After yesterday’s collection of heartwarming Christmas classics, today we bring you the seamier, sexier, more eeevil side of cell-yule-loid (you’re welcome).
Night of the Meek
by Paul Duane
Yeah, it’s a TV show episode (from The Twilight Zone)- the name of the site is Mostly Film, right?
If you’ve ever seen and loved Bad Santa, as most of us have, then seeing this will provide a gratifyingly strange shock. Night of the Meek is the Robert Johnson to that film’s Led Zeppelin, and as that comparison would suggest, the earlier version has the edge when it comes to simplicity and emotion. The other shock is discovering that Art Carney, of The Honeymooners, can really, really act. As a penniless alcoholic department store Santa, he gives a performance so strong it can be smelled. The Skid Row bar where we find him, passed out on the counter in his Santa costume as kids rattle the doors and windows to jeer at him, is your typical stock set on a backlot, but Carney manages to make it feel real: with his bleary eyes and horrified sense that the world’s cruelty is bearing down on him and on everyone he knows, he exemplifies what Jack London called the ‘white logic’ of advanced alcoholism, a terrible, nihilistic belief that nothing matters. But when he loses his job and is faced with terminal decline, his impulse – in a monologue that’s pure Rod Serling in its mixture of overripe language and genuinely moving sentiment – is to make a Christmas wish – “I’d like to see the meek inherit the earth”. And over the next hour, that’s what happens, as he finds – don’t laugh, you cynical bastards – a mysterious sack that gives everyone their heart’s desire.
Going around his poverty-stricken neighbourhood, he visits the bums, the children, even the department store manager who had fired him, and hands over to them exactly what they’d wanted, even if they’d never realised it themselves. But he doesn’t think of taking anything for himself, and then the sack is empty. And then… well, even just thinking about the final scene of Night of the Meek has my eyes prickling a little. I watch it every Christmas Eve because it’s a beautiful thing. If you can track down a copy, don’t be surprised if it becomes part of your festive ritual too.
by Matthew Turner
“You know, I think I’ve turned a corner. I beat the shit out of some kids today. But it was for a purpose. It made me feel good about myself.” – Willie T. Stokes
That line alone should tell you that Bad Santa isn’t your average Christmas movie. Directed by Ghost World‘s Terry Zwigoff (but conceived and produced by the Coen Brothers), it stars Billy Bob Thornton as a depressed, alcoholic, safe-cracking department store Santa, who’s eventually shaken out of his deep-seated fuck-the-worldattitude by unlikely relationships with a) an impossibly hot barmaid with a Santa fetish (Gilmore Girls‘ Lauren “Fuck me, Santa!” Graham) and b) a fat, lonely, bullied kid called Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), who seems to think he’s the real Santa. Alongside the gleeful misanthropy and the cathartic, corner-turning kid-punching scene referred to above, this is almost certainly the sweariest Christmas movie ever made with the word “fuck” and its variations used 159 times altogether. Thornton is fantastically sour throughout – he’s like a Viz character come to life – and his brilliantly world-weary deadpan delivery turns every line into comedy gold. Sidekick Tony Cox is equally hilarious (especially in the scene where they teach the kid to fight) and the film is filled with bizarre, off-the-wall moments and lines (“Elf fucker!”), though it’s also surprisingly moving. Call me sentimental, but the scene where Thurman gives Willie a blood-stained wooden pickle never fails to bring a tearto my eye.
by Paul Duane
Nothing says Christmas like a bit of noir, from the director of The Killers and written by Herman J (Citizen Kane) Mankiewicz, (and boy, does he like flashbacks). I knew I was going to love this one from the opening, with its frenetic, laboured set-up (Christmas leave from the army, Dear John letter, plane ride filled with smoking men in hats, sleazebag journalist, New Orleans brothel, singer with ‘a past’, Midnight Mass – all in the first ten minutes) but the real meat is in Deanna Durbin’s extended flashback, told after her emotional collapse in church (Siodmak creates an extraordinarily beautiful mood here through music and shadows).
It seems she’s married a terribly goodlooking fellow, deeply devoted to his mother, to the opera, and to spending long nights in smoky rooms filled with other fellows like himself. The film calls him a gambler but the implications are clear, particularly when the mother explains that she encouraged the marriage to keep her son’s ‘character’ in check. Then, under circumstances the film renders remarkably opaque, the son kills somebody. The night of the killing, he practically dances home, and pirouettes into Durbin’s bedroom in a scene so chilling it could have worked in American Psycho. Oh hang on! I forgot to say who plays the son. In the strangest role of his career, but somehow perfectly cast, it’s Gene Kelly. He smiles and smiles, and yet he’s a villain, the depths of his villainy somehow all the more disturbing for being left undescribed (although Gale Sondergaard is one of the most perfectly delineated monster mothers of the movies).
And then it ends, transcendently enough, with moonlight and Wagner’s Liebestod, a fittingly excessive wave of emotion for a deliriously odd little film. Title apart, there’s hardly any Christmas here, but you won’t mind a bit.
Christmas is almost incidental in Trading Places, a set dressing. It gives Philadelphia a cold, unkempt look with half-melted snow and tatty tinsel forever at the corners of the exterior shots, while the interiors – particularly the homes of Dan Aykroyd’s Winthorpe and Jamie Lee Curtis’s Ophelia – radiate a cosy warmth. This gives a visual dimension to the themes of opposition running through the movie; rich and poor, black and white, cruel and kind.
It’s not a film to snuggle up with on a cold Christmas evening. It is harsh, brash and foul-mouthed. It believes absolutely that money buys happiness (and, indeed, makes a compelling argument to that effect). It has very few sympathetic characters, yet the sheer likeability of the cast (particularly Murphy and Aykroyd at the peak of their powers) means that, when the baffling end comes, it’s hard not to cheer the heroes on as they put two – admittedly horrible – old men out on the streets and celebrate by going on a tropical holiday. Happy Christmas!
It’s a dark mirror to A Christmas Carol. A poor man is shown that life is actually better spent in the pursuit of money, and he ends up beggaring his bosses. Order is turned upside-down not through the intervention of the spiritual, but by the intrusion of the material. It is as flinty and Eighties a movie as you could hope to see; wrapping itself in the cosy trappings of Christmas, it leaves you sprawled in the dirty grey snow of winter.
by Clare Dean
“I wish I had kids. I’d make them watch it every year and if they didn’t like it, they’d be punished”. – John Waters on Christmas Evil (aka You’d Better Watch Out)
Harry Stadling is obsessed with Christmas. He wakes to the sound of Jingle Bells, dressed in bright red pyjamas and dances through his house, cluttered with toys and memorabilia. He catches sight of himself in the bathroom mirror with a shaving foam beard and laughs. Or rather, “ho ho ho”s.
The source of Harry’s fixation is a fraught childhood incident when he accidentally caught Santa Claus kissing Mommy. His belief in Santa and the meaning of Christmas was lost in an instant and he grew up to be an angry, idealistic loner, working as a supervisor in a toy factory. He develops an unhealthy habit of spying on the local children with binoculars in order to decide who has been naughty and who has been nice. Increasingly outraged by what he sees, and the shoddiness of the toys made at the factory, and society’s general lack of Christmas spirit, he snaps one night when he overhears co-workers laughing at him.
He then fashions an impressive Santa suit from discarded household materials and paints a festive sleigh on the side of his white Ford transit. His first act as ‘Santa’ is to steal toys from the factory and deliver them to a local children’s hospital. Although well meaning and keen to recreate the Santa myth, Harry does not take too kindly to those who misbehave, as several of his co-workers find out.
Christmas Evil was originally released in 1980, and has since been unfairly pigeonholed with controversial ‘holiday horror’ Silent Night, Deadly Night (released in 1984). This is definitely not another Santa slasher, but a sympathetic film about a mentally delicate man and a quiet dig at the commercialism of Christmas. The body count is low and there are some very funny moments. In fact, for the most part, it’s rather Christmassy, but I wouldn’t suggest watching it on Christmas Day with the kids, despite what John Waters says, although it will definitely disappoint people expecting to see Santa gruesomely murder sorority girls, including those misled by the DVD cover, which shows a grimacing Santa holding a large butcher’s knife.
There’s a great character performance from Brandon Maggart as Harry, and such an odd, ambiguous ending, that Christmas Evil will be on my repeat Christmas viewing list from now on.
by Ron Swanson
Admittedly, not every Christmas movie comes with a body-count this high. Nor do they have more motherfuckers (or muddy funsters for those of you watching on ITV in the 1990s) than Merry Christmases. I suppose Die Hard isn’t everyone’s idea of a Christmas movie, but its credentials are undeniable.
Not only does all of the action unfold on Christmas Eve, but our hero, John McClane is only there because he’s trying to reunite his family for the holidays, leaving the danger of his hectic NYPD beat for his separated wife’s high-class office party in LA. What could go wrong? Only a bunch of high-class thieves, pretending to be terrorists, forcing Detective McClane to wage a one-man war against them, protect the skyscraper in which his wife works, and escort her to safety.
And, what could be more Christmassy than that? It’s a man trying to save Christmas for his family. Only, instead of searching for the newest toy, or outdo his noxious in-laws, or do whatever it is that Dudley Moore does in that film that’s on telly every year, he has to shoot up a load of bad guys, and do it with a collection of quips and one-liners that’s never been bettered since. Hell, he even writes Ho Ho Ho on a bad-guy’s jumper. After he’s killed him, of course.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Die Hard, which is a properly brilliant film; one worthy, indeed, of a far more respectful write-up than this, also provides a great Christmas tip. Right at the start of the film, when our hero believes the most stressful part of his holiday will be the flight, he’s advised by a fellow passenger to take his shoes and socks off, and make a fist with his toes*, in order to calm down. Remember that when you’re arguing with your family, or awakening your mother-in-law from a drunken stupor that has led her to pass out in the bath (I don’t want to talk about what I saw), and say a thank you to Die Hard.
* Of course, Die Hard does teach us that you shouldn’t do this, while holed up in a building with people trying to kill you, so maybe wait until the worst of your family have left…
Remember the Night
by Paul Duane
Remember the Night Director Mitchell Leisen’s rep has suffered because for some reason Billy Wilder saw fit to lampoon him with homophobic quips in most career interviews (Leisen directed many of Wilder’s early scripts). But anyone who loves the comedies of Wilder or of Preston Sturges, who wrote this, needs to investigate further. There are riches here. This film, for instance, expresses deeper emotion than Sturges ever allowed in his own films, and its journey from hardboiled cynicism to a belief in the possibility of love and redemption is tremendously convincing and finally, terribly moving. And it has Barbara Stanwyck (whose performance in The Lady Eve is, against stiff competition, my favourite in all of Sturges). The story seems hokey, written down – a shoplifter awaiting trial has her case postponed til New Year, so her prosecutor, feeling sorry for her, takes her to visit her family for Christmas, but meeting them and realising that they’re awful people who bear the responsibility for the way she is, he brings her to his family for the holidays instead, where real love and respect awaken her innate goodness, and true love dawns – not only for her, but more awkwardly, for the man whose job it is to bring her back to trial and argue for her prosecution and imprisonment. This is a soufflé that collapses on any close inspection but while you’re watching, every moment, every line and performance rings beautifully true, and the gearshift from darkest of noir to most beautiful evocation of what a loving home and family can mean is stunning. If you’re looking for the true meaning of Christmas, it’s here, in this film, perfectly expressed now and forever.