Screenwriters have, for decades, set their westerns, horror films and apocalyptic sci-fi/fantasy in the malleable mountains and plains of Colorado. But the holiday special or movie is so far down the prestige list that it usually sails under NORAD’s radar.
Whether filmed or set here (or, far less often, both), most of them are terrible. That’s partly due to the low-aiming, corny genre they’re mired in, and partly because the themes and plots of holiday narratives hardly every change. But there are a few biggies worth noting.
Here’s a sampling of holiday shows and movies set or filmed here, with an emphasis on the snowy ski towns that signify the state to outsiders. Grab a hot chocolate and a screen, and settle in for some local flavor — however saccharine.
“Dumb and Dumber”
Having set its comedic bar so hilariously low with gross-out slapstick and gags, “Dumb and Dumber” has become an influential comedy classic. It’s also, to paraphrase one of my editors, a holiday movie in our house. When Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) and Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) set out on a cross-country trip to return a briefcase to the elusive Mary Swanson (Lauren Holly), they end up in Aspen — actually filmed in Estes Park at the historic (and “Shining”-inspiring) Stanley Hotel — for the holidays.
From the greenhorn costumes that most ritzy outsiders adopt — fringe-on-fringe, furry boots and oversized Stetsons — to the actual Colorado locations that add to the buddy comedy’s sense of place, “Dumb and Dumber” is our top pick for a Colorado holiday movie. Sorry, everything else.
“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”
Wait, isn’t this 1989 Chevy Chase vehicle set in and around Chicago? It is, but we’re including it here because its opening sequence — a brutally cartoonish series of tree-cutting fails — was filmed in Colorado, along with a few others. The outdoor scene-setting for the Walmart shopping spree with Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) and interiors were filmed in Frisco, according to IMDB.com, while the shots in which the Griswold station wagon jumps into the Christmas tree lot parking area were captured in Breckenridge.
Colorado 9 north of Silverton yielded the main road-rage logging-truck scene, in which the hapless Griswold family becomes briefly trapped under a long-hauler. Summit County also provided several pointedly non-Illinois-looking exteriors. That’s fitting, since locations near Alamosa, Pueblo and Durango also graced the first (1983) installment of National Lampoons’ “Vacation” series.
“Die Hard 2”
With the original 1988 film firmly a holiday-action classic, the sequel (also set on Christmas Eve and starring Bruce Willis) is enjoying a closer second look. Many scenes were shot in Colorado, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette, and not just exterior establishing shots.
Those include scenes in Breckenridge, Mead, Denver and the former Stapleton International Airport (now the Central Park neighborhood). Stapleton doubled as Washington Dulles, where most of “Die Hard 2” takes place, the Gazette reported, while the villain’s headquarters scenes were shot in Highland Lake Church near Mead.
Before “Elf” there was “Elves,” a low-budget 1989 horror flick whose tagline is “They’re not working for Santa… Anymore.” The plot, which involves Nazis, magical rituals and a department store, is utterly incidental to its compelling Christmas schlockiness.
Scenes for the minor cult film were shot in and around the Carnegie Library in Colorado Springs, as well as the Colorado Springs School, according to IMDB.com. The former Hibbard & Co. department store in downtown Colorado Springs was featured prominently throughout the first half, The Location Scout blog reported. The full movie is available on YouTube.
“Winter in Vail”
By our count, dozens of Hallmark, Lifetime and other made-for-TV miniseries and holiday specials have been set in Colorado’s high country. But 2020’s “Winter in Vail” is one of the most recent, and exemplary of what makes these such comfort food for certain viewers. As with most of these romantic-dramedy plots, it features an outsider (Hallmark regular Lacey Chabert as harried career woman Chelsea Whitmore), who decamps from a big city (Los Angeles) to Vail and quickly becomes more Vail than Vail’s residents.
Her inherited chalet needs some fixing up, and her late Uncle Grady’s legacy as a pastry chef is dangling before her eyes. He created a famous apple strudel recipe, which quickly becomes one of the paper-thin plot’s biggest symbols for reinvention. Most of the filming took place in Alberta, Canada, but a few scenes were shot in Vail. Its generic embrace of “small-town values” is led by Whitmore’s self-discovery (“I’m going to have to find out who I am when there’s nothing on the calendar,” she says) and the eye-rolling lines are near-constant.
See hallmarkchannel.com/winter-in-vail for more — including a truly impressive dozen-plus posters for winter-romance specials that look exactly like this one.