Who says Christmas can’t be a little weird? Sure, the holidays are best known for audience-friendly classics like A Christmas Story and It’s a Wonderful Life, but there are plenty of oddball movies out there that deserve a slot in your December viewing schedule. Here’s a handful of wonderfully bizarre Yuletide gems I found when writing my holiday film guide Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas , plus a few newer ones.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale: Cartoonist Thomas Nast and the marketing department of Coca-Cola pushed the American version of Santa Claus into jolly-old-Saint Nick territory, but in other cultures, Sinterklaas was more eager to punish the wicked than to leave gifts for the righteous. (And don’t even get me started on the whole Krampus thing.) This 2010 Finnish import shows us what might happen if a long-buried Father Christmas was dug out of the ice and went on a rampage across the fjords. Only one young boy can save a world full of naughty children from this ancient monster and his creepy elf minions, and the results are creepy and hilarious.
Silent Night, Bloody Night: Not to be confused with the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise, this eerie, low-budget fright-fest has just gotten an HD remaster from DVD label Film Chest. Patrick O’Neal (The Stepford Wives) plays a lawyer trying to sell off a Long Island mansion at Christmastime, not realizing that an ax-wielding lunatic has just escaped from an asylum and is heading for the house. Director Theodore Gershuny makes things creepy and atmospheric — and his then-wife Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul), who also appears in the film, rounded up many of her fellow Factory players from the Warhol days, so you’ll see cameos from the likes of Ondine, Candy Darling and underground filmmaker Jack Smith.
The Box: The third film from writer-director Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales) was drubbed by critics and ignored by audiences (particularly after opening-night viewers gave it a CinemaScore “F”). But while this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button” (also the basis of a Twilight Zone episode) is admittedly odd, I find this movie to be utterly compelling and unpredictable. Frank Langella (unforgettably chilling) drops in on financially troubled married couple James Marsden and Cameron Diaz to offer them a million dollars for pushing a button on a box, with one catch: someone whom they don’t know will be killed. Dark and creepy, yes, but if you commit to Kelly’s ride, it’s riveting to the end.
The Store: Who says documentaries don’t belong at Christmastime? Legendary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, known for turning his unblinking lens onto American institutions (in films like Public Housing, Juvenile Court and Hospital, among many others), takes us into the heart of commerce with this look at the flagship Neiman-Marcus location over the course of one Christmas shopping season. (1982’s, to be exact.) Wiseman eschews interviews, music and narration, instead acting as a fly on the wall to everything from behind-the-scenes meetings (where higher-ups try to track down a missing chandelier) to the roving bands of singers and musicians in the store whose holiday spirit is so infectious that one customer even bursts into song.
The Hebrew Hammer: You would think the eight-night holiday of Hanukkah would have inspired its own subgenre, but for the chosen people, the cinematic pickings are shockingly slim. This hilarious “Jewsploitation” spoof goes a long way toward filling that gap, with Adam Goldberg starring as the title character, a circumcised Shaft who protects the ghetto before going home every Friday night for dinner with his disapproving mother (Nora Dunn). When Santa’s wicked son (Andy Dick) threatens to destroy all competing holidays, the Hammer must team up with a defender of Kwanzaa (Mario Van Peebles) to stop the absolute domination of Christmas. Smart and raunchy, this R-rated action comedy deserves some sequels where its hero can go on to save Purim and Tisha B’Av.
The Lady in the Lake: Like many 1940s holiday movies, this one uses Christmas cards for its credit sequence; since it’s a film noir based on the detective novel by Raymond Chandler, however, there’s a gun under those cards. Actor Robert Montgomery directs and stars as gumshoe Phillip Marlowe, but he’s barely visible in the movie; the gimmick here is that the entire film is shot from Marlowe’s P.O.V., so everything he sees, we see. Other characters talk directly to the camera, and while we hear Marlowe throughout, he only shows up on-screen when standing in front of a mirror. Whether or not you cotton to the film’s style, it’s an entertainingly twisty whodunit that makes good use of its Christmastime setting.
Santa Claus: A kiddie-matinee staple in Mexico and the American Southwest in the 1960s, this truly surreal 1959 import got a big boost when it was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Leave it to René Cardona, director of bizarro gems like Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy, to come up with this loony tale of St. Nick teaming up with Merlin the wizard to foil Satan’s plot to stop Christmas. The Prince of Darkness’ plan mostly revolves around trying to get one adorable little poor girl to steal a doll, but this movie’s reserves of lunacy run deep. From Santa’s army of toy-making child slaves to the creepiest wind-up reindeer you’ve ever seen, Santa Claus will bruise your psyche — and have you coming back for more when Christmas rolls around again next year.
The Ice Harvest: A crime story as coldhearted as the title suggests, this frosty caper stars Christmas vets John Cusack (The Sure Thing, Better Off Dead) and Billy Bob Thornton (Bad Santa) as a couple of small-time, white-collar crooks out to rip off a mobster on Christmas Eve in slushy Kansas City. All they have to do is sit tight overnight before bolting town with the money, but complications naturally ensue, from a duplicitous stripper (Connie Nielsen) to the gastric distress of Cusack’s best friend (Oliver Platt), who just happens to have married Cusack’s ex-wife. Scheming, betrayal and violent reprisals are the order of the day in this blackly comic and deeply cynical holiday movie.
All Is Bright: Another appealingly bleak Christmas buddy movie joins the canon this year, with Paul Giamatti starring as a recent parolee who travels from Quebec to Manhattan to sell Christmas trees with best friend Paul Rudd, who’s engaged to Giamatti’s ex. This is one of those holiday films that dares to make the season as un-bright as possible, with sad, desperate men toiling away under a slate-gray sky as Tracey Thorn’s heart-rending “Joy” plays on the soundtrack. Still, there are glimmers of hope, mostly revolving around Giamatti’s relationship with housekeeper Sally Hawkins. If you need a respite from seasonal sweetness and light, here’s a bitter pill you might enjoy swallowing.
A Christmas Tale: The whole “Mom’s dying of cancer at Christmastime” has become new holiday-movie cliché, from Stepmom and The Family Stone to any number of tearjerkers on the Hallmark and Lifetime cable networks. Here’s a movie that knows how to play that card, with terse smarts and rich characterizations that never allow gooey sentimentality to seep in. Catherine Deneuve stars as a prickly matriarch who needs a painful bone marrow transplant — traditionally, parents donate to children, but she figures she’s done enough for her kids that they owe her. Her illness leads to the return of long-banished son Mathieu Amalric (Quantum of Solace) for the holidays, leading the unleashing of any number of long-buried family resentments. You’ll find yourself siding with different characters upon multiple viewings, which this textured and complicated film absolutely deserves.
Black Nativity: Currently in theaters but destined to become a cult favorite in years to come, this big-screen adaptation of a Langston Hughes play by writer-director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) may not always work, but its attempt to be a very different kind of holiday musical makes it weirdly wonderful and watchable. When their home is foreclosed, Jennifer Hudson sends son Jacob Latimore to live with her estranged parents Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett. Whitaker is a Harlem preacher who puts on an elaborate Nativity pageant, and a dozing Latimore dreams of his own life in parallel with the big Christmas show, as family secrets are unearthed. People burst into song at the most random moments, Tyrese Gibson reads Hughes’ poetry and Mary J. Blige wears a big white wig and angel wings. Love it or hate it, you’ve never seen anything quite like this.
What's the weirdest holiday movie you've seen?