The Essential Collection
The presents are wrapped, the tree is up and you’re already sick of the Christmas songs playing in every shop you visit. What you need is something deliciously different to watch. A film that offers a more adult take on the festive season, or takes you on a weird but fantastical journey. So join us as we explore the Christmas films that step beyond the average festive movie. Films that play with genre boundaries, introduce comic book mayhem or simply reflect a darker picture of Christmas. So get yourself a large drink and feast on our pick of the best deliciously dark Christmas movies.
Better Watch Out (2016)
Better Watch Out remains a largely unseen film, its limited cinema release in 2016, and lack of publicity directly affecting public awareness. However, this is a film destined to become a cult Christmas hit, despite some of the overly harsh reviews it received on release.
Better Watch Out takes the classic comedies Adventures in Babysitting and Home Alone. While subverting the lighthearted attributes of both into a darkly comic and often creepy exploration of teenage psychosis. With the slapstick humour of Home Alone becoming a matter of life and death in the hands of an angelic looking, yet damaged young teen. The mayhem and horror that ensues equally covered in the tinsel and lights of Christmas in the suburbs.
With a superbly sinister performance from Levi Miller. Better Watch Out will ensure you will never look at the innocent young teen you are babysitting in the same way again. A brilliantly dark and different Christmas movie, that twinkles with horror and comedy.
Director: Chris Peckover
Batman Returns (1992)
Batman Returns remains one of the most underrated comic book films of the past 25 years. One that saw Tim Burton delve even deeper into the gothic fairytale horror of his Gotham. While bringing together the Bat, the Cat and the Penguin for a nightmare Christmas in DC Comics darkest city. Providing not only a visually stunning landscape, but also a range of deliciously dark performances. With Keaton building on his debut outing as the Batman. While also relishing the opportunity to play alongside Pfeiffer’s psychotic yet sensual Catwomen and DeVito’s damaged and dangerous Penguin. Consequently creating a film of pure comic book fantasy, as the Christmas lights of Gotham sparkle against the darkness of Burton’s vision.
This is Tim Burton with the gloves off, dovetailing his trademark for gothic fairytales with the action of the first Batman outing. In effect, creating a comic book Christmas adventure full of bite, as Burton’s Batman universe expands and develops. However, unfortunately Batman Returns ended up to dark for some at Warner Brothers. Therefore ending Keaton, Pfeiffer and Burton’s involvement in the franchise. But if you’ve gotta go.. Go in style. And it fair to say that Batman Returns oozes style.
Director: Tim Burton
Die Hard (1988)
Die Hard was released in the summer of 1988, a world away from the Christmas season it has become synonymous with. The films high octane action only dovetailing with Christmas due to VHS, DVD and TV outings in subsequent years, despite its festive setting. While offering the opportunity to slouch on the sofa with a drink and some left over turkey. Equally indulging in the pure escapism and bombastic action of a film that embodies 1980s mainstream cinema.
Die Hard is pure muscles, vests and shakespearian terrorists in all of their overblown glory. Thus providing the world with a sweat soaked Bruce Willis who takes boy scout humour into the realms of counter terror insurgency. With Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy‘ ringing in the ears of the audience through a haze of blood, gunfire and explosions.
Meanwhile, the late, great Alan Rickman brings his trademark shakespearean villainy to the role of Hans Gruber. As the bright lights and capitalism of the ‘Nakatomi Plaza building’ is engulfed in a wave of pure testosterone.
Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? Yes of course it is!. This is a movie full of dark holiday cheer; the ultimate Christmas work party gone wrong. While the 80’s obsession with the Filofax wielding and cocaine sniffing yuppy, is replaced with guns, one liners and explosives.
Director: John McTiernan
Like so many other films on our list Gremlins actually had its worldwide premiere in the height of summer. But make no mistake, this is pure Christmas comic book horror. With the dangers of buying cuddly creatures for your children during the festive season laid bare, as Billy’s new pet ‘Gizmo’ gives birth to anarchy. The Christmas holiday’s turning from ‘Joy to World‘ too ‘Danse Macabre‘ as Gremlins overrun the town of Kingston Falls.
It would be easy to label Gremlins as a simple creature horror movie. But there are also serious messages within the comic book carnage. From the dangers of rampant consumerism, to American fears of foreign power in technonogy. All surrounded by a narrative that reflects the fact that Christmas is not always the happiest time of the year. A theme vividly brought to life when Billy’s girlfriend (Phoebe Cates) recounts the story of her fathers unfortunate death. A story that takes Gremlins from comic book to mainstream horror, before the anarchy starts again.
Director: Joe Dante
Home Alone 2 – Lost in New York (1992)
Leaving your child Home Alone once could be forgiven. But leaving them at an airport and allowing them to go it alone in a major capital city is unforgivable. We tend to view both Home Alone (1990) and Home Alone 2 – Lost in New York (1992) as the perfect family Christmas movies. However, there is a dark side to both of these slapstick comic book adventures. One that finds itself further elaborated in the second Kevin McCallister outing.
Home Alone 2 places a pre-pubescent child into a decidedly adult cityscape. Our young hero avoiding danger by learning the power of money in buying position, authority and escape. The 90s ‘Trump’ owned Plaza Hotel the epitome of a city where money buys power at any age. While the social divides of 90s New York are far more scary than the return of Harry and Marv.
Meanwhile, the slapstick humour of the first film is ratcheted up too maximum. As the traps and pain become sadistic in the hands of our little capitalist Kevin; a boy who seems intent on killing the hapless burglars. Yes, it’s still funny, and yes its full of Christmas cheer. But at its heart Home Alone 2 – Lost in New York is incredibly dark and sinister, as a city of extremes eats away at a young mind.
Director: Chris Columbus
Black Christmas (1974)
Santa Claus stalking houses for a night has become strangely normal in our view of Christmas traditions. However, a serial killer stalking a group of students with not a present in sight is simply not acceptable. Black Christmas has become a legendary horror, subverting the joys of Christmas with a slasher film that’s truly scary. This is a film that came before the Slasher masterpiece of Halloween, and is in many ways the template for Carpenters film. Cleverly ensuring the killer is kept in the shadows, their motives unclear. While telephone conversations with the mysterious killer acted as the inspiration for ‘Scream’ in 1996. Black Christmas may have been low budget, but it shines with horror, subverting the happiest time of the year into an urban blood bath.
Director: Bob Clark
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Imagine trying to eat your Christmas turkey with two giant scissors for hands. The frustration would surely ruin your Christmas dinner and cause great discomfort at the table. Alas this is only one of problems facing Edward in Tim Burton’s gloriously dark fairytale. With Tim Burton offering a beautiful slice of gothic fantasy, that plays homage to Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein‘ and Carlo Collodi’s ‘Pinocchio’. While wrapping the audience in a tender fairytale of loneliness and belonging .
Like many of the films on our list Edward Scissorhands was actually released in the UK during the summer of 1991. But equally inhabits a world of Christmas like wonder and discovery. Exploring difference, intolerance and belonging in a gentle but assured fashion.
Director: Tim Burton
There is no hiding from the inherent darkness of Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol. Or the fact that the novel has given birth to nearly every Christmas movie ever made. However, with Scrooged, the Dickens classic was firmly planted into the capitalist ‘utopia’ of 1980s New York. In a film that takes square aim at the growing commercialism of TV and film. While equally dissecting the influence of big business and capitalism on our festive celebrations.
Scrooged cleverly subverts A Christmas Carol into themes that Dickens himself would be proud of. As it takes square aim the greed and selfishness of 1980s society. While doing so with a broad smile and knowing wink to the audience. Coming long before reality TV, social media and Amazon Prime. Scrooged may just be even more relevant to modern audiences than it was on its release in 1988.
Director: Richard Donner
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
Which Santa Claus do you believe in? The Coca-Cola inspired fat man covered in red and white? Or the far more scary Santa Claus of ancient folklore?
Whichever Santa you truly believe in, Rare Exports takes us on a journey unlike anything else in the Christmas film genre. Where the legend of Santa Claus dovetails with The Thing, in a glorious kalaiedoscope of horror and fantasy. Santa Claus the Movie this is not, and you may never look at the man who comes down your chimney every December in the same again. But for sheer creativity and audacity, Rare Exports remains a glimmering gem in the deliciously dark Christmas movie catalogue.
Director: Jalmari Helander
The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
Just imagine your Christmas and New Year cruise being turned upside down by a gigantic rogue wave. As a result leading to a New Years Day from hell as you try and find your way out of steel tub that was supposed to keep you safe.
Based on the novel by Paul Gallico and directed by British legend Ronald Neame. The Poseidon Adventure launched the 1970s obsession with the disaster film. While equally creating the template for every disaster picture since. And whether it be a motley crew of survivors climbing a giant Christmas tree or Shelley Winters swimming bravely underwater. The Poseidon Adventure gloriously turns the celebration and joy of New Year into an upside down nightmare of epic proportions. While still holding its own some 47 years after release, in its masterful special effects work.
Director: Ronald Neame
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
We know what you are thinking by now. And yes you’re right! Tim Burton is obsessed with Christmas. But with The Nightmare Before Christmas he achieves something truly unique in placing his story into the masterful stop-motion hands of director Henry Selick. Creating a film that replaces any trace of our everyday world with a beautiful musical fairytale.
The story is classic Burton, focussing on a misfit who wants to be accepted and popular. But alas finds himself misunderstood and rejected by those he seeks to impress. In turn creating an animated lead character who would feel equally at home in Edward Scissorhands or Batman. But apart from the wonder of Jack Skellington, Burton and Selick also create a film of pure magic and visual artistry. One that seeps into your heart and remains there for an eternity. While mixing the early gothic horror of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with the pure imagination and escapism of childhood wonder.
Director: Henry Selick
No list of deliciously dark Christmas movies would be complete without the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. After all, the themes of Dickens 1843 book gave birth to so many of the Christmas films we now watch every December.
Released as Scrooge in the UK and A Christmas Carol in the United States. The 1951 adaptation of Dickens classic never found an audience on its original release. But has since earned the accolade of being one of the best screen adaptations of A Christmas Carol. With Alastair Sim turning in one of the most memorable performances of Ebenezer Scrooge ever seen. His performance echoing the inner darkness of Scrooge in way few other actors before of since have managed. While equally reflecting the child-like redemption of the once dour figure. In turn creating the template for Scrooge on screen. While the darkness of Dickens story sits centre stage, with gloriously rich sets and cinematography. Ultimately delivering a film that not only plays homage to Dickens source material. But also reflects both the light and darkness of his timeless Christmas story.
Director: Brian Desmond Hurst
The Lodge (2019)
In a similar vein to Ari Asters Hereditary, The Lodge begins rooted in domestic family life. Richard (Richard Armitage) having left his wife Laura (Alicia Silverstone) for new partner Grace (Riley Keough). Consequently breaking his once happy family in two. With their young daughter Mia (Lia McHugh) and teenage son Aiden (Jaeden Martell) caught in the middle of the parental turmoil.
As part of a healing process, both Richard and Grace believe the families traditional Christmas break to a hunting lodge, may provide the perfect opportunity to thaw the ice. However, the joy of Christmas soon turns into a nightmare of epic proportions. As the snow gets deeper surrounding the Lodge and the isolation of the family grows. With The Lodge ultimately becoming a catacomb for the ghosts of the past and the anger of the present.
Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)
As the maestro of Christmas songs Cliff Richard once wrote, or maybe just sang:
Christmas time, missing toes and wine
Teenagers singing Zombie like rhymes
With limbs on the fire and gifts on the tree
A time to rejoice in the undead we see
Ok, so we may have made some of that up (sorry Cliff). But Anna and the Apocalypse is a truly delicious mixture of musical and zombie invasion that really deserves a Christmas number one. Providing us with a small British film that not only echoes both the teenage fun and freedom of High School Musical. But laces it with the dark humour of Shaun of the Dead.
Written by the incredibly talented Ryan McHenry, who sadly died aged 27 from bone cancer before he could direct the film. Anna and the Apocalypse is full of fun, gore and emotion. While also being one the most unique Christmas films ever made.
Director: John McPhail
Ben is Back (2019)
It’s Christmas Eve in small town America, and the Burns family are all ready to celebrate the big day. However, someone is missing from their Christmas table. Their son Ben (Hedges) who is in rehab following a long term drug addiction. However, on the eve of Christmas, Ben suddenly returns. Not only throwing the family Christmas into turmoil, but also bringing with him the ghosts of his past.
While Ben is Back is mediocre at best, this is a film saved by the performances of both Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges. And if an addiction drama is your ideal Christmas movie. Then you won’t find any other film that dovetails the twinkling lights of Christmas with the darkness of addiction in quite the same way.
Director: Peter Hedges
Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!
Do we really need to say much more? Monty Python’s – The Life of Brian remains one of the most audacious, surreal and damn right silly films ever made. And despite some highly critical early reviews, went on to achieve huge success with the public after opening after opening in April 1975. And while is true that the Catholic archdiocese of New York, plus three distinguished Jewish organisations condemned the film as blasphemous. Their lack of understanding of religious satire, only increased the films appeal with the public.
Director: Terry Jones
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Stanley Kubrick‘s final film offers a complex exploration of sexual desire, domestic monotony and secrets. In a film that divided critics and audiences alike on its release in 1999. While many its core messages remain shrouded in an unconventional narrative. One where the main characters are surrounded by even more interesting ensemble characters and stories. With sex, mystery and humour set against the backdrop of Christmas in New York. Eyes Wide Shut ultimately dovetails lights, trees and garish decorations with sex, lies and intrigue. In a Deliciously Dark Christmas film that still manages to generate significant debate.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Frank Capra’s Christmas classic is without doubt one of the finest Christmas films ever made. Not to mention being one that many people consider to be full of the joys of Christmas, mainly due to its final act. However, the story proceeding this light and joyous ending is in essence extremely dark and full of melancholy.
Capra focuses his film on a man with deeply rooted financial problems, leading to both depression and despair. Consequently leading him to contemplate suicide on Christmas Eve. However, what adds to the prevailing darkness is the fact that George Bailey is a good and kindhearted man. His spirit broken by a capitalist system that places wealth above honesty and integrity. And while the intervention of an angel helps George explore his true beauty and worth. The underlying themes of It’s a Wonderful Life hold an unflinching mirror to society both past and present.
In essence It’s a Wonderful Life provides a cutting commentary on a society built on greed and dishonesty. Where many genuine and nice people are left on the sidelines of life. While equally leading them to depression and a loss of hope and belief in the world. Ultimately reflecting our modern age as much as it did the 1940s society to which it was born.
Director: Frank Capra
Lost in the mists of time, is Doug Liman’s 1999 hit ‘Go’. A film that encapsulated the drug fuelled joy of Christmas for Generation X, as the 90s disappeared into a new millennium. While following three young people who all worked together in the same supermarket over the course of a 24 hour period leading up to Christmas.
Go embodies the the soul of early Tarantino films, while equally deconstructing the end of a 90s youth culture. Ultimately, providing us with a darkly delicious and often forgotten Christmas movie, that deserves far more attention.
Director: Doug Liman