Our fave Xmas movies. By Bill Vaughn
MOST ADULTS with any sense despise Yuletide in America—the relentless marketing, the cloying music, the guilt-tripping, the ruthless travel on crammed airplanes to visit relatives you can’t stomach, the festive sweaters, the bizarre religious doctrine underpinning the whole sordid spectacle. It's no wonder that Santa is really just another way to spell Satan.
And so at Dark Acres we endure this merciless hell of jingle bells and manger dioramas by taking long horse rides in the snow with our dogs, playing hockey, drinking gallons of Martinis and watching holiday flicks. We’re not talking about the gooey sentimentality of shit like It’s a Wonderful Life, of course. We’re talking about films that make us feel good about hating Christmas. For example:
1. Bad Santa. Billy Bob Thornton is a profane, alcoholic thief named Willie who lands gigs as a department store Santa so he and his dwarf accomplice, who works the floor as Santa’s Little Helper, can rob the place. Of course, there’s a Kid in the picture —it’s an Xmas flick, after all—a fat loser with no friends named Thurman Berman. Willie becomes entangled with the Kid at a Mall as children line up to tell “Santa” what they want for Xmas.
Next, goddamnit! Let's move it along—this is not the DMV!
(The Kid just stares, motionless)
What do you want? C'mon, wuddya want? A snot rag?
(Willie can't take his eyes off the river of snot flowing from the Kid’s nose.)
Another fuckin' mongoloid.
Get him outta here before he pisses on me!
Suddenly the Kid is moved to yank Willie's beard. He holds it stretched below Willie's chin.
(whispers to the kid)
Let it go, you little bastard.
It's not real.
It was real. The hair fell out when I got sick.
How'd you get sick?
I loved a woman who wasn't clean.
No, her sister.
The movie ends in gunplay. As we fade to black we see the Kid scrubbing blood from his front stoop. The Kid is wearing a tee-shirt. It says “Shit Happens When You Party Naked.”
2. Surviving Christmas. Ben Affleck plays Drew Latham, an unlikable, self-absorbed advertising executive whose money-driven life has begun to make him feel that his existence is shallow and pointless (but whose isn’t—at least Latham is rich). After his girlfriend dumps him he faces the prospect of another Yuletide alone, he decides to visit the house where he grew up in an attempt to rekindle the alleged warm and fuzzy memories of his boy days.
But when he gets there he’s disappointed to discover that the house is now owned by a family called the Valcos. The dad is played by James Gandolfini with the brooding and violent unpredictability of Tony Soprano. The missus is an unhappy, menopausal hysteric played by the always hilarious Catherine O’Hara. It’s soon clear that their marriage is on the rocks.
Drew Latham doesn’t care. A man who figures he can buy anything, he offers them $250,000 if they will let him spend Christmas with them and pretend to be a member of their family. They accept.
Bad choice. It quickly dawns on them that the money may not be enough compensation for Latham’s obnoxious insistence that they perform traditional Christmas activities as if they were not a dysfunctional family (pardon our redundancy—the mandated cheer of Xmas is one of the top ten things we hate about the season). The house soon resembles a forced-labor camp at the North Pole.
After a while, however, Latham begins to sort of care about the Valcos. He even tries to repair their marriage. He also develops an unwholesome attraction for his “sister,” played by the luscious Christina Applegate. One of our fave scenes is the disgust on the face of Latham’s ex-girlfriend when she catches him and sis playing tonsil hockey in the kitchen.
The movie’s tagline is “Share the warmth.”
3. The Nightmare Before Christmas. Filmed in terrific stop-motion animation, this is Tim Burton’s creation of a place called Halloween Town, a dark land of the un-deceased presided over by a tall, bony apparition named Jack Skellington. The community’s raison d’être (or, actually, not being) is its year-long preparation of the props for Halloween. But Skellington has grown bored with America’s day of the dead. What he’d like to do instead is preside over Christmas. He’s come to believe that he’s Santa Claus trapped in the corpse of Freddy Krueger.
After Skellington stumbles upon a portal that leads to other holiday worlds, including Christmas Town, he decides to redirect the economy of Halloween Town along the lines of Santa’s workshops. But predictably, his ghoulish subjects have no clue about how to make toys that don’t scare the shit out of children. We see that Christmas Day is going to make 9/11 look like friendly fire. Meanwhile, he orders a trio of nasty brats—the Boogie Boys—to break into Christmas Town and kidnap Santa. After they fuck up and return with the Easter Bunny, Skellington dresses them down and sends them forth again. Here’s part of their song as they plan the crime:
Kidnap the Sandy Claws,
Lock him up real tight
Throw away the key and then
Turn off all the lights.
Kidnap the Sandy Claws
Throw him in a box
Bury him for ninety years
Then see if he talks.
Kidnap the Sandy Claws,
beat him with a stick
Lock him up for ninety years
See what makes him tick.
(Much of this cult classic bears the claustrophobic dread and gloom of “The Hollow Men,” one of the poems T. S. Elliott wrote before his conversion to Anglicanism. In it, he portrays Christians as “stuffed men/ leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw.” To hide from the attention of “death’s dream kingdom” the speaker wears “Such deliberate disguises/Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves/ In a field/Behaving as the wind behaves.”)
In the end, the U.S. military shoots down Jack’s sleigh and he returns to Halloween Town, a wiser and happily undead man who knows who he is, and accepts that he no longer wants anything to do with Christmas. Our hero.
4. Black Christmas. As the film opens we’re in a large, cheerful house with a twinkling Christmas tree and lovely coeds enjoying one another’s company. But we soon realize that we’re seeing this domestic bliss through the eyes of an outsider, an intruder, in fact, a slasher. When the first coed turns up brutally murdered, the movie latches onto your fear organs and won’t let go.
Margot Kidder, who now lives in Livingston, Montana, steals the show as Barb, a lovable, foul-mouthed train-wreck of a girl with no home for the holidays except her doomed sorority house. After a long day’s journey into Christmas Eve and the bodies are piling up we catch only frightening glimpses of the killer—a hulking, shapeless figure with bulging eyes.
What director Bob Clark used brilliantly to produce suspense and terror are sounds. The phone rings, and it’s Him, muttering gibberish in wildly different voices that make it apparent the killer is a multiple personality. He also sings a nursery rhyme: “Bye, baby Bunting/Daddy’s gone a hunting/Gone to get a rabbit skin/To wrap the baby Bunting in.” Yikes. It’s scarier than spending Xmas with your sodden, bitter step-mother.
Black Christmas, released in 1974, is the headwaters of all slasher flicks, including the Halloweens. That it was set during that most glorious time of the year makes it especially poignant. Here’s the tag line: “If this movie doesn't make your skin crawl . . . It's on too tight!”
5. Trapped in Paradise. Nicholas Cage plays Bill Firpo, the manager of a successful Manhattan restaurant whose brothers are small-time larcenists. At Christmas, after they’re released from jail into his custody, they use a trumped-up story to persuade him to help them violate their paroles by crossing state lines for a trip to Paradise, Pennsylvania.
When they get to this bastion of Norman Rockwell wholesomeness Cage’s bad brothers, played by Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey, reveal the real object of the trip: they’re going to rob the First National Bank of Paradise, where the security guard is fond of naps.
Cash successfully in hand, they attempt to flee, but fate, karma, timing, a snowstorm, and the relentless holiday niceness of the townspeople keep pulling them back to Paradise. Then they find out that the money they stole was earmarked for a children's charity. In a perfect world that wouldn’t have stopped them from doing the right thing and stealing the money. But the world isn’t perfect. It’s been infected by a thing called the Christmas spirit.
Another Martini, Kitten?