It’s that time of year again, when people of all nations come together to eat gargantuan portions of food and win Academy Awards for present-opening reactions; a time when you can’t escape the ostentatious parade of brand names and possible presents; and, indeed, a time when the special edition of the Radio Times reliably informs us of all the Christmas movies on offer this season. But with everything from high-budgeted action to TV-film corniness, my question is: what are some of the best (and worst) Christmas movies, and do Christmas movies in general ever have a chance of surviving outside of their two-month slot?
It’s sad to say that over the Christmas period, quite often, I find it difficult to use the television, because it is often occupied with these horrible C-List American TV movies that are entirely devoid of charm but which certain members of my family insist on watching. Take, for example, the title-tells-you-all Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus, which stars Police Academy‘s Steve Guttenburg as a soon-to-be Santa who, er, happens to be seeking a Mrs. Claus. I caught five minutes of the atrocious ending and was genuinely terrified. Guttenburg, over the course of the movie, indeed finds his wife, but at the point I joined he had separated from her for some soap-opera reason or another (you know how it goes). But in the end… he returns! Though in a thoroughly disquieting fashion. As actress Crystal Bernard (who?) bounds down the steps to see what Santa has brought her son this year, she discovers Guttenburg – sitting in a chair in Santa suit, smiling eerily, as if he has been up all night, waiting for her to descend the stairs so he can pounce and sink his claws into her neck. I don’t know if it is just me but I thought that this scene was one of the finest examples of cinematic weirdness since David Lynch baffled us all with Mulholland Drive, and the image still haunts me to this day (safe to say, I haven’t watched the rest of the film).
Also occupying the less brilliant side of the scale of Christmas movies is Home Alone 2. Now, I’ll admit, I loved the original and its billion sequels a lot when I was younger, laughing gleefully at the slapstick humour and wit of its tiny protagonist, Kevin McAllister. I wondered after seeing Home Alone 2 on TV this afternoon just how strangely warped my child mind must have been to enjoy it. It wasn’t the silly sentimentality or even the unusual length of two hours that caused me to recoil this time round. Surprisingly, it was exactly what attracted me to the film in the first place, the final sequence, where the hapless and brainless Harry and Marv try to catch the young Kevin as he disappears into an unfinished house, only to be subjected to the various traps that have been laid out for them. So far, so good – except the traps in the first film were actually funny. Here, they are downright sadistic. That’s right, there’s brick-throwing, explosives, an overwhelming barrage of heavy objects being ceremoniously dumped on heads, electric shocks, and spillage of paint. If movies actually told the truth, then poor Harry and Marv would have been dead before they even got into the house. We eventually get to a point where we want the criminals to succeed, and for Kevin to either be thrown off the building or sent to a mental hospital where he’ll sit in a corner, deliriously hatching new plans, for the rest of his life, so he won’t ever appear in a film again and, crucially, won’t miss any more stupid planes.
Did I enjoy this Christmas fluff? Well, no. Would they bear viewing in, say, June? Certainly not. What then, are the best Christmas movies, the ones that are worth watching, and the ones that do bear viewing in any season? There may be many, but I just want to give two of my favourites to counteract the two already mentioned: Gremlins and Die Hard.
First to Gremlins, which is a genuinely fantastic horror-comedy from director Joe Dante. If you haven’t seen the film, then you must have heard of the all-important rules regarding the initially cuddly creatures of which the young Billy is gifted early on in the film: 1. Don’t get it wet. 2. Keep it away from sunlight 3. Whatever you do, don’t ever, EVER feed it after Midnight. Unfortunately, Billy betrays all three of these rules and suddenly finds legions of malevolent monsters swarming the town. I love the way that the film utterly destroys the idyllic scene of small-town America as the cackling devils take over cars, invade bars and, every once in a while, actually kill someone. I also loved its ability to be both hilariously funny and unusually dark in places; there are laughs, but they are interspersed with crazy violence and one pretty depressing story related by one of the supporting characters that explains her dislike of the Christmas period. Watching that scene now almost makes me want to laugh. Perhaps that’s what I love best about Gremlins – it’s not just gloriously entertaining but it gleefully subverts typical ideas about a Christmas movie with a savagery not unlike that of the puppet monsters. (Incidentally, the puppetry is amazing, and the film is worth seeing for that alone.)
And now to Die Hard. Perhaps the most obvious indicator of how astonishingly good this film is is the fact that the first time I saw it was not at Christmas, and I couldn’t have enjoyed it better. In case you didn’t already know, it’s the explosive story of what happens when John McClane, a New York Police Officer, comes to visit his estranged wife in Los Angeles for a Christmas party; the colossal office building is taken over by European terrorists while John is in the bathroom, and it is up to him to thwart these foreign villains and rescue the hostages – even though he’s not even wearing shoes. Like Gremlins, Die Hard benefits from its humour, but also from its terrific performances, particularly from Bruce Willis, the perfect deliverer of one-liners, and Alan Rickman, who could not be more charismatic as the leader of the operation. But what do we really watch Die Hard for? The action! There is only one location, and the filmmakers certainly make the most of it; the fact that the triumphant and massive explosion of the lower section of the building was carried out for real (not CGI) only adds to the sense of awe. But is it a Christmas movie? Well, it takes place over the season, and it is certainly a Christmas tradition in my house to watch Die Hard every December. After all, nothing spells out peace and goodwill to all men than a sweaty middle-aged man in a vest with a receding hairline firing round upon round at a group of Euro-villains.
There’s no question that there are some excellent films which use Christmas as an important plot device: It’s a Wonderful Life, for example, or any decent version of A Christmas Carol. But I think that many of the best Christmas movies really aren’t very much about Christmas. They could take place around the season, and therefore could be seen accordingly, but would be appreciated equally in any month of the year. So, if you ever feel weighed down by trashy movies this December that are designed to lift your spirits but do exactly the opposite, just remember that there is still hope – make sure you have DVDs of Gremlins and Die Hard just in case. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas indeed.