Tired of all the forced happiness and relentless cheer that accompanies the holiday season?
You know the routine—those annoying Christmas tunes that play 24/7 (starting, of course, the day after Halloween), the well-meaning but saccharine TV specials and, of course, the sappy “feel good” holiday movies that flood the theaters this time of year?
Trust us, we feel your pain. If you’re in the mood for something a little darker and edgier than the usual holiday fare, MM has the cure for your Christmas woes. Here are 10 alternative holiday movies perfect for releasing your inner Scrooge.
Tales from the Crypt (1972)
directed by Freddie Francis
The first and best segment of this anthology of five horror tales, based on classic EC Comics stories, is a perfect way to start off your anti-holiday movie marathon. “All Through The House” is a wicked little black comedy set on Christmas Eve and starring Joan Collins. In the tale, Collins, who has just murdered her wealthy husband, must ward off an insane asylum escapee as he attempts to break into her house dressed as Santa Claus. The constant, cheery Christmas songs playing on a radio in the background are a perfect contrast to the murder and mayhem in the segment. With its tense atmosphere and clever ending, “All Through The House” is a darkly satisfying twist on the tradition of Santa entering people’s houses and delivering presents on Christmas Eve.
Black Christmas (1974)
directed by Bob Clark
Black Christmas is widely recognized as the granddaddy of slasher movies, a subgenre that would become wildly popular four years later with the release of John Carpenter’s iconic Halloween. Many of the stylistic touches utilized by Carpenter originated here, such as long tracking shots from the killer’s point of view. The movie revolves around a sorority house that starts receiving disturbing phone calls from a deranged killer during Christmas break. By the time the girls realize the calls are coming from inside the house, the body count has already started to rise. The eclectic cast includes Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea and John Saxon. With its eerie renditions of perennial Christmas songs like “Silent Night,” its solemn winter atmosphere and chilling, ambiguous ending, Black Christmas is perfect to watch on a cold, quiet December night. (Ironically, Clark would return to the holiday nearly 10 years later to direct the universally loved classic A Christmas Story.)
directed by Joe Dante
This dark comedy for kids (and adults) deals with the pesky, mischievous monsters of the title, which wreak havoc on a small town during Christmas season (although, oddly enough, the movie was originally released in June). While the movie provides a cavalcade of creatures to entertain the kids, especially the adorable Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel before his current game show gig), Dante’s anarchic humor gives the movie an offbeat, unpredictable edge (it was one of the films that inspired the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating, although it received a tame PG). Especially noteworthy is the sequence in which the gremlins are hatched in the young hero’s house, while his blissfully unaware mother bakes Christmas cookies and hums along to the easy-listening version of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” by Johnny Mathis. Like Tales From The Crypt, the syrupy music is a perfect counterpoint to the horrific events going on upstairs. Also noteworthy is Phoebe Cates’ weirdly funny monologue about a horrific Christmas experience—her father dressing up as Santa and dying after getting stuck in the family’s chimney—that forever ruined the holiday for her.
directed by Richard Donner
Although dismissed by many critics during its initial theatrical run, this darkly funny, contemporary take on the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol has developed something of a cult following over the years. Bill Murray stars as Ebenezer, er, Frank Cross, a cold-blooded and selfish TV network president who despises the Christmas season and is visited, as in the classic novel, by three ghosts who aim to change his ways. Despite its upbeat ending, the tone of Scrooged is refreshingly more mean-spirited and irreverent than the previous adaptations of Dickens’ classic tale. The result is a memorably quirky, original spin that breathes new life into the iconic story.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik
The third outing in the Griswold family saga finds the accident-prone clan getting ready for a big family Christmas, which of course, quickly turns into one disaster after another. Leading the way is the patriarch of the family, naïve yet lovable buffoon Clark (Chevy Chase), who’s determined to make the Griswold Christmas the best it can be, even as the chaos and destruction unfold. One of the reasons Christmas Vacation has remained a perennial favorite is because it doesn’t sugarcoat things—such as having to deal with an army of annoying relatives—the way most other “heartwarming” holiday movies do.
Home Alone (1990)
directed by Chris Columbus
This blockbuster hit centers around Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) a resourceful, quick-witted eight-year-old whose family flies to France for Christmas. Unbeknownst to them, they accidentally leave Kevin behind and before long two dim-witted burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) turn up to rob their house. A battle of wits ensues as the cunning kid sets up elaborate traps for the bumbling burglars. Neither Columbus (screenwriter of Gremlins) nor writer John Hughes (who also penned Christmas Vacation) are strangers to offbeat Christmas hits and Home Alone was no exception, though it lacks the wit and creativity of their previous holiday-themed efforts.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
directed by Henry Selick
This Tim Burton-produced, stop-motion animated movie works equally well as both a Halloween and Christmas classic. Jack Skellington, the king of Halloweentown, is getting tired of scaring people. When he unwittingly stumbles upon Christmastown, Jack becomes determined to take over the holiday from Santa, even though his macabre mindset doesn’t quite mesh with the cheery concept of Christmas. With its off-the-wall songs composed by Danny Elfman and unique, hand-crafted characters, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a wonderfully odd movie that somehow blends together two distinctive and extremely different holidays.
The Ref (1994)
directed by Ted Demme
Before Kevin Spacey took on his Oscar-winning turn as Lester Burnham in American Beauty, he played another frustrated suburbanite tired of his dull life in The Ref, helmed by the late Ted Demme. Spacey and Judy Davis play a couple on the verge of a rancorous divorce who are held hostage on Christmas Eve by a desperate thief (Denis Leary). Unfortunately, Leary has captured two of the most annoying, constantly bickering people alive. As their extended family arrives, Leary pretends to be the couple’s shrink, and it soon becomes clear the dysfunctional clan has far greater emotional problems than the career criminal. With its hilariously profane dialogue, increasingly awkward situations and memorable ranting and raving, The Ref is the perfect holiday movie for those whose family Christmas isn’t complete without at least one extended shouting match.
Bad Santa (2003)
directed by Terry Zwigoff
Going from one profane Christmas movie to another, Bad Santa is about a foul-mouthed conman named Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) who pulls off a yearly scam in which he and his partner (Tony Cox) pose as Santa and his Little Helper to rob department stores on Christmas Eve. Things go awry when the misanthropic yet lonely Willie befriends a troubled kid and a suspicious security boss (the late Bernie Mac) discovers his plot. Directed by Terry Zwigoff, an idiosyncratic moviemaker with a special love for outsiders (Crumb, Ghost World), Bad Santa is perhaps the most subversive, offensive Christmas movie ever made—with Thornton as a truly despicable character who, for once, does not receive a total personality transplant by the movie’s end.
The Ice Harvest (2005)
directed by Harold Ramis
This grisly black comedy/film-noir marks Billy Bob Thornton’s second visit to the world of demented Christmas movies. Here, he plays the devious partner of Charlie (John Cusack), a shady lawyer who stages a Christmas Eve robbery, stealing $2 million from the local mob. The partners-in-crime have to get out of town, but complicating matters is the seductive strip-club owner (Connie Nielsen) Charlie wants to run away with and his troublesome, alcoholic best friend (a scene-stealing Oliver Platt). The body count begins to rise as Charlie’s Christmas Eve gets progressively worse. Despite its lack of commercial success, The Ice Harvest, a refreshing change-of-pace for director Ramis (best known for broader comedies like Caddyshack and Analyze This), is a must-see for fans of wintry crime tales like Fargo and for those in the mood to see one of the worst Christmas Eves in the history of cinema. (It doesn’t hurt that the script was written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo.) MM
Have a fave anti-Christmas classic that didn’t make the cut? Let us know in the comments.