Sad Santa: Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places.
It’s bang in the middle of the coldest, darkest months, involves huge financial and emotional cost, and encourages an overconsumption of sugary foods and head-splitting booze that leaves both body and mind bloated as a brandy-soaked sponge. It’s official: Christmas really is bad for your health.
Which is why the best Christmas movies are the ones stuffed with death, sorrow and misery. Take that perennial favourite, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Frank Capra’s dark tale of smalltown life which is as seasonal as mulled wine and just as bittersweet, as it captures in equal measure the suicidal bleakness of Christmas and its potential for magic. Jimmy Stewart’s righteous All-American patriarch considers ending it all in a fit of hopelessness, only for the intervention of an angel to show him how much worse the world would be without him in it.
With suicide rates spiking around the holidays, it’s little wonder Hollywood has so often mined the blacker ore of the winter solstice for entertainment purposes. “Lethal Weapon showed us that suicide is funny,” as Homer Simpson once famously remarked. Well, not quite. The sequels of diminishing quality may have amped up the humour, but the 1987 original played things relatively straight, as Mel Gibson’s demented Vietnam veteran turned psycho cop showed us that sometimes all a person wants for Christmas is a bullet to the head from the barrel of their own gun.
Lethal Weapon is second only to Die Hard (1988) as the bloodiest 80s shoot ‘em up to use the silly season as a backdrop. Despite the bloodshed, broken bones and gunfire, what makes Die Hard the quintessential holiday movie is the fact that Bruce Willis’ everyman supercop is just an ordinary Joe trying to get home to spend Christmas with his family, literally walking over broken glass barefoot for a chance to reconcile with his estranged wife.
Gremlins (1984) is one Christmas gift you really want to keep the receipt for, as all-American teenager Billy Peltzer discovers when the cute, cuddly little critter his dad bought him in a creepy old Chinese curiosity shop spawns an army of snickering green monsters. In a film featuring massacre by microwave and an elderly lady rocketing to her death out of an upstairs window on a malfunctioning stairlift, the true dark heart of Joe Dante’s monster-comedy is when Phoebe Cates’ small town bank clerk reveals the real reason she doesn’t like Christmas.
There have been nearly as many screen Scrooges as there have Draculas or Sherlocks, but one of the more unconventional film iterations of the miser whose heart is changed on Christmas Eve by the visitation of three spirits came in Richard Donner’s 1988 comedy, Scrooged.
Bill Murray as Ebenezer Scrooge is the sort of inspired casting that nearly renders the rest of the movie window dressing, but this modern update of A Christmas Carol also boasted the apposite idea of making the eponymous miseryguts a venal TV executive, providing the perfect opportunity for some topnotch televisual spoofing, exemplified by the awesome sight of watching Lee Majors save Santa’s workshop from gun-toting ninjas in The Night the Reindeer Died.
But were he alive today, even Charles Dickens himself would agree that the Muppets Christmas Carol (1992) is the finest big screen version of his classic novel. Michael Caine plays it perfectly straight, while his every cloth-skinned co-star plays it the far side of zany, in this most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, muppetational holiday movie.
Then there’s the Herodian bleakness of Batman Returns (1992), in which a misshapen penguin-man rises from the sewers of Gotham, insatiable as a monster from the psyche, to steal away their children to the darkness far below. The Bat, The Cat and the Penguin battle for dominance of the city, in Tim Burton’s sumptuous Batman sequel, which taps into the loneliness and heartbreak of the holidays.
What better image to sum up Christmas than a drunk, dishevelled Santa Claus necking whiskey from a brown-bagged bottle, his left leg gently warmed by a jet of fresh dog urine, attempting to blow his own brains out by the side of the road only for the gun to jam in the pouring rain? The punchline in this classic scene from John Landis’ Trading Places (1983) comes when Dan Aykroyd’s suicidal Santa throws the gun away, only for a single shot to ring out followed by the smash of a shop window. Ho-ho-ho!
The Snowman (1982) may not strictly be a film - its running time doesn’t even stretch to 30 minutes - but no Christmas list would be complete without this magical tale of a young boy and his living snowman, who share an early morning flight across snow-blanketed fields accompanied by a choir-boy’s pubescent warbling. As with the best seasonal offerings, it’s the sadness at its centre that has ensured longevity - the friendship of a snowman can only last until the next thaw...