Christmas is immaculate. Christmas is crystalline, perfect and brimming with goodwill. And Christmas is ripe for some cinema exploitation! Think this holiday is too sacred to be turned on its head, satirized and lobotomized? Think again. The holiday's strange folklore begs for it: flying reindeer, elves making toys in the North Pole, a certain gargantuan gentleman who breaks into your house, eats your cookies, downs your milk like a shot of whiskey and leaves mysterious gifts under your tree. Oh, and he has a list of who's been naughty or nice. Sure, that's normal. Then there's the holiday itself: It's the time of year when we're supposed to be joyful and generous, buying gifts for loved ones even though doing so means getting mauled at the malls like something out of Dawn of the Dead — long lines, traffic, money spent quicker than Ben Affleck at a poker table and the high-octane holiday music pounding into our skulls like a jackhammer. I'm sorry but your white Christmas needs some darkness, and it’s a fun respite to watch all the preciousness put through the grinder on film.
Of course, there are tons of Christmas classics out there to enjoy (Miracle on 34th Street, It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol). These are great films that speak to the selfless human spirit during the holiday season. Holiday films with a more, shall we say, grotesque narrative provide a different kind of Yuletide experience. Unlike the traditional Christmas tales, which basically celebrate this time of year, cult films subvert the holiday to show humanity's uglier side. I call it the “Dirty Snow” genre. These films take something coveted and traditional (like Christmas), hold it up to the light, smash it against the wall, then glue it back together, exposing its true essence.
Here's a list of films that pays homage to the world's most popular holiday in unique ways. A few of them are Christmas movies (albeit with a hard “R”) while others merely take place during the holidays but, through word-of-mouth and repeated midnight screenings, they're now considered Christmas gold. And just because some of these films have cult followings or exploitation elements doesn't mean they're obscure. Many are extremely popular and made a ton of dough. Whether low-budget or major blockbuster, they all have one thing in common: They don't care about being cute or heartwarming on Christmas. This year forget about Jimmy Stewart running through the streets screaming “Merry Christmas” and let the holiday conjure the Nakatomi Plaza exploding into a thousand shards of glass or Billy Bob Thornton vomiting in an alleyway or creatures you shouldn't feed after midnight. Stretch into those knee-high leather boots, pour another shot of brandy in your eggnog, and let's get weird.
What's Christmas without a little evil? There are some great holiday horror movies (the Silent Night, Deadly Night series, for example), but my favorite — and John Waters' (he calls it “the greatest Christmas movie ever made”) as well — is 1980's Christmas Evil. Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) is a pathetic, embittered manager of a toy factory. His employees treat him like crap and nothing seems to go his way. The only thing that gives Harry any joy is Christmas. Obsessed by the holiday, he rushes home every day to mark off his calendar and prepare for the greatest day of the year. Only this year, tired of all the abuse, Harry blows a gasket, loses his mind, takes on the persona of Santa Claus and goes on a killing spree. Although outrageous, Christmas Evil is also a pretty astute commentary on our obsession with mythology. My favorite scene is when Harry crashes a party dressed as Santa Claus. He dances, belly laughs and entertains. Everyone loves him. But just as he's about to leave, he ominously points to the children in the crowd and tells them to be good and they'll get many gifts, but “if you're bad boys and girls, your name goes in the bad boys' and girls' book, and I'll bring you something … horrible.” The reaction on the parents' faces is priceless.
I remember when Bad Santa was released in 2003 and I flipped my white, puffy wig when Billy Bob Thornton didn't get an Academy Award nomination for best actor. Thornton's portrayal of Willie, an alcoholic thief forced to entertain children at the local mall as the house Santa while his diminutive partner cases the place, is revelatory. Surprisingly, Bad Santa is now considered a holiday classic and is played on TV every year, sans the cursing and sex scenes, of course. Director Terry Zwigoff, who also directed the equally amazing Ghost World, accomplishes something special here.. He's able to craft a pretty crass and disgusting tale while excavating the heart of Christmas from the garbage bin. In Bad Santa's universe, even the worst of us deserves love. But, seriously, how could you not love Willie? I mean, after watching him stumble into Christmas trees, vomit on himself and sneer at candy-stained children on his lap, he befriends a weird kid and fellow outsider (Brett Kelly), falls for a bartender with a Santa fetish (Lauren Graham) and learns what it's like to be a good person. Well, for at least five minutes.
Less Than Zero
When people ask about my favorite holiday movies and I mention Less Than Zero, it takes two seconds for their faces to turn to stone. Then they walk off disturbed or claim that this 1987 adaptation of the famed Bret Easton Ellis novel is not a Christmas movie. To which I say, “Why not?” It takes place during the holidays. There are Christmas trees everywhere and Run-DMC's “Christmas in Hollis” is on the soundtrack. But, of course, they're referring to the movie's depressing story: Three friends reunite for Christmas break in their hometown of L.A. a year after high school graduation. Clay, Julian and Blair live a life of privilege, boredom and raucous parties. Everything seems fine, except Julian (Robert Downey Jr., in a very realistic performance) is battling a heavy drug addiction and owes dealer Rip (a slimy James Spader) a lot of dough. Things go downhill from there. Is the movie depressing? Yes. Does it sacrifice the novel's existential artistry for a simple-minded “Just Say No” campaign? Absolutely. Still, you can't deny the beauty and excitement of the filmmaking. Los Angeles never looked so slick and dangerous. The cameras take us into the real-life after-hours clubs and warehouses of downtown L.A. in the ’80s. Palm Springs is blotched and beautiful, spreading across the screen like a wasteland. And the narrative never shies away from the debauchery and dirt hiding under L.A.'s polished surface, which gleams especially bright on Christmas!
Screenwriter Shane Black holds the honor of having two films on this list (see also Kiss, Kiss, Bang Bang). I'll tell you, this guy likes blood, guts and Christmas (he wrote The Last Boy Scout, also a seasonal bloodbath). However, when I think of his first film, 1987's Lethal Weapon, two things come to mind: Christmas and white powder. Yes, that white powder. From the opening titles with the girl doing drugs before taking a plunge to her death, to the cocaine deal gone awry on the Christmas tree lot, to the climactic battle where a bus smashes into the drug dealer's car, sending clouds of heroin raining on Hollywood Boulevard, this movie is rife with snow! Watching it again I couldn't help but wonder if Black was using drugs as some kind of metaphor for the holiday season in Los Angeles. I mean, when we say “White Christmas” in L.A., we're not talking about the weather. Anyway, Lethal Weapon holds up beautifully: a great story, magnetic performances by Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and an unforgettable scene where the villain, played by Gary Busey, suspends his bare arm under a lighter's flame, teeth grinding, eyes bulging … a real chestnut, all right.
You know the story: As a result of a malicious bet between two millionaires, successful investment broker Dan Aykroyd is shunned from his elite society and plunged into impoverishment, while a homeless Eddie Murphy finds himself living in Aykroyd's mansion and working in his job. Every performance is gold. Every line is memorable. However, the hard lessons of the story reside in Aykroyd. He's the Scrooge of Trading Places. Besides the obvious farce of watching a privileged brat survive on the streets, Trading Places asks some intriguing questions about our so-called stations in life. How important is wealth and status? How much value do we place on money instead of one another? Aykroyd learns a lot about his character as he rambles about Philadelphia, despondent, confused, before he's rescued and falls in love with a prostitute played by Jamie Lee Curtis. Eddie Murphy is at his comic peak in Trading Places, but the best part is when a drunken Aykroyd rides on the bus, dressed as Santa, gnawing on an enormous slab of salmon he stole from the holiday party. That's a holiday image you won't easily forget.
They don't make kids movies like this anymore. Let's just say family cinema was a little edgier in the ’80s. My mother took me to see Gremlins at the Sherman Oaks Galleria when I was 10 years old and I'll never forget how shocked and utterly disgusted she was during the movie. Apparently she thought we were gonna see a movie about fuzzy teddy bears. Not the case. I remember she outwardly gasped when the actor pushed the gremlin into the microwave before it exploded into green chunks. And I remember when she sighed, “Oh please,” when Phoebe Cates' character describes why she hates Christmas (apparently her father got crispy in the fireplace playing Santa). I guess you can say Gremlins is the Sex Pistols of family films: It wasn't made for parents but the kids love it! No doubt, it's an odd movie. Narratively it feels like Disneyland, all cute and bloated, but it also has elements of horror and exploitation. A strange balance indeed. Without recounting the whole story, let's just say you can't break the three cardinal rules of owning an adorable Mogwai, which the wide-eyed characters of Gremlins violate in one day. Before you know it, little green creatures are terrorizing the town of Kingston Falls on Christmas Eve, murdering everyone in sight and causing general mayhem. They swig booze, shoot at each other, play cards, hang from the rafters, chain smoke and cackle incessantly. Watching it recently, I thought the gremlins were more like annoying drunks than scary monsters, but either way they’re a hoot. (Gremlins will be shown at the Egyptian Theatre on a double feature with Batman Returns on Dec. 20 and at the New Beverly Cinema Dec. 29-30.)
This is the Halloween of holiday films. In fact, people claim this 1974 horror classic inspired John Carpenter's masterpiece (and the slasher genre, in general). Who can say? What is indisputable and damn interesting is that Black Christmas was directed by Bob Clark, who also helmed the classic A Christmas Story (you know, Ralphie and his Red Rider BB gun?). That's pretty mind-boggling in itself. For Clark, Christmas must've been a multifaceted holiday — nostalgic, innocent, fun and bleak as hell. This brings us to Black Christmas. It's the holiday season in a small college town and the sisters of Pi Kappa Sigma are getting some seriously disturbing crank calls. The mysterious caller wails, whines, threatens to kill them and says some raunchy stuff. Soon, the police discover a slain 13-year-old girl near their house and the sisters start disappearing one by one. With hardly a drop of blood spilled, Black Christmas manages to be one of the most effective horror films ever made. The characters are memorable, the directing is masterful and eerie, and Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder are fantastic. (This one sells out at the New Beverly Cinema every year. However, there still might be some tickets at the door, so check it out when it plays on a double bill with Silent Night, Deadly Night on Dec. 18.)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Let's get back to Shane Black (writer of Lethal Weapon) and his obsessive fascination with Christmas. In his directorial debut, Black forgoes the straight-up action of Lethal Weapon and aims for a more deconstructive approach to the noir genre. The laughs are razor-sharp, the characters are rhapsodic and somewhat insane and the story is a skewed, Chandler-esque mess. Basically, it's an homage to Los Angeles. Robert Downey Jr. plays a small-time crook running from the cops when he accidentally runs into an audition. Desperate and sweaty, Downey gives an impressive reading for a couple of producers and bam, he gets the part! Before we know it, he's being groomed for the big movie and forced to ride alongside Val Kilmer, a private detective and technical adviser on the film, hired to show this kid how it's really done. Taking Downey on a job one night, they get pulled into a real-life crime, and before you know it, they're complicit in murder and trying to solve it themselves. Much like Black's other films, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang takes place during the holidays in our fair city of Los Angeles, and he has a knack for mixing the bombast of Christmas with L.A.'s unruly personality. You can see this strange concoction when Downey wanders into a club, high on painkillers. The Marilyn Manson version of a Christmas party, Downey meanders through this Christmas nightmare, ogling a bunch of half-clad, mutated folks dancing in glass boxes, imitating seasonal characters. Amazing.
Eyes Wide Shut
Snow, reindeer, candy canes … infidelity? No! Not on Christmas! OK, so Stanley Kubrick's last film is not what fans of the eminent director expected when it was released in 1999. But as with all great Kubrick films, it takes multiple viewings to get locked into his world. Actually, Eyes Wide Shut makes perfect sense. The visionary artist who spent his career posing questions about life, death and war left us with a foreboding meditation on marriage. As you might have guessed, Eyes Wide Shut takes place over the holidays. A suave married couple from the upper crust (Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman) attend a friend's Christmas party. During the party they are individually presented with an opportunity for infidelity. When they get home, irritated with Cruise's brisk demeanor, Kidman tells him about her deepest sexual fantasies, which don't include him. Ouch! Fired up and ego-bruised, Cruise leaves the house and embarks on a midnight journey into New York City, where he ends up at an elaborate sex party, wearing a mask. I will say no more. Although Eyes Wide Shut isn't necessarily a holiday film, Kubrick set this story during the Yuletide season for a reason. Who doesn't feel vulnerable during the holidays? Burden and darkness, baby, it's a son of a bitch. Kubrick's final film is now rightfully recognized as a layered, ruminant masterpiece. Watch it on Christmas Eve and feel the gloom.
Tim Burton has admitted he doesn't read comic books, which is probably why his Batman films are so direct. He doesn't see the reason to dabble in nuance or parables when it comes to Gotham City. Instead of struggling to make some kind of social commentary, Burton concentrates on atmosphere, costume and imagery. This is especially the case in Batman Returns. Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne is about as serious as you can get. The gorgeous Michelle Pfeiffer transforms into Catwoman by literally getting chewed on by cats. And Danny DeVito's Penguin is, well, a big hefty penguin, with a band of little penguins following him. No metaphors here, but the imagery is striking. And Christmas is everywhere in Batman Returns. Sure, you get the usual Burton-esque blacks and grays, but this time they contrast with bright and poppy Christmas decor, giving the holidays an ominous texture. It’s a wild ride and a great example of palpable imagery and special effects in an action film (no CGI). (Batman Returns plays with Gremlins at the Egyptian Theatre on Dec. 20.)
The Dorm That Dripped Blood
Let's get super grainy and obscure with 1982's The Dorm That Dripped Blood. Four students decide to spend the holidays on their college campus. Big mistake! Suddenly, they're trapped in their dorm and targeted by an unknown killer. Look for Melrose Place alum Daphne Zuniga, making her feature debut in this strange little grindhouse thriller. (L.A.'s own Cinematic Void, who specialize in excavating the best in obscure films, will be showing this baby with The Oracle at the Egyptian Theatre on Dec. 23.)
I predict that one day Die Hard will eclipse It's a Wonderful Life as the go-to Christmas movie of our time. A bold statement, I know, but let's face it, people quote Bruce Willis a lot more than they do Jimmy Stewart these days. I saw Die Hard multiple times in the theaters when it was released in 1988, and I never really thought of it as a Christmas film. Watching it again, I realize I must have been hypnotized by the movie's action sequences because it gushes with green and red. It's a damn Christmas fireball. The explosions, the sleigh bells on the soundtrack, the bombast, the holiday jokes peppered through the screenplay — it’s like watching an enormous Christmas tree catch fire and slowly crumble to the ground. New York City cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) visits his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), for the holidays. Their reconciliation is quickly interrupted by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his troupe of German terrorists, who take over Nakatomi Plaza (where Holly works) in an attempt to steal millions in the building's vault. That's when John McClane gets to work, kicking terrorist ass. There are so many quotable moments in Die Hard, you could spread 'em over 10 films. I know I'll never say the word “detonators” without using a German accent. And don't forget these: “Shoot … the …glass!”; “Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho”; “Welcome to the party, pal!” and the always reliable, “Yippee ki yay, motherfu**er!” A friend of mine, a cinephile in his own right, has a theory that John McClane's character is a metaphor for Santa Claus. Either way, we’ll never forget when he came to town. (Die Hard will be at the Egyptian Theater on Dec. 21 and at the New Beverly Cinema Dec. 23-24.)