The good movies aren't the problem. Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in Meet Me in St. Louis 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 vinegary — a 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 Groundhog 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 tree — say, 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.
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 drama, try The French Connection, where death will be Gene Hackman's Santa Claus.)
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 Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) My wife's favorite Christmas movie — come to think of it, almost every woman I've ever known's favorite Christmas movie. Within every suburban mom there beats the cold heart of a ruthless assassin who can MacGyver an incendiary device out of her daughter's baby doll, as Geena Davis proves when she wakes up to her former life as a black-ops bloodspiller. As an exemplar of the "good girl lets her bad girl out" genre, this tops even Grease. As a bracing slug of rotgut in the Shane Black holiday tradition (see also Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), this starts with a reindeer mercy killing — by Davis, with her bare hands — juxtaposes carolers and combat, and has the heroine ice-skating across a frozen lake Rockefeller Center style ... so she can mow down a carload of terrorists. Silent night? Holy shit!
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 reward — yes, a reward — for 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.
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 jaw — hey, look, it's Bea Arthur! Nothing else will faze you the entire holiday.