Sunday, November 25, 2007

Merry Subversive Christmas: Alternative Films for the Holidays

December is nearly upon us and we are already thoroughly saturated with everything Christmas. Television is already clogging with holiday specials and films. Classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” “A Christmas Carol” and “A Christmas Story” deserve their revered status, but sometimes you need an alternative.

A little subversion of the holiday spirit is exactly what is needed to make it through the holidays. So here are five films that go down a different path. In the end they uphold the holiday spirit, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have some dark fun getting there.

“Gremlins” (1984):
It is definitely not a holly jolly Christmas when a father comes home with a unique fuzzy little pet for his son. There are three simple rules: Sunlight kills him. Don't get him wet. Don't feed him after midnight. The rules are broken and the cute fuzz ball spawns the gross, mischievous gremlins.

Director Joe Dante makes a scary and funny homage to monster movies that features sly pokes at the holiday season like “It’s a Wonderful Life” playing throughout the film and a macabre monologue about why a character played by Phoebe Cates doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Not the most obvious choice for holiday viewing, but why not? After all surviving the holidays can be just as trying as battling a group of gremlins.

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993):
A Christmas film as only director Tim Burton could dream up. Instead of visions of sugarplums, Burton has visions of skeletons and ghouls. In this take on the most wonderful time of the year each holiday has its own fantasyland and when Jack Skellington, the leader of Halloweentown discovers Christmas, he kidnaps Santa and decides to take a crack at being St. Nick.

Occasionally even the most subversive of holiday films become embraced by the masses and while this is probably just as over exposed as “It’s a Wonderful Life” it doesn’t feel it. With its wonderful stop motion animation, offbeat songs and demented humor it delivers a brand of holiday fun all its own.

“Scrooged” (1988):
Bill Murray stars as a cynical TV executive that gets visited by a far more hilariously twisted set of ghosts than Ebenezer ever had to deal with. What starts out as a satire on the television industry morphs into a parody of “A Christmas Carol” and than ultimately embraces the holiday message of the Charles Dickens classic.

In description, the film sounds uneven at best, but under all the black comedy, it is surprisingly heartfelt. That it works so well is a testament to Murray, screenwriter Michael O’Donoghue (a former “Saturday Night Live” writer) and a cast that includes Carol Kane, Bobcat Goldthwait and David Johanson.

“The Ref” (1994):
A bickering married couple played by a pre-fame Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis are kidnapped by a thief (Denis Leary) on Christmas Eve. Using their home as a hideout, Leary is stuck in the middle of the deeply dysfunctional couple feud, which continues in spite of their situation. Eventually, Leary becomes the mediator for their disputes and poses as their marriage councilor when the equally neurotic in-laws arrive.

Meant as a vehicle for Leary, it is Spacey and Davis that steal the show. Think of it as a bleaker, less slapstick version of “Christmas Vacation.” Things work out in the end, but the trip there is stingingly funny and at times a brutally honest reflection of family dynamics.

“Bad Santa” (2004):
Vulgar, rude and offensive, this is a Christmas movie for adults only. A drunk (Billy Bob Thornton) and a dwarf (Tony Cox) pose as a department store Santa and elf as a cover to rob a mall’s vault on Christmas Eve. Along the way a needy kid starts following the drunken Santa home.

What follows is not heartwarming. There is no magical yuletide transformation for Thornton, but the warped friendship that develops between Thornton and the kid is sort of sweet in its own odd way. For those with a sick sense of humor and high tolerance for profanity, this is a perfect palate cleanser for an overdose on holiday cheer.

For more subversion check out last year's post on alternative Christmas songs

No comments: