My Top Five Alternative Christmas Films

5) Jingle All The Way (1996)

Straight up, I don’t like Jingle All The Way. It ruins the holiday spirit with a full embrace of cynical commercialism (via its plot of a father’s search for a hot new toy for his son). This is coupled with awful casting and a screenplay that does not care about its family dynamics. However, this year, I think the film does have its place as an ironic mirror, reflecting the hunt for the season’s must have items. In this way, the film is a timely reminder that it’s not worth punching a reindeer or teaming up with Sinbad to get a PS5.

4) Lethal Weapon (1987)

At first, you could raise your eyebrow, shake your head, and make a snorting sound of disbelief at this pick. That’s understandable. In fact, the traditional favourite movie in this spot is Die Hard. However, that film uses the Christmas setting as a backdrop as opposed to a tool to say anything meaningful about the season. By comparison, Lethal Weapon does.

It takes one of the season’s most tragic realities (the time of year where suicide is most apparent) and uses it as a backbone for the film. Suicide is not only the inciting incident that triggers the film’s narrative, but it’s also soberly depicted with Martin Riggs.

After his wife dies in a car accident, Riggs becomes committed to taking his own life (via various attempts and brash behaviour in the field). With this in mind, it could be argued that Lethal Weapon is about Riggs finding light in his life again, through friendship and the festive spirit of fellowship and family. The film also marks a start for Shane Black’s (the movie’s screenwriter) penchant for using Christmas as a backdrop for many of his movies.

3) The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Ah, The Nightmare Before Christmas, a film that manages to blur the line between Christmas and Halloween. I’ve always thought of it as a Halloween movie, attempting to dress up and pretend it’s a Christmas movie for a day. The plot reflects this point with Jack Skellington wanting to oversee Christmas by dressing up as Santa and giving presents from Halloween town. In this way, Nightmare is an alternative Christmas film because it’s about an attempt from an outsider to spread the joy of the season without understanding its full ramifications.

2) Black Christmas (1974)

Out of all the films on this list, Black Christmas would appear to be the outlier. Sure, it’s set at Christmas but does it use that backdrop in an interesting way? I think it does. There’s potent subtext with its central couple (Jess and Peter) whose argument about whether or not to keep their baby is fascinating in the context of the Nativity Story. At the same time, it juxtaposes the innocence of the season with the cold and harsh nature of its murders. But its best trick is taking the good cheer of the season and subverting it into something alarming, elusive and scary.

1) Batman Returns (1992)

There’s nothing quite like putting a live canary in your mouth or a bit of nose biting to bring in some festive cheer. In all seriousness, Batman Returns is the text book definition of an alternative Christmas film. It takes the central aspects of the season and uses them as a canvas for something that’s unique and meaningful about the holiday.

In particular, one could interpret Tim Burton’s second Batman film as a riff on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Penguin, Catwoman and Max Shrek all represent certain aspects of the title character. Penguin is a mirror of the orphan who lost his parents or in this instance was purposefully given up by his parents (Ghost of Christmas past). Max Shrek is a dark mirror of Bruce Wayne’s businessman persona, whose out to consolidate his power by being a metaphorical vampire with his power plant sucking power out of unsuspecting Gothamites (Ghost of Christmas present). The naming allusion to the actor who played the original cinematic vampire (Nosferatu) feels purposeful in cementing this aspect of his character. And Catwoman/Selina Kyle mirrors Batman’s vigilante side, a sobering reflection of what his crime fighting career could become (Ghost of Christmas future).

Above all, I truly appreciate Batman Returns as an alternative Christmas movie because it takes an aesthetic I love (German Expressionism) and melds it with a season that’s meant to bring and joy and cheer.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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