7 of the best cult Christmas films
When you're sick of watching 'Love Actually' try these under-the-radar picks.
After a heaping serving of Christmas ham, there’s nothing better to do than to get hammy with an unholier-than-the-norm holiday flick. Sure, there will always be the classics: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Love Actually, but... aren’t you bored? I’m bored! Google around for holiday watchlists and you’ll get the same 10 results. But what if you were looking for an alternative, not so family-friendly way to celebrate? When you’re left unattended with the spiked eggnog, it’s only right to pop in a twisted flick that looks Christmas-y on the surface but without the sappy Hallmark BS. Look no further than here, with these seven cult picks, from the satanic Santa slashers to under-the-radar arthouse gems.
Black Christmas (1974)
Tired: debating whether The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Halloween or Christmas movie. Wired: debating whether Black Christmas is a Halloween or Christmas movie (for the purpose of this article, let’s say it’s a Christmas movie). Funny enough, the director Bob Clark would go on to direct the more conventional holiday film, A Christmas Story, in just a few years. Though Halloween often takes the credit for pioneering the slasher genre, Black Christmas arrived four whole years before the Carpenter classic with a progressive final girl to root for. Romeo & Juliet’s Olivia Hussey plays pregnant sorority girl Jess, whose controlling BF won’t let her get an abortion (umm, her body her choice, dude). But there are more pertinent problems afoot: Jess and her sorority sisters find themselves terrorized by an anonymous caller who moans lewd things over the phone. Soon, what they initially thought were prank calls turn into actual murders—but is the call coming from inside the house?
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
If you always suspected your local mall Santa was a little too creepy, then this 80s horror film will confirm your suspicions—and make sure you’re never on that jolly man’s lap again. Santa’s got a list, alright—a kill list—in this Christmas tale about a maladjusted boy named Billy, who witnessed his parents getting murdered by Santa when he was a kid and was sent off to an orphanage to be raised by abusive nuns. At 18, he dons the suit himself and goes on a killing spree. Silent Night, Deadly Night was a box office flop due to picketing parents who didn’t want Santa portrayed as an axe murderer. To be fair, it’s not a very good movie either—but it’s so-bad-it’s-good entertaining, especially if you’re gathered around the telly with other drunk buddies.
If you’re not in the mood to sit through a long one, try the 60s French film Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes. The French New Wave director Jean Eustache is best known for his nearly four-hour-long The Mother and the Whore, but his Christmas-themed featurette, which also stars It boy Jean-Pierre Leaud, is a breezy 50 minutes. And it’s got a rather relatable premise: Itching for a trendy new duffle coat, Daniel (Leaud) takes on a job that requires dressing up as Santa Claus to earn a little money. But what he didn’t expect was that he’d have better luck with the ladies in costume: “hiding behind the beard gave me confidence.”
Female Trouble (1974)
Though Christmas makes only a brief appearance, the holiday is a catalyst for this bizarro dark comedy from the Pope of Trash himself, John Waters. The director’s filthy muse Divine stars as Dawn Davenport, a bratty schoolgirl who wreaks havoc on Christmas morning when she doesn’t get the cha-cha heels she wants from her parents. In a fit of rage she stomps on the presents under the tree and flees, hopping in the car of a hitchhiker, who gets her pregnant. What follows is a life of crime—but fashion!—in this cult classic loosely inspired by a Manson family member.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Its title makes this film feel more like straight-laced holiday fare, but if you know anything about Nagisa Oshima, you’ll know this is anything but. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a World War II drama about British POW officers and Japanese guards, and the complicated culture clash that happens, even with the bilingual soldier present to translate. The Japanese rock star Ryuichi Sakamoto (and to-be Oscar-winning composer who made his first film score for this film) stars as a militant Japanese guard who becomes enamored with the lanky, platinum-haired British Jack Celliers, played by Let’s Dance-era David Bowie. It’s queer and erotic and heartfelt, even as Oshima scathingly takes on Japanese moral codes. And even during brutal times, Christmas is jointly celebrated by warring sides.
Throw in Kristen Bell narrating “hey Upper East Siders,” and this could be an extended episode of Gossip Girl (there’s even someone named Serena in this), set around the time the teen show’s characters were born—or, according to the title card, “Manhattan, Christmas Vacation, not so long ago.” Whit Stillman (The Last Days of Disco) captures a certain New York crowd (rich, white), who call themselves the “urban haute bourgeoisie” as they gather for the holidays and discuss the usual cocktail party topics... like, umm, literary criticism. This is Stillman, so the dialogue is wry and sharp, and there’s a bit of class voyeurism on the part of a relatively poor friend, who lives on the Upper West (I know).
Christmas, Again (2014)
And here’s one for those who need a little depressive solidarity on a holiday meant for good cheer. This American indie film from Charles Poekel stars filmmaker and mumblecore regular Kentucker Audley as a Christmas tree seller in New York named Noel (too on-the-nose?). Fresh off a break-up from his long-time girlfriend, Noel acts out in front of colleagues and customers while on the job. Christmas, Again is a modest production but a poignant character study—and a great screen companion for those who are also having a crummy Christmas.