Despite the assurances of Andy Williams to the contrary, this is not, for everyone, the most wonderful time of the year. The non-religious, or those of other religions, or strict interpreters of the First Amendment of any faith, may be offended by its feeling of overbearing Christianity. On the other hand, some Christians may be troubled by the even more overbearing consumerism and vulgarization of the holiday.
But even in its most secular form, Christmas can get on some people’s last nerve. Even people who like Christmas most of the time can have a rough season or two. In short, for some people most of the time, and for most people some of the time, Christmas can suck. Fortunately (for some), pop culture affords plenty of Christmas entertainment options, ranging from the horrific to the merely snarky, even in these cases. Here, in honor of the Twelve Days of Christmas, are twelve of them. So, on the First Messed-up Day of Christmas, in addition to a stocking stuffed with heartache, anxiety and bitterness, my true love gave to me…
1. Black Christmas
The slasher genre is particularly inappropriate for, well, just about anytime, really, but especially for the holidays. Probably precisely for this reason, there have been a number of seasonal slashers, from 1984’s notorious Silent Night, Deadly Night to 1980’s Christmas Evil to the Joan Collins segment of 1972’s Tales From the Crypt. But none of them is quite as unsavory as Black Christmas.
Employing techniques that John Carpenter would popularize four years later in Halloween, this depraved, influential Canadian horror picture of 1974 – the French-Canadian version was known as Un Noel Tragique – offers us the POV of a panting, slavering maniac stalking a sorority house just before Christmas break, ogling such residents as Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and Andrea Martin. John Saxon plays the cop, and Keir Dullea is on hand as a creepy pianist.
Though it’s no more realistic than any other slasher movie, this one has a pervasive luridness that makes it a really queasy, unsettling piece of work, and somehow the queasiness is magnified by the fact that it shares a director, the late Bob Clark, with that warmest, funniest, most beloved of Christmas movies, 1983’s A Christmas Story. It might be called The Anti-Christmas Story.
By the way, pay no attention to the skuzzy 2006 remake. And while we’re on the subject of messed-up Christmas movies from the Great White North…
2. The Silent Partner
There’s also this 1978 Canadian noir thriller, in which Christopher Plummer dresses in Santa drag to rob a bank. Teller Elliot Gould takes the opportunity to skim a bit off of Plummer’s take, hence the title. Susannah York is in it, as is the very young John Candy, and a ravishing actress named Celine Lomez. Plummer is uncharacteristically nasty here – he wears a wife beater under the Santa get-up, and he lives up to the garment’s nickname. Things get a bit violent, even gruesome, as the story progresses. A severed head even ends up in an aquarium.
Life belatedly imitated art on this one: At least two banks, one in Florida and one in Maryland, were robbed last year by men dressed as Santa Claus. Or, maybe, times being what they were, Santa was hard up, and he himself went on a robbery spree, confident that we’d all assume it was the work of imposters.
3. The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe
…or, in Portuguese, Exorcismo Negro, this 1974 vehicle features the Brazilian horror star Jose Mojica Marins in his unforgettable signature role: the black-hatted, talon-fingered undertaker Ze do Caxio, or Coffin Joe. As often in his films, Marins also plays his unassuming self, confronted with the supernatural manifestation of his murderous Nietzschean alter-ego.
Seriously twisted throughout, Bloody Exorcism reaches a zenith, or maybe a nadir, of Yuletide perversity in its big Christmas tree scene, in which Marins and a little girl are visited with a vision of the branches crawling with tarantulas and constrictors. And, as Jim Stafford would say, they don’t like spiders and snakes.
4. Female Trouble
A Christmas tree also features prominently in the classic opening of the 1974 John Waters saga, starring Divine. As Dawn Davenport, who has not received the pair of shoes she was hoping for, the late Waters icon offers viewers the perfect vicarious expression of dissatisfaction with a Christmas gift.
5. Hot Rods to Hell
At the beginning of this side-splittingly feverish, overwrought 1967 melodrama, Dana Andrews is in a head-on as he drives home with a carload of Christmas presents. He survives, but when he and his family move to the desert to start anew, and he finds himself bedeviled by hot-rodding punks speeding straight toward H-E-Double-Toothpicks, his earlier trauma gives him trouble when it comes to playing chicken.
Shot mostly in the southern California desert, this movie is decidedly not a Winter Wonderland. What gives it a specifically messed-up Christmas tone, along with the shots of presents scattered post-crash, is the blaring use of “Jingle Bells” on the soundtrack when our hero flashes back to the awful night. The haggard-looking Andrews, whose career had far better hours than this, explains the PTSD reaction to his wife (a still-gorgeous Jeanne Crain): “It all came back to me…the horns…the lights…the brakes…’Jingle Bells.'”
Plenty of people feel this way about ubiquitous Christmas music.
6. Phoebe Cates in Gremlins
Not only is this monologue by Phoebe Cates in 1984’s Gremlins one of the classic non sequiturs in all of popular American film, it’s also such a gratuitously nasty little story that the only proper response is to burst out laughing. Which, of course, might make everybody else in the theater think you’re a sicko.
Poor Phoebe was still living this down by the time of the sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch in 1990. At a similar crisis point in the film, she starts another monologue, but this time her leading man Zach Galligan shuts her down fast.
7. Tom Lehrer’s “A Christmas Carol”
The grand master of the snarky lyric presented this among the selections on 1959’s An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer. It begins with a resignation to the unstoppability of the Christmas Juggernaut:
“Christmastime is here, by golly,
Disapproval would be folly
Deck the halls with hunks of holly,
Fill the glass and don’t say when,
Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,
Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens,
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again…“
Here follows a quite thorough summary of every point on the Christmas cynic’s list: The ubiquitous festivity and jollity, the stressful, almost coercive social and financial pressure with regard to gift giving (and receiving) and celebrating. Then the tune closes with a salute to Kris Kringle,
“…driving his reindeer across the sky,
Don’t stand underneath when they fly by.“
8. City of Lost Children‘s Multiple Santa Scene
Forget the crass obviousness of Silent Night, Deadly Night and its ilk. For a truly, elegantly, imaginatively macabre Santa scene, it’s hard to beat the title sequence of La Cit? des enfants perdus, or City of Lost Children, 1995’s dreamlike fantasy from Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, the guys behind 1991’s Delicatessen.
Best touch: The reindeer’s gift, an echo of Lehrer’s lyric.
9. Santa Sleighs Halloween
This promotional game was offered by clothier Betabrand this past October. It depicted Santa slaughtering the vampires and monsters traditional to Halloween, in an allegorical dramatization of “Christmas Creep,” that inexorable fungal growth, backward through the calendar, of the Christmas shopping season.
It’s no longer available to play on the Betabrand website. “But rest assured,” the site helpfully reminds us, “shopping for clothes is just as fun.“
10. Stuffed Krampus
Nothing says, of course, that a Christmas observance can’t be messed-up and still be authentically traditional. Even if you don’t find “He sees you when you’re sleeping/He’s knows when you’re awake…” disturbing, there are plenty of even older and more venerable Christmas traditions to give you goosebumps.
For instance, there’s Krampus, the horned imp from Germanic Christmas folklore. Krampus is sort of the anti-St. Nick; his job is to administer whippings to naughty children. So this sweet plush Krampus, complete with distended tongue, could be just the thing to keep your little ones on the “nice” list.
Alas, this may have to wait until next Christmas, unless you can turn him up in some particularly hip local toy boutique, as most online outlets list this guy as out of stock. He’s available for pre-order on Amazon, supposedly for August 31 of next year.
11. Beavis and Butt-head Do Christmas
You may have noticed that traditional Christmas curmudgeons like Scrooge and The Grinch, or Ben on The Andy Griffith Show, or even Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa, are here omitted. Splendid though these are, they’re straw men, set up to be redeemed, and thus not sufficiently hardcore for our purposes here.
But for many years – while I still had a working VCR – it was a personal holiday tradition for me to watch this MTV special, in which Mike Judge’s iconic brainless couch potatoes are put through skewed versions of A Christmas Carol (“Huh Huh-Humbug”) and It’s a Wonderful Life (“It’s a Miserable Life”). In the former, Beavis, in the Scrooge role, is shown a vision of his future gravestone: “HERE LIES BEAVIS. HE NEVER SCORED.”
In the latter, Butt-head, in the George Bailey role, is shown by an angel how much happier and more serene the world would have been without him. Needless to say, both lads remain refreshingly unedified by the experience. About the most inspirational message they are willing to grant is their suspicion that, much as everything sucks, it would probably suck even worse if they weren’t there.
12. The Vault of Horror #35
Of course, EC Comics were the true masters of the mid-century messed-up, and this 1954 issue of VOH featured, in addition to a Christmas-y cover illustration, not one but two Christmas tales inside. The first, “…And All Through the House,” about an escaped maniac dressed like Santa, was filmed as a segment of 1972’s Tales From the Crypt.
The second story, “Shoe-Button Eyes” by Graham Ingels, is narrated by a little blind boy whose violent lush stepfather, shortly before Christmas, performs surgery on the poor kid’s only friend: “THERE! YUH HEAR ME, BOY?! I RIPPED OUT YOUR TEDDY BEAR’S EYES! NOW HE’S JUST LIKE YOU! HE CAN’T SEE ANYTHING EITHER! ” By Christmas morning, the man has received comeuppance for this spiteful outrage, and the kid can, at last, see.
By EC standards, this constitutes a happy ending, as our hostess The Old Witch admits in her closing comments: “IF ANY OF YOU FOUL FIENDS THINK I’M GETTING MUSHY IN MY OLD AGE, YOU’LL JUST HAVE TO GRIN AND BEAR IT (TEDDY, THAT IS), ‘CAUSE I’M ALL CHOKED UP WITH THE YULETIDE SPIRIT! SO UNTIL NEXT TIME…MERRY XMAS!”
I, on the other hand, will ungrudgingly express my hope that all of us have nothing but un-messed-up Christmases, and Happy Holiday seasons, from here on out.
Previously by M.V. Moorhead:
The Ten Best Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror Novels You’ve Probably Never Read