The Dead (1987)
I rewatched The Dead this week, and while it doesn’t sound like uplifting season viewing, I would urge everyone to add it to their Christmas watchlist. John Huston’s final film swings for the big themes of Joyce’s story, but what was most striking to me was how deftly it captures the minutiae of a Christmas party.
As in the story, Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta arrive at 16 Ushers Island on the 6 January 1904 for an ‘Epiphany’ dinner party. Once there Gabriel gets ensnared in one Christmas party problem after another — nearly getting into a political argument with a Gaelic League-er over his Irishness, politely joining the person sitting alone only to be subjected to a one sided conversation about fishing in Glasgow, and of course ‘minding’ the awkwardly effusive drunk Freddy Mallins. It captures a truth – that a great party is a live-wire act, always on the brink of being derailed by its tensions, with the chance that something magnificent might just happen. Then that magnificent thing does happen: as he says his goodbyes Gabriel sees Gretta standing entranced on the landing, listening to the Lass of Aughrim being sung in a stunning cinematic moment.
Christmas, originally Roman solstice, is about gathering together in the midst of darkness to create warmth and light through human connection. The ghosts of the dead and looming mortality hovers over the party and yet it still, somehow, succeeds. When Gabriel discovers that in that soaring moment Gretta was reminiscing of a long lost love, the presence of the dead and the unknowability of others takes hold again and ruins their night at the Shelbourne. The ending can be seen as hopeful though: the ache, the pain, the loss, the melancholy was a necessary part of the beauty and the joy, in relationships, life, and Christmas parties. Tom Rowley
Silent Night (2021)
Am I already breaking the rules of this list by introducing Silent Night? Perhaps. But watching this frankly devastating bleak satire about the end of humankind had me ruminating on why Christmas functions as the background of this apocalypse. Of course, in a lot of ways the characters’ final day is spent much like any Christmas is: indulging, lavishing attention on loved ones, hitting low moments where it all seems rather futile.
But two of the characters also reference Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at one point, and perhaps this is where a deeper connection lies. Just as in The Road, Silent Night has one young boy, Art (Roman Griffin Davis), who doesn’t quite belong to the world we know: he’s seen the failings of the pre-apocalyptic institutions, and knows that even his parents’ love cannot save him and his generation, well-intentioned as it may have been. Christmas, as some would like to believe, is the time for the birth of another child who would go on to usher in great change to the world. The apocalypse, just like Christmas, could be a type of rebirth, if only Art can survive along the way. Sarah Cullen
Black Christmas (1974)
So many Christmas films are lit like shit. Few seem to allow for the realities of authentic Christmas lighting. The cold, miserable gray of those late December days that purple into twilight far too early. The warm ambience of crackling fires, tinsel-shrouded lamps and the glittering jewels of fairy lights. Black Christmas’ aesthetics are where the Yuletide themes begin and end in Bob Clark’s 1974 slasher masterpiece.
It’s Christmas in Canada. Snow blankets a sorority house in a small college town. Little do the girls hosting a Christmas party know that a killer has scaled the house and occupied the attic. One by one over the next 24 hours the girls start to disappear, victims of the always unseen murderer. Hindered by a bumbling and understaffed police force the girls must find and stop their stalker before he turns this house of sisters into a house of the dead.
Black Christmas is a multi-faceted film. Not only is it gorgeous looking, it’s also got some of the best developed characters in any slasher ever. The film is part disarming comedy, part serious relationship drama and part nightmare. As a slasher it’s perfect, but the time it leaves for laugh-out-loud jokes, serious discussion of womens’ issues and honest depictions of police incompetence makes it a damn near perfect movie too. Black Christmas is no Christmas movie, but you’d be hard pressed to find one with a better cast, story or lighting. Andrew Carroll
Wake in Fright (1971)
Before Weekend at Bernie’s (1989), Ted Kotcheff gave us Wake in Fright. Released internationally as Outback, the film tells the story of school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond), who is traveling home for Christmas. In order to catch a Sydney-bound flight, John stops by the small mining town of Bundanyabba. What’s meant to be an overnight stay turns into a terrifying descent into hell, complete with gambling, brutality and gruesome kangaroo hunting. Just your average Christmas merriment.
Still not convinced? Leave it to Scorsese spur the holiday cheer: “Wake in Fright is a deeply — and I mean deeply — unsettling and disturbing movie. I saw it when it premiered at Cannes in 1971, and it left me speechless. Visually, dramatically, atmospherically and psychologically, it’s beautifully calibrated and it gets under your skin one encounter at a time”. Brian Quinn