Are you tired of It’s a Wonderful Life? Has the Elf plummeted from the Shelf? I’ve gathered some darker Christmas fare—from Krampus tales to explorations of addiction, from Hideous Laughing Reindeer to machine guns—so allow me to fill your stocking with some twisted holiday classics!
The best thing Chris Columbus ever wrote was this script, which Joe Dante subsequently turned into the best thing he’s ever directed. We open on an idyllic town in the Hudson River Valley, positively glowing with snow, and ringing in the Christmas season with one of the greatest carols of all time, “Baby Please Come Home.” But as we zoom in we learn that the town is failing, the people are struggling, and one Potter-esque miser is strangling what few independent businesses remain. And that’s before the monsters show up. The Gremlins themselves are gleeful agents of chaos, truly vicious and evil, and a perfect counterpoint to the cloying cuteness of Gizmo. The film achieves a near-perfect balance between Christmassy-ness (Gizmo is Billy’s Christmas gift, the battle between the mom and the Gremlins is set to “Do You See What I See?” we get to hear why Kate no longer celebrates the holiday…) with moments of pure gruesome monster movie.
Tim Burton loves to infuse his movies with Christmas spirit in an organic, melancholy sort way, and Batman Returns is darker than most. Populated by outcasts and orphans, the film is a gothic exploration of isolation, loneliness, and corruption. On the more cheerful side, we get two tree-lighting ceremonies, a festive holiday masquerade, and even a kiss under the mistletoe. All while Danny Elfman’s choir of children la-la-la’s their cherubic hearts out. Who says this has to be a depressing time of year?
A Pink Christmas
The Pink Panther is homeless and starving on the bleak winter streets. This holiday special follows him as he tries to scrape enough money and food together to make it through Christmas, and spoiler alert, he does not get your usual cheerful holiday ending. This special is tough to watch, but beautiful and endearing. (Watch it here.)
It’s technically a Christmas movie! Sort of. It takes place over the Christmas season, and the final action takes place on New Year’s Eve. And it’s alllll about darkness. It begins with the Ghostbusters’ collective reputation in ruins. New York turned on them after their defeat of Gozer, and they’ve all scattered across the city, working various non-busting jobs. But New York is still their best girl, so when they discover a mysterious pink slime feeding on the city’s negativity and an evil spirit named Vigo The Carpathian planning world domination, they re-team and lead an enormous sing-along to save her and give us a happy ending. The best bit, though, is that the movie is quite willing to go to some desolate places, including involuntary institutionalization, messy breakups, single motherhood, and utter professional failure before The Statue of Liberty dances through Midtown.
Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life
Franz Kafka doesn’t do heartwarming. That goes double for Christmas time, as we see in this wonderful Academy Award-winning short written and directed by none other than the current Doctor, Peter Capaldi, and starring the magnificent Richard E. Grant.
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
As John Mulaney has pointed out, it’s nearly impossible to get lost in New York. But Macaulay Culkin manages it, and antics, hijinks, and shenanigans all ensue. Much like the first film, the family oversleeps the night before their Christmas vacation, there is confusion at the airport, and Kevin ends up in the wrong place – this time New York City. But since he also mistakenly lifted his dad’s wallet, he sets out to have a sweet, solitary, all-expense-paid Christmas, touring the city, seeing the Rockefeller Tree, and eating pizza in a limo! The bandits from the first film have also coincidentally relocated to New York, where they’re spending a relaxing holiday attempting to rob a toy store, and Kevin thwarts them while befriending a homeless woman and learning Powerful Lessons About Love. The darkness here comes from the real nastiness that emerges between the family members before their various reconciliations and the plight of the homeless pigeon lady, rather than the obvious cartoonish violence.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: “Santa Claus”
This film is literally about a battle between Santa and the devil. Plus a poor little girl is tormented by visions of talking dolls, all the adults neglect their children, Santa himself has some highly questionable child-labor practices, and why is Merlin here? And what the hell is this? Worst of all though is the Hideous Laughing Reindeer pictured above. In this universe, you see, Santa’s reindeer are clockwork monstrosities that emit shrill sounds when awakened from their dreamless slumber.
This Finnish wonder is based on the short film, Rare Exports Inc. (which you can watch here) about trackers who hunt the feral Santa. The full-length film that was spun out from this idea is a perfect horror parody, as well as a great antidote to the saccharine Christmas season. Finnish reindeer herders are jolted out of their usual way of life when scientists begin excavating an enormous burial mound on their mountain. Unfortunately not everything in the burial mound is dead. After reindeer and children begin disappearing, the locals begin an investigation, and soon learn the horrifying truth behind the story of Santa Claus.
Professional wrestler Goldberg stars in this horror comedy as a demonic Santa Claus. Bear with us: Santa was the spawn of a Satanic virgin birth, and Christmas became his day to roam the earth slaughtering humans. Then an angel defeated him in a curling match, and forced him to deliver presents for 1000 years. Unfortunately, the film takes place in year 1001, and it’s up to two plucky teens to defeat him and save Christmas!
The Junky’s Christmas
William Burroughs reads his beautiful, shattering classic, “The Junky’s Christmas,” which does what it says on the tin.
One of our favorites! Yes, this is ultimately a tale of redemption and love, but before you get to all the mushy stuff there are some deliciously evil moments in this film, from the lyrical banner on Frank Cross’ office wall—“Cross (k’ros): ‘A thing they nail people to.’”—to Frank suggesting a stagehand staple antlers onto a mouse’s head. And then there’s Bobcat Goldthwaite blasting a TV studio with a shotgun. And homeless people who freeze to death because no one’s there to help them. Oh, and did I mention the scene where The Ghost of Christmas Present basically beats Frank into submission? And aside from the obvious fact that this is a Dickens adaptation, the film also gives a nice snapshot of a 1980s New York City Christmas.
Underneath all the action sequences Die Hard is about the two battling wills that drive Christmas: family togetherness and unbridled avarice. John McClane goes out to L.A. to try to repair his broken family. Faced with an increasingly independent and feminist wife, he has to learn to adjust, and see a different paradigm of marriage itself in order to be a better husband and father. Holly Genarro has to find a balance between the traditional roles of wife and mother that have begun to hold her back as an individual, and her fierce love for John and the kids. Meanwhile, Hans Fucking Gruber just wants to feel complete in a materialist society that only sees value in the latest fashion and architectural trends. To uphold societal expectation he throws a little tinsel on his greed by claiming a higher moral purpose, but really he just wants to be the boy with most presents bearer bonds. So you see, if you want a rigorous examination of the conflicting emotions behind this holiday, it’s pretty much Die Hard and Miracle on 34th Street.
How about all of you? Do you have any darker film you like to mix into your holiday viewing schedule?
Originally published December 2014.