Like Disney movies and porn, Christmas films are marketed for a very specific target audience. Christmas movies like to celebrate family values, the spirit of giving, the triumph of ordinary people, and the joy of reindeer ownership.
I can’t relate to any of that.
My favorite Christmas story has always been Charles Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL. For those unfamiliar with the roughly 10 billion versions of this story that have been filmed since movies were invented, the plot involves ugly recriminations, naked greed, squalor, missed opportunities, and dead people. Now those are topics I can relate to.
So while others are watching one of Tim Allen‘s horrendous SANTA CLAUSE films or THE GRINCH or SCROOGED or even SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS, I relax with a trio of Christmas movies that feature one or more murders.
These are not “traditional” Christmas movies by any stretch of the imagination (even if your imagination stretches like Plastic Man doing yoga), but they all feature Christmas themes and they’re all more fun that endless reruns of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.
I’ve always considered Tim Burton‘s 1992 film BATMAN RETURNS to be a great Christmas movie. How can anyone not love a movie that begins with Pee-wee Herman throwing his deformed baby — stroller and all — into a frozen river to drown?
BATMAN RETURNS is set in Gotham City during the Christmas season, and is probably a more insightful look at the true spirit of Christmas than Burton’s other Christmas classic, A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, ever will be.
A murderous, psycho circus, led by the Penguin (Danny DeVito in a role in which his over-the-top performance is actually an asset), terrorizes Gotham City. Catwoman blows up a department store full of Christmas merchandise (this was before director Jean-Christope Comar — hiding behind the nickname Pitof — absolutely destroyed any chance of a Catwoman movie franchise and ruined my favorite Halle Berry fantasy). Christopher Waken lights a giant Christmas tree and Bruce Wayne peels a glued, rubber mask off his face.
Several people die in this movie: The Penguin drowns, Max Shreck (named for the actor who played Count Orlock in the 1922 silent film NOSFERATU) gets electrocuted, and, if memory serves me right, the winner of the Gotham City ice queen pageant gets pushed off a roof. Plus, I figure the guy on the unicycle with a machine gun must have nailed a few people in the crowd, even if they didn’t show it on screen.
The 1934 movie THE THIN MAN hasn’t much in common with BATMAN RETURNS except that both Bruce Wayne and Nick Charles are obscenely wealthy and both films occur at Christmastime and feature murders.
If you’ve never had the joy of seeing William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles I pity you more than Mr. T pities a fool. In all six of the THIN MAN films, Nick and Nora float through life on a cloud of whiskey and cash. They are also very good at solving murders and pioneered the technique of getting all the suspects in one room until the killer either cracks and confesses or tries to escape.
THE THIN MAN is not just clever and sophisticated; it’s extremely funny. Look for the scene where a gang of Nick’s mooching, low-brow buddies crash a Christmas party at the Charles’s penthouse hotel suite. Also check out the scene with Myrna Loy — the ultimate sweetly suffering wife — watching her husband shoot the ornaments off a Christmas Tree in his pajamas and bathrobe. The eternal longing of a wife to have her husband grow up has never been expressed better than the expression on Loy’s face. Loy could convey more just squinting her eyes than Jennifer Aniston could jumping through a plate glass window on fire.
There are only a couple of murders in THE THIN MAN, just to move the plot along; but if you want a movie that will get you in a good Christmas mood, this one works a lot better than another rerun of RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER.
Finally, if you want a good Christmas movie that is warm and funny and ends up with someone getting killed, you’ll want to see WE’RE NO ANGELS — the 1955 classic, not the 1989 remake with a sullen Sean Penn and Demi Moore‘s stunt double’s breasts.
A trio of felons — Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, and Peter Ustinov — escape from Devil’s Island prison on Christmas Eve. They hide out in a village on the island and plan to steal from a shopkeeper (Leo G. Carroll) and get off the island. But they begin to like the shopkeeper and his family and decide to stick around long enough to keep him from being humiliated and fired by his greedy cousin (Basil Rathbone). I seem to recall only one murder in this movie (Rathbone’s, naturally), but when he gets killed, you really, really want to see it happen.
WE’RE NO ANGELS is a very funny movie that showcases the comedic talents of Bogart, Ustinov, and Rathbone — three actors you rarely think of as being knee-slappingly hilarious.
So while all your friends and family are watching their traditional Christmas films, you can start your own Christmas tradition with BATMAN RETURNS, THE THIN MAN, and WE’RE NO ANGELS.
And remember: everytime a bell rings, another low-life gets what’s coming to him.