The Christmas season is upon us, and even though the COVID-19 pandemic has changed a great many traditions, one that hasn’t changed is the Christmas movies and specials everyone tends to watch. From classics such as Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas and It’s A Wonderful Life to more modern fare including Elf and Last Christmas, everyone has a favorite Christmas movie they put on around this time of year. However, this year I wanted to take a look at some of the more unorthodox Christmas movies out there.
My picks for the list had to fit two criteria: they had to take place around or during Christmas and they had to be films that one wouldn’t think of when Christmas was mentioned. With that in mind, here are five unorthodox Christmas movies that you can add to your watch list to spice up your holiday movie marathons.
Mike Dougherty made his directorial debut with the wickedly clever and entertaining Trick ‘R Treat. For his sophomore effort, he took a rather twisted approach to the Christmas movie by introducing “the shadow of Saint Nicholas,” Krampus. Krampus arrives to terrorize a local neighborhood when Max Engel (Emjay Anthony) loses his holiday spirit after his extended family comes to visit. Krampus is unique in that it shines a light on the dysfunction that often happens when families get together for the holidays. Max’s Uncle Howard (David Koechner) is a gun-loving, Hummer-driving man with rather conservative values who clashes with Max’s well-to-do father Tom (Adam Scott) and perfectionist mother Sarah (Toni Collette). This also extends to his Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell) and his tomboyish cousins, Stevie and Jordan. Yet even with all their dysfunction, they band together to fight Krampus’s band of monsters.
This leads me to the high point of Krampus: the various creatures that the Engel family does battle with. Designed by Weta Workshop (who also did visual effects for the Lord of the Rings trilogy), many of the creatures, including Krampus himself, are demonic and twisted versions of holiday iconography. From killer gingerbread men to Der Klown—the serpentine jack-in-the-box with a seemingly bottomless stomach—these monsters will make you look twice at your Christmas tree. Krampus himself is a hulking mass, wrapped in chains and sporting long clawed fingers as well as a mask literally made of a human face. These monsters are a clear example of Dougherty never losing sight of his horror roots.
Everyone has probably heard from a friend, family member, or film buff on the Internet about how Die Hard is a Christmas movie-or even how it’s “the greatest Christmas movie of all time.” But there’s another action film that gets overlooked, and not only does it take place on Christmas but it also happens to be an action classic. Directed by Richard Donner (Superman, The Goonies) and written by Shane Black, the film pairs aging veteran Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) with suicidal narcotics officer Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) as they face off against the Shadow Company.
Lethal Weapon is the definitive example of the “buddy cop” genre, as the chemistry between Glover and Gibson was a high point of the film. It also cemented Black’s love of Christmas, as many of his films including Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Predator take place during the holiday. The movie ends with Riggs spending Christmas with Murtaugh and his family, and in perhaps one of the most strangely heartwarming moments in film history, Riggs gifts Murtaugh with a bullet that he intended to commit suicide with. That scene is a clear example of how far their relationship has come, and proof that a large part of Christmas is spending time with the people you love—even if they aren’t related to you.
Iron Man 3
Black would later apply his signature style to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as he co-wrote and directed Iron Man 3. Much like Black’s other films, Iron Man 3 takes place around Christmas. But it also shares a few similarities with another Christmas tale: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
Much like Ebenezer Scrooge, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is visited by a ghost from his past—this ghost being Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Rejected by Stark in 1999, Killian creates the alternate persona of the Mandarin and utilizes soldiers powered by the Extremis formula to slowly destroy Stark’s life. Stark’s obsession with creating better versions of the Iron Man armor also serves as a parallel to Jacob Marley and the “chain he forged in life” as it puts a strain on his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Iron Man 3 may have been divisive among longtime Marvel fans, but it still is a solid addition to this list of unorthodox Christmas movies.
Much like Lethal Weapon, Gremlins is a film that combines the talents of two different filmmakers. This particular duo being Joe Dante (Small Soldiers) and Chris Columbus (Home Alone). And much like Krampus, it is a horror-tinged Christmas film with a rather dark streak of humor, as the Mogwai torment and outright murder people after spawning. Perhaps the most demented scene in the film features a theater full of Mogwai watching Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and singing along to “Hi Ho, Hi Ho.” That scene, along with the malevolent Stripe, haunted my nightmares for years.
Gremlins is also a significant footnote in film history because it, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, led to the PG-13 rating. Both films were rated PG, but due to the level of violence and imagery parents raised a fuss. Steven Spielberg, who directed Temple of Doom and was an executive producer on Gremlins, used his clout to create the PG-13 rating.
Shazam! is not only one of the best DC Films (in this writer’s humble opinion), but it also happens to be an amazing Christmas film as well. The film deals with Billy Batson (Asher Angel) as he struggles to fit in with his new foster family, especially when the wizard Shazam (Djimon Honsou) grants him magical powers. Plenty of Christmas films have delivered the message that family can be the greatest gift of all, and Shazam! manages to filter that through a superheroic prism. Also fitting in with the Christmas theme is the final battle; not only does it take place at a Christmas festival, but Billy “gifts” his foster siblings with the powers of Shazam. They truly become a family at that moment, and it makes my eyes well up with tears every time I see that transformation.
There are plenty of other movies that put a spin on the Christmas season, including Batman Returns and Bad Santa, but these are just a few of my favorites. As long as Christmas is celebrated, there will be plenty of unorthodox Christmas movies to discover and enjoy. Perhaps one is being written or developed even as I type these words.
Collier “CJ” Jennings is a freelance reporter and film critic living in Seattle. He uses his love of comics and film/TV to craft reviews and essays on genre projects. He is also a host on Into the Spider-Cast.