With the holiday season in full swing, it’s easy to get burned out — cable stations are running crappy movies like Jingle All the Way and The Santa Clause 24/7, saccharine holiday music is blasting out of every speaker, and you’ve still got like half your list to buy, and what the hell do I get these freaks?
Calm down. Have an eggnog. Put some rum in it. And enjoy some of our favorite anti-Christmas movies — not films that hate the holiday, per se (though a couple of them do), but ones that cut through all that warmth and good feeling and get at the darkness underneath. Our contrarian Christmas viewing list is after the jump.
It would be unthinkable to begin this discussion with any film other than Bad Santa, Terry Zwigoff’s gloriously mean-spirited, piss-and-vinegar-filled 2003 holiday comedy. Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie T. Stoke (a decidedly W.C. Fieldsian name for the kind of role Fields could have played, had he been born sixty years later), a horny, drunken, pissed-off safecracker who masquerades as a department store Santa every holiday season in order to pull off a Christmas Eve score that he’ll live off for the next year. John Requa and Glenn Ficara’s script almost seems designed to offend, with scenes of a hammered Santa beating the shit out of papier-mâché animals, urinating on himself in the Santa chair, and sodomizing a clerk in the Plus-Sized dressing room. Acid-tongued and wickedly funny, Bad Santa has rightfully become an anti-holiday classic.
“You know what I’m going to get you next Christmas, Mom? A big wooden cross, so that every time you feel unappreciated for your sacrifices, you can climb on up and nail yourself to it.” Not many Christmas-themed movies would trot out dialogue like that (made all the more bitter and nasty by the venomous reading it gets from Kevin Spacey), but that only one of the great lines in Ted Demme’s terrific 1994 comedy The Ref. Released by Touchstone in March of that year (nice scheduling!), the film was promoted primarily as a vehicle for Denis Leary and his angry-smoker persona. The few who saw it in that initial run were surprised to discover a smart, well-written (by Fisher King scribe Richard LaGravanese), insightful look at a dysfunctional family and a crumbling marriage — a kind of Christmas with George and Martha. Luckily, it found a second life on home video, where we can enjoy Spacey and Judy Davis’ holiday-themed sniping forevermore.
Richard Donner’s big-budget 1988 revamp of A Christmas Carol ends with plenty of holiday cheer — too much, perhaps. But they’ve also got quite a bit to make up for, by that point; Donner’s portrait of smug, unhappy network executive Frank Cross (played to perfection by Bill Murray) is so bleak, jaded, and nasty that a heartfelt sing-along is about all that can turn it around into an upbeat holiday picture. Not that we’re complaining — from the mushroom cloud-heavy holiday promos (“That looked like the Manson family Christmas special!”) to discussions of TV nudity (“Well, I’m sure Charles Dickens would have wanted to see her nipples”) to a sugarplum fairy with a mean right hook (“the bitch hit me with a toaster!”) to a shotgun-wielding disgruntled employee, Scrooged offers plenty of dark laughs on the way to its happy ending.
Bob Clark’s 1974 Canadian shocker is the heartwarming holiday tale of a serial killer picking off the residents of a sorority house. Happy yuletide! This low-budget thriller gets the job done with blunt effectiveness — and, predating Halloween, Friday the 13th, and their countless imitators, points the way towards the “slasher film” craze of the 1980s. Director Clark, however, didn’t participate in that trend; he’d move on to comedies, including one of the most beloved of all Christmas movies, A Christmas Story.
The original 1984 Silent Night, Deadly Night is perhaps the most controversial of all Christmas-themed films. Piggybacking off the idea of slasher movies for every occasion, director Charles Sellier crafted the low-budget tale of young Billy, whose parents are brutally murdered by a man in a Santa suit. Years later, while working at a toy store, Billy is forced to fill in as the store Santa — and donning the red suit sends him on a killing spree (complete with his own catchphrase: “Naughty!”). It’s a really terrible movie, and its tasteful Christmastime release led to widespread protests and condemnation — for both the film and its TV spots, which highlighted the axe-wielding Santa. Though it out-grossed the original Nightmare on Elm Street (released the same day) in its opening weekend, distributor Tri-Star pulled the film’s ads less than a week into its run, and yanked the film from theaters after two weeks. When it was re-released the following spring, the controversy was the centerpiece of the ad campaign, and the film ultimately turned a tidy profit — leading to four sequels. Why, then, do we recommend the first of those sequels over the original? Two reasons. First, because Silent Night Deadly Night Part 2 features so much footage from the first film (nearly a third of the running time, according to an accounting at Badass Digest) that it’s like you’re getting a two-for-one by skipping the original. And second, because Part 2 includes the scene above.
Sint (aka Saint Nick )
Dick Maas’s Dutch horror/comedy opens with St. Nicholas and his goons on horseback, terrorizing a village which then raises their pitchforks and burns him alive. So yeah, right away, not your average Christmas movie. Maas carries off his tale of a murderous Santa with much greater success than his American counterparts because his film (unlike the Silent Nights) has got a forceful and wicked sense of humor; the filmmaker has clearly ingested copious amounts of American horror movies, and regurgitates them with a wink and nudge. It’s not the most festive movie, but it’s a lot of fun.
Billy Bob Thornton, the patron saint of anti-Christmas movies, returns to our list with this 2005 caper film, which includes such tidings of comfort and joy as “Only morons are nice on Christmas” and “Christmas Eve. Ho ho fucking ho!” It’s the tale of a lawyer (John Cusack) and a businessman (Thornton) who team to rip off a mob boss on Christmas Eve; double-crosses, dead bodies, and holiday drinking ensue. Though promoted as a comedy (which you’d expect from its director, Groundhog Day’s Harold Ramis), The Ice Harvest has a surprisingly dark, almost noir streak to it, and has very little time in its tight 92 minutes for holiday pleasantries.
John Landis’ 1983 satire isn’t as holiday-centered as some of the other films on our list, but is worth revisiting over the season for the scene that finds disgraced (and now drunken) businessman Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) donning a Santa suit to sneak in to his former employer’s Christmas party, where he attempts to plant drugs in the desk of his replacement (Eddie Murphy) before stealing a full side of salmon for consumption on a city bus. And that’s not even the low point of his holiday.
As with Trading Places, the holiday season is mostly window dressing in Go, director Doug Liman’s 1999 Pulp Fiction-style crime triptych. The story itself concerns drug stings, body disposal, lap dances, car chases, gunplay, a three-way, and a giant holiday rave called “Mary Christmas.” The ladies (and some of the fellas) are treated to Timothy Olyphant as a pajama-bottom-and-Santa-hat-clad drug dealer; Katie Holmes gives a cute little monologue about the pleasures of holiday surprises. Go concerns itself with the less-wholesome pleasures of the holiday season — and thankfully, no heartwarming lessons are learned.
OF COURSE we didn’t forget Gremlins. Joe Dante’s 1984 horror comedy not only features the most adorable Christmas gift ever (little Gizmo, the cuddly “Mogwai”) that also, ha ha, transforms into a snarling killer monster, but it features what may very well be the darkest holiday story ever put to film: girlfriend Kate’s explanation of why she hates Christmas. As told by Phoebe Cates, it is a genuinely disturbing scene, mixing comedy and horror a bit too uneasily for both studio heads (who wanted it out) and executive producer Steven Spielberg (who didn’t like it either). But director Dante stood his ground, and gave us the gift of, as it is titled in the YouTube clip above, “the worst Christmas story EVER.” Happy holidays!