Tis the season, as they say, and even the most cynical among you might feel the urge to watch at least one festive-themed film, if only to avoid the inevitable family arguments and stir-crazy frustrations that come from such enforced jollity while spending more time with relatives and hangers-on than you might otherwise want to. But what to watch? There are hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of Christmas films out there, most of which are the sort of insufferable nonsense that turns up on True Entertainment and which would possibly just act as fuel to the fire. There are countless family movies (which is a nice way of saying juvenile rubbish). There are, too, numerous Christmas horror films, few of which would be worth watching at any time of the year. And you might not want to sit down with a Christmas porn movie with the rest of the family.
So we’ve put together a list of festive favourites – some essential viewing, some less so, but all movies that both capture the spirit of the season and provide some level of entertainment. We’re just scratching the surface, and we’ve not included some of the obvious choices – It’s a Wonderful Life, for instance – because we figure you don’t need reminding about those films (and frankly, they are bound to show up on TV anyway). And we’ve left out those productions – the BBC Ghost Story for Christmas series, The Wizard of Oz – that are beloved seasonal viewing, but which don’t actually have a Christmas theme in the story.
Here, in alphabetical order, are a selection of festive films and TV shows that should ensure a merry Christmas, one way or another…
Beavis and Butt-head do Christmas
The first Beavis and Butt-head Christmas special – A Very Special Christmas with Beavis and Butt-head – consisted entirely of the pair commenting on Christmas music videos by the likes of Hall & Oates, Band Aid, Max Headroom(!) and The Ramones, which was fine and dandy, but this is the one you really want to see, as it features the two role-models in a pair of ‘charming’ seasonal tales.
The boys are split up to experience a couple of familiar Christmas stories. In Huh-Huh-Humbug, Beavis finds his porn movie session (he’s watching Ebenezer Screw) interrupted by three ghosts (characters from the series) who try – and fail – to show him the error of his slacker ways. Meanwhile, Butt-head is visited by an angel who tries to show him how much better the world would be if only he hadn’t been born in It’s a Miserable Life. Between these heartwarming tales we have Letters to Santa Butt-head, where he reads viewers letters while Beavis is dressed in some sort of reindeer / festive SM outfit.
Not so much ho ho ho as huh huh huh…
Bell, Book and Candle
It’s a Wonderful Life might be the James Stewart Christmas film that everyone loves, but personally, I have much more affection for 1958’s Bell, Book and Candle, a festive-timed tale of witchcraft and romance that skilfully mixes comedy, sentiment and a killer soundtrack as witch Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak) uses magic to seduce straight-laced Shep Henderson (Stewart). With great support from Jack Lemmon and Elsa Lanchester, this is a wonderful little film – and Novak is so effortlessly sexy that you’ll wonder why it needed magic to make anyone fall in love with her. An ideal Christmas day treat that we watch religiously every year.
The Bishop’s Wife
I’d argue that the best Christmas films are those shot in black and white – possibly because both Christmas and monochrome movies conjure up feelings of nostalgia for a simpler world. While the king of these films is It’s a Wonderful Life, here’s an alternative slice of vintage festive sentimentality (and that’s not a put-down – both films do sentimentality very well). Here, Cary Grant is an angel sent down to teach an ambitious Bishop (David Niven) about what really matters – and, seemingly, to try to bone his wife (Loretta Young) too.
Grant’s smooth charm, Niven’s flustered style, Young’s barely suppressed yearnings and a supporting cast including Elsa Lanchester help make this slight tale work, and Henry Koster’s direction is tight and effective. Even hardened cynics might find the odd lump in the throat as this story – culminating on Christmas Eve – skillfully manipulates the viewer.
This 1947 production seems to have slipped through the Christmas Classics crack, but is well worth seeking out. It goes without saying that the horrible Whitney Houston remake from 1996 is to be avoided at all costs.
Like a generation of horror fans, I first saw Black Christmas on TV, unannounced and unheralded, yet incredible and influential. Bob Clark’s film, while undoubtedly inspired by giallo films from Italy, set the template for the psycho slashers of later years – a holiday themed shocker that mixed dark suspense with thoroughly modern horror and a sense that the killer was somehow more than human. Forget the (not awful) revamp – this grim shocker is an essential film for anyone interested in the development of the horror genre since 1970. It’s not exactly festive – but it is a Christmas classic.
Carry On Christmas
40 years ago, the Carry On films were more popular than God, and so it seemed natural that they should transfer some of their comedy gold to TV. As well as the lamentable Carry on Laughing series, the team – or parts thereof – made four festival specials between 1969 and 1973. The first is based loosely around A Christmas Carol, with Sid James playing Scrooge, while the second – Carry On Again Christmas – takes that festive favourite Treasure Island as its inspiration. The series took a break in 1971 but was back in ’72 with Carry On Stuffing, a series of historical skits and finished in 1973 with Carry On Christmas (again!), the only modern-day story in the series.
At their best, these are like passable cheap knock-offs of proper Carry On films, shot with the horrible video sheen of 1970’s UK TV; at worst, they are unwatchably bad cheap knock-offs. Still, if you want to see Sid, Babs, Hattie Jacques, Charlie Hawtry and others (notably not Kenneth Williams) running through a series of skits held together by a weak plot, then these might be worth a look. If nothing else, they’ll make you appreciate the proper Carry On films more!
A Christmas Carol
There are countless versions of Charles Dickens’ moralising ghost story A Christmas Carol, ranging from the excellent to the insufferable. Here is our pick as the most entertaining – Richard Williams’ remarkably impressive animated version from 1971, with Alastair Sim voicing Scrooge.
Read our full review
The Christmas Tale
Part of the 2005 Spanish 6 Films to Keep You Awake series, this depicts a group of children finding a woman dressed as Santa at the bottom of a well. It turns out that she’s a bank robber and the kids decide to starve her into handing over the stolen cash. But things take a darker turn when she escapes and the kids think she is a zombie. It’s a witty, inventively mean-spirited and dark little tale.
Dead of Night: The Exorcism
The opening episode of the BBC’s 1972 supernatural series sees wo couples celebrate christmas in the country cottage that Edmund (Edward Petherbridge) and Rachel (Anna Cropper) have bought cheap and renovated as a weekend getaway. He’s something in public relations, while Dan (Clive Swift) works for the New Statesman and his wife Margaret (Sylvia Kay), you imagine, does very little. There’s much inane chatter about class – Edmund’s father, a died-in-the-wool socialist disapproves of his son’s social climbing, it seems, but Dan insists they should try to be “socialists and rich”. But the cottage is not prepared to welcome such wealthy, middle class hypocrites. The power goes out, red wine tastes like blood, the food seems rancid and Rachel becomes possessed by the spirit of the former occupant – a poor woman who died of starvation after her husband was hung for stealing food.
The story does, admittedly, lay the message on rather thickly, but it is unquestionably effective, a righteous anger driving the tale. As the voice of the poor dead woman tells the story of abuse and neglect, it’s hard not to be caught up in the fury and disgust that writer/director Don Taylor feels. It’s interesting that he chose middle class left wingers as his characters, rather than Tories – clearly, he’s attacking the pretensions and hypocrisy of people who feign compassion and social awareness while in reality being just as self-absorbed and capitalistic as the Right.
Admittedly, it’s not full of festive cheer, but it’s an effective slice of guilt-inducing, socially conscious horror. You probably shouldn’t watch this after stuffing yourself with a Christmas dinner, though…
Don’t Open Till Christmas
If movies have taught us anything, it’s that psycho killers are quite often pretty picky about who they kill, targeting specific groups that they have a beef with. In this British shocker (made in 1984, but feeling very much like a Seventies movie), it’s Santa who is the chosen victim – or, more precisely, anyone dressed as Santa. These victims are a generally seedy bunch and are offed in spectacularly sordid ways – castration in a public toilet, speared through the head, stabbed during sex, killed while attending a live porno show. If you want your kids to stop believing in Santa, show them this!
Director and star Edmund Purdom – allegedly not a fan of this movie – is the pretty useless Chief Inspector who fails miserably to stop the slaughter, Caroline Munro appears briefly doing a musical number (she was attempting to launch a pop career at the time) and Pat Astley provides the gratuitous nudity. It was written by Derek Ford, a legend of British sleaze who’s career has encompassed everything from gothic horror The Black Torment to hardcore porn in Diversions. British prints of Don’t Open Till Christmas were heavily cut and many of the versions available in the US (under dubious claims of public domain) are practically unwatchable. But as a last gasp of the British exploitation film industry, this is worth the effort.
In a sense, Gremlins could take place at any time of the year; but from the opening credits with Darlene Love belting out Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on, this is unquestionably a festive movie, albeit a rather twisted one.
Joe Dante manages to mostly avoid the Spielberg curse of gloopy sentimentality – not easy with a Christmas film – and instead delivers a sharp, satirical, and often rather cutting romp that has the best movie monsters to emerge since Fiend Without a Face.
From Phoebe Cates’ story of why she hates Christmas, Santa attacked by Gremlins to an army of the little bastards marching through the snow – this is a Christmas film to bring a smile to even the most hardened cynic’s face.
1997 saw the release of Jack Frost (not to be confused with the family film from a year later of the same name). Here, a condemned serial killer is involved in a crash with a truck carrying genetic material, which – of course – causes him to mutate into a killer snowman.
Inspired by the Child’s Play movie, Jack Frost is pretty silly, but the outlandish concept, knowing sexism and a mix of black comedy and horror made it popular enough to spawn a self-mocking sequel.
The Likely Lads Christmas Special 1974
A last hurrah (save for the film version) for Bob and Terry, this final episode of Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads? dropped the “Whatever happened to…” from the title, instead reverting to the original series name from the 1960s. It’s probably the best Christmas special that British TV has come up with, mixing the bittersweet with broad comedy, as the two protagonists have moved further apart in lifestyle than ever before. While the 1976 film brought things to a final conclusion (a rare point where the film actually seemed to be a continuation, rather than retelling, of the story), this seemed like a good point to stop the series.
Night Train Murders
Travelling home by train for Christmas? This cheery little tale might just put you off. Aldo Lado’s shameless copy of Last House on the Left sees two young girls making the Christmas journey from Germany to Italy and falling prey to a pair of petty thugs and a sadistic woman, who rape and abuse them in ways that even Krug might’ve found distasteful.
Lado’s film actually improves on its inspiration with better production values and a plot that better facilitates the revenge element – though the warbling of Demis Roussos on the soundtrack is no replacement for the David Hess songs of Last House. Still, mean-spirited, nasty and cynical, Late Night Trains (to use one of the other title variants) is an ideal antidote to enforced festive cheer.
Set in the Finnish wilderness near the Russian border, the film opens with a group of scientists finding something (or some Thing, given the visual references) during in ice inside a mountain. Digging it out proves to be a bad idea, as the thing in question turns out to be Santa Claus – not the jolly red-faced gift bearer we all know, but a giant, Old Testament Santa who is more interested in punishing the naughty than rewarding the nice. Meanwhile, young Pietari (Onni Tommila) and his dad (Jorma Tommila) discover a naked, white-bearded old man caught in a wolf trap, and having finally decided that he is Santa, figure the best thing to do would be to sell him to the excavators, to compensate for the loss of their reindeer herd that was slaughtered by wolves – or perhaps something hungrier. But it soon turns out that they are mistaken in their identification of this character, as the mystery of how Santa can be in so many places at once is revealed and a small army of naked old men surround them…
Channelling 1980s kiddie horror / coming of age story – definitely more of the Joe Dante style than Spielberg, thank goodness – with a dark sense of humour and some startling visuals that might make this an eye-opener for any kids watching (not only the very naked old men, but also some animal carcass-chopping that provides the film’s only gore), Rare Exports proves to be a twisted delight. Fast paced, beautifully shot and both funny and creepy, the film is a wonderfully entertaining romp, with a final few minutes that are hilarious.
Read our full review
This 1959 Mexican film (also known as Santa Claus vs Satan) was re-released on video in the 1980’s, fooling inattentive parents who thought they were buying the Dudley Moore film of the same title. Their kids won out in this instance, as this is a wild and warped romp in which Santa – who lives in a Cloud Castle where he keeps the entire world under the sort of intense surveillance normally only found in the UK – has to team up with Merlin the Magician and a mechanical, cackling reindeer to save the world’s children from Satan (or at least his minion, Pitch).
Yes, it’s as demented as you’d hope – not always fun (in fact, very rarely fun) but always insane. Imported into America by K Gordon Murray, who made a mint (a Murray mint?) from audiences who thought they were going to see a ‘real’ film; directed by the man who brought you Night of the Bloody Apes and a fistful of El Santo films.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
The reputation of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians precedes it, and newcomers to the film might find it a little disappointing – though there’s no denying that this is one bizarre, demented and delirious movie.
Santa – long with two Earth children – is kidnapped by Martians who want to bring the festive tradition to the kids of their planet. But Santa’s safety is threatened by Martian fundamentalists who oppose the Earthification of their planet, making this a potent allegory for our current political climate. Probably.
Widely available on public domain sites and DVDs, this cheery tale – with Pia Zadora as a Martian child – is not quite as hilarious as you’d hope, but still worth checking out.
Santa Visits the Magic Land of Mother Goose
When you think of Herschell Gordon Lewis, you generally don’t think of children’s films. But there’s more to the Godfather of Gore than just… erm… gore. Alongside winners like Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs, he also made nudie films, sex comedies, action movies and, most bizarrely, a couple of kids films.
This companion piece to Jimmy the Boy Wonder is as crude a film as you could imagine – essentially a kid’s stage show, filmed with little aplomb, it features Old King Cole, Merlin the Magician and various characters from Mother Goose in a messy, virtually unwatchable shambles.
To squeeze a bit more life out of the film, it later had some unrelated Christmas scenes crowbarred into the ‘story’ and was reissued with ‘Santa Visits’ slapped on to the original title. Even in 1967, this must’ve led to some very upset children and irate parents.
Lewis shot The Gruesome Twosome the same year and that is much more entertaining.
Santa with Muscles
Let’s be honest – everything about this is bad. Really bad. But there’s a perverse fascination in the whole thing that makes it worth a look.
Hulk Hogan plays a corrupt millionaire who dresses as Santa to escape the police after driving badly, then hits his head, develops amnesia and thinks he really is Santa. Meanwhile, an evil scientist is trying to take over an orphanage, and only steroid Santa can stop him. Made in 1996, it was forgotten by 1997, and is the only film to make Jingle All The Way seem classy.
Santa’s Punch and Judy Show
Santa, for reasons that never become clear, rapidly tires of handing out gifts to a roomful of mentally stunted children, and so instead decides to traumatise them with a remarkably violent and utterly disturbing Punch and Judy show in this 1948 classic short film. Unmissably weird!
Silent Night, Deadly Night
This 1984 slasher would be wholly unremarkable if it wasn’t for the fact that the killer wears a Santa outfit and judges people who are ‘naughty’. There had been Christmas-themed horror movies before of course, but none that pushed the ‘evil Santa’ aspect so blatantly. Because of that, it became a huge hit and cause celebré, helped by an advertising campaign that allegedly had little kids looking forward to Christmas about as enthusiastically as turkeys do.There were protests, attempts to have the film banned and a general lack of goodwill surrounding the film when it played cinemas. In the UK, the film didn’t even see release until 2009.
It’s crap, of course, but has just enough going on to avoid being too dull – and features an early appearance by Scream Queen Linnea Quigley if that sort of thing excites you. The first sequel was a travesty that used huge chunks of the original as ‘flashbacks’ while subsequent sequels (directed by people like Monte Hellman and Brian Yuzna!) have no connection with the original film (and in some cases, no connection with Christmas either).
Steptoe and Sons Christmas Specials
Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s classic sitcom was often as bleak as it was funny, and their Christmas specials from 1973 and 1974 brilliantly capture the tragedy of Harold’s life, always searching for a little joy and escape, and always scuppered by his selfish, manipulative father. In both these shows, Harold tries to get away from the scrapyard for Christmas, but Albert is there is ruin everything… though the 1974 special (spoiler alert) does at least finally allow him to get the upper hand for once.
Tales from the Crypt
The story And All Through the House first appeared in Vault of Horror issue 35, and would later be filmed as part of the Tales from the Crypt TV series in 1989, but it’s the version seen in the 1972 Amicus film that everyone loves.
Joan Collins plays an unpleasant bitch (go figure) who offs her husband on Christmas Eve with a poker, only to hear on the radio that an escaped lunatic is on the loose in the area. Sure enough, he turns up outside her house, and the pesky fact that her husband’s body is in the house means she can’t call the police. Did I mention that the looney is dressed in a santa outfit? And that Collins has a small daughter who is very eager for Father Christmas to arrive? You can tell this is going to end badly, and indeed it does.
Amicus’ EC Comics movies have been criticised for not capturing the nastiness and black humour of the original stories, but this is a fantastic little story that will put you right in the festive spirit.
The Thin Man
Based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel, this 1934 film spawned an entire franchise of films featuring the hard-drinking detective Nick Charles (William Powell) and his wife Nora (Myrna Loy) (not to mention little dog Asta), who take a break from their Christmas vacation and Nick’s retirement plans to solve a mysterious disappearance and murder.
The Thin Man films are generally a joy, but this is the best – the sparkling dialogue, the repartee between Powell and Loy, and the effortless mix of mystery, humour and style makes it feel as fresh today as it ever did. Nick and Nora are characters to emulate – party animals with a host of seedy connections and what seems – as much as it could in 1934 – like a pretty wild sex life. You could do a lot worse than to use the holiday season to work your way through all six films in the series.
To All A Goodnight
On paper, this 1980 slasher film couldn’t fail – directed by the legendary David Hess and written by The Incredible Melting Man himself, Alex Rebar, it’s a tale of sorority girls being picked off by a couple of loonies dressed as Santa Claus.
Unfortunately, To All A Goodnight is rather slow and very murky, and lacks the intense level of insanity that Hess would bring to his acting roles. Still, as a grubby festive shocker, it’s worth a look if you keep your expectations to a minimum.
Short and sweet, Treevenge is a short tale of murder and retribution, from the point of view of Christmas Trees. It’s from Jason Eisener, the director of Hobo with a Shotgun, but don’t let that put you off…