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).

Retrospective: 35 Years Since ‘Critters’ Invaded Theaters By Jesse Striewski

The ’80s were no doubt full with an abundance of creature feature flicks to choose from. Being younger at the time, Freddy and Jason were usually off the table unfortunately while I was growing up (though I still managed to sneak them in whenever and wherever I got the chance to). But slightly tamer, more “family-friendly” horror/Sci-Fi films like Poltergeist (1982), Gremlins (1984), and Critters (1986) were still fair game in our household, and I can vividly remember watching many of these titles on a couch with my siblings (and/or the other kids in the neighborhood) and a tub of popcorn, often times in awe.

Critters was originally released in the U.S. by New Line Cinema on April 11, 1986, and almost instantly drew comparisons to the previously-mentioned Spielberg romp Gremlins (although Director/Writer Stephen Herek has maintained that he and co-screenwritter Dominco Muir had the script in the works long before either of them had ever heard of or seen Gremlins). The film stared veteran actress Dee Wallace as Helen Brown, who was already known for her appearances in a sleuth of horror films including The Hills Have Eyes (1977), The Howling (1981), and Cujo (1983). M. Emmet Walsh, Billy Green Bush, Scott Grimes, Nadine van der Velde, Don Keith Opper, Terrence Mann, and a young, then-unknown Billy Zane also rounded out the main cast.

The plot was simple enough; vicious creatures from another planet land in the middle of rural Kansas and wreak havoc on the Brown family farm. But two out-of-this-world bounty hunters (played by Mann, and eventually Opper as well in future installments) throw a monkey wrench in their gears, ultimately saving the day from the destructive vermin. In October of 2020, I interviewed Wallace on behalf of Rewind It Magazine, who declared of the film, “It was just such a simple, but harmlessly fun movie to be a part of. I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Multiple follow-ups continued the original series, with only Opper and Mann reprising their roles in all of the next three films (although Grimes did return as Brad Brown in the first sequel). 1988’s Critters 2: The Main Course (which was one of the first times I can recall ever seeing so much, ahem – female anatomy – on screen while watching it on cable TV at a friend’s house) was the last film of the series to be released theatrically after a disappointing $3 million box office return (the first entry had grossed over $13 million on a budget nearly equivalent to the sequel’s intake), but remains a cult/Easter classic among many to this day. The next two additions to the franchise, 1991’s Critters 3 (notable for starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio in his first film role) and 1992’s Critters 4 (which featured Brad Dourif and Angela Bassett), promptly received straight-to-video treatment, and saw the titular monsters taking on the big city, and outer space itself, respectively.

It would be nearly three decades until the franchise would be revived, with a reboot film titled Critters Attack!, and a web series Critters: A New Binge, both dropping in 2019. Wallace returned for the former (in a role that may or may not have been the same as her character Helen Brown from the original). Regarding her return to the series, Wallace told Rewind It Magazine in the same 2020 interview; “It was a lot of fun. My first question for them was, ‘Are you doing the critters CGI?,’ because if they were I wouldn’t have done it, and I think the fans would have been disappointed. But I read the script, and met with the director, and I got to go to Cape Town, South Africa, so how bad could it be?!”

Critters have even found themselves as the punchline in random pop culture; the 1990 film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles features a scene where one of the turtles, Raphael, is seen walking out of a movie theater (with the film’s poster displayed in full view) and proclaiming in disgust, “Where do they come up with this stuff?!” The song used in the original film, “Power of the Night” by the fictional Johnny Steele (also played by Mann) has also taken on a small life of it’s own as well in some underground circuits and online (had it been released as an actual single at the time of it’s original release, it could’ve possibly even been a hit).

No matter where the franchise goes from here, there’s no denying the lasting impact this campy series has had on multiple generations of Sci-Fi/horror fans for well over three decades now. Thirty-five years on, the original still remains the perfect film for late night viewings as it ever has.