Christmas is all about traditions. Trimming the tree, singing carols, drinking eggnog until you finally summon up the courage to tell your chemtrails-conspiracy nut grandpa to shut the hell up. And few of these traditions are more ingrained in the American psyche than sitting down to watch a time-honored Christmas movie, whether it’s “Miracle on 34th Street,” Bob Clark’s “A Christmas Story,” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” You can also toss in a few modern classic in there, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Elf,” “Scrooged,” “The Ref,” “Love Actually,” and “Bad Santa” if you’d like some yucks, or any one of the slew of holiday oddities, stuff like “Santa Conquers the Martians,” “A Very Murray Christmas,” and “The Star Wars Holiday Special” if you want to puff-puff-pass the, um, mistletoe.
However, as much as traditions are by definition adhered to, they’re made to be twisted, if not broken. Enter the non-traditional Christmas movie. The master of this film is action flick writer/director Shane Black, the man behind "Iron Man 3," "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," "The Long Kiss Goodnight" and "Lethal Weapon," each one of which is set at Christmas. And if you haven’t seen "Kiss Kiss yet", you’re really missing out on a cool flick. This film, not "Iron Man," resurrected Robert Downey Jr.’s career.
In the spirit of Shane Blackmass, here are four of my personal non-traditional movie faves.
Remember that one Christmas Eve when you were in the midst of reconciling with your estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) and her perm when some smug British terrorist (Alan Rickman) decides to take her and her co-workers hostage at a Christmas party. On top of that you have a stubborn police chief gumming up your rescue attempt and a blissfully unaware limo driver chatting up his girl on a big-ass phone while bumping Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis.” Thank heavens you’re a witty, resourceful off-duty police officer (that looks a lot like Bruce Willis) and a Twinkie-loving cop (that looks suspiciously like Steve Urkel’s neighbor), to help you save the day. There really isn’t much that can be said about Die Hard that hasn’t been said already. It’s a Christmas movie about a guy trying to prove his love to his wife by killing a bunch of other dudes — how romantic. John McClane (Willis) is like a Santa who prefers to substitute the usual drab holiday presents and ho-ho-hos with endless rounds of ammo, explosions, and a few yippee ki-yay, motherfuckers.
You know what was a messed up movie? Silent Night, Deadly Night, the 1984 horror film that outraged parents and movie critics alike thanks to its premise, a psycho in a Santa outfit offing people for being “naughty.” In hindsight, the only awesome thing about that film may have been its poster: a Santa going down a chimney with an axe in hand. Four years earlier, a smaller, less successful film, Christmas Evil (a.k.a. You Better Watch Out and Terror in Toyland ) made a quiet debut. While Christmas Evil is far from perfect, Lewis Jackson’s film (a favorite of trash champion John Waters) and its main character, Harry Stadling, have more in common with Norman Bates than Jason Voorhees. Rather than just going on a slasher-film rampage whacking teens for being naughty, it’s focused on Harry’s (Brandon Maggart) slow descent into madness. You see when Harry was a pipsqueak, there was that time he saw Santa, actually his dad in a costume, performing cunnilingus on mommy. That planted a psychotic seed that got stuck in his craw — people are either “naughty” or “nice.” Once his madness kicks into full gear, Harry becomes delusional, convinced that he is actually Santa. This is unfortunate for almost everyone around him who doesn’t follow his strict moral code; for reasons only Harry knows they all seem to fall into the naughty category. These infractions could be the employee whose laziness gets him called into the boss’s office, a boy reading a “Penthouse,” or an obnoxious preppy asshole being, well, an obnoxious preppy asshole. Once he goes cuckoo, the bodies begin to pile up. Oh, and the ending is a wee bit of awesome, in a wonderfully wacky way.
Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever
Are you a sucker for a cat with a perpetually grumpy face, a.k.a. internet sensation Grumpy Cat a.k.a Tardar Sauce, voiced by Aubrey Plaza? I am, and if you are, well, we should have a sit-down chat some time. Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, a 2014 Lifetime Movie of the Week, is far from great. In fact, it’s one of the most blatant cash grabs in recent memory. You have to tread through some story about humans, love, and the reason for the season while Plaza delivers her patented ambivalent line readings for what is essentially a 90-minute Grumpy Cat meme. That said, I could watch a video of Tardar Sauce’s grumpy puss all the time. Sad, I know.
While in Chinatown, Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) buys his son Billy ( Zach Galligan) a mysterious pet, a mogwai (whom they later call Gizmo). The mogwai comes with a set of very specific instructions: don’t expose it to sunlight, don’t give it water, and never feed it after midnight. Not so shockingly, all three rules get broken. Giz multiplies and those clones turn into our title characters. An old spinster is jettisoned out a window, a dive bar gets ransacked, and a movie theater is turned into a rowdy “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” sing-along party during the gremlins’ night terrorizing the small town of Kingston Falls.
“Gremlins” feels like a movie created by kids who just found out the truth about Santa and are hellbent on making sure every parent pays the price for hoodwinking them all those years. If you look under the hood, you can see all the subtext going on in the movie. It could be a modern-day take on Adam, Eve, and original sin. It could be an incisive satire about the white suburban fear of an “other” moving into town. It could be a movie railing against consumer culture. It could be about how destructive modern man is with all of nature’s gifts. It could also be a movie about little green assholes that love causing mayhem. I’m fine with the latter.
When I saw “Gremlins” at the Ultravision 4 in West Ashley, I sat alongside other kids and their parents lured by the unsubstantiated promise of “A Steven Spielberg Production.” As such they were expecting a cute, goofy companion piece to his previous directorial effort, “E.T.” Instead they got something completely different. “Gremlins” was an unwelcome surprise to a few of those filmgoers. I saw mothers yanking their kids out of the theater as the movie’s sweet Gizmo scenes gave way to scenes of gremlins smoking, gambling, drinking, and pulling long strings of snot from their noses. It was bad, and by that I mean “bad” in a good way. Even then, beneath all the chaos, there is an innocent mischief in Joe Dante’s film that hat has yet to be matched since. Then again, I’m heavily biased.
Of all the Christmas-themed films, Dante’s 1984 classic is my favorite. In fact, it was the flick that unseated “Star Wars” as my all-time favorite movie. The effect Lucas’ work has had on many of my friends, Dante’s movie has had on me. It made me enough of a fan that I’m thankful that “Gremlins” never became the pop-culture juggernaut “Star Wars” became because I’d have a storage space filled with useless “Gremlins” crap. The film was also the gateway movie that, thanks to its endless film references, turned me onto the B-movie awesomeness of Roger Corman and Dante’s other work. And that, to be as corny as possible, is the greatest gift of all.