Uncle Wade’s Top 5 Alternative Holiday Movies
Tis the season to deck the halls, ring them bells, invite friends and family over for Holiday good cheer and all the other crap. If you’re like me, and few of you are, once the kids are in bed, the wassel is flowing and the shotgun is propped against the doorjam with care, it’s time to pull out the edgy, dark and disturbing movies that offer up an alternative to safe and familiar family offerings. These are my picks for the worst movies to share with the parents and chillun’. Unless you’re a masochist that enjoys picking the scab of denial and repression in a group setting.
An interesting side note, both Oliver Platt and Billy Bob Thornton show up twice in this list; helping to forever immortalize them in the pantheon of holiday dysfunction.
I was at the right age at the right time that Ordinary People came out. Filled with teenage angst, I identified with Timothy Hutton’s Conrad, the only surviving son after a tragic boating accident. He attempts suicide and spends four months in an institution, believing the “favorite” died. The film starts upon his return home and attempts to assimilate back into his estranged family and school life. All of us misunderstood, awkward boys felt disenfranchised at that age, and we all dreamed of having a girlfriend as attractive, kooky and understanding as Elizabeth McGovern, a fuzzy warm psychiatrist in Irish wool cardigans, living in an upscale neighborhood.
The film’s therapy-lite and yuppie themes have not held up well, but having a miserable Christmas is very relatable for a lot of us, struggling to connect with your school choir and dead brother’s friends made quite wish fulfilling when done in Eddie Bauer-style clothes, warm gingerbread houses, and streets blanketed in designer snow.
I don’t have kids, and that makes people assume that I’m somewhat scrooge-ish. While I resist that stereotype, it is true that being able to stay away from the malls and Santa’s laps during the hellish shopping days of Christmas and drink wassel and spiked eggnog at all hours is a luxury I enjoy. I also appreciate characters and stories where life in all its depressing shades moves forward, with Christmas as a minor irritant in the background.
Therefore, a very adult and dark Christmas story of a scheme gone wrong in the depressing and grungy confines of Wichita Falls is right up my alley. John Cusack is a sleazy lawyer who tries to get away with embezzlement and then murder, all the while navigating the perils that said life of crime entails, all in one 24 hour period. Between strip clubs, beatings, drownings and assorted characters trying to kill him, including a badly wigged Billy Bob Thornton, Cusack is trapped in a noirish nightmare and a town that won’t let him go. Ably directed by Harold Ramis, this underappreciated dark comedy is a good kick in the jingle bells and stout chaser to any saccharine spiced Holiday outing you are forced to partake in.
3 PIECES OF APRIL (2003)
Thanksgiving is the Holiday that gets the shortest shrift when it comes to movies (actually Hannukah, Passover, Kwanza, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Ramadan get the shortest of shrifts, but that’s a debate for another time and website), so it’s nice when once in a blue moon a good one comes along. (I would argue that Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the best Thanksgiving movie, and would’ve included it here, but it is so beloved it’s moved from “alternative” to smack dab in the crosshairs of mainstream enjoyment.)
Pieces of April is everything you want in a dysfunctional family celebration – a disastrous meal preparation, a parent on the downward spiral of Cancer, funky neighbors who become a surrogate family, and every other type of inappropriate happenings that threaten to destroy the tenuous dance we all do at family gatherings. April Burns (Katie Holmes), the eldest daughter in a family of toxicity, decides on a lark to host her family’s Thanksgiving dinner, all in the hopes of connecting with her mother who may be celebrating her last holiday. From a non-working oven, to parents desperately trying to connect, the story, written by first time director Peter Hedges (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? ) obviously adept at illustrating dysfunction, realistically rocks from painful to hilarious to poignant in a matter of moments. Beyond the solid script and direction are the standout performances by Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson and Oliver Platt. And like most family gatherings, it may be painful to get through, but worth the ride when looking nostalgically back.
2 BAD SANTA (2003)
Famous for its sheer audacity, Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie T. is the mall Santa we’ve all joked about in everything from dirty greeting cards to Novelty songs. Alcoholic, sexually addicted, this shambling mess of a man poses as a Santa with his partner Marcus assuming the elf role, all to case a department store and ransack it after closing. Their plans are thwarted by a naive little boy who thinks Willie T. is the real Santa and goes about trying to protect him, and a Head of Mall Security (Bernie Mac) who raises the flag that Willie may be more than just a creep.
But it’s the irreverent antics Willie partakes in that leave you stunned, mouth agape and laughing hysterically. From humping in a dressing room to the audacious, “couldn’t give a shit” comments he lets fly at parents and children: Kid: “Your beard’s not real. “ Santa: “I got sick and all the hair fell out.” Kid: “How come?” Santa: “I loved a woman that wasn’t clean.” Kid: “Mrs. Santa?” Santa: “No, her sister.” – Bad Santa is definitely not family fare, which is all the more reason to rejoice after hours!
1 BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)
There is, of course, a whole sub-genre of Holiday horror flicks, and it’s hard to pick just one that satisfies all the requirements of inappropriateness, so bad-it’s-good storytelling, and singular elements you don’t see everyday. For my money, the first is the best.
Arguably the slasher film that started it all, this Bob Clark horrorfest (yes, A Christmas Story – THAT Bob Clark) set in his homeland of Canada is the age old story of a girls’ school with a maniac living in the attic, shot with that Friday the 13th/Halloween killer’s POV heavy breathing cam. As the body count increases, the deaths become more grotesque. Supposedly based on a true story about a series of murders in Quebec, it actually has more in common with the “Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” urban legend played out in When a Stranger Calls.
This was the period when exploitation was considered serious “art” and films like Death Wish and Last House on the Left fought to change the tide of convention. Alas, Black Christmas did not fare as well, even with the addition of serious actress Olivia Hussey (Romeo & Juliet) and newby Margot Kidder.
It wasn’t until almost ten years later that Silent Night, Deadly Night went one step further and made Santa Claus a chimney sliding slasher that parents took attention and attempted to ban all holiday-themed horror flicks. A pity, since Silent Night is much more famous, not deservedly so.
For my money, big old houses decked in 70s funky decorations, SCTV’s Andrea Martin in a straight role, and children’s choirs singing just above the din of a girl suffocating to death, means I always bet on Black. Christmas.