Special Edition: The 25 Greatest Non-Traditional Christmas Movies of All Time By Jesse Striewski

What really constitutes a ‘classic’ Christmas movie? Is the term limited strictly to the holiday specials of yesteryear, like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, or Santa Claus is Coming to Town? Or does it refer only to the same films played to death on cable television every year, such as A Christmas Story, Home Alone, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation?

Over the years, there’s been many a film with Christmas either on the side or in the background all together, some more obvious than others, some more off-the-cuff. I tried to find twenty-five movies (for December 25th) for those with “alternative” tastes that prefer something slightly less than typical, and once and for all end the debate what exactly classifies as a Christmas movie (and of course, once and for all declare that Die Hard IS in fact a Christmas movie!).

It was not easy narrowing it down; as much as I wanted to include the likes of Maniac Cop 2, Robocop 3, or Jaws: The Revenge, they just did not fit the mold. Other films that also came to mind that deserve an honorable mention include Mean Girls (pictured, above), Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Can’t Buy Me Love, Vice Versa, and even the original Karate Kid, all featured some Christmas in them, but not quite enough to make the list. And as tempting as it was to include some horror films like Black Christmas or Silent Night, Deadly Night, they indeed still fall under the Christmas banner in their own demented ways. So, compiled here for you now, I present the ultimate misfits guide of not-so-obvious Christmas movies…

25. Reindeer Games (2000): What better way to start things off than with an uber over-the-top, early 2000’s action flick starring Ben Affleck, who plays a recently-released ex-con who gets tied up with the wrong people and finds himself in the middle of a casino heist dressed as Santa? A recent viewing proved the plot is still just as bad as it sounds, but if you like a good dose of violence with your holiday cheer, than this one’s for you.

24. Night of the Comet (1984): Okay, I know I just said I was not going to include horror on this list, but I’ll make an exception for Night of the Comet since this mid-80s flick starring Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney is not only more of a Sci Fi/comedy feature, but there’s no killer Santa in sight. Instead, the main protagonists here are zombies after a comet hits the Earth just days before Christmas.

23. Trapped in Paradise (1994): Nicholas Cage, Jon Lovitz, and Dana Carvey star as three bumbling brothers who rob a small town bank. The plot is predictable, and the jokes few and far between, but the winter scenery is on point and enough to put anyone in the holiday spirit.

22. Invasion U.S.A. (1985): Die Hard was far from the first action film to incorporate yuletide carnage in it. This mid-’80s Chuck Norris romp features plenty of exploding Christmas trees as Norris tears his way through shopping malls (among numerous other suburban settings).

21. Light of Day (1987): Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett star as brother and sister and bandmates in a struggling Ohio rock group trying to “make it.” Sure, the actual Christmas side of things are few and far between, but the amount of white snow seen throughout is enough of a holiday reminder, despite the dreary atmosphere.

20. Screwed (2000): When chauffeur Willard (Norm Macdonald) gets a lousy pair of cuff links from his boss for Christmas, he snaps and devises a plan with his friend Rusty (Dave Chappelle) to kidnap her dog and hold it for ransom. Everything that can go wrong, does, as the two bumbling anti-heroes scramble to keep their heads above water.

Dave Chappelle (left) and Norm Macdonald enjoying some holiday cocktails in Screwed (2000).

19. Daddy’s Home 2 (2017): The two co-dads (Mark Wahlberg, Will Ferrell) from the original Daddy’s Home take their respective families to a ski resort for Christmas vacation, with their own fathers (Mel Gibson, John Lithgow) in tow as well. One mishap after the other leads to a few memorable moments, with the film even culminating complete with an epic sing-a-long of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?.”

18. Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009): Paul Blart (Kevin James) is a harmless New Jersey mall security officer who must rise to the occasion when thieves disguised as Santa’s Village employees attempt to heist the mall on Black Friday. The majority of the film takes place within the mall itself, something once as synonymous with Christmas as mistletoe.

17. Dumb and Dumber (1994): Pals Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) and Harry Dune (Jeff Daniels) take a cross-country trip to Aspen, Co. to return a briefcase to the girl of Christmas’ dreams. Along the way, there’s visions of snowy ski resorts and even snowman building, all adding to the holiday vibes.

16. Diner (1982): This early ’80s buddy film who center around a group of friends (played by Steve Guttenberg, Kevin Bacon, and Mickey Rourke, among others) hanging out and experiencing adulthood for the first time in late 1950’s Maryland. Almost every frame is dark and filled with frigid cold, often with Christmas decorations appearing.

15. Less Than Zero (1987): Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, and Robert Downy, Jr. play rich kids lost in the decadence of 1980’s Los Angeles. Scenes of Christmas parties include plenty of “snow” despite the film’s western setting.

14. First Blood (1982): The true O.G. of the Christmas action film, Sylvester Stallone’s first time portraying John Rambo contains more festive cheer than one might realize at first glance. From the sheriff’s office in the beginning, to the big in town shoot up ending, there’s plenty of Christmas decor to spot throughout.

13. Grumpy Old Men (1993): Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon play two bickering old neighbors in Minnesota. Snow covers nearly everything the eye can see in exterior shots (many centering around the two men ice fishing), while interior settings center around the holidays when family comes to visit.

12. Eyes Wide Shut (1999): Stanley Kubrick’s odd masterpiece of cults and cheating spouses starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman immediately starts off at a Christmas party in New York. The film maintains a cold, dark tone throughout, with the Christmas elements contrasting the material perfectly.

11. Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986): Long before there was “The Dude,” there was Nick Nolte’s brilliant portrayal of a homeless man who is reluctantly taken in by Beverly Hills elitists (Richard Dreyfus, Bette Midler) during the holiday season. Things eventually get so out of hand, even Little Richard shows up at the family’s Christmas party.

10. Rocky IV (1985): Going back to the 1976 original, the Rocky films were no strangers to holiday atmosphere. But by the time the Italian Stallion (Sylvester Stallone) got to the fourth entry, it was full-on, with the film’s final fight taking place on Christmas day in Russia. The trend would continue further five years later with Rocky V (1990), which also featured plenty of Christmas, but lacked much of the heart.

9. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001): I can’t say I’m a Harry Potter aficionado (to this day I still don’t think I’ve even seen all of the films), but I do remember seeing the first movie and equating it to a Christmas film with much of its festive scenery. For many years the original film was even kept on the Disney Channel’s annual rotation of holiday films.

8. Ghostbusters II (1989): From ghostbusting in Santa hats on the streets of New York, to an outdoor sing-a-long on New Year’s Eve, this 1989 sequel to the original Ghostbusters no doubt contained the Christmas spirit.

7. Hook (1991): This early ’90s take on the classic animated Disney film Peter Pan (which contained Christmas itself) starring the late Robin Williams only featured Christmas in the beginning and ending of the film, but contains enough magic to qualify here. Williams would appear in another similar fantasy film just a few years later in Jumanji (1995), which also featured some Christmas in it.

6. Edward Scissorhands (1990): Tim Burton was hitting his stride as a director by the time he reached Edward Scissorhands in the early ’90s. Johnny Depp stars as the Frankenstein-like titular character trying to fit in in a pristine suburbia, and Winnoa Ryder appears as his love interest. Again, the Christmas season doesn’t appear until near the end of the film, but the snowy flurries from Edward’s ice sculpting throughout the film adds to the seasonal feel.

5. Batman Returns (1992): In this entry, Batman (Michael Keaton) takes on the sleazy Penguin (Danny Devito) and slinky Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) in sub zero temperatures. Children are kidnapped, and Christmas parties are crashed in this final Batman entry with Keaton and directed by Tim Burton.

Mel Gibson gets more than he bargained for while shopping for a Christmas tree in Lethal Weapon (1987).

4. Lethal Weapon (1987): One of the greatest of its kind, the original Lethal Weapon with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover blended fast-paced action over a Christmas backdrop flawlessly. Perhaps the most memorable festive moment comes when a bullet goes through Tom Atkins’ torso into a glass of egg nog (I was thoroughly pleased to see Atkins actually had stills of this to sign when I met him this past October). It’s great to see Lethal Weapon is finally getting the recognition it deserves as a Christmas classic.

3. Trading Places (1983): Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy brilliantly portray an upper class broker and a small time street hustler whose lives are swapped at the whim of two millionaires making a bet. Much of the film takes place in the frigid temps of winter in Philadelphia with Christmas decor in aubundance. Very few on screen Santa’s before or since have compared to Aykroyd’s boozed-up, show-stopping performance.

2. Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard 2 (1990): Yes, the original Bruce Willis blockbuster Die Hard, which takes place at a high rise holiday party on Christmas Eve, is absolutely a Christmas film. But its first 1990 follow up, which includes terrorists taking over an airport on Christmas Eve, is often overlooked as an equal Christmas film. Of course, nothing will ever top Hans Gruber falling off the Nakatomi Plaza in the original, but each deserves their own holiday viewing.

1. Gremlins (1984): Marketed as a horror/comedy upon its initial release, the original Gremlins has since become a staple Christmas time classic. When teenaged Billy (Zach Galligan) gets a cute and fury, foreign creature as a Christmas present, it turns out to be too good to be true when it multiples, and the rest turn into hideous little monsters who wreak havoc on the small town. From start to finish, Christmas is everywhere in Gremlins, which has been a go-to in my household since I first received it as a gift (for Christmas) on VHS when I was a kid in the ’80s.

Christmas caroling gone wrong in Gremlins (1984).

Special Edition: The History of the Holiday Horror Film By Shawn McKee

Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella A Christmas Carol is as familiar as the holiday itself. As a quintessential story of redemption, it’s hard to imagine a world before Ebenezer Scrooge. Roughly a hundred years later, director Frank Capra delivered a similar redemptive tale with the Jimmy Stewart classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

Both stories had elements of darkness within their exploration of humanity, but neither delved into the murder and mayhem of the Christmas slasher films that followed. It was only a matter of time before Santa Clause became a serial killer, which audiences would get their first glimpse of on screen in the brief “And All Through the House” segment in the 1972 film Tales From the Crypt.

The1970s and 80s introduced a decidedly macabre take on the holiday genre. Nonetheless, these films exhibited a certain charm amid their profitable nihilism. It was a special time and place, where young filmmakers thrived in merging horror tropes with the holidays, long before Tim Burton arrived on the scene. One of the earliest examples of this twisted trend began with the aptly titled Black Christmas, a horror film that remains frightening to this day.

Black Christmas (1974)

Director Bob Clark played a pivotal role in launching the slasher genre with this tense, atmospheric film that entirely lives up to its reputation. Initially dismissed by critics, the movie has since gained a deeper appreciation for its artful cinematography, serious themes, and stark horror. Clark helped shape the prototype slasher film with a level of quality not often associated with the genre. There have been two worthless “name only” remakes, largely unrelated to the original plot.

The story involves a group of sorority girls being harassed by an unseen psycho who may or may not be known by them. Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Kier Dullea round out the talented cast, with some other familiar faces in the mix. As the murders continue unabated, we never learn the identity of the killer, which was something rarely, if ever, seen before. Black Christmas heavily inspired John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), which led to the slasher boom of the 80s. Not content with one genre, Bob Clark later went on to direct the cherished holiday classic, A Christmas Story (1983).

Ralphie’s childhood quest for a Red Ryder BB gun is quite different than anything seen in Black Christmas, and it’s a testament to Clark’s versatility. Writer Jean Shepherd’s humorous, semi-fictional accounts of growing up in the 1950s is about as far from a slasher film one could get. Both films, in my opinion, can be appreciated on different levels. Clark cemented two equally enjoyable holiday classics for generations to come.

Olivia Hussey is terrorized in a scene from Black Christmas (1974).

Silent Night, Deadly Night (Part I-V)

The abundance of slasher films throughout the 80s weren’t without controversy. Bloody, elaborate special effects were often removed, following a merciless MPAA crackdown. In short, fans were left with tedious buildups to off-screen kills, amid other frustrations.

These films were seen as an affront to decency by parents and religious leaders alike, and maybe they were right. But nothing angers gore-loving teenagers more than censorship. I can attest to that. One movie, Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), earned special derision from critic Roger Ebert, who called the profits from the film “blood money” in his heated review. He may have had a point as well. Horror movies, in general, are driven by profit. Violence sells, especially when it’s holiday themed.

Silent Night, Deadly Night continued the psychological tropes first introduced in Christmas Evil (1980). In both cases, traumatized, disturbed men unleashed their fury on society, dressed as Santa Clause. I’m still amazed that Silent Night, Deadly Night garnered five sequels, rendered unrecognizable by the fifth installment. The first film remains the best one, and the lengths they went to extend the series are a riot.

The initial outing tells the story of Billy Chapman (Robert Brian Wilson), who witnessed his parents’ murder at the hands of a Santa Clause-costumed killer. Chapman’s subsequent attempts at a “normal life” are derailed when he takes a job as a mall Santa and predictably snaps. It’s a straight-forward slasher that contains a certain depth to its portrayal of an orphaned child, doomed to the failures of the system.

The movie was pulled from theaters, following an outrage campaign in response to its commercials portraying an ax-wielding maniac dressed as Santa Clause. Simpler times, indeed. The shameless sequel presents forty minutes of footage from the original film through flashbacks recited by the brother of the original killer.

Ricky Caldwell (Eric Freeman), our demented lead, supposedly remembers everything about his brother’s descent, even though he was an infant at the time. All of this was intentional. Due to the first movie being pulled so quickly from theaters, the producers didn’t think anyone would notice if they “reassembled” the first film into a sequel. In the end, we were given an enjoyably bizarre suburban rampage, containing the brief but immortal “Garbage Day” segment. The movie is trash, but earnestly tries to breathe life into a pointless endeavor.

Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out (1989) is an anemic straight-to-video concoction, featuring a girl with psychic powers inexplicably linked to the killer, ala Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988). Back then, plenty of films shamelessly stole from the Brian De Palma’s masterful Stephen King adaptation Carrie (1976). It’s a movie so dull and boring, that it completely earns Ebert’s ire from the first installment.

The best thing that could be said about Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1990) is that it tries to be something completely different, even while copying Rosemary’s Baby (1969). It’s a cult movie, directed by the talented Brian Yuzna and starring the legendary Clint Howard. A young, ambitious reporter gets intertwined with a deadly witch cult. There’s plenty of mystery and intrigue that’s as enjoyable as a fourth entry can be. I appreciate their attempts to change things up, even if it has nothing to do with the original. It does take place during Christmas, allowing the cynical holiday tie-in to continue.

They weren’t even trying for consistency by the time Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991) rolled around. This bizarre entry features a deranged toy maker, as promised, portrayed by Mickey Rooney. My explanation of the plot wouldn’t do it justice, but it’s worth seeing out of morbid curiosity. In retrospect, I give it even more credit for shifting away from the source material. It’s the most ridiculous Christmas-themed movie you could see outside of Santa Clause Conquers the Martians (1964). One thing is for certain, Silent Night, Deadly Night films are less disturbing than the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, which still ranks as the most traumatic viewing experience of all time.

Since then, there has been an explosion of sorts of modern Christmas horror films, including a loose Silent Night, Deadly Night remake simply titled Silent Night (2012), as well as Krampus (2015), A Christmas Horror Story (2015), and Red Christmas (2016), among others. Each of these tried to put their own unique spins on the holiday horror genre, and all with varying results. But the above-named earlier films will always remain the go-to’s for anyone searching for true fright during the Christmas season.