Well, here we go again! The mistletoe’s hanging, the carolers are doing their thing, and the yuletide is almost upon us. It isn’t Christmas without the yearly traditions. For most people? Presents in stockings, gingerbread cookies, and eggnog after dinner. For us film geeks? Starting the day off with A Muppets Christmas Carol, catching most of Love Actually on TV while you cook the big family dinner, and then bawling your eyes out at It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s the very definition of holiday bliss.
… unless you’re like us and you’re totally sick of the whole thing.
Are you starting to think that maybe Old Scrooge had a point at the start of A Christmas Carol? Is your heart reaching Grinch-like levels of shrinkage? Want to watch something with a little bit of bite to it this Christmas? Never fear, we’ve got you covered. Our patented list of Anti-Christmas films is here to bring some much needed color, variety, and darkness to your holiday celebrations. This is our look back on the best films that revolve around the happy holiday without feeling like a sack of sanitized, saccharine, savorless crap. So step right up, and get ready to celebrate Christmas like never before.
The Christmas Superhero Film: Batman Returns (1992)
Let’s start this list off in style, shall we? Now that Birdman has reminded us all of how awesome Michael Keaton is, it’s high time to revisit his stints as the caped crusader under the guidance of mad scientist Tim Burton. It’s the second film in the pair’s series, one that shows us what a Gotham City Christmas looks like, and it does not disappoint: Danny DeVito’s deformed, gross take on the Penguin, Michelle’s Pfeifer’s bat-youknowwhat-crazy interpretation of Catwoman, an even more manic-depressive take on Bruce Wayne, and a bleak downer of an ending. Oh, and a huge action set piece set around an enormous Christmas tree! Perfection. The entire production has an Island of Misfit Toys kind of a feel to it, with the three broken, borderline insane figures at its center duking it out in Burton’s darkly gothic atmosphere. How dark can a Christmas movie be? How dour can a superhero movie get? Hop on board the Batmobile and find out!
The Christmas Horror Film: Black Christmas (1974 OR 2006)
The idea of a scary Christmas film might seem a bit oxymoronic, but you’d be surprised by how many there are out there. The holly jolly holiday has been in bed with the horror genre in everything from Silent Night, Deadly Night to, well, Silent Night, Bloody Night. But for the real Christmas scares, you’ve gotta go back to Black Christmas. Directed by Bob Clark, who would go onto make A Christmas Story (so you know you’re in good hands, the man is clearly an authority on the holiday), the film is a sort of proto-slasher film: the members of a sorority house are killed off one by one by a killer who’s hiding in their house during a Christmas party. The 1974 film is genuinely creepy and tense, with quite a few good scares thrown in the mix. Be forewarned, however: it is rather light on the gore, so if you’re looking for something with a bit more crunch and spatter to its scares, you’ll want to head over to the 2006 remake.
The Christmas Western: 3 Godfathers (1948)
Okay, maybe what you need is a little grit with your holiday celebration. Enter Mssrs. John Wayne and John Ford, the original masters of the American Western. The indomitable pair made a grand total of twenty-one films over the course of twenty-four years, but their yuletide special is 1948’s 3 Godfathers. In the film, John Wayne, Pedro Armendiz, and Harry Carrey, Jr. are three outlaws on the run from the law. Their plans of swift escape grind to a halt, however, when they encounter a dying mother and her baby infant in an abandoned wagon. Putting their own lives on the line, they decide to cross a hazardous desert and risk capture in order to deliver the helpless child to the safety of a nearby town. The film is set around Christmas time and (very) loosely based on the Nativity Story, with Wayne and the other godfathers in the roles of the three wise men. The film features daring heroics, epic vistas, shootouts, sheriff’s posses, larger than life outlaws, and everything else that you’d expect from a Wayne/Ford Western. Even the Christmas caroling (which appears sparingly, I promise) seems that much less sentimental when paired up with the untamed dessert landscape of the West. For that rare Christmas film that’ll put hair on your chest, you can do no better than 3 Godfathers.
The Christmas Action Film: Die Hard (1988) OR Lethal Weapon (1987)
All right, look, you knew this was coming. Die Hard is the only film on this list that has actually kind of become a bonafide Christmas classic, and why would it not? The story of the cop that accidentally gets invited to his ex-wife’s holiday party just in time to stop that terrorist team that crashes the proceedings is wall-to-wall suspense, tense action sequences, and explosions. Willis is charismatic even through his veneer of toughness, Alan Rickman is deliciously evil as slimy terrorist leader Hans Gruber, and the ending is pure familial Christmas bliss. If the film gets there by attaching “Ho-ho-ho” to, “Now I have a machine gun,” all the better.
You may, however, be starting to get to the point of oversaturation with Die Hard. If John McClane is wearing out his welcome at your home’s annual celebrations, consider putting up stockings for Mr. Murtaugh and Mr. Riggs instead. A Richard Donner directed buddy cop movie might sound corny at first, but the immense chemistry between the leads, the razor sharp wit of the script, and the, well, sheer insanity of the film as a whole make Lethal Weapon a great addition to any holiday season. The film, set during the days leading up to Christmas Eve, combines dark humor with standout action choreography. If you’re looking for the classic mature drink to go along with your eggnog, stick with Die Hard. If, however, you’re looking for something a bit drier and rockier to spice up the proceedings, dust off your copy of Lethal Weapon.
The Christmas Dystopia: Brazil (1985)
This is it. The anti-Christmas movie to end them all. Ring in Christmas Eve with… secret police forces, beleaguered bureaucrats, outlaw plumbers, torture, overpowering totalitarian regimes, and graphic warnings about the dangers of unrestrained plastic surgery! The way Baby Jesus intended. Terry Gilliam’s blacker-than-black comedy about an Orwellian police state is an unyielding cavalcade of terrors and unthinking bureaucratic machinery. Poor Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a low-level government employee, finds himself trying to solve the twin mysteries of a wrongfully arrested man and of a beautiful woman that he keeps seeing in his dreams. Along the way, he gets wrapped up with rogue plumbers and what might be a terrorist group or a band of freedom fighters or a figment of the governmental hivemind’s imagination or something else entirely. And what does this cocktail of insane paranoia and political satire have to do with the holiday? The entire film is set around Christmas, which just adds a layer of sinister nastiness to all of the proceedings. Every swipe at commercialism, every cynical development, and every soul crushing turn feels all the more stark thanks to the various Christmas trees and the reams of tinsel that cover the film’s sets. If you’re the kind of person who wants to ring in the winter solstice with a bitter laugh about humanity’s capacity for unthinking evil, look no further than Brazil!
So there you have it. The next time that some aged relative reminds you that It’s a Wonderful Life is about to start its fourteenth rotation of the season, remember that you have choices. You can spend the happiest of holidays with caped crusaders, in harsh dessert landscapes, with explosive violence, or even, for the truly bold, with a sarcastic reminder of just how bad we can be at our worst.