Within weeks, the airwaves will be filled with life-affirming Lifetime movies, sentimental sitcom episodes and stories about learning the true meaning of holiday spirit. Yes, it's that time of year againtime to head to the nearest video supplier, online or off, and fortify yourself against an avalanche of Yuletide glop.
The good movies aren't the problem. Take it from someone whose little girl watches Meet Me in St. Louis daily: Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is just as heartwarming (and wrenching) in August as it is in December. Unfortunately, for every good Christmas movie there are five interchangeably lame ones. If it has wacky elves, live-action talking reindeer, a soap-opera star who learns the joy of giving, or Mickey Rooney, skip the eggnog and head straight for the bourbon.
Or opt for something a little more vinegarya palate cleanser, if you will, to cut your Yuletide sugar intake. Below, you'll find a list of offbeat Christmas movies to suit every mood. We're not talking Bad Santa. That's too easy, and besides, a foul-mouthed, foul-smelling, alcoholic shopping-mall Santa just makes me nostalgic. Instead, here are some oddball seasonal favorites that either cast the holiday in a weird new light or offer an alternative to the 2,357th rerun of Jingle All the Way. "Here's your stocking," these films say, in their own inimitable way. "Now stuff it."
Black Christmas (1974) Before Halloween, before New Year's Evil, before there was even Graduation Day, this eerie little Canadian horror film all but invented the holiday-themed slasher movie. A sorority emptying for Christmas break gets a little bit emptier, thanks to a psycho in the attic who terrorizes the remaining girls. Perfect viewing for those lonely late nights around the treesay, were those footsteps on the roof? Among the girls are Margot Kidder, Romeo & Juliet's Olivia Hussey, and a pre-SCTV Andrea Martin; director Bob Clark would put an even scarier spin on the season in a later film, A Christmas Story.
Christmas Evil (1980) A.k.a. You Better Watch Out. Perhaps the first and best of the killer-Santa moviesthere's praisethis cult oddity introduces all the hallmarks of the genre: the kid who grows up to be a stalker, the warping influence of Santa-related sex, the killing with seasonal implements (a Christmas-tree star!). Brandon Maggart plays a low-level toy-factory flunky who keeps tabs on who's naughty and nice. If anyone doubts he's Saint Nick in the flesh, he offs them. More pathetic than scary, it's neither as bloody nor as trashy as the Silent Night, Deadly Night movies. If you like killer Santa movies, I leave it to you to decide whether that's good or bad.
Die Hard (1988) In a just world, this would get shown every year right alongside It's a Wonderful Life. Inside this prototypical action blockbuster beats the heart of a Yuletide classic, as heroic cop Bruce Willis infiltrates his wife's high-rise Christmas party to squash the Scrooges holding the skyscraper hostage. He comes bearing gifts of iron will, tough feet and a witticism for every dangerous occasion. And he's not afraid to take a stand against the commercialization of the season. The bad guys open an elevator to find an unlucky comrade dead in his Santa suit. "Now I have a machine gun," reads the attached note. "Ho ho ho." Eat that, George Bailey. (For other Christmas-set crime dramas, try The French Connection or Lethal Weapon, which opens with a nude woman plummeting from a balcony to "Jingle Bell Rock.")
Jack Frost (1997) Or Seed of Frosty. What happens when "experimental acid" transfers the soul of a serial killer into seemingly harmless snow? Answer: the abject terror of a bulky, immobile killer snowman who strangles his victims with Christmas lights, attacks women in bathtubs and makes awful puns. The notorious video box for Michael Cooney's no-budget snowblower showed a snowman morphing into some kind of ice demon. Too bad the actual creature looks like a cross between the Jack in the Box mascot and a pissed-off Hostess Snowball. No one will be admitted during the terrifying "antifreeze" scene.
The Magic Christmas Tree (1965) Throughout the early 1970s, virtually any piece of children's entertainment wound up at low-rent kiddie matinees, no matter how grubby or disturbing, no matter if it dated from the Eisenhower administration or beyond. Stuff like the Mexican Santa Claus, in which a leering bearded dude fights the devil in tights. Or this headscratcher of a fantasy made by educational-film vets, in which a magic ring and a talking tree show a kid the true meaning of Christmas (or something). This showed at my school as a rewardyes, a rewardfor magazine sales, and at the time I'd have subscribed to Jock Itch Digest to get out of it. Now I'd love to get another look at its home-movie production values, especially the scene where the kid uses his new "magic powers" for evil. If Méliés ran the junior-high AV club, this would be his magnum opus.
The Ref (1994) Hard to believe, now that they're broadcast more often than Law & Order reruns every Christmas, but A Christmas Story and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation were once considered an antidote to sugary seasonal fare. So far, this hilariously hostile comedy has resisted becoming a holiday classic, though who knows how long it can hold out. It's basically Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? decked with holly, as burglar Denis Leary stumbles into the miserable household of feuding Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis as their vile in-laws arrive. As an emblem of enforced holiday cheer, one image is burned into my mind: Leary posing as a dinner guest, scowling from beneath a "Scandinavian candle hat" like a man with a birthday cake smushed on his head.
Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972) A truly insane piece of prepube surrealism, made under the heartwarming assumption that the little bastards'll swallow anything with "Santa" in the title. Santa crash-lands his sleigh on a sunny Florida beach and bitches about the heat. Suddenly some kids arrive from a nearby subdivision. Time for a story! Cut to the cheapest, creepiest version of "Thumbelina" ever filmed, with actors traipsing around in ratty mole, bird and frog outfits. This section is actually an unrelated feature filmed a year earlier by schlockmeister Barry Mahon, and there are subtle tip-offs if you look closelylike new credits that appear midway through the movie. Then Santa wilts from the heat. Who should arrive in an old fire truck but the Ice Cream Bunny! This flea-bitten varmint looks like an NHL mascot yanked off Skid Row. If you'd come back from seeing this at the movie theater and told your parents what you had seen, they'd have packed you off to Cloverbottom.
The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) Everybody loves Star Wars, right? And everybody loves TV variety shows, right? From two fallacious premises comes this bootleg favorite, an incomparable monstrosity that reunites the Star Wars cast for two hours of inane comedy skits, musical numbers, holiday cheer and sweet Wookiee love. To commemorate Wookiee "Life Day," stars Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and a typically merry Harrison Ford cavort with alien visitors, Chewbacca's unintelligible family and guest stars Harvey Korman and Jefferson Starship. And just when you've managed to rehinge your jawhey, look, it's Bea Arthur! Nothing else will faze you the entire holiday.
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