'Tis The Season: Very Merry Un-Christmas Christmas Movies
I’ll start this essay with a declaration that my Christmas-crazy family is sure to love: I don’t like Christmas. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hate it but it’s definitely one of the lesser holidays for me. The seasonal entertainment especially leaves a lot to be desired. Since I don’t want to get disowned (and we try to keep our site mantra as “lift up what you love, don’t bring down what you hate”) I’ll refrain from popping off on just how stupid I think It’s A Wonderful Life is and stick to what I love: Christmas movies that have nothing to do with Christmas.
Now, those of you who are fans of Die Hard (1988) or Gremlins (1984) are already aware of what a Not-Christmas-Christmas movie is. Both these movies take place during Christmas time but don’t share the gag-inducing treacle that tends to accompany yuletide films. Die Hard isn’t one of my favorites, but I'm glad to have it among the pantheon; Gremlins is great and has a lot of Christmas imagery in it so you can totally convince naysayers that you’re watching something seasonally appropriate. For those of you dying to delve even further into the Not-Christmas tradition (and are tired of watching Nightmare Before Christmas over and over) give some of these holiday classics a try. For added fun, see how many of your friends and family members you can convince to sit through them with you before the inevitable “Ya' know, Veronica, this movie doesn’t have much to do with Christmas.”
Some of you may know Bob Clark as the director of A Christmas Story (1983), one of the few holiday movies I can stomach. Those of us who prefer Halloween know him as the director of Black Christmas (1974), truly one of the best stalker/slasher movies. Black Christmas centers on a sorority house that’s clearing out for the holidays, a brilliant way to disguise that the girls in the house are slowly disappearing. The first girl to die gets suffocated by the killer using a plastic bag and throughout the rest of the movie her body is propped up in an attic window where the killer is hiding. We as the viewer know the situation is going to get worse, but for the first night the girls in the house go about their merry way blissfully unaware. Until, of course, the killer comes for them.
Aside from the fact that it follows the common trope of “young women in danger/being killed”, the movie is actually quite clever and doesn’t bend to audience’s expectations. There is no resolution for us even as there is a resolution for some of the characters. The audience knows that the unnamed and unknown killer is still hiding in the attic with a suffocated body but as far as the town cops and the school is concerned, the killer was one of the girl’s boyfriends who died by her hand. It’s a beautifully shot, chilling movie with some witty, intelligent female characters. Olivia Hussey, who makes it to the coveted “last girl” position, tells a story of meeting Steve Martin when they were shooting Roxanne and him saying that Black Christmas was his favorite movie of all time. If it’s good enough for Steve Martin, it’s good enough for your holiday traditions.
Moving away from the snow-covered midwest to the sun scorched barrens of the Australian outback, we’ve got the cult classic Wake In Fright (1971). Wake In Fright is one man’s odyssey into barbarity and a study of this funny little thing called civilization. Peter O'Toole lookalike Gary Bond stars as John Grant, a teacher on his way to Sydney for the holiday break. He gets stuck in a small mining town called Bundanyabba, referred to as the Yabba to the people who call it home. There he loses his money gambling, gets too drunk, and winds up in the care of Doc, played by Donald Pleasence at his most upsetting. Doc is not a man who approves of the lines and rules that society dictates and he’s not shy about letting everyone know with sentiments like, “progress is vanity ruled by fear.” He brings John into his world, or out to his world more accurately, and John finds himself at the mercy of this strange man, his friends, and their brutal way of life.
Those who enjoyed Black Christmas will adore Wake in Fright. That said, those who found Black Christmas a bit unsettling should stay far away from Wake In Fright. This is above and beyond my favorite Christmas movie. I have shown it to many people, and I have alienated most of them because of it. It is long, it’s rough, it’s frustrating. There’s an implied male sex scene that has rapey undertones, an actual kangaroo hunt (full with a post-movie disclaimer that these scenes were merely observed and not staged for the film), and people drinking beer while building to what looks like the worst hangovers mankind has ever seen. It's not for everyone, but I implore you to give it a shot if you haven’t. It was lost for many years as the master copy of the negative was misplaced and only censored versions could be seen. In 2012, it was restored and screened in a variety of places, The Castro Theater being one of them. If you are lucky enough, as I was, to see it on the big screen, do so. It is intense, Kafkaesque, and will probably make a lot of people say “the fuck did we just watch?” no matter where you view it.
Then there’s Tangerine (2015). I've covered Tangerine pretty recently so I won’t go too in depth but Tangerine follows two trans women who are friends and fellow sex workers on Christmas eve in Los Angeles. Palm trees and Christmas lights are a great motif for the season, not to mention a very touching scene where one of the women sings Christmas carols at a small club. There are drugs, seedy underbellies, sexual deviance, and urine tossing but it’s also a movie about humanity; the small ways we find warmth together as people in a hostile world. I mean, that kinda sounds like something Jesus would approve of, right?
Maybe you don’t want to watch Christmas movies but you still want to have friends after the holidays. If you need to lighten the mood a little, Trading Places (1983) works perfectly in that capacity. For those of you who don’t know this one, and I find that hard to believe that’s too many of you, Trading Places centers around the poor subjects (Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd) who are unknowing part of a bet made by two old white guys (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche). Basically, one old dude thinks that criminal behavior is inherent in those who commit crimes while the other argues that it’s due to circumstance. They arrange to swap the lives of beggar Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy) with that of stock broker Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd), giving Valentine money and a nice house, as Winthorpe gets framed for drug possession and released from prison entirely broken. Shenanigans ensue, Jamie Lee Curtis helps save the day, everyone gets their comeuppance, and I’m pretty sure Jim Belushi shows up at some point. I know I’m not selling it on the last bit but it can be nice to see what roles John Belushi would have gotten had he lived.
Like Tangerine, Trading Places is a study of human behavior, albeit it from a different perspective. Also among these options, Trading Places and Black Christmas are the two that actually use Christmas as more than just background. Taken individually, it would seem that the only reason these movies are watched at Christmas time is because they take place during the holiday but all these movies share similar themes, themes that connect to what is supposed to be a time of kindness and togetherness. There are varying degrees of humanity and helpfulness throughout all of these, even Black Christmas. So what if they don’t have the normal trappings of holiday movies? They share the ideals and the heart that people so often tout as the reason for the season.
Then again, if you want just ridiculous fun with Christmas as a more central core you can’t go wrong with Christmas horror movies like Jack Frost (1998, not the Michael Keaton one), the Norwegian film Rare Exports (2010), or the recent release Krampus (2015). That should be enough to take the edge off the saccharine sweet fare that gets played ad nauseam, as well as getting you banned from selecting Christmas movies for everyone to watch for the rest of your life. But ya' know what? It’s the holidays and you can enjoy it however you want.