A few years back I started noticing how many bleak, cheerless, or just unexpected films are set during tinsel season. That penitential stretch from just-before-Thanksgiving to just-after-New-Year’s can be really hard for people. Meta-emotions are at an all-time high (It’s the most! wonderful!! time of the year!) and you’re intensely reminded of all your financial and familial stresses. A couple of the daytime workers at the pregnancy center agreed with me that we’ve been getting an unusual volume of abortion-minded calls in recent weeks (so pray for our callers, and the people who answer the phones) and when you think about it, it makes sense.
So here, in advance of my upcoming review of Krampus, is a cornucopia of edgier Christmas film fare that’s off the beaten sleigh-track. Some of these offer moving images of Christian sacrifice. Others offer shootouts and ODs and serial killers. You’ll know what helps you get through the holidays best.
If you want a sense of my judgment: I truly love It’s a Wonderful Life, loathe Love Actually and find it kind of hard to believe anybody really disagrees, am grateful A Muppet Christmas Carol wasn’t around when I was a kid because I feared justice enough without this shot of nightmare fuel, and really enjoy Die Hard. Against Die Hard I will lash no backs. I have never seen A Charlie Brown Christmas and I’m sorry.
First, two beautiful films. Of Gods and Men: If you’re Christian and you haven’t watched this movie drop the cat on the dog, tell your children to go play in traffic, and watch some heart-pounding monk voting action. A genuine must-see that depicts the events leading up to the (real) martyrdom of a community of Trappist monks in Algeria. The Christmas spirit? Slaughter is part of the Christmas story so: absolutely.
Tokyo Godfathers: Anime tale of three homeless people trying to reunite a mother and child through the Tokyo underworld on Christmas eve. I remember it as being suitable for children as long as you’re ready to have the “Mom, what’s a transvestite?” conversation, but my ability to judge these things is not good; anyway it’s a lovely film and you should watch it. TCS: It’s hard to imagine how this movie could be Christmassier. The humble will be exalted.
Now, non-horror. Brazil. Yes, it’s a Christmas movie! TCS: Setting it at Christmas makes it even sadder and creepier? It really has more of the Advent spirit–or a counter-Advent spirit, a longing and waiting for intervention that isn’t coming.
The Ice Harvest. John Cusack heist-gone-wrong. TCS: Uh… radix malorum est cupiditas? Also it’s really sad to be so sleazy that you’re estranged from your family on Christmas.
Kiss of Death: Informant noir that gets its start when a man steals Christmas presents for his daughters. My review here. TCS: How do you feel about humiliation and misery? Ah, I remember being pretty caught up in this movie and its emotions, but full of wassail and well-being it is not.
Less Than Zero. My review (and rewatch). I genuinely love this film. TCS: For college students (esp if you didn’t come home for Thanksgiving) that freshman-year Christmas is the time when you seriously reevaluate your hometown and friends, when you realize how far you’ve come from them in such a short span of time.
A Lion in Winter. This cast list + “it’s about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine” should sell you on it immediately. TCS: FAMILY TOGETHERNESS: It’ll kill you. Super great family flick for the holidays because you can quote it at each other. (“If I were on fire there’s no one here would piss on me to put it out” is always a good sulk-off line.) Also Christmas, because it recurs each year, makes it hard to avoid some self-confrontation. You look back at the past and ask yourself, “How, from where we started, did we reach this Christmas?”
Night of the Hunter: A crazed preacher stalks children through the world’s most beautiful American black-and-white landscape. Robert Mitchum. There, now you have to watch it. Anyway I had actually forgotten that the climax takes place on Christmas. Kindertrauma reminded me. TCS: Holy innocents; “Leanin’ on the Everlasting Arms.”
Trading Places: Class saturnalia plus lesson on futures trading. It’s really funny! TCS: Hammers on the ways work and Christmas interpenetrate–the office party, the Christmas bonus–but overall this is too good-natured to be really Christmassy. If we’re all honest and hardworking things will work out, the good will triumph through personal integrity and cleverness <- not the Christmas story.
Ward No. 6: Based on a Chekhov short story in which a doctor becomes a patient in his own hospital’s mental ward. TCS: …Saturnalia again? There’s a Christmas dance.
And an honorable mention here to the recent release Brooklyn. This is yet another Irish-American origin story/romance and adds nothing to its admittedly-charming genre except a truly lovely scene in a church basement, where men without families share a Christmas meal and hear a song from the old country.
Black Christmas. A classic, and a really well-made film with a great cast; still effective even when you know where the call is coming from. TCS: LOL nah. It’s startling how aggressively this movie refuses to use its Christmas setting for more than tinsel spookiness. If poetry is the art of exposing the meaning hidden under the skin of ordinary moments, objects and acts, then Black Christmas is anti-poetic. Straight up, if you have an abortion in your Christmas movie it should mean something.
Eyes Wide Shut. Yes, I’m trolling a little by listing this as a horror flick. Going in with that genre expectation heightened my experience of it a lot, I think. It’s a gorgeous movie about what exactly is so awful about not merely sexual infidelity, but sexual fantasy. I got in a long argument with Sean Collins years ago about this movie and although I still hold my specific criticisms (the couple’s child is an unfired Chekhovian gun, the midsection meanders, feeling bad isn’t repentance!) I should say that I think about this movie a lot. It has really stuck with me and if you give it a chance I think it will stick with you. TCS: There is no life so blessed that we will never long to burn it down. We flee reality because even the best case scenario of the real world can’t match up to the tiny snow globe fantasy in our heads. We can’t save ourselves; without a harrowing journey through Hell we can’t even see ourselves.
Gremlins. Still funny, still creepy, still heartwarming; still classic. Nowadays I’m struck by how gently and forgivingly Billy and his mom relate to the hapless inventor dad. TCS: The “why I hate Christmas” speech is the greatest rebuke of holiday meta-emotions ever penned. Hilarious and poignant in exactly equal measure.
The Pact. My review here. TCS: The movie itself doesn’t hammer on the Xmas angle, which is fine, but Christmas is a time when specters of the familial past rise up once again. Old wounds reopen: mouths from which the dead can speak.
The Rats. ’80s killer rat fest. Not actually Christmassy, which is literally my only complaint about this film which otherwise does exactly what I want it to do. TCS: Nil. There is a slight anti-consumerism theme but as I asked when I first saw this, why not rats attacking Santa? Rats cascading from Christmas trees! Rats in church! So many missed opportunities.
Stonehearst Asylum. My review here. TCS: The New Year is used much more obviously and effectively in the movie. I could make a case that this is yet another saturnalia/et exaltavit humiles movie, a movie about the shadow side of the Magnificat (don’t immanentize my eschaton!), but I feel that this would be reaching.
A truly comprehensive list of Christmas horror can be found here. DON’T MISS THE COMMENTS.
And, because I care for you: