The Top 10 Dark Christmas Movies
December 21, 2012 1 Comment
Most people love to feel warm and fuzzy at Christmas and there are plenty of films out there that capture that heart-warming Christmas sentiment. But the chances are that if you’ve clicked on a blog suggesting dark Christmas movies, you are not quite in the mood for the kind of family friendly, saccharine sweet Yuletide films that are stuffed onto TV schedules this time of year.
You must be the kind of person who requires a little tension with your tinsel; a little mood with your merriment; a little terror with your Yuletide, a little… well, you get the idea. You’ve come to the right place, for here is a list of films that attempted to subvert the festive season. Christmas is a great theme to bring in a bit of darkness since nobody expects to see anything remotely sinister at that time of year, so the darker Christmas films are often the most surprising and gripping and some even contain the best Christmas related messages. Given Christmas is set in the middle of winter, it’s very appropriate to bring in a cold and atmospheric mood to a film.
Now before I reveal what is on my list, I’d just like to say I disqualified anything that was too extreme involving Santa gratuitously massacring a bunch of innocents like Santa’s Slay or Silent Night, Deadly Night on the grounds that they are just too nasty and perverse. Nobody really wants to see that kind of thing at Christmas and if you do, then you really should ask Santa for some therapy this Christmas.
10. A Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
The weird characters in Henry Selick’s and Tim Burton’s gothic stop motion classic are a strange and scary bunch of fiends who are right at home on Halloween, but stick out as rather odd around Christmas. The imaginative plot of this film of course unleashed a sense of the macabre on Christmas as grizzly, ghoulish puppets led by the spindly, gangly walking bag of bones that is Jack Skeleton, become bored with engineering scares for Halloween and instead unleash their dark desires on the colourful holiday world of Christmas. Kidnapping Santa and releasing mayhem on Santa’s holiday world becomes the dark theme of the film. For a family movie set at Christmas, it’s a pretty dark, daring, twisted and bewitching fairy-tale.
9. Jingle All the Way (1996)
Reviled by both critics and audiences, Jingle All the Way might seem too crass, commercial and outright cheesy to be considered dark. Personally I feel the scorn poured on this film is undeserved and that actually it is a hilariously madcap black comedy. The build-up to the modern Christmas is categorized by frenzied runs to the malls by desperate panic buyers terrified that little Jonny won’t love them anymore if Santa doesn’t bring him the latest plastic toy heavily promoted by TV commercials – in my opinion, there is no Christmas subject more worthy of satire than this. Although Jingle All the Way has some cringe-worthy moments, for the most part it satirizes the collective mania that is the modern Christmas shop, better than any film I’ve seen. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that shoppers would come to blows fighting over a potential present for their kid. Arnold Schwarzenegger – doing his likeable cartoonish approximation of the all American dad – does just that, battling a mailman in the hope of securing the much-sought after Turbo Man doll. The two have a wryly comic dynamic: empathizing with each other’s plight when the hope of getting the toy is lost, then savagely setting upon each other the moment the prospect of getting the toy is dangled in-front of them. The season of good will to all men? Not when there is Christmas shopping to do. There is an outright disturbing moment, when a character is prepared to pose as a terrorist with a mail bomb if it will get him the Turbo Man toy. If that isn’t a dark Christmas moment, I don’t know what is.
8. Scrooged (1988)
This is one of the better postmodern reinterpretations of A Christmas Carol as Dickens’ Christmas classic is turned into an amusing black comedy and a really funny satire on television. Billy Murray is in terrific form, amusingly sardonic as a ruthless New York TV executive who has the empathy and compassion of a stone and is so cold-hearted he makes the original Ebenezer Scrooge look like a warm generous do-gooder. A Christmas Carol is inherently dark of course, what with it being a story about a man so uncharitable and self-centred it takes a visit from ghosts with time travelling abilities to make him see the error of his ways. A number of the ghosts in this are pretty ghastly and unsettling. The Jacob Marley ghost is not rattling chains – here he is a decomposing corpse with a mouse where his brain should be. The ghost of Christmas past is an insanely manic New York cab driver and the climax with the always terrifying Grim Reaper like figure of the Ghost of Christmas yet to come prompts a pretty intense and dark climax as Billy Murray’s character is forced to confront the bleak path he is heading for. Scrooged updates the original story with some neat modern twists on the iconic tale – the film remains a darkly comic and haunting festive favourite.
7. Sint (2010)
This demented Dutch horror film sees director Dick Mass sinisterly subvert Dutch mythology surrounding Saint Nicholas – who was of course the model for Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas is in this, cloaked in his traditional red Bishop’s outfit, but he is not the genteel figure with benevolence for children The Dutch and the rest of the world know and love – here he is a monstrous, murderous fiend who rises from beyond the grave whenever there is a full moon on the 5th of December to snatch children and terrorize Amsterdam.
It sounds like schlocky exploitation nonsense, but Sint is actually an atmospheric and spooky little horror film, in the vein of John Carpenter’s The Fog. There are plenty of seasonal references and from an outsiders’ perspective, it offers an insight into Dutch customs during the holiday period. Apparently, the Dutch exchange gifts on the 5th of December to honour St Nicholas, and dress up as the man himself as well as a character called Black Pete. That is massively politically incorrect, but the character of Black Pete and Saint Nicholas create some pretty potent shocks and scares in this outrageously dark and bizarre Christmas set horror film.
6. Rare Exports (2010)
Google Krampus and you will uncover some disturbing Christmas mythology involving the big man in red. It’s that mythology that Finnish director Jalmari Hellander taps into for this dark, moody and haunting retelling of Germanic folklore and the origins of the Santa Claus story. You’ve never quite seen the story of Santa Claus as portrayed like this: there are reindeer, there are elves, there’s an old man in a red suit and plenty of snow but the tone is ominous, unsettling and eerie. It all starts out in a fashion reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing, when a team excavating in a snow covered Finnish region uncover something buried deep in the ice late in December that does have an interest in children, but is not exactly inclined to deliver festive cheer. Although the end is a little risible and overly tongue-in-cheek, the film creatively brings ancient mythology into the modern world with a surprisingly plausible and enjoyable seasonal themed horror narrative.
One of these men is Saint Nicholas –another is Krampus. You can decide which is which.
5. A Christmas Carol (1951)
You can’t really compile a list of dark Christmas films without at least one traditional version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. There have obviously been countless versions of Dickens’ seminal novel but I believe the story is much more creepy and atmospheric shot in black and white. I’ve gone for the 1951 version with Scottish born actor Alastair Sims portraying Ebenezer Scrooge. Darkness is ingrained in every frame within this version of A Christmas Carol. The sound design is really intense and the effects are rather good for the time, so the film contains some fairly unnerving imagery. The ghost of Jacob Marley is very spooky here; ominously rattling the chains he forged in life, he cuts a tortured figure. His howls of anguish are quite frightening and when he angrily shouts the famous line’ mankind was my business’, he really is quite imposing. The ethereal scene – that brings to mind Dante’s Inferno – in which Scrooge witnesses all the ghosts desperate but futilely trying to intervene in the lives of the living, is really quite unsettling. The silent cloaked figure of the ghosts of Christmas yet to come is creepy, and I’d defy anyone to not be shocked at the upsetting appearances of the children of ignorance and want. The journey Scrooge goes on as he witnesses the impoverished people he has denied charity, is very grim and startling. A Christmas Carol is a timeless story and as the world continues to walk even further down the path of greed that the spectres warn Scrooge to turn back from, A Christmas Carol only becomes more relevant. Although no amount of Christmas ghosts could jolt the current banking cartel into suddenly finding a conscience or a sense of duty to look after the poor. Many bank CEOs could do with heeding the warnings inherent within this and the many versions of Dickens’ story. It’s a dark film with a powerful message about the dangers of loving money more than your fellow man.
4. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Frank Capra’s Christmas classic is often considered to be the best Christmas film. Most people consider it to be one of the most life-affirming Christmas films, due to the last twenty minutes which are positively charged with warm seasonal cheer. That heart-warming finale is what people remember about the film, but everything that precedes the end, is dark, moody, bleak and melancholy. After all, it focuses on a man with terrible financial problems, who is in a depressed state of mind, so riddled with despair he is contemplating taking his own life at Christmas. What adds to the darkness is that Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey is the archetypal good man trying to do the right thing; he’s a man who has been driven to the point of a breakdown by an American capitalist system designed to destroy the little guy. Sound familiar? There is an unflinching and disturbing truth to this film that is often overlooked. In the wake of the financial crisis and the ripple effect of monetary problems that it caused, the film is even more relevant now. Right now, there are lots of George Baileys out there suffering with monetary problems caused by the same corporate greed as depicted in the film; Most of them won’t benefit from divine intervention like George did. All they can do is watch the film, recognize their circumstances in the considerable darkness of the film, empathise with George Bailey’s plight and finally take comfort in one of the most profound messages ever captured on celluloid. If this was an outright best Christmas films list, it would be even higher in the rankings, in terms of dark Christmas films it isn’t quite in first place.
3. Black Christmas (1974)
Slasher films were everywhere in the seventies – you couldn’t swing a knife without hitting one. During that decade, perverse psycho killers didn’t even take a break from murder at Christmas. The group of nubile young college girls at the sorority in Bob Clark’s creepy horror film are terrorized by a figure lurking in the artic who is not exactly Santa Claus, as he’s more intent on spilling claret than wearing it. He does have the courtesy of ringing them before he hunts them down though – that’s nice of him.
Take the Christmas setting away from this film and it would still have been frightening, but the fact that it is set in the festive period definitely makes the horror more disturbing. A slasher film set at Christmas might sound in bad taste, but this is actually a well-crafted horror film that creates characters you care about and realises that the less you see the more ominous the horror. It’s probably the most haunting slasher film ever, since the killer remains largely out of sight – his presence is only represented by a crescendo of terrifying noises and the odd unnerving glancing camera shot. It’s not exactly a Christmas film to watch with all the family after dinner on the big day; it is however an intense, eerie, shocking Christmas themed horror film. The 2006 remake was not nearly as frightening as the original as the interesting characters in Clark’s fright-fest were replaced by the usual horror knife-fodder. The only thing memorable about the film was the following quote from Alan Jones: ‘Last Christmas, you gave me your heart… this Christmas I want your eyes’.
2. Bad Santa (2003)
Terry Zwigoff’s hilariously raucous seasonal themed comedy is one of the boldest black comedies set at Christmas and ingeniously subverts the holiday festivities. It follows a surly criminal (brilliantly portrayed by Billy Bob Thornton) masquerading as a mall Santa with his pint sized partner in crime, who takes the role as an elf. Neither of them have any interest in bringing seasonal cheer to children – instead they are biding time until the big day, when it is time to carry-out their audacious plot to rob the mall. Bad Santa is perversely funny from start to finish: the juxtaposition of innocent Christmas festivities and Billy Bob Thornton’s massively inappropriate sweary, drunken debauchery and acerbic persona create so many riotous comedic moments. The constant on screen bickering between the rogue elf and suspect Santa allows for plenty of side-splittingly amusing dialogue. The perfect tonic if you’re tired of forced seasonal joviality and overly sentimental Christmas films. It’s the Christmas film for people who don’t like Christmas films.
1. Gremlins (1984)
Getting the right balance between laughs and scares in a horror comedy is not an easy directorial trick to pull off. It was a trick that director Joe Dante pulled off with some aplomb in Gremlins. The mischievous little green monsters that gleefully wreak havoc on the residents of a small American town at Christmas, are each a pint-sized Pandora’s box of trouble. Despite being dark hearted murderous green fiends, you can’t help but find them beguiling since they have such a twisted sense of humour and more character than any other monsters in cinema history. They are also clever little blighters and the time they spend orchestrating their darkest moments allows for a string of perversely black comic sequences that are still humorous after years of repeat viewing. I still laugh out loud at what the Gremlins did to the angry cat lady. The film is funny and frightening in equal measure, with a number of dark but outright hilarious sequences. The Christmas setting for a monster movie adds a lot to the film. Setting such a twisted story at Christmas was an ingenious decision, since the plot is really a cautionary tale about giving pets as Christmas presents. There is no chance of any sentimentality typical in Christmas movies creeping in – the Gremlins perverse and punkish antics are the perfect antidote to the usual Christmas mawkishness. Black comedies are rarely as funny, warped and as outright entertaining as Gremlins. It’s a timeless alternative seasonal classic and my choice for the darkest Christmas film. You might be lucky enough to see it on a big screen since Gremlins is currently enjoying a re-release in cinemas.
Honourable mentions for the following films that contain dark references to Christmas:
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Trading Places, Die Hard, Midnight Clear.
Thanks for reading. Merry Christmas.