Watching Like a Writer: Alternative Christmas Movies

Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction! Each Wednesday I will look at the five best movies of a director, actor, genre, series, year in film, etc.

So December rolls around, and you’re ready to throw some Christmas movies in your Blu Ray player. But what happens when you get burnt out on watching It’s a Wonderful Life for the fifty-seventh time? When that happens, you might find these alternative Christmas movies might be more up your alley. With Office Christmas Party opening this Friday, it’s time to look at the five best Christmas movies that explore the vulgar and the macabre…

5. Bad Santa (2003)

Bill Murray was supposed to play the title role before he backed out at the last minute — now that would’ve been interesting — but things worked out for the best, as Billy Bob Thornton gives one of his most uproarious, memorable performances, playing a department store Santa who hates his life until befriending a young fat slob. Directed by Terrry Zwigoff (Ghost World), the movie is possibly the most profane Christmas movie ever made. It’s also one of the funniest!

4. Die Hard (1988)

Nothing screams Christmas cheer better than Bruce Willis massacring bad guys and going toe-to-toe with a gloriously evil Alan Rickman! Die Hard is the best of its five-film series and it’s definitely the most holiday-centric, with Willis traveling to Los Angeles to reconcile with his estranged wife at her Christmas work party, only to discover terrorists have taken over the building. This is Willis’s best action film, and easily one of his most winning performances, all set against the backdrop of Christmas Eve. What’s not to love?

3. Gremlins (1984)

Now we go darker into a mischievously entertaining romp that is as funny as it is disgustingly scary. It’s hard to believe Chris Columbus, of all people, wrote this piece, especially considering he went on to direct the more wholesome Christmas entertainments, Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Phoebe Cates and Zach Galligan star in Gremlins under the direction of the underrated Joe Dante. A great game would be to load this disc in the Blu Ray player with the grandparents around and just tell them you’re putting on a Christmas movie. How long would it take for them to recognize something was off?

2. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

It’s difficult to convince people that one time twenty years ago Geena Davis made an awesome action heroine. Many might instantly veer their attention to that 1995 debacle Cutthroat Island, but before Davis leapt into relative obscurity, director (and Davis’s ex-husband) Renny Harlin managed to direct her in one more movie, 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, written by Shane Black (Lethal Weapon), and co-starring Samuel L. Jackson. Forget the Christmas atmosphere, which is present throughout most of the film — this is just one awesome flick. If you’re an action fan and have never checked this one out, do yourself a favor and find a copy this holiday season.

1. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

What better alternative Christmas programming is there than a Tim Burton marathon? Burton must be a fan of the holiday, given that three films he made in the early 1990s, including Batman Returns and The Nightmare Before Christmas, all revolve around the Christmas holiday. Edward Scissorhands is my favorite of the lot, mixing comedy, drama, horror, and weirdness, with Johnny Depp appearing in his first of many Burton collaborations. The film is haunting and emotionally devastating, and still holds up beautifully after all these years.

Watching Like a Writer: Edward Scissorhands, and all of these films mentioned, makes me think about using the Christmas holiday in a dark-themed story. Last year I wrote a young adult mystery novel called Toothache about a girl who tries to overcome the horror of her abusive past when her former teacher is found brutally murdered. It is a disturbing, chilling novel… that also happens to be set at Christmas. So when terrible things start happening to the protagonist, Hayley, they happen while classic Christmas songs play on the radio, while snow falls late into the night. Christmas as a backdrop doesn’t only have to be used for happy, uplifting stories. They can also be used for terror.

Exercise! Think of a story with dark themes that could use the Christmas holiday as a backdrop. What would it be about? Share your thoughts below, or in the Facebook group, Watching Like a Writer!