Author Journal / Visual Culture

You Better Watch Out: Christmas Horror

Kim Newman.

You Better Watch Out
The story of ‘the first Noel’ is so steeped in violence that no film version of the Nativity has been able to cope with it.As in Schindler’s List (1993), the story has to concentrate on the few who escaped rather than the many who were slain, so the flight into Egypt gets far more attention than the wholesale murder of every baby in Judea. The slaughter of the innocents  – a title used without resonance by James Glickenhaus for a run-of-the-mill 1993 serial killer movie about a maniac who has got his Testaments scrambled and is building an Ark – remains one of the cinema’s great taboos, shockingly violated by the likes only of transgressive Jed Johnson (Andy Warhol’s Bad, 1977) and Peter Greenaway (The Baby of Mâcon, 1993). Yet, this literally inconceivable atrocity is at the heart of Christmas.

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), which (taking cues from German festival practices imported to Britain by Prince Albert) more or less established the institution of Christmas as celebrated in Britain and America, is as much concerned with the excluded, the miserable, the emotionally poverty-stricken and the dead as it is with merry-makers,  puddings and parties. ‘Every fool who prattles of Christmas should be buried with a sprig of holly through his own heart,’ sneers Ebenezer Scrooge at the outset. Regardless of the never-quite convincing happy ending, the regularly filmed tale is responsible for the association of Yule-tide with ghosts. Through the term ‘Dickensian Christmas’ came to be associated with holly and family gatherings and a happy exchange presents, A Christmas Carol also sets its most depressing moments – Scrooge’s vision of his unloved, lonely death, picked over by scavengers – at Christmas. Dickens’ last (unfinished) novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), contains a potent antidote to the nostalgic glow of Carol as a derelict woman passes around a succession of institutions on Christmas Day, forever shut out from any hope of cheer.

The holiday is, of course, associated with miracles, but these have tended in cinema to be dark miracles at least as often as they have been happy. The counter-programming use of Yuletide setting for a grim story is a basic bit of irony what always seems to play: Die Hard (1988) would hardly be as suspenseful if Bruce Willis were trapped in a skyscraper with a gang of ruthless terrorists during a Thanksgiving party, and the Deanna Durbin vehicle Christmas Holiday (1944) – in which she discovers that her husband (Gene Kelly) is a murderous psychopath – would be a lot less poignantly creepy if it were set over the Easter weekend. The use of holiday trappings for a horror movie made John Carpenter’s Halloween (1977) a hit, but the genre got round to its own scary holiday only after it had deployed tinsel and cheer for contrast in Theodore Gershuny’s Silent Night, Bloody Night (1973) and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1972). Carpenter’s film was (perhaps amazingly) the first to make much of pumpkin lanterns, trick or treating, childhood ghost stories and the licensed annual anarchy of All Hallows’ Eve, but Clark’s precursor manages to get its chills among the supposedly delightful trappings of the other major winter holiday.

The twentieth-century, purely cinematic, equivalent of A Christmas Carol is Frank Capra’s dark-hued masterwork It’s a Wonderful Life (1948), another work whose hard-won happy ending does not really detract from the long, miserable path taken to get there. One of the most referenced and quoted movies of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life has come to stand for Christmas and, as such, has featured in many works that set out to attack the institution with a savagery unmediated by Capra’s bedrock sense of community and family. The single decent sequence in Jim Wynorski’s 976 EVIL II (1991) has the victim sucked into a TV set during a screening of the Capra movie and then suffering when the wielder of the remote control zaps between it and Night of the Living Dead (1968), yielding a bizarre black and white melange of the two pictures as the celebrating folks of Bedford Falls are transformed into George Romero’s gut-chomping zombies. The feature-length finale of Dallas (1991) also plays variations on It’s a Wonderful Life as the suicidal J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) is shown how the city and the supporting cast would be if he had not been born: the angelic visitor Adam (Joel Grey) was finally shown to be not a heavenly messenger but a demonic trickster and the ambiguous finale suggests that his actual mission has been to cause rather than prevent a suicide. That such a modern myth could sustain twisted counter-readings reveals a great deal about its uncertainty.

A more elaborate, horrific vision of Capra’s tone is Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984), a gleeful trashing of everything America holds sacred about Christmas, which it conflates with the orgiastic abandon of a Roman Saturnalia. As a horde of self-generating toothy monsters wreak havoc in a small town patterned on Bedford Falls, the plot itself collapses as Dante and the gremlins go outof their way to attack such American Christmas sacred cows as Phil Spector’s Christmas Album and Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There is a tension between the overlapping but at-odds world-views of co-executive producer Steven Spielberg, whose small towns and suburbs are havens of eccentricity and bedrock American virtues, and Dante, who cannot see a Norman Rockwell illustration without adding the fanged monsters chewing at the foundations. The Kingston Falls of Gremlins is a Recession-era update of Bedford Falls, with snowbound street and genially chintzy decorations, and Capra is further evoked by the positioning of a portrait of his favourite plutocrat villain Edward Arnold as the late husband of the witchlike wealthy harridan Mrs Deagle.

The celebration of Christmas as decreed by Charles Dickens, Norman Rockwell (and the Coca-Cola company) and Walt Disney Enterprises is for many a tyrannical regime, emphasizing the shortfall of their own family lives (or lack thereof). Despite the good cheer around the Cratchit table, this fantasy Christmas is available only to those who have the money (and room) for a full-sized tree and a turkey dinner for the whole family. Much of the appeal of the Christmas-themed horror movie is that this illusion is shredded, and those smug, mostly affluent celebrants are assaulted by primal forces, be they gremlins or Santa psychos, which embody the resentment that must be felt towards them by audiences who, even subliminally, cannot look at an idealized representation of Christmas without sparing associative thoughts of malice, horror and shivers. ■

This is an extract from Kim Newman‘s essay ‘You Better Watch Out: Christmas in the Horror Film’, which appears in Christmas at the Movies, edited by Mark Connelly.

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One thought on “You Better Watch Out: Christmas Horror

  1. Not forgetting the rather disturbing scene in Gremlins when Phoebe Cates’s character describes her dad dressing up as Santa Claus and dying while trapped within the chimney. “After the film was completed,… [the scene] proved to be controversial, and studio executives insisted upon its removal, because they felt it was too ambiguous as to whether it was supposed to be funny or sad. Dante stubbornly refused to take the scene out, saying it represented the film as a whole.” Which says a hell of a lot.

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