We all know Die Hard is a Christmas movie. But what are some other darker seasonal classics. HeadStuff’s talented writers discuss their favourites below.
Better Watch Out – Sarah Cullen
While Chris Peckover’s Better Watch Out didn’t generate much interest last December, I still hope it may become a staple of alternative Christmas entertainment. Part When A Stranger Calls, part Funny Games, and many parts Home Alone, this festive horror follows twelve-year-old Luke Lerner (Levi Miller) whose misguided attempts to woo his babysitter, Ashley (Olivia DeJong), are interrupted when a brick is hurled through a window of the Lerner family home. Written on the brick are the words “U Leave and U Die.”
Employing many of the same tropes and visual styles of Home Alone and even the same tactics as Kevin MacAllister used to deter home invaders, Peckover uses both the potentials and limitations of the (Christmas) home invasion narrative to create something rather innovative and genuinely unexpected. There are some rather squeamish moments of violence, but a lot of the most disturbing aspects of the film come from the threat of violence rather than action. While it’s reasonable to call Better Watch Out it a black comedy, most of the comedy is there in order to be undercut by the horror, something which the film succeeds at admirably. The cast is uniformly impressive with Miller in particular giving a stand-out performance. You’d better watch out for this gem.
Catch Me If You Can – Peter Morris
Steven Spielberg is not known for his Christmas movies, despite the fact that the Indiana Jones movies play more than once over the festive period. But putting Indy to the side, one of his quieter hits, and in my opinion, one of his strongest films of the 2000s, Catch Me If You Can may just be the closest we get from the directing maestro.
The story of teenage con-man Frank Abagnale Jr. may be more remembered for the smart and breezy chase dynamic between FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) and Abagnale (played by a fresh faced Leonardo Di Caprio) however the deeper story of family, connection, loneliness, restoration, and loss, underpins the lighthearted story with a solemn heart. There are a number of key scenes throughout this film which cements these motifs and a lot of them happen over Christmas.
Over a number of years, Abagnale rings Hanratty every Christmas Eve and it quickly becomes evident that Spielberg utilises the unique feel of the season to echo the loneliness and solitude of both main characters. At its core, all the central character of Frank Abagnale Jr wants is for his family to be back together and Spielberg’s characterisation uses Christmas as a vessel into the emotive centre of the story. It’s subtle but touchingly clear. What is Christmas but a time to be with the ones we love?
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – Andrew Carroll
“Look up the word idiot in the dictionary you know what you’ll find?”
“A picture of me?”
“NO! The definition of the word idiot which you fucking are!”
So goes one of the greatest dialogue exchanges Shane Black’s ever written. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is full of quick one-two insults like these. Black is at his best with detective duos. Whether it’s Murtaugh and Riggs in Lethal Weapon, Harry (Robert Downey Jr) and Perry (Val Kilmer) in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or Healy and March in The Nice Guys, Black writes back-and-forth banter like no one else.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was his directorial debut from his own script and Black’s talent for creating complex whodunnits with pitch black comedy was clear from the set-up. Career criminal Harry acts his way out of a police chase on Christmas in New York and is sent to Hollywood to screen test. There he meets Perry and the two become involved in a case of murder and mixed identity. Michelle Monaghan waltzes in as the femme fatale, delivering lines like “She’s been fucked more times than she’s had hot meals.”
Although the cheer Kiss Kiss Bang Bang provides isn’t necessarily Christmas-themed, the December holiday has been a staple of all of Black’s hardboiled comedies and adds a quirky atmosphere to the often dark murder and mayhem.
Krampus – Stephen Porzio
If you wanted to watch Hereditary again but feel it will damper your holidays, stick on 2015’s seasonal comedy-horror Krampus, also featuring Toni Collette, creepy kids and familial dysfunction.
Collette and Adam Scott star as parents. Already having relationship problems, these are heightened by the arrival of Colette’s sister (Allison Tolman) and her hyper masculine gun-loving husband (David Koechner) for the holidays. One too many fights leaves their youngest without Christmas spirit, causing the family to incur punishment from Krampus, an anti-Santa terrorising those who misbehave backed by evil elves, gingerbread men and toys.
A hilarious opening scene – featuring shoppers fighting to ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas’ – sets the tone. While Christmassy in aesthetic enough to put one in the festive mood, what Krampus understands is placing people with unresolved issues with each other in an enclosed space always leads to trouble. The fact here it involves rich Austro-Bavarian folklore and gnarly early Tim Burton-esque monsters – all hilariously warped versions of classic Christmas iconography – only makes things better. Co-writer and director Michael Dougherty’s handling of classic mythology and creature effects in Krampus is probably what led him to helming the upcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
‘Pooka!’ – Into the Dark – Stephen Porzio
Blumhouse series Into the Dark’s concept is made for this listicle. The Hulu anthology horror is made up of feature length episodes released each holiday season. This month, the show’s Christmas episode ‘Pooka!’ dropped, directed by Nacho Vigalondo (Colossal, Timecrimes).
Seemingly inspired by Celtic folklore – púcas are furry creatures considered bringers of both good and bad fortune – the episode centres on a struggling actor. In the run up to Christmas, he gets a job as the mascot for new children’s toy Pooka. As he puts on the teddy bear costume, he begins to lose his sanity.
The best episode of Into the Dark so far, Vigalondo ensures ‘Pooka!’ is a stylish descent into hell through slick transitions and stylish camera work. While the sunny LA setting depicts a Christmas we as Irish are not used to, writer Gerald Olson deftly weaves some seasonal elements into the plot. While the episode’s conclusion will be a familiar one to fans of Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone, it plays out like a deliciously cracked take on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. If Into the Dark sounds intriguing to you, watch out for director Always Shine director Sophia Takal’s upcoming New Year’s installment.
Reindeer Games – Paddy O’Leary
As the snow falls and the title of Reindeer Games graces the screen we are introduced to the Chrismassy scene of a lifeless Santa lying in a pool of his own blood. I settle in and take another sup of my hot cocoa.
Reindeer Games is a star-studded Christmas-heist movie and one of the best in that very specific sub-genre. Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron and Gary Sinise battle it out to see who can chew the scenery the most, only to have character actor supreme Dennis Farina (Out of Sight, Snatch) steal the show.
The final theatrical film from legendary director John Frankenheimer (Ronin, Seconds), Reindeer Games has it all; prison riots, immoral relations, gratuitous sex and violence, twists and turns and of course Christmas cheer. Late night festive viewing at its best.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Andrew Carroll
Nothing says Christmas like family. Especially a family full of Nazis, rapists and serial killers along with the disgraced journalist and cyberpunk hacker sent to investigate them. I don’t think any of David Fincher’s projects take place in our world. There’s something hellish about the director’s work from Seven to Mindhunter even to The Social Network. He’s willing to plumb the depths of man’s evil to its furthest reaches and then some. Which is why The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was such a good fit for him.
The film might be unpleasant festive viewing (it’s unpleasant viewing any time of the year let’s be real). Released in December, it was marketed as ‘The feel bad movie of Christmas’. Yet, that doesn’t take away from how well made it is. Presented in a series of barbed vignettes, there are few long scenes ensuring we are always interested in and aware of Mikael Blomkist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salander’s (Rooney Mara) investigation into a 40 year old murder. If you can stomach the rape scene and the rape-revenge scene then there’s a lot left to unwrap in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo from Fincher’s gliding camera to Mara’s unrecognisable transformation to its Zodiac-like plotting.
‘White Christmas’ – Black Mirror – Sarah Cullen
If you’re a huge fan of Wizzard and truly wish it was Christmas everyday you may want to give Charlie Brooker’s double-length episode of Black Mirror a miss. The frame narrative of “White Christmas” finds Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall as housemates in an mysterious isolated snowbound cabin. They’ve been sharing this space for a long time but have hardly spoken to each other, and as a result both sit down to tell the other the stories of how they arrived here.
Initially seeming to be about three disparate storylines vaguely linked by the festive season and the series’ regular preoccupation with the dangers of technology – pick-up artists trying to “game” women at a Christmas party, a desperate father trying to reunite with his estranged daughter during the holidays, and a disturbing new type of electronic servitude used to coordinate a woman’s Christmas schedule – Brooker and director Carl Tibbets cleverly weave together the various narrative strands into one of the series’ most cohesive and disturbing episodes.
“White Christmas” is peak Black Mirror: much of the horror comes from what is simply implied, Hamm and Spall are fantastic as are the supporting cast, and it also sets up a lot of the world building for future seasons.