When it comes to Christmas movies, everyone’s got their favorite classics: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman. Then you’ve got your non-traditional Christmas films—the ones that are too cynical, violent, bizarre, or morally bankrupt to be lumped in with the others. I'm talking Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Bad Santa, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Home Alone. They’re still classics, just in a different way.
Why do people celebrate these subversive holiday films and not others? Action films will always have people up in arms (no pun intended) about whether they even qualify as Christmas movies, but why do we remember Die Hard and Lethal Weapon but not Reindeer Games or The Ice Harvest? Why do we love Bad Santa but not other movies featuring holiday misanthropes, like Fred Claus or Jack Frost? Why Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas but not Adam Sandler’s animated Eight Crazy Nights? What is it about Home Alone that elevates it above other suburban warfare flicks such as Christmas with the Kranks, Deck the Halls, or Surviving Christmas?
Part of it has to do with production value. It’s hard to top the iconic image of John McClane leaping
off the roof of Nakatomi Plaza as it explodes, or when Jack Skellington discovers Christmas Town for the first time, or Edward Scissorhands's giant topiaries sliced in the shapes of monsters and dinosaurs. Lesser films may lack the vision, ability, or budget to make their holiday stories as memorable, but on a deeper level, our favorite alternative Christmas movies always circle back to arrive at a meaningful holiday theme., never getting so lost in action, horror, sex, or depravity that they forget the real message behind the plot. It’s because these films are unconventional that their meaning's able to really hit home—because we never see it coming.
Take Die Hard, which many consider to be the greatest action movie all time, Christmas or otherwise. The plot pits a New York City cop against terrorists in Los Angeles looking to steal millions of dollars of bearer bonds. Then there’s the subplot, in which an old-fashioned husband is trying to figure out his marriage after his wife relocates across the country for her steadily rising career—a situation that McClane's limo driver Argyle instantly sums up: “In other words, you thought she wasn’t gonna make it out here and she’d come crawling on back to you, so why bother to pack, right?”
Die Hard also possesses the geopolitical subtext of an all-American “cowboy” going head-to-head with two of its former enemies: Eastern Europe, represented by Hans Gruber’s team of German guerillas, and Japan, represented by the Nakatomi Corporation, which has symbolically taken away his wife. McClane wasn’t literally fighting the Japanese in Die Hard, but the film was released amidst the Reagan-era conservatism of the late 1980s, which saw a prevalence of Japanese culture everywhere in the United States amidst a diminishing American labor force. McClane decimating both the German terrorists and Nakatomi Plaza itself was a hail to past times of former glory, when America was number one: “Yippee Ki-Yay, motherfucker.”
Strip that all away, though, and Die Hard's overall message speaks to the importance of being with loved ones during the holidays, no matter the obstacles. That’s the same theme behind Lethal Weapon, in which Sergeant Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) becomes reckless and suicidal after the death of his wife in a car accident two years prior. He ends up partnered with his ideological opposite: Sergeant Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), who’s more concerned with having to face another birthday and his upcoming retirement.
Riggs and Murtaugh are an odd couple—one’s an unhinged loner, the other's a settled family man; one’s white, the other's black; one’s somewhere in his 30s, the other’s too old for this shit. But their differences are the reason they work well together, as Riggs uses dangerous means to find answers and only slows down when he realizes that it’s not just him at risk, but his partner as well.
Throughout Lethal Weapon, no one can tell if the erratic Riggs is just acting crazy so he can retire
early on “psycho pension,” or if he's legitimately snapped. The answer turns out to be neither nor: he’s just a man who lost someone he was completely devoted to, which Murtaugh is only able to understand after being tortured by bad guys who threaten his family. When Riggs tells Murtaugh at the end of the film that he’s not crazy and Murtaugh says he knows, it’s the first time that anyone has acknowledged Riggs’ profound loss and grief. Murtaugh then invites Riggs inside for Christmas dinner as part of his family.
Die Hard and Lethal Weapon certainly outstrip other Christmas-set action films such as Reindeer Games, which stars Ben Affleck as an ex-convict who steals a dead man’s girlfriend and is forced to help her brother knock over a casino. But it’s not impossible to do a holiday heist story well—just look at Bad Santa, where Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) and Marcus (Tony Cox) pose as Santa and an elf in order to crack department store safes on Christmas Eve.
For half the film, Willie’s cursing at kids and exploiting eight-year old Thurman by moving into his house to use the family car. He can’t even properly focus on preparing for the burglary because he’s too busy drinking, pissing his pants, and having sex. But his being an (albeit unwilling) father figure to Thurman allows him to revisit his own upbringing at the hands of an abusive alcoholic, as well as the desire to be different from his own dad.
Thurman wants a plush elephant for Christmas, and by the end of Bad Santa, Willie's just trying to find the exact one that will make the kid happy. His journey is from being the guy who tells an eight-year old to “Wish in one hand and shit in the other one, see which one fills up first,” to asking his business partner if he really needs to steal so much stuff on top of all the money from the heist: “Look at all that shit. Do you really need all that shit? For chrissakes, it’s Christmas.” Never since A Charlie Brown Christmas has a movie so effectively challenged the commercialization of the season.
A less successful dark comedy is Eight Crazy Nights, which spends more time fixated on toilet humor than creating a story we care about. It’s unclear if Adam Sandler tried to make a film that introduces his usual fratboy audience to his Jewish heritage, or if he wanted to make a film for people who appreciate the meaning of Hanukkah but who would likely be turned off by so many poop jokes. Either way, neither group of viewers are satisfied.
On the other hand, The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is also animated, has musical numbers, and ends with the main character returning to town to fess up for having caused a disaster and to help a kindly old man. While Adam Sandler tries to blend all his cultures together, Tim Burton wisely keeps things separate with an unorthodox but meaningful message: don’t force your quasi-religious beliefs on your neighbors if they don’t want it. Let people celebrate their own holidays their own ways.
Speaking of neighbors, observe the warring households of suburbia in films such as Christmas with the Kranks, Surviving Christmas, and Deck the Halls. They freeze their front lawns to drive away carolers, hit one another with shovels, and shoot at each other’s homes with rocket launchers. These are maneuvers taken from the playbook of the granddaddy of slapstick suburban holiday movies, Home Alone—the success of which everyone seems to think comes solely from the booby-trap sequence in which Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) lobs blowtorches, BB guns, hot irons, and paint cans at “wet bandits” Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern) during its climatic showdown.
But we forget that a good chunk of Home Alone’s appeal centers around the novelty of getting to do whatever you want when your parents and siblings are out of the house—which soon wears off for Kevin, who sees what a life without his loved ones would look like in the form of “Old Man Marley,” an elderly neighbor who lives by himself after becoming estranged from his family. The moral of the film, ultimately, is to never take the people in your life for granted.
When non-traditional holiday films fail, they do so because they’ve doubled down on what they
perceive to be the selling points—action, toilet humor, being a lousy neighbor—while completely
skipping the themes that are meant to represent the holidays. When done poorly, these movies are at best unmemorable and at worst, a disaster. But when they’re done well? Yippee ki-yay: welcome to the party, pal.