed with her career. Kate stuffs bread in her face, almost gleeful in her recitation of the men who have found her heart unready for love. It’s deeply off-putting. But the dramatic irony here is that we, the audience, signed up to watch this movie so we know that she can find true love, and it will be with an undead apparition caught in a nightmarish purgatory state between our world and the spirit realm, so that’s cute and comforting.
At Kate’s law firm, her boss says that the last member of the Forsyth family has kicked the bucket so they need to step in to take care of her estate. Apparently they manage the trust overseeing the family’s property, the Hollygrove Inn, and it needs to be sold before the end of the year for tax reasons I don’t understand. The end of year? That’s only three weeks away! Kate says she’ll get to work right away hiring a local appraiser, but her boss tells her that no one in town will take the job because the inn is rumored to be haunted. When Kate scoffs, he replies, “I know, 45% of the population still believes in ghosts.” Why does he have that statistic in his head to throw out so offhandedly? It doesn’t matter, because the point is that Kate needs to go down to to Smalltown, Nowheresville herself to make sure the place gets appraised. And, her boss hints, she might get a big promotion if she can pull this off.
Kate scoots down to Smalltown full of determination and enthusiasm and an obvious skepticism about the so-called ghost. She’d hired another appraiser to meet her there, but when she arrives he’s tearing out of the inn, terrified out of his mind. Kate just rolls her eyes and lets herself in, because it takes more than a spooked appraiser to scare off a real professional lady lawyer. The inn is bedecked from top to bottom, just absolutely festive as hell, and the manager tells her to leave because they always close for December. Seems like a waste of all those decorations. But Kate is the executor of the estate and puts her girlboss foot down. She’ll stay in the inn all alone, because she ain’t afraid of no ghost.
And sure enough, at the stroke of midnight, long-dead Daniel Forsyth, former owner of the inn, walks through the front door. You can’t tell he’s a ghost, because he just looks like any other guy, and he disables the alarm system upon his entrance, which is a weird move for a ghost, but it’s that same bearded man from the Olden Times flashback so obviously he’s the ghost. Hearing footsteps downstairs, Kate grabs a knife and heads down to investigate. I honestly love her. She’s spunky! Plus she wears hideous baggy sweatpants to bed instead of the cute little girly pajamas that women in movies usually wear and I find that relatable.
Once downstairs, she wanders down a dark hallway…. and the ghost walks behind her ominously… and says “You’re trespassing!” ominously… and she jumps in a flailing way that smashes her into a bookcase, knocking a large vase off a shelf and onto her own head. She passes out instantly. I didn’t see that one coming!
In the morning, she wakes to find the bearded trespasser playing the piano. She tells him to leave and stop trespassing but he says that she’s trespassing and they have an argument that ends with him slinging her over his shoulder like a big strong man and plopping her on the porch, then throwing a blanket at her. It’s all very slapstick. I can’t imagine this tension could one day turn to… love!
Kate calls the police and a sheriff comes out to investigate. But the trespasser is nowhere to be found! Even though everyone else in town seems terrified to even step foot on the property, the sheriff simply shrugs and tells her to set the alarm next time, all exasperated at her for experiencing inexplicable acts of spookiness in this, the town’s famously haunted old inn. “Maybe it’s your womanly hysteria, or that head injury I’m not gonna suggest you seek treatment for” is not what he says, but it’s implied.
But soon the bearded man appears again, and this time Kate notices he looks exactly like the picture in the newspaper from Olden Times that’s hanging on the wall. “DANIEL FORSYTH MISSING, FEARED DEAD,” reads the headline and she gasps “Impossible!” out loud. At this point the manager comes back to be like “I thought you’d leave by now but I guess you figured out there’s a ghost here” and the ghost comes out like “what a zany situation we’re all in now!” and Kate’s all like “Ghosts aren’t real! That dude is a solid living human! This is all in my head because of that head injury I gave myself!” But Daniel drags her out the door with a grim determination that will surely not morph into sexual tension, and he shows her how he disappears if he steps off the property only to reappear back in the inn. And our spunky heroine is all like “Well, if I gotta fight a ghost to get that promotion, challenge accepted, bud!”
So she cheerfully sets about understanding the deal with this curse. Daniel only appears for the 12 days before Christmas — because boy did these wild screenwriters commit to their Christmas mystery premise — and he disappears the day after Christmas, and he can’t leave the property line. “There’s too many rules for this to be random,” says Kate, like she’s some expert in curses. Daniel says there’s no point in trying to solve it and he’s just given up at this point, but Kate counters that maybe if they find out who killed him, his spirit will be free. I don’t know that I would have come to that conclusion automatically, but I’m not a whipsmart lady lawyer and it shows.
The manager points out that the inn has to be sold, so Daniel won’t be able to haunt it for 12 days of Christmas every year in the future. He has to solve his mysterious murder to finally set his spirit to rest for the remainder of eternity, and Kate has to sell the inn and get that promotion, and those are goals of equal importance. So they set about solving the puzzle together.
Daniel’s all cranky and Kate’s all spunky and they make an odd couple but darn it if they aren’t cute together! They get to know each other. She starts to loosen him up. They have a big fight and she thinks she needs to leave but then they reconcile. They grow even closer. She has to leave for good, because of Business back home. It’s beat-for-beat the exact structure of Beauty and the Beast, so you get the gist.
There is SO much going on in this movie. Daniel is a big hunk of a modern man who does not look remotely like a gentleman from the ’20s. The costumes in the flashback scenes are far too modern, and yet the dialogue is far too old-timey. There are so many jokes where Ghost Daniel says something in front of regular humans like “I remember when this inn was built” and the regular people are like “whaaa?” and Kate has to be like “he’s joking! He’s DJ the distant Forsyth cousin and not an undead spirit from olden times” and the locals are like “oh, well that checks out then.” Daniel’s ghostly backstory is full of unnecessary complications, like him becoming a bootlegger to save the inn because his fiancée’s dad wanted her to marry a responsible man like an innkeeper. Also, I think his fiancée actually caused the curse because of her love of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? And at one point, Kate has to choose between the mandatory law office Christmas Eve party and helping Daniel.
And yet! It sure is a cozy movie, and we get great sexual tension-building moments, like Daniel asking Kate what her beau would think of her staying all alone and Kate opening up about her troubles in love, and Kate walking in on him shirtless and getting all flustered. The two lead actors really have incredible chemistry, the type that makes you want to scream “Come on, you two, both of your spirits are confined to flesh temporarily! Use those physical forms for more than solving mysteries already!” Daniel cooks stacks and stacks of pancakes every morning (hot!) and has Gentlemanly Old-Timey Values like volunteering to stay in her room to protect her from other ghosts that show up. There is just so much longing eye contact, and it’s very romantic.
But in private, our dashing lead says to Lumière — sorry, I mean the inn manager — that no woman could ever love a man in his condition. The manager tells him to believe in love or something, but like… Daniel has a point!! The fact that he only has a corporeal form 12 days of the year and is otherwise trapped in a horrific spirit dimension is a FAIRLY unsurmountable obstacle to a relationship! But you can choose to not think about that when you see Kate bring home a Christmas tree for them to decorate together and the plans they make for a big Christmas Eve dance for the locals. Daniel gets into the spirit of Christmas, if you will. But will the Spirit of Christmas get it in with Kate??
I mean.. yeah. Of course. Look, this movie doesn’t go completely off the rails. Or rather, it goes completely off the rails from the beginning with its very premise, but it stays in the same off-rails area and doesn’t then steer the train off a cliff. What I’m saying is, the dimension-crossed lovers will end up in love and there will be a happy ending. It’s not like Kate kisses him at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve and he ages into the ancient corpse he is, crumbling into dust so his spirit can finally pass on as Kate screams and screams in horror. I wish! But of course the mystery gets solved and Daniel gets to live again and Kate learns that the secret of love is prioritizing your career less and breaking a curse for a hot ghost more. But she gets that promotion, because women can have it all!
Do I think this relationship will work? They are very cute together, but he won’t understand a SINGLE one of her references. And what will happen when he finally ventures off the property? Surely someone will say, “You’re the ghost of Daniel Forsyth, I saw your picture on Ghosthunters” and he’ll be like “No, I’m DJ the distant cousin who’s been alive a normal number of years.” Then they’ll say, “Prove it! What’s a Nintendo 64?!” or “Who’s the president of the United States, you time-traveling undead fuck?” and he’ll be flabbergasted.
Will this film make you believe in the power of love overcoming all? Probably not, because the circumstances here just do not make sense. Will it make you want to bang a sexy Christmas ghost? Yes. And that’s what this season is all about.
My dear friend Camille brought this movie to my attention, which was great because I had an amazing time but also terrible because it was obviously a bonkers movie. It was a real mixed bag, like coming back from the dead to find out that your fiancée died after bearing your stillborn child but falling in love with a spunky modern lady lawyer. Here are some of the things we screamed at each other via WhatsApp, being separated by several states but united in our feelings about this piece of cinéma:
Was this movie terrible or amazing? Yes.
Was this movie romantic? Weirdly, yes!
Do I recommend this movie? I honestly do! The leads act the hell out of it and are adorable together, and it’s far more amusing than most alternatives out there.