It’s that time of year again; it’s dark at 4pm, the air is crisp and often below freezing, lights twinkle from every crevice and you’re already sick of hearing Mariah Carey warble “All I Want for Christmas is You”… Yes, it’s Christmas time again and as the festive period draws ever closer, avoiding succumbing to the cheer and joy is a daily battle you’re sure to lose.
Now I’m not a Grinch – in fact I’m far from it, the lead up to the big day is one of my favourite times of the year (I think inside, I’m actually still about 6 and three quarters!) – but the gloss and exaggerated schmaltz of the period can certainly become tiresome very quickly.
Now I don’t want to belittle the sickly saccharine taste of holiday romantic comedies (Love Actually is a classic), the formulaic overcoming of family feuds at this special time of year (The Santa Clause is one of my childhood faves!), or the clichéd retellings of Dickens’s seminal holiday tale, A Christmas Carol… but, if like me it all gets a little too much, turn off the Christmas tree lights, grab a cuppa (or something stronger if needs be!), put your feet up and sink into one of these ten alternative Christmas film beauties…
10. BLACK CHRISTMAS (2006)
“A Christmas horror movie!?” I hear you scream, yes, you’re right – what an ingenious idea!! Whilst Black Christmas isn’t the first seasonal horror offering, it’s certainly one of the better ones (yes, I’ve heard the original is better still, but unfortunately I am yet to watch it!). On Christmas Eve, a group of girls fall prey to the former resident of their sorority house – an escaped mental patient who murdered his mother and stepfather years earlier…
Black Christmas is a great antidote to the excess of festive cheer, offering a fun – albeit formulaic – stalk and slash horror narrative.
09. THE LONG KISS GOOD NIGHT (1996)
Before Geena Davis slipped into relative obscurity she made one great leading action lady! After bumping her head, Samantha Caine (Davis) begins to remember a previous life that doesn’t involve being a mother and schoolteacher. Discovering that she was a former top secret agent, she has to regain her memory in order to shake off her old colleagues who are out to kill her. Enlisting the help of a local P.I. – Mitch Henessey (Samuel L Jackson) – Samantha becomes deadlier as her past slowly comes back to her…
This is one of those films where the Christmas period is ever present within the background of the narrative, but never encompasses it and is therefore a perfect action packed, laugh-a-minute antidote to the false cheer and schmaltz of the season!
08. BAD SANTA (2003)
Yeah, so this film is not exactly Oscar worthy, but honestly – what list of alternative Christmas films would be complete without it!? Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is a conman and dressed in a Santa suit, complete with his Christmas elf helper Marcus (Tony Cox), plans to travel to various department stores and rob them! Their plan hits a bump in the road however, when a security boss (Bernie Mac) discovers their motives and a little boy (Brett Kelly) shows them the true spirit of Christmas…
Rather than the sickly sweet charm of a traditional Christmas film, Bad Santa uses cynicism, outrageousness and inappropriateness – suggesting that the festivity of the season truly can redeem anybody!
07. THE ICE HARVEST (2005)
With shades of film noir, this black comedy heist drama takes place on Christmas Eve. Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) and Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton – again! He must loathe Christmas cheer too!) have successfully stolen $2million from Kansas City crime lord Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid), finally getting exactly what they want for Christmas! When Renata (Connie Nielson) – the woman he has long lusted after – suggests they run away together, Charlie’s luck seems to really be up. However, things don’t quite go to plan when an ice storm hits and people don’t turn out to be whom Charlie thinks they are…
Heist movies are fun at the best of times, but throw in some gangsters and a Christmas setting and it’s somehow even more enjoyable! Cavanaugh delivers the hilarious line that, “Only morons are nice at Christmas” and if you’re feeling particularly bah humbug, this film will certainly be up you’re decoration free street.
06. MIXED NUTS (1994)
A spectacular critical failure, Mixed Nuts is probably the least successful film on this list – in my mind it just happens to be one of the funniest too! On Christmas Eve, the runners of the Lifesavers crisis hotline (Steve Martin, Rita Wilson and Madeleine Kahn) have the craziest night of their lives as their phones ring off the hook with many a loopy caller! Multiple storylines converge and everybody becomes embroiled in a death…
Reminiscent of Mel Brook’s work (who ironically worked with Kahn on a number of occasions), the film is a madcap rollercoaster ride – much darker than much of Martin’s output, which makes it a refreshing entry in his and also writer/director Nora Ephron’s (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail) filmography.
05. ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1954)
This is one for those who would rather switch the copious amounts of Christmas cheer for some good old-fashioned American melodrama! When wealthy, middle-aged widow Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) falls in love with young landscaper Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), she faces opposition to the romance from her socially aggrandising offspring and snooty country club peers. Can true love prevail under the pressures of social constraints?
Whilst the exaggerated notions of a 1950s romance make this mushier than many offerings on this list, Christmas wishes fail and the magic of the festivities isn’t the narratives saviour – therefore, about as far removed from the traditional holiday offering as you can get!
04. CHILDREN OF MEN (2006)
Standing as a futuristic nativity story – a dystopian tale of the birth of mankind’s saviour – Children of Men combines the traditional festive themes of hope and religion, contrasting them with a bleak future setting. Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is a former activist who resides in 2027 Britain, part of a world that can no longer procreate. When a miraculously pregnant woman (Clare-Hope Ashitey) comes to his attention, he agrees to transport her to a sanctuary in the sea. Here he hopes scientists will be able to perform tests on the woman that will save the future of man…
Children of Men is a much deeper affair than many of the films here and in fact doesn’t have a narrative that’s even set around the holiday period. The thought-provoking plot and its relation to the Nativity is why it makes excellent alternative Christmas viewing.
03. THE APARTMENT (1960)
Another offering that is based around the Christmas period, The Apartment tells the story of C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) an insurance company employee who believes he can get ahead at the company by loaning his home to executives and their mistresses! Often having to deal with the aftermath of his colleague’s rendezvous’, he faces his biggest challenge when he comes home to find Fran Kubelik, the office lift operator, in his bed having taken an overdose of his sleeping pills. Out of these extreme circumstances can true love blossom?
The Apartment is a bittersweet romance that plays out brilliantly against the backdrop of Christmas. Neither Fran or Baxter are filled with festive cheer and Christmas is merely an event that they could happily avoid. However, what makes The Apartment pleasant alternative Christmas viewing is that despite the stereotypical happy ending, the majority of the narrative takes a rather cynical look at the holiday and love itself. With the now immortal final lines of:
“Bud: You hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you.
Fran: Shut up and deal…”
The Apartment stands as a brilliant example of real relationships at Christmas: Baxter and Fran are not influenced by the cheer of the season, but manage to find each other amidst the false festivity. Similarly, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) and his wife are not reunited by the seasonal merriment, instead heading towards divorce due to his indiscretions. Whilst Christmas hope and joy eventually wins out, writer/director Billy Wilder’s script let’s audiences believe for the most part that Baxter’s love will remain unrequited.
02. GREMLINS (1984)
It may be an obvious choice, but if there’s one film that throws a rather nasty spanner into the Christmas works, it has to be Gremlins! For anybody who enjoys the festive fun, but has a rather macabre sense of humour then this is the film that should become your ritual holiday watch! When small town bank clerk Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) receives a cute, cuddly pet for Christmas he disregards three very important rules for their care. Breaking two of these, the lovable little creature transforms into a vicious little critter that multiplies at a rapid rate and causes havoc in Billy’s hometown…
One of very few extremely successful horror comedies, Gremlins perfectly sticks the proverbial tongue into its cheek! Almost like the evil counterparts of The Muppets, Gremlins puts the former’s Christmas Carol movie to shame. A film about taking back Christmas from a hoard or Grinch-like little monsters, Gremlins provides its seasonal cheer in alternative abundance!
01. DIE HARD (1988)
Sure, it’s another obvious choice, but who can deny it… Die Hard is just the coolest film to ever be set around the holiday period! When terrorists hijack the Nakatomi Corporation’s LA skyscraper during their corporate Christmas party, visiting New York police officer John McClane (action legend Bruce Willis) is the one man who can save the day…and the holiday season!
It’s easy to forget that Die Hard is a Christmas film (especially if you’re me, who watches it on a regular basis no matter what time of the year it is!), but the film is set on Christmas Eve – yes, possibly the worst date to hold the office Christmas do, terrorists or not! – and stands as the ultimate in alternative festive viewing!
Resplendent with special effects, an action-packed narrative and more suspense than you could stuff a Christmas turkey with, this film is just what you want if you’re out to avoid the mushiness of the usual Christmas fare. Whilst guns, terrorists and explosions don’t immediately scream out festive fun, coupled with snow, the ironic use of carols in the soundtrack and an abundance of tacky decorations, Die Hard is without doubt the definitive alternative holiday movie!
You may have managed to forget that it’s Christmas throughout the runtime, but as soon as the smooth crooning of Dean Martin and his rendition of “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow” resonates, you’re back in the midst of the festivities of the season…and wanting to hit that play button again!