‘Tis the season for regifting. Which is why if the following list seems familiar to you, I’d like to thank you for being a loyal reader all these years. A couple of years back, I did indeed make up a list of 20 Non-Traditional Christmas Movies for Film Geek Central. Well, that was then and this is now. I have split up the list into easier to digest morsels and even revised and added bits and pieces here. So, it’s not the same list. It’s got new stuff. Read on, if you don’t believe me.
You’ve already seen the usual flicks on these lists: A CHRISTMAS STORY, A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS and so on. But here are some non-traditional holiday films for you. Some veer into horror, some veer into strange fantasy, some are wonderful and some are just wonderfully horrible. All are made to offer for those who want a little something different for the holidays.
So, in chronological order, here we go…..
THE REF (1994) – Christmas comedies do make a bunch of these lists. You’ll see SCROOGED (which I watch every year), CHRISTMAS VACATION and even BAD SANTA if the people making the list think they’re being really daring. But where’s the love for this underappreciated Ted Demme film?
Denis Leary plays a jewel thief who, after making a Christmas Eve score, finds himself on the run from police. He takes a bickering couple hostage (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis, both of whom are perfect), not realizing that they are expecting family from out of town. Leary poses as a mediator when their terrible in-laws arrive. He can’t get a moment’s peace as he has to put up with the constant arguing and learns far more about their family than he ever wanted.
Ted Demme’s film is one of the funniest of the 1990s. It’s the only film to adequately capture Leary’s comedic talents (not just the ones that were – ahem – “inspired” by the late Bill Hicks). It’s a tightly-packed comedy that never outstays its welcome.
It’s also your only chance to hear Judy Davis call Glynis Johns a cocksucker.
SANTA CLAWS (1996) – A young woman, semi-famous for starring in softcore movies, struggles with her status while trying to raise her children. Unfortunately, the kindly neighbor who has been helping out is actually a stalker, feeding his obsession with her by being near her. Soon that neighbor is killing her co-workers and her competition while dressed in a Santa suit.
This horror flick isn’t a classic by a long stretch, but it does have one thing to recommend it. Debbie Rochon, who jokes about the film fairly often, turns in another fine performance. It’s a role she seems to have infused with some personal experience – the odd sensation of being a cult femme fatale while struggling to get by in her daily life. Throughout the rest of John Russo’s film, there are some shortcomings evident. And yet, Rochon centers the film by creating a three-dimensional character on which the film gains its strength.
SANTA WITH MUSCLES (1996) – Terry “Hulk” Hogan stars as a millionaire who lives recklessly and is a real Scrooge to his workers. While evading police after a high-speed chase in which he peppers them with paintball pellets, Hogan ducks into a mall and dresses as Santa Claus.
If you’re willing to buy that illogical set-up, then you’ll have no problem when Hogan hits his head and starts believing he’s the real Santa Claus. You also won’t have any trouble believing his heroic battle against the mad scientist, Mr. Frost (Ed Begley, Jr.) who is trying to demolish an orphanage so he can get to some magic crystals. It’s a Christmas movie that could only happen by the filmmakers’ heads getting repeatedly shaken like a snow globe.
By the way, this is the first film for future Sexiest Woman Alive, Mila Kunis. This predates THAT ’70S SHOW by several years, so she’s still a kid here (she would join her SANTA WITH MUSCLES co-star Don Stark on the long-running show). Kunis has expressed embarrassment about the film, which is just adorable. Don’t worry, Mila, it’s a cute flick and doesn’t undermine your work in BLACK SWAN at all.
JACK FROST (1997) – On his way to the electric chair, serial killer Jack Frost’s prison transport gets in a horrific wreck which genetically mutates him into a killer snowman. Now the killer snowman travels to the small town of Snowmonton to get even with the sheriff who arrested him. Yeah, this is that kind of movie.
This is the type of film you can’t take seriously even for a moment. Even what under ordinary circumstances would be a horrific rape and murder of an 18 year-old girl becomes one of the most legendary scenes in the film as a young Shannon Elizabeth winds up on the business end of Jack Frost’s carrot.
A sequel somehow transported the action to a tropical paradise, where Frost gained even more powers. Oh, and you shouldn’t confuse this with the film where Micheal Keaton comes back from a dead as a snowman to play with his son. Now that film is really creepy!
I do highly recommend you check out this episode of Cinema File podcast. Andrew Shearer and Kate Owens interview director Michael Cooney and it’s the best behind the scenes document on both films available.
GO (1999) – After directing the surprise indie hit, SWINGERS, Doug Liman made his studio debut with this film. When Liman said he had an idea for an ensemble piece about young people on the move, with some of it happening in Vegas, Columbia Pictures was probably hoping for SWINGERS 2. The poster is even similar, the ads for the new film being the 90s alternative version of the swing-influenced Jon Favreau vehicle.
Instead, Columbia got an ensemble piece following various desperate people on Christmas Eve. Ronna is about to get evicted. In order to save herself from immediate homelessness, she takes part in a drug deal. Everything of course goes to hell. Meanwhile, we also have Simon and his friends out for a festive weekend in Vegas that involves gambling, strip clubs, casual sex, hotel fires and angry crime bosses. And then we have the two actors, Zack and Adam, a gay couple on the skids who are also being blackmailed by the cops. Just when you think it’s all over, and you’ve seen all the angles, it loops back around again to show the conclusion to this crazy night.
You can have a great time playing “spot the star” with this cast. You’ve got Taye Diggs, Breckin Meyer, Scott Wolf, Jay Mohr, William Fichtner, J.E. Freeman, Jane Krakowski and Melissa McCarthy just to name a few. But the best performances of the bunch are Sarah Polley (a fine actress who has since turned into a fine director), Katie Holmes and Timothy Olyphant, all of whom help steal the show.
Liman’s film is full of energy and action. GO remains one of his best and most aptly-named films.
REINDEER GAMES (2000) – Two cons are about to get out of jail, just in time for the holidays. Of the two, Nick has everything to live for. He’s developed a relationship with Ashley (Charlize Theron), a woman who has been writing to him in jail. His cellmate Rudy (Ben Affleck), on the other hand, only has vague hopes that his father will somehow welcome him home in time for Christmas dinner. Before they get out, Nick gets stabbed to death in a prison scuffle. When Rudy gets out, he sees Ashley waiting in vain for Nick to arrive. In a moment of weakness, Rudy assumes Nick’s identity.
For a couple days, he lives the dream with Ashley. He begins to fall for her, and even entertains the possibility of starting a new life with this vibrant and attractive young woman. But then Ashley’s brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise) shows up with some mean-looking customers. Turns out, Gabriel was going to force Nick to rob the casino where Nick used to work. But now, Rudy has assumed Nick’s identity. Nick tries to tell Gabriel the truth, but soon realizes that will only get him killed all the sooner. See where this all becomes a problem?
REINDEER GAMES was shot by John Frankenheimer, one of my favorite directors. It was his last film, and it is far from his best. In fact, nobody connected with the movie seems to have been happy with how this turned out. The script feels like it needed another draft or two to really stick. Also, as much as I admire Affleck’s talent, he has trouble finding the right tone for his character, often playing things a bit too dopey.
So, why include it in this list? Because despite all of this, there’s still quite a bit to recommend about REINDEER GAMES. It’s an implausible but entertaining crime noir. It’s also filled with some neat little touches that you don’t see in most productions. One of my favorites being that the casino the group tries to rob is not your typical high roller outfit. It’s a dump that’s falling apart, despite the big dreams of the Las Vegas exile running it (Dennis Farina). It’s little touches like these that prevent REINDEER GAMES from being the disaster critics have made it out to be.
THE NUTCRACKER: THE UNTOLD STORY (a.k.a., THE NUTCRACKER IN 3D) (2009) – The most hated film in this entire four-part series is probably NUTCRACKER: THE UNTOLD STORY. Because while SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY may be a low-budget curio, NUTCRACKER is a still-recent $90 million production, one that became one of the biggest bombs in box office history. It’s one of the rare films to earn a 0% rating from Rotten Tomatoes.
This film failed to capture the hearts of young and old and there’s more than a few reasons why. The film was conceived and released in the 3D format, but this was a post-conversion from an already dark color scheme. While I never viewed the film in three dimensions (a visual impairment prevents my eyes from processing it), I can only imagine how much people would have had to squint when viewing this through those tinted glasses.
But the biggest shock must have been when parents and kids took in the content of the film itself. On video, it’s been given the cumbersome title, THE NUTCRACKER: THE UNTOLD STORY. But in theaters, it was released as simply THE NUTCRACKER IN 3D. No doubt a good portion of the audience was hoping for a faithful retelling of the story by E.T.A. Hoffman, perhaps told through the music and dance of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet. But neither Tchaikovsky nor Hoffman are even credited in the film. Instead, this was a pet project from undervalued director Andrei Konchalovsky (SIBERIADE, RUNAWAY TRAIN). It retains the basic bare bones of the story before going off in its own fantastical yet clearly personal vision.
Mary (Elle Fanning) is given a dollhouse and a nutcracker by her Uncle Albert (Nathan Lane), who is actually Albert Einstein. He tells her to be respectful because all dolls are alive. When she goes to sleep, she dreams that the dolls have sprung to life and joins the Nutcracker, who likes to be called N.C., on a fantastic journey. She eventually comes out of her dream, only to slip back into it in order to help N.C. save his kingdom from the dreaded Rat King (John Turturro).
If people were unnerved by changes in the story, they freaked out at the Rat King, who looks like Andy Warhol and leads an obviously Nazi army. Afraid of the sun, he sends all the dolls and toys (which are alive remember) to be burned in his smoke factories. He wants to exterminate all the people from the town so rats will be able to rule for a thousand years. The parallels are obvious. I haven’t even mentioned how the Rat King likes to collect photos of terrified, crying children.
Heavy stuff and yet, this film is handled like a family adventure. It’s a strange dichotomy. Remember that Konchalovsky was born in the Soviet Union back in 1937. As a young child, his world was dominated by his own country’s struggles against Nazi Germany. Friends and family members likely had horror stories to tell throughout his life. Even after the Nazis were vanquished at great personal cost to Russia, Konchalovsky still dealt with the hardships of Stalinist rule.
It’s uncertain whether children will enjoy NUTCRACKER. It may however be just the thing for an older audience who can still appreciate childlike wonder while being able to recognize and handle the thematic material. The film is not a classic, but it’s filled with plenty of magical scenes (I love the trip up the giant Christmas tree) and intriguing material. Plus, let’s not forget the scores of family films released in the 1970s and 1980s that contained dark, yet socially relevant material.
Perhaps the one thing from NUTCRACKER that I can’t reconcile is how it repurposes various Tchaikovsky pieces, with lyrics added by Tim Rice. This is one aspect of the film that never truly works out, forcing more cringes than smiles.
RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010) – A scientist orders a series of excavations on what could be the world’s largest burial mound. What they actually uncover is a supernatural being, the source of the original Santa Claus legend.
Soon, children are missing and reindeer are slaughtered as this entity teaches the Finnish countryside the true meaning of Christmas. Even when it looks as though the creature has been contained, the nightmare isn’t over. After all, Santa has helpers.
It’s a gory ride that re-envisions Santa Claus as avenging bringer of doom. As does our next film…
SAINT (a.k.a. SINT, SAINT NICK) (2010) – Much like RARE EXPORTS, SAINT is a film that seeks to show the dark origins of the Santa Claus story. But in this brutal film from the Netherlands, St. Nicholas is re-imagined as St. Niklas, a bishop who was killed along with his followers back in the mid-15th century.
Today, as the innocent Dutch people get ready to celebrate the legend of Sinterklass, they are unaware that Nicholas returns with his ghostly legions whenever December 5th coincides with a full moon. St. Nicholas returns and slaughters hundreds of people.
This film comes from the director of THE LIFT and AMSTERDAMNED, two odd but noteworthy horror films from the 1980s. It was the subject of some controversy in the Netherlands, where Santa Claus is beloved much as he is here in the States. The controversy was actually milked by the filmmakers in order to gain even more publicity for the gory little film.
A VERY HAROLD AND KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS (a.k.a., A VERY HAROLD AND KUMAR CHRISTMAS) (2011) – There’s something endearing about this third entry in the franchise blatantly exploiting its 3D credentials. It throws everything it can at the screen in the most gimmicky and shameless way possible, flaunting it’s complete lack of class.
It also happens to be pretty funny as the stoner duo reunites on a search for a Christmas tree that as usual winds up getting them in more trouble than thought humanly possible. And yes, Neil Patrick Harris is back too, as is female nudity, which was appreciated.
This third installment marks a tremendous improvement over the terrible HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE GUANTANAMO BAY and a welcome return to form.
WHEW! So, that’s it. The end of our massive four-part series of non-traditional Christmas films. Thanks for sticking it out with us. If you feel there’s more I could have included, feel free to drop me a line. Because there’s always next year…