The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.


As part of Winter Week here on The Mountains of Instead, I'm delighted to welcome back Justin from Swish. Justin's been here before, educating us on zombie science but this time turns his mind to Christmas entertainment and what works for him.

I'm not one for sentimentality and saccharine-laced happiness, so as a film fan the festive period is horrible for me, surely? We will be, as always, bombarded by loads of cutesy family films with a positive message and vomitous tone; it's simple to say “humbug” and dismiss them all. Well, I've had a thought about it and (spolier alert) like Scrooge I saw some light at the end of the tunnel.

I started off thinking about Christmas fare and began dismissing it for the expected reasons. Sentimentality is rife, in films such as Miracle On 34th Street, Polar Express, The Snowman, and even A Christmas Carol. Some can come across as preachy, like Love Actually, and the American favourite A Charlie Brown Christmas even has a Biblical text delivered straight to us by Linus. And, worst of all, there are an abundance of awful, awful comedies: the list is endless but includes the horrific Santa Clause franchise, Jingle All The Way, Jack Frost, and Deck The Halls. If I wasn't playing up my Scroogeality (Scrooginess? Scroogic Nature?), surely I could just say that, of all times of year, surely at Christmas there is a place for family movies, Christian values, and broad comedy to entertain the kids? I'm being cynical, however, so they're all out. There is a major hole in my logic, though: I love It's A Wonderful Life.

Many would consider it the most Christmassy of all the Christmas films; why would I love a film that features angels and family redemption? At it's heart, It's A Wonderful Life is a Christmas film, but for much of the running time it is unremittingly bleak (central to the plot are bank fraud, drunken rants, and suicide) and not particularly Christmas-like. I think that's the key: my favourites are the films that subvert the standard Christmas fare and take it somewhere else. I would therefore like to present a list of my essential themes for a good Christmas movie.

Child abandonment: the Home Alone movies are classic Christmas films but when boiled down a family repeatedly loses a young child during the festive period, often travelling large distances away, leading to repeated flurries of graphic violence as a gang of crooks attempt to murder said child.

Violence and terrorism: this is a rich vein. The classics here include Die Hard (man in tank top kills a load of terrorists who dare to interrupt a Christmas party), Die Hard 2 (man in tank top kills a load of terrorists who dare to interrupt people's Christmas journeys by hijacking an airport), and Lethal Weapon (suicidal policeman and his partner, whose daughter gets kidnapped, bust a drugs ring run by mercenaries. At Christmas). Even Brazil is set at Christmas, and that is about a man being tortured to insanity in a beurocratic nightmare vision of the future.

Gothic/horror: is another fertile area. The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, Gremlins, and Batman Returns (a Danny DeVito Christmas film that is actually good!) all fit in here. Again, they all come at it from an angle that plays up their “differentness” with Christmas as a backdrop. Gremlins even features a character recounting how she found out Santa Claus doesn't exist when they discovered her father's body (dressed as Santa) in the chimney, days after Christmas.

Parody: If you must do sentimentality or Christmassy, do it knowingly. Films in this category include Scrooged, Elf, Bad Santa, About A Boy, Trading Places, and The Muppet Christmas Carol. The two Dickens adaptations are great examples here, making it funny (Muppets) or with a twist (Scrooged); the more “straight” adaptations of A Christmas Carol can come off as mawkish.

So there you have it: it is possible to watch any number of excellent Christmas films at this time of year, and all you have to do is keep an eye out for violence, drunkenness, brutality, and sarcasm. Most important of all, and if you only take one thing away from this, when you see the words “starring Tim Allen” on a Christmas film: turn it off or turn to brandy.

Many festive thanks to Justin for casting his eye upon the subject of Christmas movies. Please share your own thoughts on the genre, love or hate it... To get you going, here's a clip from my own favourite Christmas movie:

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