Deliciously Dark Christmas – a collection of delightfully dark festive movies.
What happens if you let the director of the outstanding Trick R’ Treat loose on Christmas? The answer is the delightfully dark Krampus, a movie that laces European folklore with the horror-comedy of Gremlins and shocks of Poltergeist. Here, the family home is invaded by a series of fantastical festive creatures ranging from spooky and sinister elves to killer gingerbread men as Christmas becomes a matter of life and death. But, aside from its devilishly brilliant horror, Krampus is also a delightful celebration of Christmas. The film’s central themes of faith, family conflict, and commercialism are astutely woven into the comic book horror, making Krampus one of the best Christmas horrors out there.
BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
Batman Returns may well be one of the most underrated comic book films of the past 25 years. It would see Tim Burton delve even deeper into the gothic fairytale horror of his 1989 Gotham while embracing a darker universe as he brought together the Bat, the Cat and the Penguin for a nightmare Christmas. Keaton builds on his debut alongside Pfeiffer’s psychotic yet sensual Catwomen and DeVito’s damaged and dangerous Penguin in a truly spectacular comic book adventure that defies simple genre labels.
Batman Returns dovetails Burton’s love of fairytales with heart-pounding action and the darkest humour in creating a Christmas comic book outing that has never been matched. Unfortunately, Batman Returns proved too dark for Warner Brothers, and as a result, Keaton, Pfeiffer and Burton’s involvement in the franchise ended on the snowy streets of Gotham.
THE LODGE (2019)
In 2014, writer/director Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz brought us one of the best horror films of all time with Goodnight Mommy, and in 2019, they teamed up with screenwriter Sergio Casci to bring us a Christmas from hell in The Lodge. From the outset, The Lodge wraps us in a feeling of icy cold discomfort as Fiala and Franz once more play with themes of family, trust and subverted innocence, taking the audience on a trip into the icy depths of psychological terror.
Richard (Richard Armitage) has recently left his wife, Laura (Alicia Silverstone), for a new partner, Grace (Riley Keough). But the couple’s separation was far from harmonious and their young daughter, Mia (Lia McHugh) and their teenage son, Aiden (Jaeden Martell), were caught in the turmoil. Seeking to build a bridge between Mia, Aiden and Grace, Richard plans a traditional Christmas break at the mountain lodge they visited every holiday in happier times. However, soon after they arrive, the weather leaves Grace stranded and alone with the kids as Richard deals with work back in the city. While waiting for Richard’s return, Mia, Aiden, and Grace find the Christmas cheer replaced by a deep, dark, and mysterious nightmare of no escape. Through its icy blast of psychological horror, The Lodge slowly builds an exquisite sense of isolation and claustrophobia.
DELICIOUSLY DARK CHRISTMAS
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972)
Ronald Neame’s New Year’s Day from hell didn’t just fire the starting gun on a whole host of disaster movies; it set the template. Neame’s titanic success turned Christmas and New Year upside down with a gigantic rogue wave. Based on the novel by Paul Gallico, The Poseidon Adventure sees a motley group of survivors journey deep into a luxury cruise ship that has become a sealed coffin. From climbing giant Christmas trees to swimming through tunnels and navigating upside-down kitchens, The Poseidon Adventure is the ultimate disaster movie with groundbreaking special effects, a heart-pounding adventure and a heart-wrenching finale.
Deliciously Dark Christmas
DIE HARD (1988)
Die Hard was released during the summer of 1988, a world away from the Christmas season it represented. However, since then, Die Hard has rightly earned its place as an essential Christmas movie, its testosterone-fuelled story and twinkling lights a perfect, never-equalled slice of 80s festive action. Die Hard is a celebration of sweat-drenched muscles, blood-soaked string vests and Shakespearian terrorists in all their 80s overblown glory. Here, Bruce Willis is nothing more than an overgrown boy scout thrown into a world of counter-terror as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” rings out through a haze of gunfire and explosions. But make no mistake, the late, great Alan Rickman steals the show as the festive lights and coke-sniffing capitalism of the Nakatomi Plaza building are engulfed in a wave of terror.
MORE DARK FESTIVE TREATS TO EXPLORE
Gremlins had its worldwide premiere during the height of the summer of 1984, a strange time of year given the Christmas lights and snow at the heart of Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante’s sublime monster movie written by Chris Columbus. Here, the creative coupling of Speilberg, Columbus and Dante would explore the dangers of buying cuddly creatures for your kids at Christmas as Billy’s new and loving pet, ‘Gizmo,’ gives birth to anarchy and destruction in the town of Kingston Falls.
Spielberg and Dante’s picture is many things, from a sharp dissection of growing 1980s consumerism to a cutting exploration of US colonialism and racism. Dante’s direction recognises that the best family monster horror films should always be bathed in deliciously dark humour, and Gremlins offers that in spades. Its ridiculous yet ingenious plot thrives on comic-book anarchy and campfire-inspired horror as a group of deadly yet lovable hooligans sing-along to Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Gremlins is Spielberg, Columbus and Dante’s love letter to 50s monster horror with a dose of 80s action-adventure thrown in for good measure.
RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)
Do you believe in the Coca-Cola-inspired fat Father Christmas covered in red and white or the far more scary Santa Claus of European folklore? In Rare Exports, the latter takes centre stage in a festive fantasy horror unlike anything else. Written and Directed by Jalmari Helander, Rare Exports dovetails the legend of Santa Claus with elements of John Carpenter’s The Thing. The result is a stunning mix of folklore horror, dark comedy, fantasy and science fiction that couldn’t be more different to the bright lights and smiles of Santa Claus the Movie. Helander’s narrative ensures that you will never look at the man who comes down your chimney in the same way again through a genuinely audacious, creative and stunning festive fantasy gem.
DELICIOUSLY DARK CHRISTMAS
BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)
Every year, without question, Santa Claus stalks our houses, breaking in and stealing food while spying on our kids. However, somehow this behaviour is okay because he leaves us presents. It is somewhat astonishing that it took until 1974 for someone to link the inherent serial killer vibes at play during Christmas with the horror genre. But Bob Clark’s groundbreaking Black Christmas did precisely that as it finally embraced the dark side of the festivities with a genre-defining film that gave birth to a whole sub-genre of horror – the teen slasher. Black Christmas would go on to inspire John Carpenter’s Halloween, yet it’s Carpenter’s film that often receives the credit for defining the slasher horror. But trust me, Bob Clark’s film is where it all began.
HOME ALONE 2: LOST IN NEW YORK (1992)
Leaving your child ‘home alone’ once could possibly be forgiven, but leaving them alone for a second time at a major international airport and allowing them to travel independently to New York is clearly unforgivable. Following Home Alone with a quick turnaround sequel was never going to be easy, and the second outing was about maximising profit rather than telling a new story. However, as sequels go, many argue Home Alone 2 – Lost in New York pulled off the trick of building upon the success of its forerunner. Home Alone 2 ultimately works by embracing the darker edges of the original story as it places a pre-pubescent child into an adult cityscape where he learns that money buys safety in the 90s-owned Trump-Plaza Hotel.
The slapstick humour of the first film is turned up to the maximum in the story that ensues, with the traps becoming sadistic in the hands of a new city-dwelling Kevin; in fact, young Kevin often seems intent on killing the hapless burglars. But I guess that’s what a few days in the big smoke does to a child. It may be full of Christmas cheer, but Home Alone 2 – Lost in New York has a far more sinister edge as a city of extremes eats away at a young boy’s mind.
DELICIOUSLY DARK CHRISTMAS
EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)
Imagine trying to eat your Christmas turkey with two giant scissors for your hands – the frustration alone would surely ruin your Christmas dinner and cause significant discomfort to those around you. Alas, this is just one of young Edward’s problems in Tim Burton’s gloriously dark and emotional fairytale. Tim Burton’s movie is a beautiful slice of gothic fantasy that pays homage to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio as we are taken on a journey into loneliness, discrimination and forbidden love. Edward Scissorhands was released during the summer of 1991, but it inhabits a world of Christmas-like wonder, discovery and magic.
JACK FROST (1998)
Jack Frost (Michael Keaton) is a singer in a rock band that has never made it beyond successful local gigs in Colorado. But all that changes when an agent spots his group’s potential and invites the band to a contract meeting on Christmas Eve. Jack has spent years on the road aiming for success, and his eleven-year-old kid Charlie and wife Gabby have often been sidelined as a result. When Jack breaks a promise to watch Charlie play in an ice hockey match, Charlie once again finds himself relegated to second place; therefore, Jack promises to take Charlie and Gabby to their cabin in the mountains for a Christmas together with no distractions, but his work gets in the way again with news of the potential contract signing. But as the band sets off, Jack changes his mind, opting to drive home through a snowstorm where he crashes his car and dies on a mountain road as Christmas Day comes into view.
A year later, Charlie, now twelve, is struggling to process his dad’s death, his emotions a mix of anger, pain, and love as he attempts to deal with last year’s tragic events. But a snowman Charlie built is about to come to life with the spirit of his father as Jack returns for one last magical Christmas with his son. Despite its grim backstory, Jack Frost focuses entirely on a father-and-son relationship and their complex unspoken emotions. This enables the film to delve into themes of male emotion and grief, a brave step for any family fantasy movie set at Christmas. The film’s ability to dovetail this message with action and humour that appeals directly to young boys is impressive; from snowball fights to jokes about the male anatomy and snowboarding, this is a film that understands its young male audience from the outset. It may be dark and sometimes clumsy, but Jack Frost wears its heart on its sleeve as it explores grief, fatherhood and the importance of open communication.
Deliciously Dark Christmas
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol gave birth to the Christmas story and movies we have all come to love. But in Richard Donner’s Scrooged, Dickens’ classic found a new and distinctly 80s voice as Donner unpicked the capitalist utopia of 1980s New York. Donner’s film would take aim at the growing commercialisation of TV and film while dissecting the influence of big business on our festive celebrations in a manner Dickens himself would have been proud to endorse. Donner’s razor-sharp comedy takes a scalpel to the greed and selfishness of late 1980s society, with its message sadly even more relevant today as it asks us all, “What is Christmas really all about?”.
EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)
WORDS: SAB ASTLEY
Eyes Wide Shut is far from a reflection of the festive spirit, but if Die Hard is now classed as a Christmas film, then so is Kubrick’s swan song. In many ways, it’s the perfect anti-Christmas film, exploring a family breakdown at the “happiest” time of the year. Disturbed by the sudden sexual revelation of his wife (Nicole Kidman), Dr Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) struggles to move past the recurring mental image of her with another man. Here, his obsessions eat away at his soul as he embarks on a trip into a secret psycho-sexual Manhattan fantasy. Eyes Wide Shut remains fascinating because everyone seems to be in on the joke of Harford’s meaningless exploration, except for Cruise. Kubrick almost appears to be playing the grandest trick possible by tormenting the character and actor in unison. However, while Cruise’s serious performance shouldn’t work, it does.
Eyes Wide Shut would push Cruise and Kidman’s relationship to the brink with a mammoth production shoot of fifteen months; in fact, many since have argued that this was the point at which their marriage became impossible. Was this Kubrick manipulating the boundaries between reality and fiction, using Kidman and Cruise as his pawns? We will never know what Kubrick had in his mind during filming, and that may be why Eyes Wide Shut remains a fascinating but uncomfortable watch.
Why Kubrick set Eyes Wide Shut during the holidays remains a mystery, with no festive link to the original 1926 novella Rhapsody: A Dream Novel. Some writers like Brianna Zigler have theorised that this is Kubrick’s anti-consumerist critique of what Christmas has become, which is a solid take. However, you could also read this as a Kubrickian take on a Christmas romp that celebrates Kubrick’s dark sense of humour and disposition for psychological drama. Either way, Eyes Wide Shut remains an enigma wrapped in fairy lights and sex, a darkly delicious finale from a cinematic and artistic genius.
DELICIOUSLY DARK CHRISTMAS
Doug Liman’s 1999 Go! appears to have vanished into the mists of time since its initial release. Yet Go! encapsulates the imagination, excitement and energy of late 90s filmmaking for Generation X. Liman’s high-energy rollercoaster throws together a group of young people on the countdown to Christmas through a series of interconnected events and meetings, creating a tangled festive journey of drugs, booze, sex and crime. Go! is a high-octane exploration of 90s youth culture as the millennium dawns, with the soul of Tarantino’s early work and the banging score of movies like Human Traffic. It is a Christmas movie like no other and one that deserves far more attention and praise.
JINGLE ALL THE WAY (1996)
WORDS AGI SAJTI
Brian Levant’s Jingle All the Way is often overshadowed by Home Alone and The Muppet Christmas Carol as a memorable 90s Christmas family film. Yet, it has everything we could ask for from a festive movie while simultaneously reflecting the biggest nightmare for most parents: finding that elusive Christmas toy that has become so popular it’s rare. Jingle All the Way reflected the Toy Story mania of Christmas of 1995 (I am sure you all remember the clammer for a Buzz Lightyear figure) and the horror of the fight for “Cabbage Patch Kids” in 1983. It represents everything that many claim is wrong with Christmas: indulgent consumerism.
Workaholic mattress salesman Howard (Arnold Schwarzenegger) feels guilty for not spending enough time with his son, Jamie (Jake Lloyd), and promises to get him a much sought-after “Turbo Man” action figure for Christmas. However, the toy is so popular that it’s become unavailable, and Howard’s fight to claim one soon escalates into a competition with a fellow dad, Myron (Sinbad).
Jingle All the Way was never going to be part of any academic discussion on cinema, nor was it destined to go down in film history as a masterpiece. But does that mean it’s a bad movie? Of course not! Levant’s film is an enjoyable and completely ridiculous comedy with a very dark edge. Like the delightfully odd Kindergarten Cop, Schwarzenegger feels entirely out of place, yet his presence makes the film work. Jingle All the Way also brings us the big-screen debut of Jake Lloyd, who would later become Anakin Skywalker, with countless figures of him lining shop windows, only adding to the fascinating themes at play. Jingle All the Way never attempts to be serious, but it does hold a sharp dissection of the commercialisation of Christmas, which, in retrospect, is rather bold for a mid-90s commercial film.