When it comes to Christmas movies, there are basically two categories. The classics, both old and new (It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle On 34th Street, Home Alone, etc), and the classic genre picture (Die Hard, Gremlins). The former you watch with your family, and the latter you watch with your friends (or your family, if you should be so lucky). The Christmas spirit can get you down with its insistent cheeriness- but at least more and more often, we recognize that the holidays are as difficult to get through as they are fun. Below I have chosen some movies to watch that validate the jaded exhaustion you might feel, while also managing to appreciate the warm spirit of the season. (I have set aside the obvious Die Hard and Gremlins).
Better Watch Out (Dir. Chris Peckover, 2017)
The newest one on this list just came out two months ago, but is already streaming on Shudder. Reuniting the brother and sister from The Visit, the film also stars Levi Miller (Peter Pan) as a pre-teen boy hoping to get lucky with his attractive babysitter (Olivia DeJonge) just before she moves away. If that sounds like a gross concept to you, don’t worry, it is. Fortunately with a couple of unexpected (to me, at least) turns, the movie redeems the viewer who may have felt nauseated by the whole premise. Eventually turning into a dark riff on Home Alone (a movie that’s already darker than it pretends to be), this is probably the meanest film you can watch and still be in the Christmas spirit.
Christmas Evil (Dir. Lewis Jackson, 1980)
The original title for this was, interestingly enough, You Better Watch Out. Celebrated by John Waters as “the greatest Christmas movie ever made,” this North Jersey set slasher is about a killer dressed as Santa Claus, who goes on a murderous rampage on Christmas eve. The killer is Harry (Brandon Maggart), who as a child saw his mommy kissing Santa Claus (his dad, obviously), an incident which traumatized him for life. As the film cuts to modern day, we see that Harry has fashioned himself as a real St. Nick, keeping enormous lists of who has been naughty and nice, while fashioning a “sleigh” out of a creepy windowless white van. The film is as much a psychological portrait of a deranged man-child as it is a slasher, with Harry almost a kindred spirit of Travis Bickle or Frank Zito (Maniac). It is a brilliant and underseen little film that any genre fans should seek out.
Die Hard 2 (Dir. Renny Harlin, 1990)
“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” That’s a great question, John McClane. Once again on Christmas Eve, John (Bruce Willis) has found himself accidentally interrupting a terrorist plot when he is just there to meet up with his wife. Following the rules of all sequels, this one is bigger and more violent, with a much higher body count. It also marked the beginning of a transformation for McClane; from the every-man who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time to a seemingly invincible action hero in the Schwarzenegger mold. It can’t match the first one of course, but as far as 90’s action movies go, this one is still pretty great. It even feels more “Christmas-y” than the first; taking place at Dulles Airport outside of Washington D.C., everyone is in the middle of hellish holiday travel. There is also tons of snow on the ground, setting the stage for an awesome snowmobile chase and a chance to use an icicle as a murder weapon.
Eyes Wide Shut (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
In some ways, Christmas is the ultimate “basic” holiday, which made it the perfect environment for genius pessimist Kubrick to stage a darkly rich portrait of American class differences. At-the-time all star couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman star as Bill and Alice Harford, a rich couple who seem kind of bored with life and perhaps with each other. When Alice confesses to Bill while stoned that she almost cheated on him once, Bill basically loses his god damn mind; going down a rabbit hole and winding up at a gathering for an Illuminati-esque rich people sex cult- all against the background of the Christmas holiday. While none of the film textually grapples with the holiday, the heightened idealization of life during the season mirrors Bill’s picture-perfect sense of his marriage- which comes crashing down like a child who just learned Santa Claus isn’t real.
Krampus (Dir. Michael Dougherty, 2015)
Only a couple of years old now, this movie has already been touted as a new classic of Christmas counter-programming. Starring Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner and Allison Tolman as an acrimonious extended family who have to contend with an evil demon called the Krampus, whose mission is to basically punish people who have lost the Christmas spirit. It plays as more of a holiday film than a horror film, as Dougherty pays great attention to the little details; the mise-en-scene of the holiday decorations, the dangerous blizzard that traps them all in the house, and the creepy snowmen who inexplicably begin popping up outside of their house.