Over at our official Facebook page, we are currently posting daily film recommendations, with each week being a different theme. This is a collection of those recommendations!
During December we decided to dedicate the entire month to recommending Christmas films – a mix of obscure titles you might not have seen and some classics that circulate our televisions every Christmas season. We skipped some of the obvious choices, such as Elf, Miracle on 34th Street, Die Hard and It’s A Wonderful Life, as they’re all classic films that people are bound to watch during the festive month.
Here’s 14 films that you might want to check out this Christmas.
1. Christmas Evil (1980, Lewis Jackson)
A favourite of director John Waters, Christmas Evil is an obscure Christmas horror film, one which predates the similar cult favourite Silent Night, Deadly Night, but is a much better film. Whilst initially performing poorly both commercially and critically, the reputation of Christmas Evil has grown considerably, due to its frequent home video releases, including its recent remastered Bluray release. Whilst the library of great Christmas horror films is quite light (most are generic slashers or Krampus monster movies), Christmas Evil is easily one of the best, an intelligent holiday horror film that subverts the standard slasher tropes.
Christmas Evil is about Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart), who as a child, witnesses a traumatic experience featuring his mother and a man impersonating Santa Claus . This experience causes him to grow up with an unhealthy obsession with Christmas. Outside of his dead-end job at a toy factory where he is constantly taken advantage of due to introverted nature, Harry sees himself as his own neighbourhood Santa Claus, secretly watching the children in his neighbouring apartment blocks, constantly updating their actions in his good and bad Santa list. When he ridiculed by his co-workers once again, Harry experiences a nervous breakdown, causing him to think he is the actual Santa Claus, who decides to give presents to the good kids and dispense evil to the bad.
Christmas Evil is much more of a tragic character study rather than a traditional slasher film that it is advertised as. Brandon Maggart delivers quite an effective performance, injecting his character with the layers of trauma and sympathy required for the role. Quite a low budget feature (only $750,000), this is sadly the only full feature film that director/writer Lewis Jackson has ever made to this day, which is a shame because this film features so much potential for the directional skills of Jackson.
2. Blast Of Silence (1961, Allen Baron)
This is a Christmas film in the same sense that Die Hard is a Christmas film – whilst it doesn’t directly deal with the holiday specifically, the holiday provides some nice background production design, as well as addressing a prevalent thematic idea of Christmas – being alone during a holiday that celebrates togetherness. Many may know the film due to comedian Patton Oswalt, who picked this as his Academy Film Archive pick, a terrific choice if I say so myself.
Blast of Silence is about Frank Bono (played by the director himself, Allen Baron) a lonely hitman who starts to have doubts about his job due to being assigned a job back in his old home town during Christmas Eve. Due to the combination of the cheerful Christmas atmosphere and a chance encounter with an old school friend, Bono starts to mess up what should’ve been a simple assassination, a series of digressions that start to put his life at risk.
One of the most unique aspects of the film is its second person narration, which is performed by Lionel Standers, a style of narration that is rarely used in cinema due to its distant nature. Standers’ gruff vocals complement the black and white cinematography very well, delivering the film’s classic noir tone perfectly. Even though the film performed decently at the box office, it unfortunately did not generate enough heat in order secure Baron future work in Hollywood, which is a damn shame (Baron went on to direct a lot of television throughout the 60’s to the late 80’s). Blast of Silence is an example of great indie film-making, a low-key noir which is finally finding it’s deserved audience today.
3. Santa With Muscles (1996, John Murlowski)
Okay, to put it first – this film is terrible. Normally we like to recommend great films, a mix of ones you probably know about and some that you may never have heard of, but Santa With Muscles is such an odd film that it’s worth talking about. Santa with Muscles joins the ranks of The Room, Plan 9 From Outer Space and The Garbage Pail Kids Movie as films which are gr eat viewing experiences because of how terrible they are, as we get to laugh ironically at their poor creative and technical decisions.
You know there’s a problem already when the lead actor is Hulk Hogan. Whilst he never crossed into mega-stardom like Dwayne Johnson, Hogan has a long line of family-friendly feature films during the 90’s, such as Suburban Commando, The Secret Agents Club and Mr. Nanny, with his most famous screen credit being his starring role in Rocky 3 as Thunderlips. These movies usually feature blatant attempts to insert his famous wrestling moves into them, hammy acting and typical family movie plots. The one thing that Santa With Muscles has going for it is its unusual premise. Even the title is weird, it sounds like a terrible description of the film itself.
Santa With Muscles is about Blake (Hogan), an evil millionaire who (for some reason) really hates Christmas. After an altercation with the police, Blake attempts to evade them ends with him accidentally hitting his head on a dumpster and blacking out. He awakes with amnesia, which leads himself into believing that he is the actual Santa Claus. Attempting to help children everywhere with his new identity, he starts to target Ebner Frost (Ed Begley Jr), an evil scientist that wants to tear down an orphanage because it has magical crystals underneath it. It isn’t everyday that those evil scientists want to tear down orphanages because of the magic crystals that sit upon, is it?
4. ‘R Xmas (2001, Abel Ferrara)
One of Abel Ferrara’s more underlooked films, ‘R Xmas is a Christmas themed gangster film, which despite your expectations due to Ferrara’s past work, is a much more subtle entry from the highly controversial director. Starting out with a series of sleazy underground genre films such as Ms. 45 and The Driller Killer, Ferrara has managed to grow and mature as a filmmaker over the years. Whilst keeping his exploitative genre roots prevalent throughout his films, Ferrara has infused his films with some intelligent political and existential themes. Whilst some may see him as an uninspired descendant of Scorsese’s iconic filmography, Ferrara has managed to carve out his own imaginative voice with his diverse array of films, with his most recent work being the Pier Paolo Pasolini biopic Pasolini.
Set a couple of days before Christmas, an unnamed drug-dealing couple, ‘Wife’ (Drea DeMatteo) and ‘Husband’ (Lillo Brancato Jr , famous for his starring role in A Bronx Tale) are preparing some heroin for street distribution. Despite the Wife’s objections to what they’re doing, she understands the high income that it brings, even when the Husband tries to be the best and friendliest drug dealer in his area in order to lessen the guilty feeling. One day during the Christmas season, the Husband is taken away by a mysterious Kidnapper (Ice-T) and held for a huge ransom. Once the Kidnapper’s intentions behind the kidnapping are revealed, The Wife must come to terms with her current lifestyle and what the future holds for the couple.
The film is not a typical gangster drama, it is more interested in fleshing out its characters and being more of a morality play, dealing with similar themes that Ferrara dealt with in his best known film King of New York. The Kidnapper is not your typical antagonist and the situation that he forces the main characters into creates an interesting dynamic which isn’t seen in these usual types of films. Ferrara injects his sleazy visual style into the film, which gives the film a sense of authenticity. The underlying Christmas atmosphere is used as a juxtaposition, critiquing the superficial aspect of Christmas and what is really happening in society.
5. 3 Godfathers (1948, John Ford)
Based on the novelette of the same name by Peter B Kyne, 3 Godfathers is a Christmas themed Western starring frequent John Ford collaborator John Wayne. Ford had already made a silent film adaptation of the novelette back in 1919 titled Marked Men, but that film is sadly lost. Ford decided to remake the fil m in technicolour and dedicate it to long-time friend and actor Harry Carey who starred in the film, whose own son, Harry Carey Jr, would go onto star in this remake.
3 Godfathers is about three outlaws – Robert Hightower (John Wayne), William Kearney (Harry Carey Jr) and Pedro Roca Fuerte (Pedro Armendariz) who rob the local bank and run out of town to evade capture by the local authorities. In the wilderness, they find an abandoned wagon with a woman who has just given birth. Finding out that she is dying, the three men set out with the woman and her newbord child to the nearest town for safety. The long journey through the desert, with the marshalls on tow, will put the men towards a new destiny.
Whilst not set during Christmas, the film features some very heavy Christmas thematic content laced throughout the narrative. The 3 men who are helping a woman and her baby is an obvious allusion to the Nativity story, with frequent references to the Bible and that astrological stars are guiding the men towards their destination. Oscar winner Winton Hoch’s cinematography does a great job of capturing the desolate bareness of the desert, shooting some scenes in a way where the harsh desert sands looks like a snow blizzard, adding to the subtle Christmas theme. The 2003 Japanese animated film Tokyo Godfathers is based upon this film, which updated the story into a more contemporary setting.
6. The Thin Man (1934, W.S. Van Dyke)
The Thin Man was the first in a long franchise of successful Pre-Code comedic mystery films, one of the first film franchises that helped create the serialised murder mystery genre that became quite the prominent subgenre in television. The movie was directed by W.S. Van Dyke, one of the few filmmakers who managed to make the successful transition from silent cinema into early sound pictures, making such hits as Tarzan The Ape Man and San Francisco, (both that and The Thin Man earned him Best Director nominations at the Oscars).
He was known as “One-Take Woody”, due to his tight filmmaking efficiency, which always meant making his films under budget and on time, which made him a studio favourite, much like today’s cinematic Woody – Woody Allen. Made under the guise of a standard B picture, the film was a surprising critical and commercial hit, an instant classic that is still revered by film critics today, being one of Roger Ebert’s favourite films. Due to the huge success, 5 sequels followed, which were serialised murder mysteries featuring the main couple, thus the franchise was born.
Based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man is about Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy), Nick is a burnt-out, alcoholic ex-detective and Nora is a wealthy heiress, who, during the Christmas season, try to move cities in an attempt to start a new life. They are drawn back into the detective business when asked by Dorothy Wynant, whose inventor father Clyde is suspected of murdering her step-mother, which leads into uncovering a convoluted web of deceit and back-stabbing, culminating in the famous Christmas dinner scene.
7. Christmas Present (Regalo di Natale) (1986, Pupi Avati)
A Christmas themed comedic drama from Italian director Pupi Avati, who is most famous for his various Italian horror films, such as Zeder and The House with Laughing Windows. Even though this film, Christmas Present is not as well known as Avati’s other works (especially outside of Italy), it is definitely worth tracking down, due to its distinctive approach to the worn out Christmas narrative.
Set during the Christmas period, a group of 4 former friends band together to play poker with a rich industrialist, Franco (Diego Abatantuono, who won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for his performance), performing a secret plan to beat the millionaire in the game and splitting the winnings later on. Over the course of the evening, each player reveals their own personal problems and slowly bond over their parallel situations. Avati plays with the mystical side of Christmas lore, hinting that the holiday season may be helping them out during their increasingly tense poker game.
Due to being co-written by Giovanni Bruzzi, a professional card player, the script has an added level of authenticity, making the unpredictable card game feel genuine. Avati shows off his skills as a great actor director, commanding a chain of great performances out of the talented cast. The film gained a sequel in 2004, Christmas Match, which pitched the same 5 guys against each other in another poker game, each with new problems to work out.
8. Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 (1987, Lee Harry)
An endearing cult hit, Silent Night Deadly Night 2 is a famous example of how producers would manipulate audiences into paying to see the same films twice back in the day. The original Silent Night Deadly Night is a decent Christmas slasher film, a pretty trashy exploitation film which set the standard for many Christmas themed horror films for years afterwards. Silent Night Deadly Night 2 is compromised of over 50% footage from the first film, with the added footage completely retconning the story established in the first film. Despite this cheap trick, another 3 sequels were made after the commercial success of the first 2 films, with the most prominent sequel being Silent Night Deadly Night 3. SNDN3 was prominent due to being directed by American New Wave director Monte Hellman, who agreed to direct the film when heavily under medication for an incredibly bad flu (he was later shocked at his misguided decision).
The first film was about a young man, Billy, who as a child, witnessed his parents murdered by a man in a Santa outfit, thus is forced to live in an abusive Catholic orphanage. Due to his awful childhood, as a grown man, one bad night working in a Christmas-themed toy shop makes him mentally snap, turning him into a Santa Claus costumed killer. With Silent Night Deadly Night 2, it is revealed that Billy had a brother, Ricky, who also suffered the same awful traumatic childhood, leading him to grow up as a murderous psychopath as well.
The film’s cult status stems from the lead performance from Eric Freeman, an amateur actor who disappeared after the release of this film, which lead to people thinking he was deceased for many years. Freeman’s quirky performance is one to be admired, because whilst many consider it to be a terrible performance, the fact that its remained so memorable after all these years is something to be admired, a distinctive quality that many actors would wish to have.
9. Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964, Nicholas Webster)
One of the most infamous bad films of all time, Santa Claus Conquers The Martians has become a well-known cult film, much like Santa With Muscles and Silent Night Deadly Night 2. A public domain film, it gained popularity due to its use in Mystery Scie nce Theatre 3000, where its poor effects, bizarre acting and low budget qualities were frequently criticised.
Martian children (kids painted green with cardboard helmets), who frequently watch Earth television over at Mars, start to get jealous that Santa Claus only gives presents to the children of Earth. Their alien parents decide to kidnap Santa and have him create toys for all the Martian kids, who must be saved by the children of Earth before Christmas is ruined.
It may seem unfair to target this film specifically, because at the end of the day, it was made as a cheap throwaway targeted for children during the holiday season. The reason for that this film, above all other subpar children’s entertainment has been targeted, is because it feels like it goes out of its way to make terrible technical and creative decisions. Due to its public domain status, the film can be found quite easily, if anyone is bored and looking for a quick, unintentional laugh.
10. Tales From The Crypt (1972, Freddie Francis)
Based on the popular comic book series from EC Comics, (that would go onto to be adapted into the HBO TV series of the same name), Tales From the Crypt is being highlighted as a Christmas movie due to its opening segment “All Through the House”. Tales From the Crypt is an Anthology hor ror film, with the overall narrative being about 5 strangers who are a part of a tourist group that are visiting the old catacombs. Bored with the tour, they venture off into a shady room where they the meet the Crypt Keeper (Ralph Richardson), who predicts each of their deaths, providing the film’s 5 different segments.
“And All Through the House” (the first segment) is about Joanne Clayton (Joan Collins) who on Christmas Eve, murders her husband and quickly disposes the body within her house. Whilst trying to create an alibi, she hears on the radio that a homicidal maniac (Oliver MacGreevy) has escaped from jail. Joanne is horrified to learn that the maniac, a psychotic looking individual in a ragged Santa Claus costume is stalking her home, but she is unable to call the police due to her dead husband.
The snowy Christmas aesthetic, backed up by the cheery music provide a nice juxtaposition with the creeping dread as the homicidal Santa gets closer to Joanne’s decorative abode. The segment is probably the strongest story in Tales From the Crypt, a visually confronting narrative that mixes old school slasher elements of 60-70’s grind-house cinema with the saccharine spirit of the Christmas season.
11. A Midnight Clear (1992, Keith Gordon)
Relatively unknown, A Midnight Clear is an anti-war drama set during Christmas time, which uses the season as a sign of happiness in the midst of a bleak war atmosphere. Directed by Keith Gordon, who started off his cinematic career as an actor, before transitioning into the director’s chair with his first feature The Chocolate War. A Midnight Clear is his second feature, before he descended mostly into television work, with most prominent directing credit being the 2003 American remake of The Singing Detective. Whilst sadly underlooked by modern audiences, A Midnight Clear did receive a positive reception upon its release, but quickly faded from the cinematic landscape.
Set during the Christmas season of 1944, near the end of World War 2, The film follows an American squad of soldiers (led by Gary Sinise) who speculate that the Germans have already lost the war. Signs include Christmas carols fill the air and general signs of change are about – people are out playing snowball fights, acting generally friendlier. When the squad finds a group of young German soldiers who refuse to fight, the group must decide what to do with them. The film features some great performances from its loaded cast, featuring the likes of Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, John C McGinley, Peter Berg (the director of Battleship) and Frank Whaley (popular 90’s character actor).
12. Reindeer Games (2000, John Frankenheimer)
Whilst not a great film, it’s worth highlighting due to being the final film of action film master John Frankenheimer. Charlize Theron, in an Esquire interview in 2007, considers it “the worst film she ever did”, only choosing to do it so she could work with the legendary Frankenheimer. One thin g can be said about the film is that it’s not the worst Ben Affleck film, heck, it’s not even the worst Ben Affleck Christmas film, as that honour belongs the complete misfire Surviving Christmas.
After being in jail for over six years, Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck) and his cellmate Nick (James Frain) are finally going to be paroled. When Nick is suddenly killed during a prison riot, Rudy decides to assume Nick’s identity and meet up with Nick’s mysterious girlfriend Ashley (Charlize Theron). Getting by with a base knowledge of Nick’s Indian casino employment past, Rudy finds himself in deep with Ashley’s brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise) and is forced to cooperate with a casino robbery that Gabriel and his gang have been planning with Nick in mind.
As pointed out in the infamous How Did This Get Made podcast about this film, the film is filled with subtle Christmas references, most notably the character names (Rudolph, Gabriel and Nick). The other major Christmas factor is that the heist takes place on Christmas Eve, forcing the characters to don Christmas disguises. The film originally starred Vin Diesel, who had frequent conflicts with Frankenheimer over his character’s motivations and dialogue, which lead to Diesel quitting the film and making The Fast and the Furious.
13. Star In The Night (1945, Don Siegel)
Despite Star in the Night being an obscure short film, it is worth highlighting for being Don Siegel’s directorial debut, winning his first Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Two-Reel), the award which would develop into Best Live Action Short Film. Clocking in at 22 minutes, Star in the Night is a modern-day retelling of the traditional Nativity story, set on Christmas Eve within a deserted motel. Alongside the updated re-telling of the old school Christmas story, the narrative is remixed with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, creating a distinctive holiday film from the two long-established tales.
On Christmas Eve, three cowboys (Johnny Miles, Richard Erdman and Cactus Mack) are riding through the desert night with items they purchased at a general store, but have no use for. They spot a bright star in the distance and decide to use it as a sign of direction in the empty landscape. As they get closer they realize the star is actually a brightly lit sign for the small hotel, “The Star Auto Court.” The hotel’s owner, Nick (J. Carrol Naish), doesn’t believe there is much good left in the world, complaining that people wish each other ‘Merry Christmas,’ but then stop caring about others for the rest of the year. His customers get sick of his ranting, but have no other choice due to the remote location.
A young couple, Jose and Maria Santos, arrives hoping to get lodging. There are no cabins available, so they must settle for a small shed to sleep in. When the cowboys learn of this, they decide to create their own Christmas miracle at the hotel and prove Nick wrong. A heart-warming Christmas short, the film weaves Christmas traditionalism and the old school Western style, hinting at film-making talents that Siegel would got to demonstrate frequently in his feature films.
Siegel had previously worked as a editor and 2nd unit director at Warner Bros. when he was given the chance to direct his own project. The film was shot by Robert Burks, a young cinematographer who would go onto win his own Academy Award for Best Cinematography for Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief. He made this and the short documentary, Hitler Lives, which won an Academy Award the same year as Star in the Night (for Best Documentary Short). Due to the simultaneous nomination and win of the 2 films, Siegel was propelled into a successful career making feature films, starting with The Verdict.
14. Maniac Cop 2 (1990, William Lustig)
Even though it is not a full-on Christmas film, William Lustig’s sequel to Maniac Cop uses the Christmas season as a nice backdrop to the crazy slasher story, giving the film a delightful festive atmosphere to counteract the graphic violence . This is another one on the list purely for the adult horror fans, as when it comes to Christmas cinema, there seems to be 2 extremes that come up alot – the sleazy horror film or the overtly sentimental family movie.
Officer Matt Cordell (Robert Z’Dar, cult actor who unfortunately died this year) returns as the serial killing undead cop, who starts to hunt down the criminals who initially killed him in the first film. He teams up with a living serial killer, whilst they are both being hunted by an aggressive police force. The film is filled with cult actors, from Z’Dar, to Evil Dead’s Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead director Sam Raimi even shows up in a cameo), Charles Napier, Leo Rossi, Robert Davi and more, whose appearances are bound to delight any horror fans.
What are some other Christmas films that you can recommend?
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