Tom Jolliffe looks at mean spirited Christmas films, and why we enjoy them so much…
We all love a bit of Christmas cheer. Okay, some of us do. There are plenty of warm hearted Crimbo films to enjoy. Injected with pure unadulterated saccharine. Any mean spirited film of course, will inevitably turn back into festive cheer by the end, but even though I’m not anti-Christmas by any stretch, the most enjoyable Christmas films for me, tend to be the first three quarters of those mean spirited films. Or to put it another way, every riff on A Christmas Carol that’s ever been made.
Even the warmest, gooiest Xmas films have their darker moments. It’s A Wonderful Life is pretty grim for a large portion, dealing with constant setbacks before Jimmy Stewart gets close to suicide. People think back to the end, a warm, hopeful, optimistic ending, but prior to that, it’s harder going than people may recall (unless you watch it yearly on the season). That said, this perhaps shows that the best films see some kind of emotional journey and character arc. Those are the ones which stay with you.
I won’t delve too much into Die Hard, having recently written a 30th Anniversary piece. Needless to say, it’s immense. McClane has to go through a Nakatomi building hell of a night in order to celebrate Christmas with his reunited family. That aside, there are three other films which have become traditional seasonal viewing for me. The first is Scrooged. It’s always on TV. It’s almost always on a streaming device. You see it pop up, or you flick past it and that’s it. You’re watching it. It’s a sardonic re-imagining of A Christmas Carol with Bill Murray playing a miserly TV exec who ironically, is overseeing a live TV performance of the classic Dickens tale. The irony is lost on him of course.
The film features Murray in inspired form. What is the best part of Scrooged? Yes, it’s the entire film leading up to the final realisation that he’s a horrible bastard. When things start getting warmer, gooier, to a perfect warm cookie dough consistency, the film isn’t quite as brilliant. Even though I get dust particles in my eyes when the little mute boy finally speaks… (bites fist…’Niagara Falls’). There’s just something a bit guiltily joyous about seeing Murray being a complete monster.
Another seasonal favourite for me is Home Alone. Lets face it, strip away the Williams music and the physical comedy and it’s actually a horror film…and Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are the victims. Kevin McCallister is a psychopath, damaged by years of living with a horrible, and borderline abusive family. The kind who manage to leave a 10 year at home alone while they bugger off to Paris. Still, the damage is done. The irony of Kevin’s misplaced fear about the old man, due to the many stories spread about him, is that whilst the old man isn’t in fact a mass murdering maniac, Kevin is probably 10 years away from his first kill. Sorry, am I ruining Home Alone? My bad…he is a psycho though.
So the film sees Kevin abandoned by his wretched parents AT CHRISTMAS!! He looks after himself, protects the home from burglars until a surprisingly warm reunion with a mother we really shouldn’t feel that sympathetic for (particularly in their enormous upper middle-class home that wouldn’t be too much of a step down for a Prince). She causes all manner of problems in her quest to get home (probably to make sure Kevin hasn’t devalued the mansion too much). Then, after all the struggle to get home, the rest of the family arrive two minutes after her anyway. Still, the film gets added heart when the old man (bites fist…wonders if someone is cutting onions nearby) is re-united with his family.
A slightly more recent Xmas tradition for me has been one of the ultimate in meanness of spirit. A film that never gets old, with Billy Bob-Thornton on fiery form in Bad Santa. This one almost makes the others look nice. Thornton plays a career criminal whose speciality is seasonal superstore robberies, infiltrating the buildings by dressing as a mall-Santa. It would almost be a foolproof plan if not for his intense dislike of children, penchant for young mothers and raging alcoholism. This is a mean store Santa whose beard looks like road-kill, who leers at female customers, and apathetically pisses himself.
The film is laced with great lines, brilliantly daft moments and brilliant support from Tony Cox, Lauren Graham and the late greats, Bernie Mac (never has the sight of anyone eating an Orange been more hilarious) and John Ritter. Then you’ve got Brett Kelly who is the goofiest looking kid ever and just so fantastically oblivious it’s endearing. It spawned a long gestating sequel which stripped away all the irreverent goofy charm that is laced throughout this and featured an uninspired Thornton.
Is it just me that gets the most enjoyment from people being mean at Christmas? Is there a deep seeded and maniacal satisfaction at seeing Bill Murray trying to staple antlers to a mouses head? Maybe it’s the fact that shops start shoving Christmas down our throats in September. Who knows. Given the popularity of these films, I’m not alone in enjoying relishing a dark rebellion against the festive season. I’m not quite Frank Costanza, pulling out the aluminium pole for the Festivus airing of grievances, but sometimes it’s nice to watch a distinct two finger salute to Christmas traditions and niceties. It also ties in with many comedies, in film and sitcom form, where we find humour in repugnant characters and behaviour. Cinema is escapism after all, and we can indulge a little devil on our shoulder by watching Billy Bob Thornton drunkenly ripping apart a child’s advent calendar.
Let us know in the comments below. Do you get sadistic behaviour out of mean spirited Christmas movies? Is Scrooge, pre-epiphany, really a hero?
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see… http://tomjolliffe.wordpress.com/films/