Christmas is coming, which means far too much chocolate, eight different types of potatoes, spending time with your family playing boggle until Doctor Who comes on and of course, movies. If you enjoy a large dose of syrup with your festive films, that’s great, but this is a list for people who prefer a little seasonal darkness with their holly and their jolly. So, for you darker more cynical people out there, here are a list of Christmas films that won’t make you want to throw up into your box of celebrations (now only bounties left, we’re sure).
Note: Though it deals with heavy themes of guilt and suicide the ending of It’s A Wonderful Life is not suitable for people with diabetes, as it is possibly the sweetest thing ever put to film.
(John McTiernan 1988)
The lightest and happiest of the list, John McTiernan’s simple action concept film is a Holiday favourite. Bruce Willis is the middle aged copper from New York out of his depth in the hot glamour of Los Angeles trying to win back the affection of his wife Bonnie. So far so dull, but then Alan Rickman, his sinister facial hair, and a legion of non-American baddies lay siege to the building they’re partying in. It becomes the job of Willis’ John McClane and his only radio contact over-weight beat cop Reginald VelJohnson, to stop the crooks, make so sick quips and shoot some bad guys. It’s not all hugs and bearded old men when it comes to the festive season, it can be a middle aged dude who looks like your dad punching vaguely European terrorists in the face. Fancy something a little left field on Christmas Eve? Come out to the coast, get together, have a few laughs.
(Richard Donner 1987)
A sort of version of It’s A Wonderful Life in which suicidal cop Mel Gibson and dithering old man Danny Glover (too old for this shit), team up to stop some sinister types. Gibson is brilliant as Martin Riggs, suicidal at the loss of his wife and child, who brings out the darkness of the season, while Glover’s Roger Murtugh is the slightly square old man who teaches Gibson that even the darkest nights give way to dawn.
But it’s not all hugs and kisses, there’s also shoot outs, swearing and a good level of blood squibs to keep the action film moving along nicely. When it comes to festive joy, it turns out you’re never too old for this shit.
(Tim Burton 1992)
The bat, the cat and the penguin. Tim Burton’s more confident, darker and stylish comic book adaptation follows Bruce Wayne clearly changed by the events of the first film coming into his own as both Batman and Bruce Wayne. Luckily, as the festive season descends on Gotham and as the snow comes of falling a trio of baddies comes out of the woodwork. Danny DeVito’s OTT Penguin running for mayor while driving around in a duck boat, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman who’s dual life add an interesting spin to the life and other life of Wayne, while a scary haired Christopher Walken is the mogul who corrupts Gotham with his dodge schemes. Is it festive? The ever falling snow makes it look like a dark older brother to Edward Scissorhands, and given Danny Elfman’s brilliant score, it’s a festive as it gets. Just remember, mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it, but a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it.
(Michael Dougherty 2015)
Not nearly as dark as it should have been, but an enjoyable festive romp which shows the horror of the festive season when your obnoxious family members come to stay. The legend of Krampus is turned into a 21st Century boogey man as the horned dark version of Santa comes a knocking on doors as a boy’s wish brings about unspeakable horror. The beast itself is great and sinister, but the real props go to the sinister elf toy things that terrorise the family for longer. It might be a little too Gremlins-esc for some, and the more annoying family members grate long before you begin to feel for them, but Dougherty ramps up the tension and when it needs to be nasty, he doesn’t falter for a second.
3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR
(Sydney Pollack 1975)
Before Trump made a mockery of the US government, Nixon had tarnished the reputation of the title of President. Around this time a festive-set paranoid conspiracy thriller called 3 Days of the Condor came out. Robert Redford is an office stooge looking into propaganda about communism in books who draws the short straw of going to get the office staff lunch that day. As he does so, government hired baddies come in and gun down everyone. Then it’s time for Redford’s average Joe to stop being so bookish and start being Bondish. With Faye Dunaway as the woman he drags into the web of intrigue the unfolding mystery is framed around the season of good will. Dark streets lit with fairy lights, conversations punctuated by brass bands, snow failing to cover up the lies around our hero work so very well. It’s not overtly festive but it really works.
No Majesty’s Film Newsletter
Like what you’re reading? subscribe and get the latest news, reviews and features, straight to your inbox.
RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE
(Jalmari Helander 2010)
Move over Tim Allen, step aside Lord Attenborough, don’t even bother getting dressed Kurt Russell because there’s only one Santa Claus you need to watch out for. This Finnish dark fantasy film explores the idea that people go hunting for the famed Santa only to discover something much much darker. Based on two short films, this Finnish horror film is brilliantly directed and acted, as if we’re seeing the truth behind the myth. It works well as a double bill with the Finnish film Troll Hunter, but in Rare Exports we have a much better done version of the idea that a being that can be in all places, can get into your house, and makes judgements, is a terrifying concept. It’s good fun, but not one for the little kiddies. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, and he doesn’t give a monkey’s.
(Martin McDonagh 2008)
Over the Christmas season two Irish hitmen, Colin Farrell’s Ray and Brendan Gleeson’s Ken, go to Bruges for an unknown period of time. Ken worries for Ray who is suicidal after accidentally botching his first hit of a priest and killing a little boy in the process. Hoping to get him from his slump Ken takes Ray to the sights, he woos a French woman, beats up a Canadian, meets a midget, and takes cocaine. Then, when Ken should have killed Ray, he doesn’t, leading their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to come out and finish the job. A black comedy with heart, and moments that show Farrell is one of the best actors who doesn’t know what to do with his talents, playwright turned filmmaker Martin McDonagh directs this acid tongued comic caper with grace and wit and puts enough C-bombs in there to shock the audience. Festive it might not always be, but it’s setting makes it a true Winter Wonderland. And for those who say otherwise, you’re an inanimate fucking object.
(Terry Gilliam 1985)
Dystopian futures, corporate mistakes, fantasies, and Christmas. Terry Gilliam’s dark masterpiece is a tale of a woman against the system, conveying a battle of man against system that mirrors the making of the classic film itself. Jonathan Pryce is great in the central role, and the idea of a world where everything is run down, is so vintage Gilliam it would bleed into his following works. Moreover, the brilliant opening in which a child ponders how Father Christmas will get into the house given there’s no chimney, only for the special forces to cut open a hole in the ceiling and jump through is both absurd and laugh out loud funny. Gilliam has yet to best this work, and with Python’s showing up in small roles (Michael Palin nabs the best of the lot) this remains a non-Christmas Christmas film that gains much from repeat viewings.
(Jon S. Baird 2013)
As dark as a film set at Christmas can get, this jet black comedy based on the Irving Welsh novel tells the story of James McAvoy’s fat, drug abusing, sexually deviant, boozed up bi-polar copper who tries to solve the assault and subsequent death of a Japanese student in order to curry favour for a promotion and to win back his wife and daughter over the festive season. Do not expect redemption in this. As McAvoy’s Bruce “Robbo” Robertson tries to go about his “games” we enter his world of guilt, visions of animal faces, homophobia, cross-dressing, drug abusing, threesomes, Frank Sidebottom impressions, affairs with married women, racism, Christmas Party games, split personalities, a scary big headed Jim Broadbent and David Soul come into play. The supporting cast (Jamie Bell, Imogen Poots, Kate Dickie, John Sessions, Emun Elliott, Eddie Marsan, Shirley Henderson and many many more) are all superb but this is entirely the show of our central actor who carries the film well. Same Rules Apply.
DREAMS OF A LIFE
(Carol Morley 2011)
Too dark to be real, but sadly it is. The story of Joyce Carol Vincent who in 2006 was discovered dead in her apartment surrounded by wrapped Christmas presents, her state was completely decomposed, her flat spelling awful. It turned out that Vincent had died three years previous, and no one noticed. Touching, painful, and with sensitive reconstructions acted by Zawe Ahston.
The story of alienation in the modern world is one that never stops being true. At this time of bickering with loved ones, over indulgence and more than a little spot of complacency, there is loneliness in the world, there is pain and there are people who need to be looked after. Of all the film on the list this is probably the hardest to sit through, with it’s story so hard to comprehend, so hard to fathom, but, if you do, make a phone call to a loved one and remind them that if they died, they’d be missed. As for Joyce Vincent, thanks to Carol Morley (and a fantastic concept album Hands. Cannot. Erase. by Steven Wilson), people know of her, people remember her, and in memory at least, she is not alone.