This week’s eerie mo-cap rendering of the ghostly, dark Dickens morality tale A Christmas Carol from director Robert Zemeckis is far from being the only yuletide movie where heartwarming ho-ho-hos are as likely as horrific moments. From Saint Nick battling Martians, Satan, takeover bids from misguided Halloween skeletons and alcoholism, to the holiest of holidays run amok with carolling, cackling little green monsters, suicidal family men, deranged slashers and WWF stars dispensing seasonal platitudes, we give you 10 grim stuffing stockers guaranteed to wish you a very scary Christmas. Pass the egg nog, the butcher knife and the animatronic reindeer…
Bill Murray is at his-dripping-with-sarcasm best as cold-hearted TV executive Frank Cross in this modern take on A Christmas Carol. While this is a black comedy, there’s also some freaky stuff here, with Frank’s mouldy-old dead boss Lou dangling him out a window, Carol Kane’s Ghost Of Christmas Present kicking him in the nuts and the ghoulish Grim Reaper-style Ghost of Christmas Future’s robes concealing the tortured souls of the damned locked in its rib cage. But it’s actually Frank’s ideas for yuletide TV that are truly terrifying — he’s producing a live version of the Scrooge story starring Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim, along with some half-naked dancers. His other Christmas specials? Lee Majors in the action special The Night the Reindeer Died, variety show Bob Goulet’s Cajun Christmas and Father Loves Beaver. Perhaps scariest of all? Throughout the movie, Frank drinks vodka poisoned with TAB!
Joe Dante’s crazy-critter sends up It’s A Wonderful Life with its bucolic Christmas burb threatened by the title creatures — and nods to The Wizard of Oz with its canine-hating rich old crone Mrs Deagle. In this cartoonish comedy, Stripe and his anarchic brethren unleash all sorts of hell, killing a teacher with a hypodermic needle to the butt, molesting Santa Claus, running riot in a cinema and sending Deagle flying out her second-story window. But the human response is pretty tough, too, with hero Billy’s mom Lynn coming off like some sort of James Cameron heroine as she stabs a gremlin, forces another into a blender and explodes a third in the microwave. Perhaps the most frightening (and funny) moment comes when gorgeous Phoebe Cates reveals how she came to hate Christmas when her dad’s down-the-chimney Santa act went so, so tragically wrong.
The Santa-slasher sub-genre is surprisingly well stocked, with offerings such as Don’t Open Till Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night and the godawful Brett Ratner-produced Santa’s Slay. But Christmas Evil — which is one of Christmas-maniac John Waters’ favorite movies — is actually a serious take on the matter. Coming off like Taxi Driver, the anti-hero here is Harry, who’s never been the same since as a kid he saw mommy having her, er, fireplace stoked by a guy in a Santa suit. Now grown-up, Harry lives alone in an apartment decorated year-round for Christmas and creepily spies on the neighborhood kids and lists their misdeeds in a big ledger. Then, as December 25 approaches, he finally cracks, gluing on a Santa beard, cackling crazily in front of the mirror and stealing toys from the factory where he works to give to the poor kids. Oh, and he uses a tomahawk to splatter the brains of his boss and a few other bastards on the front steps of a church in a hit that’s more like something out of The Godfather than Halloween. The ending — when he’s pursued by a mob of New Yorkers bearing flaming torches — is truly bizarre and (in a serial killery way) miraculous.
Think of all the moments you remember about this classic. It’s all bless us this and bells tolling with joy about that. But remember what it’s all about up until that point. Good old Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey is so depressed over a banker-instigated economic meltdown that he wants to kill himself. It takes an angel to bring him back, and show him that as a man of keen eyesight, valorious war service and a financial officer actually interested in affordable housing for the poor, he has saved and enriched a lot of lives. Truly, a fantasy! That it ends with a popular bail-out of the bank (well, Building And Loan) is another reason this one won’t be remade anytime soon. It’d be safer to greenlight Battlefield Earth 2.
If you put Tim Burton in the wayback machine half a century with only the tagline “Santa Vs Satan”, this might be what he came up with. Rene Cardona’s Mexican yuletide epic has Santa and Co. pitted against Pitch, the little invisible devil who’s doing the bidding of Lucifer. See, Satan wants all the boys and girls to rebel against Santa by doing evil — and he’ll even get Pitch to whisper in little ears the news that their jolly idol is a murderer. This is supposedly for kids but comes off as totally freaky, from the creepy animatronic reindeer that pull Santa’s sleigh to his spooky floating castle that’s decorated with pentagrams.
John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween is a classic, no two ways about it, but Bob Clark set the pace with this seasonally titled slasher featuring point-of-view killer-cam. With its frighteneing phone calls — coming from inside the house! — it also hugely anticipated When A Stranger Calls, which was a hit in 1979. This disturbing piece of work takes place over the Christmas break when an emptied sorority house is stalked by a maniac with some pretty serious issues and an even more serious case of maniacal laughter. Stalkees include Margot Kidder and Olivia Hussey. You can go to the grave without worrying about 2006’s needless remake.
This is one of the most quotable Christmas movies ever — but you’ll be locked up if you start reciting the lines in front of the kids. Directed by Terry Zwigoff, who gave us Crumb and Ghost World, and produced by the Coen brothers, this is Christmas fare at its most blackly comic. Billy Bob Thornton is Willie, a boozy and bitter mall Santa who, with Tony Cox’s sidekick elf, each year uses his access to commit a department-store burglary. He’s a funny bastard — whose dark side is lightened somewhat when he takes a nerdy kid under his stinking armpit — but what he likes to do with overweight ladies’ bottoms is so scary we can’t put it on a family site like this one.
Unless your official title is “Mila Kunis’s Number One Fan Fovever!” you can live without ever pressing Play on this underfed but overbaked Christmas turkey. Hulk Hogan plays an amnesiac rich dude who, thanks to stupid scripting, comes to believe that he’s Santa. Thus he dons a cut-off version of the red suit and saves some orphans (one of them being young Mila) from an evil developer by doing a bit of PG-friendly ass-kicking. Supporting players include Clint Howard and Ed Begley Jr, just to ham things up further. Truly, as a family comedy, this is a lump of coal in your stocking.
Unless your official title is “Pia Zadora’s Number One Fan Forever!” — and it can’t be, because Christmas-maniac John Waters already has that job — then you can also do without this famous Z-grade yuletide offering. Martian parents, observing how listless their kids are, decide to kidnap Santa to cheer up the little tykes (one of who is Pia, aged about six, and blissfully unaware that her future included Butterfly and The Lonely Lady). Pantomime shenanigans ensue which include a bad Martian and his robot and a finale involving a billion or so bubbles! If you’re four years old, you might just dig it. Parents however will be driven instantly insane by the title track, “Hooray For Santy Claus”.
Speaking of kidnapping Santa, well, that’s just what misguided Jack Skellington does in this wonderful stop-motion black comedy from producer Tim Burton and director Henry Selick, who’d do this year’s brilliant (and similarly dark) Coraline. Our misfit hero, previously in charge of Halloween — he does, after all, live in Halloweentown — stumbles into Christmastown and likes the idea of being Santa a whole lot better. So, he kidnaps St. Nick and takes his place, bestowing a bunch of highly inappropriate gifts on unsuspecting children everywhere. Like Gremlins, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a perfect introduction to horror-comedy for younger kids.
Michael Adams is the author of the upcoming book Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies: A Film Critic’s Year-Long Quest to Find the Worst Movie Ever Made