Buried somewhere between shameless appropriation and the utter oblivion of wide release movies that have subsequently passed entirely out of memory, resides a 1994 film that was titled It Runs in the Family during its initial theatrical release. Directed by pioneering slasher/sex-comedy pioneer Bob Clark, who had brought us the likes of 1974’s Black Christmas and 1981’s Porky’s, It Runs in the Family was actually a belated sequel to the film by which Clark would ultimately become best known: 1983’s perennial holiday classic A Christmas Story. Inexplicably titled and confoundingly cast, the film that would eventually be retitled My Summer Story has all but disappeared entirely from the cultural consciousness, existing today as a hazily recalled exercise in cynical sequelization, albeit one with a few inspired moments that make it at least more of a legitimate effort than the likes of 2012’s particularly soulless A Christmas Story 2. Still, at the end of the day, the thing that stands out the most when you watch My Summer Story today is the uncanny valley weirdness of it all.
Of course, one might be surprised to find out that A Christmas Story had a mid-‘90s film sequel to begin with, much less one where the biggest recurring storyline is about the kids fighting over “battling tops” in the schoolyard. Although beloved today for its deft balance between period nostalgia, childlike innocence, sarcasm and dark humor, Clark’s original film was anything but a runaway hit in its initial release. In fact, the film performed only modestly at the box office in 1983, received middling reviews, and would likely have faded into obscurity itself if not for the advent of cable TV, which led to repeated screenings in the early 1990s, which continue to this day. This is how A Christmas Story eventually became hailed as a classic, taking the same long-distance path to cultural immortality shared by films such as The Wizard of Oz or It’s a Wonderful Life. And it was this TV rediscovery that led to more adaptations of the work of humorist and radio personality Jean Shepherd, whose book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash had provided the core material for A Christmas Story. In fact, My Summer Story wasn’t even the only additional film to feature Ralphie and the Parker clan: A series of PBS television movies also aired in the late 1980s, with titles like Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss and The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters.
Only My Summer Story had any kind of budget behind it, however, a necessity in at least attempting to recreate the setting of early 1940s northwest Indiana, where the Parker clan toils somewhere near the poverty line of a lower middle-class Midwestern existence. With more than a decade having passed since the original film, however, director Bob Clark was forced to effectively start from scratch, recasting the film from the ground up. And this is where things really started to go wrong.
Quite simply, almost every performer who was cast is fundamentally wrong for their part, and the choices made for most roles seem to have little rhyme or reason. To replace the far-too-old Peter Billingsley as Ralphie, we have a young Kieran Culkin—not a bad choice on paper, but one that feels designed to reflect not his own abilities but the contemporary audience’s association of the Culkin name with family holiday comedies … despite the fact that this is no longer a Christmas movie, taking place roughly six months after Ralphie finally receives his Red Ryder BB gun. In comparison with Billingsley’s wide-eyed and emotive portrayal of a nine-year-old’s dramatic swings between joy, terror and petulant, crushing disappointment, Culkin feels like a void of personality, which the film attempts to prop up throughout via Shepherd’s narration rather than his own performance. The characters around him have likewise degraded or slipped into monotony—Randy somehow seems several years younger than in A Christmas Story, and is barely capable of speech, while Ralphie’s schoolyard friends Schwartz and Flick have become indistinguishable blobs rather than distinctive cronies. Only the delightful Mary Steenburgen escapes unscathed as Mrs. Parker, perhaps due to the fact that the film isn’t really interested in her to begin with. She makes the best of what she’s given.
These issues are nothing, however, when compared with the genuinely painful performance of the beloved Charles Grodin, an actor who feels profoundly unsuited to his role as Ralphie’s Old Man, inhabited so memorably by Darren McGavin in the 1983 original. Where the understated humor of McGavin’s performance often stems from his sheer aloofness around his family, the seeming disinterest he has for the daily workings of the household and the kids scampering around within it, and the way those kids fear this distant specter of a man, Grodin’s Old Man is a much more wholesome part of their lives … and it’s all wrong. This Old Man doesn’t just exist in their vicinity; he’s genuinely warm rather than gruff, which leaves the character feeling like an entirely different person. You can’t fathom why a kid would even refer to this father as “the old man” to begin with, and perhaps this is why Grodin looks so confused as to what kind of energy he’s meant to emanate.
Known throughout his career for wit and a deadpan delivery, here Grodin’s gags are forcefully delivered through gritted teeth and artificial, impossible-to-believe strain, with the target of his ire primarily shifted to “hillbilly neighbors” the Bumpuses, only mentioned at a distance in A Christmas Story. Perhaps unsurprisingly, My Summer Story takes this previous restraint as an invitation to inflate the annoyance posed by The Bumpuses to exorbitant proportions, positioning them as a debauched stable of nemeses for The Old Man to engage in a full-scale war. At no point can one genuinely believe in any of Grodin’s supposed rage—you’re more likely to be distracted by the strange vocal tics of a character whose shouted dialogue about topics such as fishing or outhouses is incoherent at least 50% of the time. Grodin frequently looks like he’s in pain, an experience mirrored by the audience.
In truth, the only thing My Summer Story is genuinely interested in is Shepherd’s persistent voiceover narration, faithfully transposed in the same style that often delivered the best lines of Clark’s original film. But where A Christmas Story knew where to judiciously sprinkle its quipped bits of narration, My Summer Story slathers on Shepherd’s voice as a cure-all salve, patching over an instantly recognizable lack of relevant dialogue. It’s another factor that works to minimize the impact of Culkin’s Ralphie in particular, as his performance ends up playing second fiddle to an overabundance of disembodied narration, feeling at times as if it accounts for every other sentence the audience hears. Are there some funny lines sprinkled throughout? Absolutely—you know Shepherd’s wit couldn’t vanish entirely—but the audience has no time to appreciate even the better jokes, because they’re typically chased by lesser ones in rapid succession.
Oddly, the actual highlight of My Summer Story might be the smattering of oddball character actors one will no doubt recognize from other, better films. There’s Glenn Shadix, for instance—“Otho” of Beetlejuice—as the slimy movie theater proprietor who tricks Mrs. Parker into attending weekly shows with the promise of movie star-branded dinnerware. Or there’s Roy Brocksmith, the neurotic doctor who once warned Arnold Schwarzenneger that he’d be LOBOTOMIZED in Total Recall, portraying a county tax assessor who raids the Parker household, looking to penalize their unreported spending. We even get a sizable helping of child actor Whit Hertford, remembered primarily for being the odd-looking kid who Dr. Grant terrifies with raptor anecdotes in the early minutes of Jurassic Park … and also for being the title character of A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. Picking out those puzzling, vaguely recognizable faces provides more mental stimulation than anything actually happening in My Summer Story, save perhaps theorizing on what the hell Grodin is attempting to do with his voice.
In the end, the film simply doesn’t know what it wants to be, or what it should even aspire to accomplish beyond hammering home every conceivable callback to the previous film that hit theaters 11 years earlier. Its tonal swings are neck-snappingly severe, vacillating between sappy, obnoxious and dour at the drop of a hat. At one moment, the proceedings come to a tragic halt when the neighbor’s home is foreclosed upon and all their property is auctioned off, in a moment of almost tear-raising pathos … and then a few moments later you’re back to outhouse jokes with the Bumpuses, empathy fully discarded. It’s hard to believe that Clark’s skills as a director had deteriorated to such a degree, but it makes more sense when you see that his next film as a director was 1999’s Baby Geniuses.
Sometimes, films like My Summer Story simply deserve the cultural exile they eventually receive. But still, this one has an odd way of drawing my memory back to its strangeness … if only to wonder why the hell it wasn’t titled A Summer Story, as any sane producer would have decreed. In the dead of the night, that’s the kind of question you’ll also find hard to dismiss.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.