It’s that time of year again. Time for overeating, compensatory consumption, forced cheer and strained family relations. Sometimes, it can feel as if you’re on autopilot, following a subconscious checklist of automatic behaviors that are bereft of any true meaning. It doesn’t have to be all bad, though. Just because it’s the holiday season doesn’t mean that you have to conform completely to society’s expectations. Sure, you could watch one of the standards such as A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, or even A Christmas Story, but that would be so predictable. Maybe you’re ready to throw a monkey wrench into the well-oiled machinery of the Yuletide season, and add to this beloved but slightly moldy list of staples. In this spirit of upsetting the apple cart, I present for your consideration this short list of Christmas-themed flicks that are sure to chase away the holiday blues, and maybe start some new traditions:
Black Christmas (1974) What’s a Christmas movie without John Saxon? Hey, if we can associate the holiday with the likes of Jimmy Stewart or even Peter Billingsley, then maybe it’s time to add Mr. Saxon to the list. The story isn’t particularly fresh, to 21st century eyes and ears, but it must have raised a stir when it debuted in the 70s. The residents of a sorority house (including Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and Andrea Martin) are being stalked by a psychopath, and methodically picked off one by one. Can Lt. Fuller (Saxon) solve the case before it’s too late for the students? Black Christmas is a cut above (pardon my pun) the typical slashers, with healthy doses of humor and suspense. Often imitated, but never duplicated, the POV killer shots and crazed phone calls add to the film’s demented charms. It’s hard to believe that director Bob Clark would go on to direct perennial favorite A Christmas Story just nine years later.
Rating: ****; Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Gremlins (1984) Joe Dante skewers Americana and subverts classic depictions of the holidays in one fell swoop. We’re introduced to the idyllic Norman Rockwell-esque town of Kingston Falls, and watch as everything unravels in one night. Chaotic little creatures rapidly multiply and take over Kingston Falls, and it’s up to Billy Peltzer (who inadvertently started the mess) to make things right. This sardonic assault on Christmas schmaltz takes an especially dark turn when Billy’s girlfriend Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates) pauses to make a speech about why she hates Christmas (in a scene that would be mercilessly parodied in Gremlins 2). For the most part, however, the tone is fairly breezy, packed with Looney Tunes-inspired gags and fun little in jokes (look for the loving nod to Forbidden Planet).
Rating: ****; Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Tales From the Crypt (1972) Admittedly, this Amicus portmanteau film is only on the list because of the first segment, “And All Through The Night,” but it’s sure to get you in the proper holiday mood (or maybe not). Joan Collins stars as a scheming woman who kills her husband for the insurance money on Christmas night. It seems like the perfect crime, until she encounters a homicidal escaped mental patient garbed like Santa. Stick around for the other stories in this horror anthology – while they’re not really holiday-themed, let’s face it, anytime’s a fine time for a good scare or two.
Rating: ****; Available on DVD
Edward Scissorhands (1990) The Nightmare Before Christmas is becoming a modern holiday standard in its own right, but I humbly suggest that another Tim Burton flick should share the pantheon. This modern suburban fable stars Johnny Depp as the titular character, in the first of many collaborations with Burton. Edward is the archetypal outsider, a black-clad oddity thrust into a sea of conformity (symbolized by the pastel-colored cookie-cutter neighborhood that he’s introduced into). He’s initially met with fear and suspicion by the residents, but becomes a local celebrity, and eventually a pariah. Edward embodies the selflessness often touted by the Christmas season, but rarely displayed in individuals. He’s a true original that becomes a martyr for the other characters’ transgressions, a victim of their capriciousness. Edward Scissorhands is not only one of one of Tim Burton’s best films, but it also carries the sad distinction of showcasing Vincent Price’s final feature film appearance as Edward’s kindly mad scientist inventor/father.
Rating: **** ½; Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Bad Santa (2003) Director Terry Zwigoff’s ode to mass consumerism and misanthropic department store Santas is an equal opportunity offender. With a title like Bad Santa, you can probably guess that it’s not for everyone (I’ll leave it to you to decide which side of the fence you’re on). Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie, the role he was born to play, and I’m presuming he’s employed a whole lot of sense memory for authenticity’s sake. Willie hops from town to town each Christmas season, running a successful department store theft ring with his accomplice, Marcus (Tony Cox). He’s perpetually drunk and mean-spirited, drenched in his own self-hatred, and probably the least likely role model for an odd young boy (Brett Kelly) named Thurman Merman. The boy strikes up a friendship of sorts with Willie, despite the perpetual verbal assaults. Willie is a thoroughly contemptible individual who probably deserves everything that’s coming to him, but it’s a credit to Thornton’s performance that we still care enough to see how things turn out. I’m not spoiling anything by pointing out that there are no syrupy scenes of redemption at the end, and he doesn’t really reform himself, but we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) Last, but certainly not least, is an unconventional Christmas movie from Finland that explores the malevolent origins of the Santa Claus legend. I was fortunate enough to catch this film during its limited theatrical release (you can read my review here), but now it’s available for everyone to see. Director/co-writer Jalmari Helander spins a story of an ancient terror unleashed amidst a stark winter landscape. Probably because it’s told in such a straightforward fashion, and not simply for laughs, we buy into the decidedly absurd premise. We get the joke, without the necessity of having it hammered into our skulls. Brace yourself for the inevitable inferior Hollywood remake.
Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Happy holidays to all, and to all a good night!