There’s one month that sends a tingle of dread down my spine when it comes to leaf over a page on the calendar to that particular span of thirty odd days; December. The whole month is one long, manufactured bout of imposed merriment leading to a single day that never lives up to the preceding hype. The amount of fuss that’s made over the 25th I half expect Madonna to turn up naked in my Xmas stocking to spend the rest of the day with me watching the Lord of the Rings
trilogy, sipping on never ending glasses of beer, and munching on bowls of cheese topped Doritos. But alas the only throbbing that takes place on Christmas Day is usually above my waist line, focused squarely in the front of my skull. It never used to be that way though, which makes the day all the more depressing. As a child December used to be the best month of the year, thirty one days of wonderment and fun culminating in a week long celebration of unwrapping, game playing and eating. Where did it all go wrong? "You grew up” is the explanation most people give. Television over the festive period, something we are all forced to sit in front of for longer periods than we otherwise would do, doesn’t help the cause. The movie output over Christmas is usually so sickly sweet I have to spend the majority of January crying in a dentist chair. Christmas movie makers take note; we don’t all enjoy a happy ending. Some of us like a funny ending, an action packed conclusion, a rude finish, and even the odd bewildering completion, just to help reserve a small shred of our sanity for New Years. So for those other sane individuals who also can’t stand another evening in front of Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
here’s a few irregular chestnuts to chew on.
- BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)
What better way to celebrate the festive period than with a nice slasher movie. Nothing says "Merry Christmas” quite like an axe to the groin or a machete to the face. But this isn’t just any slasher flick; much to the annoyance of Halloween (1978) fans who swear blind that John Carpenter is the originator of the stalk and slash film phenomenon, Black Christmas (1974) makes an even better case for being the very first slasher film to assault an audience. This Bob Clark directed thriller predated the Haddonfield exploits but four years and features a plot device strikingly similar to almost every slasher epic that followed in Halloween’s wake. On an American college campus a sorority house full of girls (including a fresh faced Margot Kidder) are terrorised by a stranger who offs the young students one by one. It may not seem like a terribly original plot these days but at the time it was groundbreaking and terrifying to witness the murder of a group of nubile ladies. The film was also the first to utilise the horrifying urban myth of the killer calling from inside the house, a story thread that was used to drive a whole film five years later in When A Stranger Calls (1979). Juxtaposing these horrors against such a typically merry time of year makes the movie all the more affective, and where as Halloween explained who its villain was Black Christmas leaves its disturbed killer a complete unseen, unexplained mystery.The film was remade in 2006 rather unsuccessfully, the gore quotient being upped considerably, replacing the scares of the original with the inevitable post Hostel (2005) grue.
Tasty Morsel – The film’s original title was "Stop Me” before being changed to its festive moniker. Upon its initial release however the title was briefly changed once again to "Silent Night, Evil Night” when distributors feared it would be mistaken for a Blaxploitation picture.
- GREMLINS (1984)
Now here’s a Christmas film to satisfy all members of the family. This Joe Dante movie has plenty of scenic snow and the all important "Christmas message” for the Xmas conscious, some cutesy characters for the kids to coo over, and for those of you who would rather stuff a blood stained hockey mask on the top of the Christmas tree, plenty of shocks and frights. It is the complete Christmas movie package. Cautious 1984 audiences didn’t seem to think so though. The beige overcoat crowd feared this new cinematic menace would tip festive fuelled youngsters over the edge. They even did a piece about it on the BBC Six O’Clock News, warning unsuspecting parents of the eternal harm that would most definitely be caused to their younglings should they be neglectful enough to let them watch it. Of course, as with every media invoked movie panic, the world did not succumb to the overwhelming moral debauchery that flowed through Gremlins (1984) and our kiddies didn’t turn into moribund savages with a thirst for blood and a desire only to be fed after midnight. Mores the pity I say, that would make for one hell of a New Years. The one aspect that really frightened adults at the time was the fact that their little ones might, heaven forbid, find the Gremlins kind of cool, which they were. Running around in flashers-macs and sunglasses, sending doddery old ladies skyward via hastily rewired stair lifts, tearing apart cinemas and riding the food blender merry-go-round, it all looked like deliciously good fun. Hell, I know whose side I would have been on if I’d have found myself stuck in the town of Kingston Falls that winter’s evening. Keep an eye open for blink-and- you’ll-miss-‘em cameos from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
Tasty Morsel – In the original draft of the script Gizmo was intended to change into the head honcho Gremlin Stripe.
- SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1985)
Its back on the horror trail with one of the most awesomely named Christmas films of all time. Slice and dice films had become a bit of a joke by the mid-eighties. Just about every possible premise for a slasher film had been wrung dry, then the bloody carcass picked up and shaken to see what other ideas sloshed out. Continuing the calendar/holiday slasher concept, director Charles E. Sellier Jnr. decided to give everyone’s favourite time of year another stabbing with his sudo-horror-comedy . The film’s premise is as droll as its title. A young kid watches his parents murdered on the street by a thief dressed as Santa Claus, and after some years spent in a horrible orphanage decides to go on his own homicidal rampage dressed as dear old Saint Nick. Slay bells ring, are you listening, in the lane, blood is glistening, etc, etc. Yet again, a mild hysteria gripped the movie going public all off the back of a potent mix of horror and Christmas. Parents in the US were apparently appalled at the idea of Father Christmas being portrayed as an axe wielding manic. But if the guy can break into your house in the middle of the night undetected, surely a bloody killing spree isn’t too much of an imagination stretcher. The protests around the film caused it to be pulled from cinemas a mere two weeks are its initial release. Bah, humbug indeed. Christmas themed thrills had already proven to be fertile ground though, Silent Night, Bloody Night (1974), Christmas Evil (1980), and continued to be after the American Xmas grumpies disappeared back to their glasses of egg-nog, with the likes of Jack Frost (1996), Santa Claws (1996), and Santa’s Slay (2005) ensuring the fun filled funk of Halloween wafted deep into December.
Tasty Morsel – The movie’s witty tagline stated "You’ve made it through Halloween, now try and survive Christmas”.
- SCROOGED (1988)
The main reason behind the success of the early eighties megahit Ghostbusters (1984) was the dazzling performance of Bill Murray. A lot of UK viewers had not witnessed him deadpan with the best of them on Saturday Night Live. His subsequent quirky, sarcasm-laden display as Pete Venkman was a revelation to many. Off the back of this career making performance he took on the role of Francis "Frank” Xavier Cross, a mean spirited television executive who gets visited by three equally mean ghosts on Christmas Eve. Story sound familiar? The title gives it away really, as it’s a modern update of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, itself one of the few classic Christmas tales that holds up well to our modern cinematic sensibilities. Being the masterpiece that it is, it has been retooled and rejigged more times than the entire Shakespeare back catalogue combined but Scrooged (1988) remains by far the best modernisation of the story. Despite being a complete bastard Murray’s sharp wit and zinging put downs already endear him to the audience even before the spooks trot along. Director Richard Donner wisely chose to keep Murray in just about every scene of the movie, and to also give him some bullish sparring partners. Dickens’ undercurrent of gothic horror is also nicely updated thanks to some gruesome effects work, most notably Jamie Farr’s mouldy Jacob Marley. Once the story structure returns to the more traditional Christmas Carol composition the jokes remain but Murray also adds that all important third dimension to Frank, genuine pathos, an essential ingredient if we are to still cheer the inevitable but heart warming conclusion.
Tasty Morsel – Keeping it in the family all of Bill Murray’s brothers (John, Joel and Brian) appear in minor roles in the movie. A number of other star names crop up in small cameos, including Robert Goulet, Lee Majors and Miles Davis.
- DIE HARD (1988)
Not only is Die Hard (1988) a top contender for the best action film of all time, it is also a top contender for the greatest Christmas film of all time. What could be more heart warming than sidling up to your loved one on a cold Christmas Eve, glass of mulled wine in hand, cosy fire to keep you warm, and watching Bruce Willis drop the f-bomb and a ton of hot lead on downtown Los Angeles? Ok, so the Christmas connection is a perilously loose one but it doesn’t stop me jumping up and down like a ten year old shouting "DIE HARD” when my missus suggests we snuggle up with a festive movie in the run up to the Big Day. It’s a bit of an in-joke in our family, a joke that only I find funny any more, along with my crap "Ho, ho, ho” Alan Rickman impression. If you haven’t acquainted yourself with the virtues of John McTiernan’s epic where have you been for the last two decades? Do yourself a favour and go check it out immediately. Words will never do it justice. And of course those men folk out there who prefer lifting a beer to lifting weights will never be able to thank Bruce Willis enough for dispensing with the over muscled meatheads of eighties action cinema and replacing them with the sort of hero us ordinary blokes can aspire to. Slight paunch, dirty string vest, five o’clock shadow, all sloth-like men could claim to be in John McClane mode post 1988. Thank God they didn’t cast Richard Gere in the role as was originally intended. Kudos as well to Rickman for making beards cool once again in what was, quite surprisingly, his first role in a feature film.
Tasty Morsel – In the German version of the movie, the German terrorists were changed into English villains working as radical Irish activists gone freelance for cash profit. This caused some major plot-holes later in the series when Jeremy Irons popped up as Hans Gruber’s brother, but with a clearly Germanic background.
- BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
If you were a fan of the campy 1960’s Batman television show you were no doubt jumping for joy when bizarro film director Tim Burton scored the Batman (1989) movie gig. Those true Batman aficionados had their doubts though. They had already been treated to Frank Miller’s grim mini-series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, the one-shot Batman: Year One and Alan Moore’s tremendous Batman: The Killing Joke by the late eighties. As such the thought of Bruce Wayne mincing about in a day-glo body suit didn’t exactly fill one with enthusiasm. But thanks to some clever casting choices and a darker than anticipated style, Batman was a huge success with both fans and cinema goers. The sequel that followed, Batman Returns (1992) was rather oddly set at Christmas time, strange noting that the film at times appears if it has been shot in black and white, such is its monochromatic look. Coupled with an intriguing plot surrounding the abused and abandoned Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin and the flirtatious and fetishistic Catwoman and you get the sense that you are viewing a Christmas film that has been shot in a parallel universe. The bright warm colours have been swapped for shades of grade and black, the sweet happy endings and wholesome characters traded in for creatures of questionable disposition. It is the perfect antidote for too much Christmas cheer. The only downside is that, once again, Burton delivered a Batman film that wasn’t about Batman. The series continued this trend with Val Kilmer filling the suit in underwhelming fashion for Batman Forever (1995) and George Clooney looking thoroughly bored throughout Batman and Robin (1997).
Tasty Morsel – Annette Benning was originally cast as Catwoman, only forgoing the role when she fell pregnant.
- GROUNDHOG DAY (1993)
The sentiment quotient in most Christmas films is far too high. Take Xmas mainstay It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), a movie so desperate to cling to its jolly moralising is strangles the life out of every scene. Not that a bit of festive feeling is a bad thing, but there are more artistic ways to display it than with a blunt visual cue card that screams "Start weeping now!”. A good starting point is a solidly sarcastic Bill Murray performance. Just as with the aforementioned Scrooged, Murray’s sardonic attitude immediately knocks the soppy stuffing out of Groundhog Day (1993), leaving director Harold Ramis the job of slowly rebuilding it over the course of one of the most brilliant movies in modern cinema. Despite not being set at Christmas all the festive trappings are there, snow, ice sculptures, twinkly lights on white picket fences. But it’s the journey of Murray’s weatherman Phil Connors that invokes a true Christmas spirit, as Connors is forced to take a long hard look at his life in the face of ultimate déjà-vu in small town America. The laughs come along for the ride as Ramis somehow manages to craft an entire movie out of endless repeats of the same scene, albeit a day long scene presented in quick snippets. And the repetition never gets old. Proceedings just get more and more fascinating as the question of what you would do if you could live forever gets approached from every comedic and philosophical angle without once falling into the heavy handed sermonising trap. The pitch perfect climax allows Murray to present a changed man, a version of his eighties snark with much softer edges. It was a turning point for Murray, the actor building on Connors and his Gobblers Knob stay to the benefit of cinema viewers everywhere, with the likes of Lost In Translation (2003) and Broken Flowers (2005).
Tasty Morsel – American writer Richard A Lupoff tried to sue the producers of Groundhog Day claiming that the film plagiarised his 1973 short story 12:01pm.
- THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)
A year later we got some clarification as to just why Batman Returns came across like a Christmas induced bad dream. Tim Burton had long been toying with a pet project concerning the coming together of Halloween and Christmas, a concept that began life as a three page poem. With Burton working for Disney at the time, the House of Mouse originally wanted to turn the poem into a half hour holiday special. But the project was put on hold until the early nineties when Burton and Disney renewed their interest. Once it was decided that The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) would be made in stop-motion animation however Burton handed over directing duties to Henry Selick. Danny Elfman was recruited to write songs for the piece and once the painstakingly slow animation work was taken care of the movie was given a Halloween release in 1993. It was an immediate cult hit, and remains one the best examples of that infamously eccentric style of Tim Burton filmmaking. The strange thing is despite the original idea stemming from the imagination of Burton it was Selick who actually filmed the movie for two solid years, stating that he was hired to make it look like a Tim Burton movie. Still, for those that like their Christmas tales to be a little more off the wall, Nightmare is the perfect antidote. Spliced with the sort of infectious musical numbers that are part and parcel of so many festive films, but presented in the creepy fashion that stop motion allows, it is another one of those oh so rare movies that ticks the boxes of Christmas loves and Christmas haters alike. Think of it as the illegitimate love child of October the 31st and December the 25th, a baby Hallomas or a tiny Christween
Tasty Morsel – Patrick Stewart did the original introduction to the movie, which can still be heard on the film’s soundtrack.
- THE REF (1994)
A comedy equivalent of American Beauty (1999) set at Christmas is how one might aptly describe this movie in a chestnut shell. Kevin Spacey stars as a put-upon husband, battered verbally and mentally by his adulterous wife Judy Davis. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time on Christmas Eve, the couple are kidnapped by small time crook Dennis Leary after a break-in goes awry. Leary gets more than he bargained for from the abducted couple though when he finds himself stuck in the middle of a messy marriage on the rocks. Whether you take to the comedy style of Ted Demme’s The Ref (1994) depends on how much of a fan of Dennis Leary you are, or conversely how much of a fan of Bill Hicks some might say. The verbal sparring amongst the central trio is wonderful though and there are so many hilarious lines of dialogue spewed back and forth you’ll be re-enacting many of the exchanges for your own personal amusement long after the Christmas turkey has all gone, "The day you see anything through to the end, I’ll stick my own dick in my ear”, "See if there’s a waste of fucking life named Murray, try that”. The movie didn’t exactly do well when it was released so you will have to hunt high and low to find a copy these days, but it is worth it just to have some visual evidence of a family and a household that are even bitchier than your own during festive period.
Tasty Morsel – After test screenings the movie’s original ending, which saw Dennis Leary captured by the police, was changed to allow Gus to escape the clutches of the law.
- BAD SANTA (2003)
It’s perhaps just as well that Uncle Walt wasn’t around to see the release of this particular Christmas Disney flick. Profanity spouting dwarfs, a urine soaked Santa and off-camera depictions of anal sex, "Yeah baby, you’re not gonna shit right for a week”, are probably not what the father of the big screen cartoon had in mind for the twenty first century advancement of his company. Fair play to the Disney execs though for having the testicular fortitude to release such a controversial film surrounding a time of year held by many to be the holiest of holy days. Billy Bob Thornton plays a slovenly drunk whose job it is to dress as Santa and occupy kids at various shopping malls come the festive season. Thornton has an ulterior motive though and utilises his time on Santa’s throne to case said shopping complex. When Christmas Eve rolls around, while the world is tucked up in bed he breaks in and helps himself to a sleigh full of whatever he damn well pleases. This particular year things don’t quite go according to plan thanks to a deceitful dwarf (Tony Cox) and a naïve but wholly loveable fat kid (Brett Kelly). Consistently side-splitting throughout thanks to a never better Thornton, the ending is beautifully set up and will leave you rolling on the floor in fits of laughter once you realise exactly what it is the police intend to do at the end of the climatic chase scene. It is the perfect anti-Christmas film for all those who believe Christmas takes itself far too seriously, whilst still managing to bury a heartfelt message of joy deep beneath the layers of cursing, bumming and dwarf bashing. Just don’t let your granny watch it.
Tasty Morsel – Larry David, Bill Murray and Jack Nicholson were all in the running for the role of Willie before Thornton eventually bagged the part.