Alternative Christmassy Flicks:
Here is a list of some alternative options for you to check out this holiday season. These are films that aren’t necessarily about the holiday itself, but do take place during that time, or somehow just invoke the spirit. I wanted to spotlight some films that are either overlooked, little seen, or maybe you just don’t remember that they had anything to do with the holiday at all. So, as much as I love films like Die Hard, Gremlins, and Bad Santa, no one is discovering these movies through me first, so they are not included on this list (see also Elf, Edward Scissorhands, Lethal Weapon, Scrooged, Black Christmas, and Trading Places. I should also mention that, in the case of some of these, I am not recommending them, but rather just alerting (perhaps warning) you that they are out there. Broken down by category, we start with:
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) – As a child, li’l Billy Chapman witnessed some horrific deeds performed by a man in a Santa Claus outfit that left he and his little brother Ricky orphaned. When he grows up, Billy dons his own Santa outfit and begins a killing spree of his own. This one is probably most famous for the controversy it received upon its release – parents were outraged that a Santa figure was being portrayed as a killer. In reality, it’s just a more subversive version of a slasher flick (with an emphasis on how much old people seem to suck – the grandfather and head nun are the worst people in the movie) with some pretty decent kills (Linnea Quigley meets deer) and plenty of holiday spirit. Four sequels (two unrelated other than by name) were released – one of which may even appear later in this list!
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) – One of the more recent entries on the list, this Finnish horror/fantasy film involves the discovery, during an icy expedition, of the original, much more evil, Santa Claus, now trapped in a cage. This particular St. Nick took the idea of coal for naughty children and ran with it. A very original take on holiday folklore, combined with a pretty wicked sense of humor and plenty of creepiness (but, not overly-violent), Rare Exports is a dark, but fun alternative to the Christmassy norm.
Christmas Evil (1980) – Also known as You Better Watch Out, we’ll complete our killer Santa trifecta with this little-seen slasher from 1980. Much like Silent Night, Deadly Night, we have a killer who witnessed some bad deeds done by a man in a Santa suit as a child and has now grown up to punish those who haven’t been nice. What sets this one apart is the lead performance by Brandon Maggart, who really makes you believe his gradual descent into madness (a bit of a Taxi Driver feel runs through much of this) and earns the viewer’s sympathy, despite being a homicidal maniac. Director Lewis Jackson peppers the movie with many memorable, surreal scenes including a mass attack outside of a church, an angry mob with pitchforks and torches, and a final scene involving a van getaway that has to be seen to be believed.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) – Woefully underseen, this noir throwback isn’t incredibly holiday-specific (besides Michelle Monaghan in a Santa suit), but it does take place during the season. Breaking the fourth wall to tell his story, Robert Downey Jr. portrays a thief turned actor doing research for a role by following Val Kilmer’s detective on a murder case that takes place during Christmas. Writer/director Shane Black has made a name for himself in movies that revolve around Christmas (Lethal Weapon, Iron Man 3, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Boy Scout) and his script here is probably his best work. Witty and exciting, and perfectly complimented by the actors, this one should be high on your list.
Rocky IV (1985) – This one obviously falls squarely into the category of films that you are certainly aware of, but may have forgotten that it takes place during the holidays. The climactic fight, in fact, occurs on Christmas Day. Sylvester Stallone single-handedly brings an end to the Cold War, Pauly gets a Santa-dressed robot for Christmas, and Rocky trains in the snow. If that doesn’t put you in the holiday spirit, then you are a Scrooge and Dolph Lundgren will punch you repeatedly while Living in America plays in the background. You don’t want that song to be the last thing you hear.
In Bruges (2008)
– Once again, the holidays are not essential to the plot here, but it does take place during the Christmas season and the visuals on display certainly are spirit invoking. An incredibly dark action/comedy (honestly more comedy, really), but with a ton of heart, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are excellent as hitmen told to hide out in Bruges (yep) by their boss (a scene stealing Ralph Fiennes) after a botched job. Plenty of twists and turns and talk of morality and mortality combine with solid running jokes, and humor as black as you could want it as Farrell experiences his own personal hell to Gleeson’s purgatory. You should expect nothing less from writer/director Martin McDonagh…
Trapped in Paradise (1994) – Nicolas Cage, Jon Lovitz, and Dana Carvey (a comedy team rivaled only by the Menendez brothers) play brothers who rob a bank at Christmas time, but are unable to escape due to the kindness of the locals. Funnier than it’s often given credit for (but less funny than it should be) and with plenty of heart, this is one that doesn’t need to be on your “to watch” list every year, but it should earn it’s place into your rotation every once in a while. And, when it’s not the holiday season, throw in the sorta-similarly plotted, but much better Quick Change.
The Ref (1994) – Married couple Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis are taken hostage in their home on Christmas by Denis Leary’s jewel thief, Gus. The problem that Gus is soon to run into is that, not only is the rest of the family coming over to celebrate the holidays, but the couple has been going through marriage counseling that he is soon to find himself in the middle of. Lots of acerbic wit from the bickering couple, typically biting attitude from Leary, and a host of eccentric relatives help make this one quite enjoyable. It even has a bit of heart running through it (I’ll leave it to you to guess who is truly able to make the family come together and realize the true meaning of holiday spirit). Again, not a classic, but The Ref is well written, well acted, and well-directed and is a lot of fun.
Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988) – Sure, it’s not technically a movie (it’s an extended episode of the TV series), but it’s still essential yearly viewing. Rowan Atkinson portrays Ebenezer Blackadder, an anti-Scrooge, who just so happens to be the nicest man in town. Visited by spirits on Christmas Eve, he is shown the horrible results of living a life of kindness and wakes up a changed man – mean, greedy, evil. This reverse take on Dickens’ classic is incredibly funny and stands up to the best episodes in the Blackadder run. It also features quite a few famous British actors before they hit the big time (in fairness, they all appear throughout the series as well) – Robbie Coltrane, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, and Jim Broadbent all turn in hilarious performances, but, this is truly Atkinson and Tony Robinson’s (as ever-faithful servant Baldrick) show.
FOR THE KIDS:
He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special (1985) – Again, not a theatrically released movie, this special combined the masculine of feminine worlds of our favorite good guys/toy commercials in a task to save Christmas (why does Christmas keep getting itself into so much trouble?). While it may be a tad bit boring for modern kids (but, it shouldn’t be), this one combines plenty of action, lots of weirdness (Skeletor gets some crazy redemption), and the usual bits of He-Man humor and lessons. The best part – you don’t even have to be caught up on the individual series (but, you should be anyway) in order for the kiddoes to enjoy.
Santa With Muscles (1996) – Hulk Hogan develops amnesia and believes that he’s Santa Claus. Do you need more than that? Okay, how about Mila Kunis in one of her first appearances? More? I give you Ed Begley, Jr. as an evil scientist trying to destroy an orphanage in order to obtain the magic crystals buried underneath (little known fact: most orphanages are built over magical crystal farms in order to keep up spirits). Well, fine, honestly – you don’t really need to watch this one. Your kids might get a bit of a kick out of it if a mind-set time machine to the eighties is waiting for them under the tree (and, yes, I am aware that this movie is from 1996). But, you do get to see Hulk Hogan running around in Santa suit for 90 excruciating minutes.
The Snowman (1982) – Another animated entry, this charming 1982 adaptation of the book by Raymond Briggs is almost wordless, save for the lyrics to the song Walking in the Air featured in the second half. A young boy builds a snowman who comes to life and begins to learn about the goings-on of the human world, even taking flight with the boy over the town, finally ending up at a snowman party (a tame one, considering how wild the snowman parties I’ve been to get). This is a great, short film for the whole family that ends a bit sadly, but kids will still be on board. There is even an alternate version of The Snowman that features an introduction by David Bowie (always welcome).
JUST PLAIN WEIRD:
Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964) – Because their children seem to be watching too much TV, a couple of aliens decides to kidnap Santa Claus and a couple of children. Santa must survive the repeated attempts on his life to get back to earth and build more toys. As odd as it sounds and pretty awful(ly entertaining), this flick goes to show that Independence Day could have been a 15 minute movie if Jeff Goldblum had known that Christmas spirit is all that’s needed to defeat aliens (although it would have been six months too late, I suppose). Appropriate for children, but they wont particularly enjoy it, the best way to watch this one is probably its famous episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which features some of the best riffs of the show’s history. The creators of that show even took a couple more cracks at it in future projects Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic, also worth seeking out.
Santa Claus (1959) - Before fighting aliens, Santa was also tasked to defeat the devil himself in this Mexican production. In this particular case, Santa is already stationed in space (perhaps explaining how easily he adapts in the previous film – he already has experience) where he keeps watch on the children of the world. Children’s seemingly LSD-fueled dreams, Santa’s detour into bartending, a very camp devil, several rescues by Merlin the Magician, and lots of pretty colors are just but a few of the many elements that make this the strange masterpiece that it is. Also featured on MST3K, this one is worth watching on its own, first. In fact, bonus weirdness will come your way if you watch the badly dubbed-into-English version.
Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 (1987) – Ending with the sequel to the first movie on the list, we’ve now officially come full circle. Ricky, little brother of the Santa killer in the first movie, goes on a killing spree of his own after a therapy session. What makes this one so strange is the inclusion of about 45 minutes of footage directly lifted from its predecessor (I’m not kidding) in flashback form as Ricky explains his plight to his psychiatrist. So much footage was used, in fact, that the end credits to this film include the entire cast and crew from the original before getting to their own participants. In fact, if you don’t have time for both, you could just watch this film and you’ll be perfectly caught up. What makes this so great, however, is the hilariously awful performance of Eric Freeman as Ricky. Quite possibly the greatest eyebrow actor of all time, when Freeman goes on his spree late in the film, you’ll be absolutely glued to the screen. Garbage Day!
Article by Jason Howard, Influx Lead Writer