9 of the greatest alternative Christmas movies

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Forget Elf, The Grinch and It’s A Wonderful Life this Christmas. Why sit through the same old family-friendly schmaltz when you can indulge in festive horrors, thrillers, and bad taste comedies?

For those on the lookout for something a bit different, Mark Butler takes a look at nine films you might not instinctively think of watching this Christmas – but most definitely should.

Bad Santa 2 billy bob thornton

Die Hard (1988)

“Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho!”

From one of the most imaginative uses of a Santa suit in action movie history, to the sleigh bells on the slick soundtrack, it’s amazing how many people forget Die Hard is set during the festive season.

Bruce Willis is on top form as charismatic, wisecracking cop John McClane – who finds himself taking on a whole skyscraper full of gunmen in John McTiernan’s sensational bullet-spewing thriller. Alan Rickman provides one of cinema’s most memorable-ever bad guys as the intelligent, articulate and ruthless Hans Gruber; there are quotable lines aplenty; and the whole thing is perfectly paced and judged: finding the ideal sweet spot between heart-in-mouth tension and explosive entertainment.

Gremlins (1984)

Undoubtedly one of the best ‘family horror’ films ever made, the spectacle of small-town America terrorized by an outbreak of half-cute, half-vile slimy green monsters has become an enduring image of ’80s cinema. And despite the odd grisly Christmas anecdote, you can also expect Disney sing-alongs, a Scrooge-esque cumudgeon getting her comeuppance, and a brilliantly constructed holiday atmosphere.

Combining the fantastical-whimsy of Christopher Columbus’s script, the bloody flair of Joe Dante’s direction and the bittersweet sentimentality of Steven Spielberg’s supervision, it’s a rollercoaster ride of memorable characters, energetic slapstick and genuine thrills and spills.

Bad Santa (2003)

This hilarious and shockingly sordid gem, about a vile, alcoholic robber who masquerades as a shopping mall Father Christmas, has deservedly become something of a cult favourite.

Billy Bob Thornton delivers an unforgettable performance as the anti-hero of the title, who has sex in shop changing-rooms, beats-up kids, and ends up squatting in the house of a dim-witted boy and his senile grandmother. A brilliantly ludicrous, darkly comic treat for adults, it also possesses just a hint of sweetness and charm to lift the spirits.

Black Christmas (1974)

There really aren’t enough slasher films set around Christmas. But if you want a genuine seasonal chill as the cold, dark nights continue to set in – check out this deliciously disturbing cult classic.

Centered around a house-full of college students who start receiving sinister phone calls, while something very nasty lurks in the attic, it’s an eerily atmospheric indie that surpasses the limitations of its low budget with an ingeniously constructed build-up of edgy, horrifying suspense.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Putting a wonderful off-the-wall fantasy spin on proceedings, Johnny Depp’s first – and best – collaboration with director Tim Burton, sees him step into the outlandish shoes of a lonely, endearing and perennially confused young man who has been left with scissors instead of hands.

Veering between funny fish-out-of-water comedy, poignant drama and haunting, bittersweet tragedy, this magnificent modern-day fairytale has never made snow seem more magical – and Danny Elfman’s beautiful score is the icing on the cake.

Batman Returns (1992)

Burton’s second Batman movie is another saga built around a gothic take on Christmas, shifting neatly between sinister horror, outlandish fantasy and – of course – comic book action, while centering its most memorable moments on seasonal carnivals, shimmering snow, and the giving of gifts. There’s even a rather shocking kiss under the mistletoe.

Jack Nicholson’s exuberant Joker may be long-gone, but when you’ve got Danny DeVito on board as a monstrous Penguin, Christopher Walken devouring the scenery as a big-haired business creep, and Michelle Pfieffer setting adolescent hearts everywhere a-flutter as a sultry and vicious Catwoman, you can hardly complain. The end result is both exciting, and oddly touching.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

‘Whaaaaat?!’ we hear you cry. But yes. It’s true. Stanley Kubrick’s sinister erotic thriller is indeed a Christmas movie. It’s set around the holiday season – and there’s even a Christmas tree in nearly every scene.

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman star as a married couple flirting with respective sexual fantasies and thoughts of adultery, in a surreal but gripping saga that takes in awkward encounters, steamy bedroom sequences, and an unforgettable slice of ambient horror at a decadent masked ball.

Brazil (1985)

It’s Christmas Eve in Terry Gilliam’s deeply unsettling vision of nightmarish bureaucratic dictatorship, when a simple mistake on a form leads to the abduction and state-sponsored torture of an entirely innocent family man, at a department named ‘Information Retrieval’.

It’s a startling combination of the terrifying and the farcical that really makes this sing. Jonathan Pryce’s low-level employee escapes his humdrum existence by losing himself in a dream-like fantasy world, while the grotesque, plastic-surgery distorted elite around him shut off their minds and worries from the everyday horrors around them. Michael Palin is inspired casting as a charming, friendly acquaintance with a very dark line of work. But we can’t promise the ending will leave you uplifted…

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Shane Black has acquired a well-earned reputation for stealthily setting his action-comedy capers during the holiday season, and his sparkling directorial debut is probably the finest example of all.

Robert Downey Jr plays a hapless robber who finds himself embroiled in a series of bizarre, dangerous events after gatecrashing an acting audition. Val Kilmer is priceless as the PI he teams up with – and the end result is a hilarious, gripping and ruthlessly entertaining neo-noir.

Mark Butler

What are your favourite alternatives to the usual festive flicks?

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Mark is the content manager for WOW247 in Leeds. When he isn't waxing lyrical about Ben Wheatley and Caravan Palace, he's landing news, assembling guides and penning movie features.

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