Say what you will about Christianity, but that is one faith that knows how to celebrate. Cultural appropriation notwithstanding, they have some of the best holidays/traditions: Easter, Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday (feasts of the Epiphany), and the mother of them all –Christmas. I’m not even Christian and I celebrate the hell of some Christmas. Peace on earth. Goodwill towards men. Eggnog. Festive decorations. Food. Booze. Family. Presents. What’s not to love?
With the advent of television and home entertainment systems it did not take long for the idiot box to weasel its way into the holiday season’s laundry list of traditions. Because nothing says togetherness and holiday cheer like quietly sitting on the couch watching other people’s fictional families celebrate.
Casual cynicism aside, I love a good holiday movie or Christmas episode. I have indulged myself in TNT’s “24 Hour of a Christmas Story” on many an occasion. I ritually watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation as a child, along with the various Jim Henson specials and the classic claymation Rudolph and Frosty specials. But now that the spirit of Christmas and its economically viable image has invaded every facet of the entertainment business we can throw off the shackles of traditional fiction oppression and let our geek flags fly. Why concern yourselves with traditional Christmas tropes when you can have aliens, explosions, weird monsters, gratuitous sex and violence, and more f-bombs than you can shake a bough of holly at? Which is exactly what we have in store for you. Skipping over some obvious ones like A Nightmare Before Christmas, here is a list of the best nerdy Christmas stories to watch this December.
The Shane Black Movies
For my money Shane Black’s involvement in Hollywood is nothing short of a godsend. His dark humor and wicked understanding of how to distort genre tropes has produced some of the best crime stories of this generation. A fair amount has been written on Black’s use of Christmas in his stories, even by the man himself, so I won’t retread that ground here. But, I will say that such repetition in the hands of a lesser artist would seem old. However, each occasion feels as fresh and vibrant as the last. Starting with Lethal Weapon and ending with Iron Man 3, five of Black’s movies are set during the holiday season and all of them are worth checking out (Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Iron Man 3). In this writer’s humble opinion though, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the crème of the crop. A stellar cast, an intriguing plot, and dialogue so snappy it would make Elmore Leonard jealous: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a must for fans of either Black or the Noir genre.
The Die Hard Double Feature
Seemingly taking a page from Black’s book, Director John McTiernan adapted Roderick Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever into the now classic action movie Die Hard. In case you have been hiding under a rock for nearly thirty years here is what you’re missing. On Christmas Eve, NYPD officer John McClaine (Bruce Willis) travels to Los Angeles to reconcile with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia Culkin) He arrives at the Nakatomi Plaza building during an employee Christmas party his wife is attending. The party is interrupted by a group of international terrorists and John is forced to become a one man army in order to save the day. Graphic violence, classic one liners, and fantastic characters make this an instant holiday classic.
The second Die Hard suffers from the same problems as most 80’s and 90’s sequels. Aside from a change in location and some new characters, it is virtually identical to its predecessor. Without anything fresh to offer it feels less like a sequel and more like a cheap knock off. However, it is set during Christmas and is still a better way to kill an hour and a half than say… Jingle All The Way.
Demons, Gremlins, and Living Nightmares.
Despite an infuriating lack of logic to the rules (If they can’t get wet, how to they not die of dehydration? What time zone is the after midnight rule based in, and when are you able to feed them again? Are they effected by daylights saving time?) Gremlins is one of the most uniquely wonderful monster movies ever. Set in the small idyllic town of Kingston Falls, young Billy Peltzer (played by Zach Galligan) receives the most unusual Christmas present; a mystical creature known as a Mogwai. The adorably diminutive bipedal rodent he dubs ‘Gizmo’, sings and coo’s it’s way straight to his (and the audiences) heart. But there is a catch: taking care of a Mogwai is a lot of responsibility. There are three iron clad rules 1. Don’t get them wet. 2. Don’t feed them after midnight. 3. Don’t expose them to sunlight. Safe to say Billy is not up to the challenge and soon the town is overrun with small green monster who thrive on death and destruction. Director Joe Dante blends horror and comedy with incredible deft in this family friendly adventure. Fun Fact – The town of Kingston Falls is the same set as Back to the Future’s Hill Valley.
A spiritual successor to Gremlins, Krampus is a fun holiday horror romp. A casually cruel family gathering at Christmas turns into a fight for survival in this underrated horror-comedy gem. As the cutting banter between juxtosping families increasers, it draws the attention of Krampus and his minions. Soon what the families thought would be an emotionally trying time turns into an all out nightmare. The horrific notions onscreen are offset wonderful by the banter between characters and the darkly comic unfolding of events. The pacing, the cast, the offscreen talent and bleak comedic sensibilities put this movie into a rare category of mildly disturbing and infinitely rewatchable.
This Finnish horror story exposes the true story behind the Santa Claus myth with gory delight. A movie that never takes itself too seriously, Rare Exports is a surprisingly well done comedy that offers up a few honest scares as well. Forgoing the traditional serial killer dressed as Santa, writer and director Jalmari Helander gives us a supernatural being who is the complete opposite of his famously jolly disposition.
Silent Night, Deadly Night.
The idea of a murderous Santa Claus is a little old hat these days. However, in 1984 it was a pretty novel idea. After watching his parents die at the hands of a thief in a Santa costume and growing up in a strict orphanage; a young teen goes on a killing spree dressed as Santa.I have to be honest, this is one horror classic I have never gotten around to watching. And while I typically do not include things I’ve not seen, the influence of this movie is deep enough that I feel comfortable at least mentioning it.
Terry Gilliam’s bleakly comic dystopian satire is about a Christmas as a Stephen Hawking essay and equally as fascinating. Johathyn Price stars as a bureaucrat who in the coarse of doing his job ends up on the wrong end of an oppressive government. Filled with the dark yet enchanting visuals he’s known for, Gilliam crafts a poignant tale of totalitarianism and a consumer society. Though Brazil plays out like some beautiful nightmare, it is technically set around Christmas time so it makes the list.
Killers, thieves, and badmen
Depravity and generally $#!ty behavior has never been so entertaining as in this holiday heist movie. Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Cox star as a pair of con men who pair up as a shopping mall Santa and his elf in order to rob the stores during the holiday season. Their partnership starts to fray as the titular Santa’s self destructive tendencies become increasingly problematic. Not for the easily offended, this foul mouthed tour de force is essential for seasonal viewing.
When a Christmas eve robbery goes wrong, a small town is put on lock down. Small time thief Gus (played to perfection by Denis Leary ) is thus forced to take a couple hostage (Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening)in order to lay low. Unbeknownst to him, not only are they dysfunctional to the point of psychotic, they have relatives coming in for the holidays. What follows is a preposterous but none the less fantastically entertaining night of Stockholm Syndrome, foul language, and Christmas spirit.
Forced to lay low during the holiday’s, hit-men Ken and Ray go for a quiet vacation In Bruges. While the plot revolves around hit-men in a humorous situations, the movie shrugs of convention and marches to a much different beat. As in most Martin McDonagh films, In Bruges is more quirky and witty than outright funny and the tension derives not from criminal enterprises but the interactions of flawed and juxtaposing characters. Like a twisted Neil Simmon play, In Bruges has less to do with crime and more to do with the characters neurotic sense of humanity.
Quite the opposite of In Bruges, Go is more the poor man’s Pulp Fiction. Revolving around a Christmas Eve rave and the less than savory characters of LA, GO is a snappy and oft sensationalized interconnected crime story. You won’t find anything new or profound here, but it is a lot of fun.
Filmed in the height of Eddie Murphy’s comedy carrier, Trading Places is a true comedy classic.Essentially a retelling of Mark Twain’s The Prince and Pauper; the story sees the lives of aristocrat Louis Winthrope III (Dan Akroyd) and poor con-man Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) thrown into chaos as their lives are switch on the whim of two bored rich men. While it has little to do with Christmas, it does take place during the holiday’s, and really any reason to include this movie on a list is justification enough.
The X-Files stands as a pillar of television geekdom, and for good reason. Despite its age much of the X-files still holds up. Episodes like Squeeze and Home are as creepy and intriguing as they were when the premiered in the 90’s. Sadly, the Christmas episodes of X-Files are not among the best the series has to offer, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad.
How the Ghost Stole Christmas – Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin star as the eponymous ghosts in this slow moving but ultimately engaging haunted house tale. The episode in many ways, plays like the X-Files answer to a Christmas Carol. While skipping outright homages, it is a story of the choices we make in life and how they can haunt us – figuratively and literally. Fairly devoid of any of the greater mythology, one could enjoy this episode without ever having seen another episode.
The Christmas Carol/Emily – Vince Gilligan is better known as the creator and show runner of the pitch black comic drama Breaking Bad. Before that he worked on the X-Files. In his Christmas two parter The Christmas Carol/Emilyone can some familiar themes to his later work and how he handles the darker nature of characters. While Emily is indeed a Christmas episode, it is a bleak one. With Scully home for the holidays, the episode explores the themes of family and togetherness the holiday is known for. However, it lacks all sense of Christmas cheer. It is also rather dependent upon the greater mythology of the series so casual viewers may want to skip this one. For long time fans of the series it is a rather good Scully-centric episode.
Before the shared universe was really a thing in Hollywood, it was often a cornerstone of geek entertainment. A lovely example is the universe inhabited by Eureka, Warehouse 13, and Alpha’s. Each series is largely a bit of sci-fi fluff that never delves too deep into its ideas or characters but usually offers a lot of fun.
O Little Town – This is the episode that started the list. Eureka has a special place in my heart for being unabashedly fun nonsense and this episode is no exception. Like any good holiday episode it has almost nothing to do with the continuity of the series and can therefore be enjoyed by new comers and full on fans alike. The episode revolves around how the various scientists in town deal with the holidays. From apathy, to strong embrace, all the way Santatology (the science of Santa Claus) And in typical Eureka fashion all threads are brought together by an invention gone wrong. It’s a wonderful episode from start to finish that encapsulates both the spirit of the show and the spirit of the holiday. Plus there is the added bonus of guest star Chris Parnell as the rather mysterious Dr. Drummer.
Do you see what I see – Eureka is not a show known for compelling, hard hitting science fiction. It’s strength lies in embracing the mirth of asking “what if?” That being said, this episode pushes the limit. Basically, the whole town becomes animated in various holiday styles due to a series of scientific mishaps. It provides some decent gags and is largely enjoyable if given a good healthy does of suspension of disbelief and some holiday spirit. While not dependent on the greater mythology, one should watch O’ Little Town first as some plot points revolve around it. .
Secret Santa – Warehouse 13’s strength lies in the heart of it’s characters. For a series that revolves around weirdness and mystery, to much plot and exposition would ruin the magic. Which makes the Christmas episode from season 2 Secret Santa, a nice fit. It is less focused on the various dangers attacking the warehouse and it’s agents and more on the characters and how they react to the holiday’s. Plus a lot of fun holiday artifacts.
Its just a shame that Alphas didn’t do a Christmas episode to round out that shared universe.
American Horror Story (AMS)
The second season of American Horror Story is a total meandering mishmash of horror tropes and narrative threads. With serial killers, alien abductions, human experimentation and demonic possession, it’s as if the writers literally just pulled a bunch of random horror elements out of a hat and patched them together in the writers room. The fact that any of it works is a bloody miracle.
In the spirit of full disclosure I am not a huge fan of creator Ryan Murphy’s work. His delight in punishing his characters and his audience makes his work horribly predictable. You simply have to ask yourself “what is the worst thing that could happen in this situation?” The answer is inevitably the outcome of the scene. But he does it all with undeniable style and panache, and attracts great talent to help pull it off.
Amidst the mess of Murphy’s AMS is a little gem titled “Unholy Night.” While it sits comfortably in the plot of the second season, Unholy Night is a fairly standalone episode. You don’t have to be well versed in the on-going plot to enjoy this Holiday tale. The story follows the life of Leigh Emerson, played with unbelievable brilliance by the wondrous Ian McShane, a serial killer with a fixation on Christmas. The episode is filled with gore, scenery chewing villainy, and genuinely, and deeply disturbing events. Its well written and compelling, but not for the faint of heart.
Tales From The Crypt
There is no show on TV that I miss more than Tales from the Crypt. Almost every episode had perfect pacing and it was never afraid to try something. Simply put; it is the pinnacle of horror television that has yet to be surpassed. Based on the various comics from EC, Tales from the Crypt debuted on June 10th 1989 with a three-episode pilot special. Among the episodes was the classic tale And All Through The House.
The story is fairly straightforward – a woman murders her husband on Christmas Eve while at the same time an escaped serial killer is on the loose…dressed as Santa Clause. Macabre hilarity ensues as the two situations come to a head. Even though it is only one of the first, it remains one of the strongest episodes in the series entire run.
Like most, I first knew Christopher Meloni from his role as terse Detective Elliot Stabler from Law and Order:SVU. But it was his turn as Freakshow in Harold and Kumar go to White Castle that opened my eyes to his range. Seriously, the guy has comedic chops that would make Buddy Hackett jealous. In the small screen adaptation of Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson comic Happy! – we get the best of both worlds. Melonia plays Nick Sax, a disgraced detective turned hitman who is the Mozart of violence and degradation. His life of carefree (albeit pitiful) sex, drugs, and violence is complicated when a small blue unicorn named Happy appears and tells him his daughter has been kidnapped. What follows is a blackly comedic tale of violence, comedy, and redemption that would give Shane Black and Hunter S. Thompson a raging hard on. Its Christmas setting is both apt and unnerving for the themes it explores. While not for the faint of heart, Happy! is a must see for the humorously depraved and wondrously sic kat heart.
This is one of my favorite holiday traditions: Christmas and Doctor Who. It’s a melding of wondrous things so perfect that one can hardly believe no writer before Russell T. Davis thought to make it a regular occasion. That’s not to say that the Christmas Specials are always stellar. In fact, I would best describe them as them as hit and miss, with more misses than hits. But the hits are fantastic.
2005 – The Unquiet dead (Series 1)– While not technically a Christmas special. It is a Christmas episode, complete with Charles Dickens and ghosts, not to mention one of the best episodes of the revival series. Easily Mark Gatiss’s best who episode, and just top notch all around.
2007 – Voyage of the Damned (Series 4) – Silliness is occasionally just part of Doctor Who. You either love it or learn to tolerate it. I typically fall in the latter category. Voyage of the Damned is a really great story that is hurt by some of the aforementioned silliness, but still very much worth a watch.
2010 – A Christmas Carol (Series 5) – I love this episode. The Doctor plays the role of the three ghosts in this Whovian re-telling of Dickens’ classic tale of the same name. Floating sharks, Michael Gambon, and Matt Smith at the top of his game, this is a can’t miss episode in my opinion. Though, I have seen many who disagree.
2012 – The Snowmen (Series 7) Filled with some wonderful imagery and great concepts: the episode never fully finds it’s feet. Which is shame as it boasts both Ian Mckellen and Richard E. Grant as villains.
2013 – The Time of the Doctor (Series 7) A pretty devise episode, this. The Time of the Doctor does a fish out of water episode with the Doctor stranded on a planet with no way off. The trope was done much better in the previous season’s The Lodger, but this episode still has some merit. While, a lot of it plays to Matt Smith’s strengths as The Doctor, the episode doesn’t really go anywhere. Some fans have outright loathed it, whereas this writer has more apathy than anything to it.
2014 – Last Christmas (Series 9) The Last Christmas as a distinctive Aliens vibe to it, complete with face huggers. Unfortunately it falls very flat. Not a horrendous episode, just a very mediocre one. Though, it does boast on of the best on screen Santa in the form of Nick Frost.
2015 – The Husband Of River Song (Series 10) A brilliant title that reflects the essence of the episode – River Song. Dr. River Song is simply a force of nature. How could The Doctor not fall for a woman as strong and capable as she. River takes center stage for much of the episode, with the doctor taking on the role of an almost vaudevillian companion. Capaldi is an ideal foil, half bewildered half enchanted fool who simultaneously thwarts and challenges River. While much of the episode is centered around a muddling crime-caper – it builds to finale that provides the emotional payoff that such a long running, wibbly-wobbly timey wimey love story deserves.
2016 – The Return of Doctor Mysterio (Series 11) While technically a Christmas story this seasonal episode lacks the holiday vibe of its counterparts. That said, it is a better episode than the premise would suggest. While Doctor Who has taken interesting spins on ghosts, vampires, werewolves , yetis, and demons this is a first for superheroes. It does so with the same jolly sci-fi fantasy aplomb the series is known for. This episode turns the superhero genre on its head in the way only Doctor Who can.
2017 – Twice Upon A Time (series 13) Twice upon a time is an episode that is sadly less than the sum of its parts. Mark Gatiss as The Brigadier and David Bradley as the first Doctor are stokes of shear genius. However, they aren’t enough to offset the rather dull story. That said, Capaldi’s send off speech at the end is one for the ages. And with a Time Lord that’s saying something.
The Star Wars Holiday Special
Once upon a time their was a rumor that the existence of this Star Wars special was out right denied by SW creator George Lucas, and if you’ve seen it you can understand why. It’s terrible. While the truth of Lucas’s reaction to it is a lot less sensational, you aren’t going to hear him talk about it a lot in interviews these days. It’s a weird mix of Star Wars themed variety acts and a seemingly unending sense of tedium. Any masochist out there can easily track it down on you tube, but I strongly advise against it. However, there is a short cartoon about Boba Fett tracking down Han Solo with the unwitting assistance of Luke Skywalker in the special that is freaking amazing. You can you tube it separately…thank the maker for small favors. .
Are there any horror, sci-fi, or otherwise weird and wild Christmas movies/episodes that you enjoyed that I missed? Tell me about them in the comments below. Merry X-Mas!
Being born on Christmas, KJ Mcdougall is the ultimate authority on the Holiday and is willing to engage in fisticuffs with any ruffian who claims otherwise. You disagree? You can challenge him to a rough and rowdy bout any time, anywhere.