TRASH FROM THE ATTIC: The stranger side of Christmas cinema

By Matt Martin

When it comes to seasonal cinema offerings, they can’t all be so sweet. Of course, the winter months should be filled with all the classic Christmas movie moments, from Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” in front of a roaring fireplace in Holiday Inn, to Jimmy Stewart running down the snowy street shouting holiday praise in It’s A Wonderful Life. No holiday is complete without nights filled with the Grinch, Clark Griswald, and Red Ryder BB guns (if you don’t get these references, you’ve never lived through an American Christmas). In fact, the winter holidays are inseparable from the cinema that came from it. Check out my history of holiday movies article from the December 2010 LampLighter for more on traditional Christmas movies.

But sometimes, as December rolls by, we need more than the standard seasonal film offerings to indulge our festivities. Sometimes we need more than the traditional, the sentimental, and the serious. There are times when cinema fans need something a little off the beaten path; something a little more chaotic and strange, bizarre and unusual. So when you’ve had your fill of the classic yuletide movies this season, here are 15 anti-holiday films to stuff your cinematic stocking. Turn your attention to the underside of “normal” Christmas movies and watch the whole seasonal spirit get turned upside down.

1. RARE EXPORTS – Straight from snowy Finland comes this hyper-dark and very funny holiday horror movie. On Christmas Eve, an archaeological dig unearths a very different and far more lethal Santa Claus. Soon after, children start disappearing. Trying to stop it, one young boy and his father capture Santa, and with the help of other hunters, hold him captive…until his army of “elves” come for their master. From fields filled with slain reindeers to unkillable naked elves, this disturbing yuletide gem is a warped masterpiece.

2. BAD SANTA – Directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World), this hysterically bleak look at Christmas consumerism is quickly becoming a staple of modern seasonal cinema. Billy Bob Thornton is a thief and a safecracker who every year moonlights as a department store Santa – all the easier to grab the stores loot on Christmas Eve. All that stands in his way is a homicidal, untrustworthy sidekick elf, an out-of-control drinking problem, and a little boy who is convinced he’s the real St. Nick. With phenomenal final performances from John Ritter and Bernie Mac, it’s a bitter glass of eggnog but goes down so smooth.

3. THE REF – Denis Leary is a lowlife thief who specializes in home invasions. But when he takes an unstable and quickly disintegrating couple hostage (played with bitter, caustic insanity by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) on Christmas Eve, he becomes the couple’s unwilling therapist as well as their captor. All three leads are in top-of-their-game performances, turning every moment into twisted but honest explosions of unstable families and holiday desperation.

4. BLACK CHRISTMAS – Among all the Christmas horror films, none are as creepy and chilling as this, the original 1974 film (skip the poorly done remake from 2008). A small sorority is getting ready for the holiday break when a series of increasingly disturbing phone calls starts a chain of killings that not only threatens their lives, but turns them against each other. Truly haunting with an insanely dark ending.

5. GO! – Directed by Doug Liman (Swingers, Bourne Identity) and starring Katie Holmes, Timothy Olyphant, and Sarah Polley, this multi-storylined tale of twenty-something ecstasy dealers and players in the L.A. rave scene on Christmas Eve is a blast, tracing several characters as their holiday gets more interesting, even as it’s getting more dangerous. The pacing is fast, the music faster, and the drugged-out visuals are on overdrive. Give in to it.

6. TRADING PLACES – Few people remember that John Landis’ brilliant satire on class conflict and runaway greed in the go-go 80’s is set during a particularly cold Christmas season, with elaborate Christmas trees and festive lights in every shot, reminding us that holiday celebrations are a luxury of the rich. Dan Akyroyd is phenomenal as a millionaire snob who has his wealth and power stripped from him on a bet, but it’s Eddie Murphy in his breakout role that steals the show.

7. GREMLINS – So dark that it was one of the deciding factors in the creation of the PG-13 rating, this “children’s movie” was one of the biggest hits of the 1980’s. A small, sweetly innocent suburb (literally patterned after the iconic small town of It’s A Wonderful Life) is invaded by an army of mischievous beasts after a local teenager is given one as a Christmas gift. Anarchic, fun, and often very creepy, director Joe Dante (The Howling, Innerspace) and producer Steven Spielberg take great pleasure in destroying each and every holiday tradition of small-town life.

8. BRAZIL – Visionary director Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys, The Fisher King, Monty Python and The Holy Grail) unleashed this terrifying yet hilarious Orwellian nightmare in 1985 to rave reviews. Set during Christmas in a future fascistic society, not too different from our own, hapless low-level bureaucrat Sam Lowery descends into paranoia, fear, and insanity when his attempts to break free from society and chase the girl of his dreams is met with disastrous consequences. Hysterical and horrifying, chilling and unsettling, this absolutely pitch black comedy drowns us in a landscape dominated by runaway technology, state-sponsored terrorism, and blissfully zombified citizens. Sound familiar? Literally decades ahead of it’s time, Brazil is the ultimate dark holiday film. Nothing says Christmas like when your captors give you a Christmas gift…right before they torture you.

9. SCROOGED (with Bill Murray)




13. JACK FROST (about a killer snowman…awesome!


15. SANTA VS. SATAN (yes, you are reading that right)

Now gather around the Christmas tree with a candy cane dipped in Arsenic and enjoy these morbid mistletoe masterpieces, guaranteed to add some sardonic spice to your cinematic seasonal feast.

Matt Martin has written movie reviews for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and is co-owner of Black Lodge Video, located on the corner of Cooper and Evelyn. Black Lodge is the largest video store in the eastern US and is a faithful CYCA membership sponsor.




Author: LampLighter

The voice of Cooper-Young, a vibrant, diverse neighborhood to live, work and play, in the heart of Midtown Memphis, Tennessee.

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1 Comment

  1. Great list of Christmas movies and an interesting article! I had forgotten about “Gremlins”. Better watch that one soon.

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