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19 strangely Christmassy sci-fi and horror movies


If It's A Wonderful Life just ain't striking a chord this year, read on...

Johnny Depp in 'From Hell' (2001)

Christmas has a hell of a PR agent. A good PR maximises the audience for their client, always looking for lateral markets beyond the core appeal of the product. So if Christmas is fundamentally about giving, goodwill and forgiveness, there's no harm - from a PR's point of view - if it can also be made to be about sex, death and loneliness too. We seem to have had our traditional - and always sad - fusillade of pre-Christmas celebrity deaths this year, and if we're lucky, the period between now and new year will bring no new and nasty surprises in that line.

In the meantime our TV screens have filled up customarily with ads for perfume and booze which remind us that Christmas is also a Pagan-style locus for celebrations of the carnal and sensory. And with campaigns targeted at those who have no invite to the celebrations this year (they're always good for a 'desperation' buck). If Christmas is about togetherness and reunion, it's also about the Rod Serling-style pause in the regular reality of our lives: about the way we lose track of the days in the twilight between Christmas and New Year; about the empty streets and the stories behind the cars that thread their way through the almost apocalyptic landscape; and the one light that was left on in the block this year...

19: I Am Legend (2007)

I Am Legend (2007)

There may be no overt Christmas theme in Francis Lawrence's take on the seminal 1954 Richard Matheson novel, but the yuletide release of I Am Legend netted it the biggest non-Christmas box-office take ever in December of 2007, and it remains a superb fit for the holidays. Whether you're nestling in the bosom of your loved ones or feeling a bit left-out, you can't have it quite as bad or quite as desolate as Will Smith is having it, holed up as he is in a post-apocalypse New York that is an abandoned wilderness by day and the haunt of semi-vampiric monsters by night. Look out at the empty streets on Christmas morning and be glad that they'll eventually fill up again.

18: The Black Hole (1979)

The Black Hole (1979)

Another Christmas release, Disney's early attempt to leverage a slightly more adult SF audience lost out to the huge box-office appeal of the long-awaited Star Trek: The Motion Picture at Christmas of 1979. Oddly, the visual effects in both movies (The Black Hole's largely by Harrison and Peter Ellenshaw, and TMP's by Doug Trumbull and John Dykstra) have a very Christmas-tree-like aesthetic, with lots of points of light poking out of the darkness both in the environs of the Cygnus and the massive internal landscapes of V'ger. Flawed as it was, TMP was a better film, particularly with the advent of Robert Wise's director's cut, which improved the pace immensely despite being even longer than the original. But there is a darkness of tone in Ron W. Miller's Disney outing that can't be entirely suffocated by the cute robots or the inevitable Disney-isms that creep in, and which combines with the VFX to create a creepily Christmassy feel. And let's face it, the Cygnus (once it lights up) is pretty much a great big Victorian Christmas tree in space.

17: The Thing From Another World (1951) / The Thing (1982)

The Thing From Another World (1951)

The Arctic aesthetic both in the acclaimed Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby adaptation (of John W. Campbell, Jr.'s utterly chilling novella 'Who Goes There?') and the cult John Carpenter version of 1982 are obvious corollaries to Christmas imagery and atmosphere; but there's far less ultimate comfort in the 1951 version than in the average take on A Christmas Carol, and absolutely no comfort whatsoever in the creepy and open-ended conclusion to the John Carpenter version. Both films present a diverse bunch of characters stuck together in a snowed-in scenario, with the inevitable friction that accompanies the situation, and if you've not had at least one Christmas like that, you've been spared what the rest of us haven't.

16: Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

F. W. Murnau's 1921 original should logically be the selection here, since this unofficial version of Bram Stoker's Dracula novel (successfully sued for copyright infringement by the estate of the late Irish writer) was so lovingly re-created and referenced by Werner Herzog's. But Herzog's appreciation of the bleakness and pathos of the main character combined with spectacularly icy mid-winter locations in Czechoslovakia and a superbly bi-polar take on the eponymous vampire by Klaus Kinski, to make the 1979 version a blasted, bleak and atmospheric winner among the two. The gradual death of the town of Wismar, as it succumbs to the vampiric plague symbolised by a horrific infestation of rats, empties the baroque streets as surely as a call to Christmas dinner, and hooks Nosferatu The Vampyre into the same apocalyptic aesthetic that so many zombie movies share with it. The desolation of the film is also riven with a vein of sexual imagery and themes that practically qualify it as a Christmas perfume ad. Without the rats, maybe.

15: Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

Once again the theme of disparate characters holed up together in a world that seems to have come to a stop provides the Christmas hook for George Romero's revered re-take on zombie mythology. It's a basic set-up that was to be imitated hundreds of times over the next forty years, and frequently revisited by Romero himself. But only in the original is the director so hamstrung by lack of budget that he is rarely able to move out of the claustrophobic confines of the house where his protagonists are holed up against relentless waves of the undead. Dawn Of The Dead was more of an adventure romp, and Day Of The Dead was arguably the most frightening of the original 'Living Dead' trilogy - but only in NotLD do we really feel completely trapped, and the lack of budget proves an advantage in the hands of Romero that it could never be in the creative aegis of many of its imitators.

14: Brazil (1985)

Brazil (1985)

Apparently set at the festive period, Terry Gilliam's capitalist re-imagining of George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' almost manages to out-bleak both the original source novel and Michael Radford's screen adaptation of the previous year. Gilliam is both tremendously enthusiastic and tremendously cynical about Christmas in Brazil, and uses the jolly ambience so familiar to us all from TV ads and other campaigns to counterpoint the bleakness of the 'retro-style' future society. Here, citizens are living under a horrific police-state that's fuelled by business interests and fronted by the kind of passive-aggressive corporate PR that was to become so entrenched in society a decade or so later. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Price) is our bewildered guide to a cheerful urban nightmare of red tape and State-sanctioned torture.

13: Solyaris (1972)

Solyaris (1972)

Though I remain one of a (very) small number of fans of the 2001 Steven Soderbergh remake, and though that remake has in itself a very Christmassy feeling in many ways, it can't quite compete with Andrei Tarkovsky's original in terms of grappling with themes of loneliness and redemption. To boot, both films feature a benevolent (if possibly misguided) celestial force that is determined to heal the inner wounds of a space station's residents by bringing back the people - dead or forgotten - that are secretly important to them. In both versions the planet Solaris itself is like a well-meaning Santa Claus that grants wishes in the only way it knows how, not knowing that with humans, we shouldn't always get what we think we want or need. Additionally, the bleak Communist-era roadscapes that precede our hero's investigate journey to Solaris somehow evoke Christmas streets, at least for me. In all fairness, the Soderbergh version has a more festive and evocative soundtrack, a truly unmissable score by Cliff Martinez.

12: Moon (2008)

Moon (2008)

Duncan Jones evokes the great pre-CGI sci-fi movies of the 1970s and 1980s, not only in his mostly practical approach to the visual effects of Moon but in the existentialist themes that evoke Solaris and Dark Star. If you feel alone at Christmas, you're not quite as alone as Sam Rockwell, who' s stuck in a solo gig monitoring the automated mining processes on the lunar surface, accompanied only by the station's robot (voiced by Kevin Spacey) and an increasingly mysterious series of long-distance calls from his wife back on Earth. In many ways Moon is practically interchangeable with Doug Trumbull's Silent Running (1972) in terms of tone and theme, and in treating of a lone figure in a far outpost whose only company is of the robot variety. Clint Mansell's score keeps up the plaintive festive feel of Moon, while owing a fair bit to Cliff Martinez (see 'Solaris' above).

11: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

At first I had some trouble identifying what makes Nicolas Roeg's off-beat sci-fi outing any kind of a 'Christmas movie' for me - ultimately I think that any movie which deals with millionaires - or with central protagonists that either don't have to or will not work, as in 1987's Withnail And I - strikes a festive chord, since Christmas is for most of us a rare extended break from the workplace. By that criteria, films such as The Aviator and Performance (another Nic Roeg outing, together with Donald Cammell) are indeed on similar territory. David Bowie (father of Moon's Duncan Jones, see above) makes his screen debut as the tremendously sympathetic alien who comes to Earth to start up a space program in the hope of saving his home planet - and his family - from an apocalyptic drought. Millions come easily to 'Jerome Newton', as he turns up with a pocketful of completely new designs for cameras, but gets obstructed by political entities in his quest to aid his homeworld, and sidetracked by the decadent air of the 1970s.

10: Eraserhead (1976)

Eraserhead (1976)

It's perhaps the bleak winter landscapes and abandoned areas in David Lynch's grotesque but compelling semi-professional debut that give Eraserhead a Christmas association. But the other hallmark is that the film centres on a lonely individual (Jack Nance) who descends into hallucination. It's all rather Scrooge-like, though Nance's character is more victim of his own psychology than willingly malevolent. The sound of distant industry - of distant everything - combines with the unworldly atmosphere to create an ambience of the apocalypse in the context of a tale of psychological deterioration. Don't watch the 'chicken eating' scene while you're having your Christmas dinner, though.

9: Tales From The Crypt (1972)

Tales From The Crypt (1972)

Perhaps this, the best of the Amicus portmanteau horror films, joins Dead Of Night as the least 'strange' choice of Christmas movie in this list. For one, both feature festive themes of some sort, and for another, Christmas Eve is the obvious time for campfire tales of horror with terrible consequences for the foolish transgressors therein. In Tales From The Crypt, Joan Collins rather uncharitably kills her loving husband on Christmas Eve, with their daughter asleep upstairs, only to find herself menaced by an escaped lunatic dressed as Santa Claus. She can't call the police because of the body, though. The other tales in the movie are equally effective, with Peter Cushing making his one and only appearance as a zombie - a turn that without doubt rivals even the 'tar-zombie' from Dan O'Bannon's Return Of The Living Dead (1985) in terms of chills.

8: Dead Of Night (1941)

Dead Of Night (1941)

More campfire tales of horror, but this time from the film widely perceived to have adapted the portmanteau horror experience from its native home - a book of creepy short stories - to the screen. The second tale, 'Christmas Party', has the obvious yuletide hook, although it's Michael Redgrave's performance as an insane ventriloquist that not only steals the movie, but arguably introduces 'doll horror' to the genre. All portmanteau horror films are ultimately Christmas movies, since all feature a connecting thread wherein a group of people - usually strangers to each other - tell their ghastly tales in turn. In the case of Dead Of Night, the connecting tale is that of a visiting architect who believes that he has seen all the people assembled at his client's house in a dream. And maybe more than once...

7: Magic (1978)

Magic (1978)

It's a coincidence that the next choice in the list also happens to feature a ventriloquist's dummy, since Richard Attenborough's movie is more like a 'Christmas break' comedy in set-up. Written by William Goldman, Magic does indeed have a number of rather acid laughs, but it's no chuckle-fest. Ventriloquist and magician Charles "Corky" Withers (Anthony Hopkins) returns to the limelight a year after a spectacular failure during his first-ever magic show, now toting the wise-cracking dummy 'Fats', who's a big hit with the crowd. But just as he's on the verge of signing a contract, Hopkins takes off to refuge in a motel in the Catskill mountains run by his former high-school love Ann Margret, now trapped in a loveless marriage. In the meantime his agent (Burgess Meredith) has tracked him down and confronts him with the possibility that, struck by a mental breakdown, Withers is completely addicted to 'Fats', and has no ability to converse without him. What results is one of the best psychological chess-games ever in a movie, where Meredith challenges Hopkins to simply talk with him for five minutes without 'Fats'. Meantime, the dummy is getting jealous of Ann Margret, and bloodshed is surely on the cards.

6: From Hell (2001)

From Hell (2001)

Where the hell is Tim Burton in this list? Just a mention of Batman Returns in the 'also consider' section? Pah! Yet the Christmas-obsessed director often tries too hard to capture the yuletide spirit - or to subvert it. If Batman Returns was decidedly horror or sci-fi, it would be in this list for its incredible atmosphere and thematic commitment to Christmas. But it isn't, and Nightmare Before Christmas would hardly be a 'strange' choice. Instead, the Hughes Brothers' loose adaptation of Alan Moore's tale of Jack The Ripper makes some of Burton's output look positively conventional. Shot through with wintry Victorian imagery, wild and hallucinogen-induced dreams and dark seams of tragedy and horror, the heavily-fictionalised tale of Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp) and his pursuit of 'The Ripper' in 1888 London is the kind of thing you could only come up with after suffering 'an underdone bit of potato' at Christmas, as Dickens puts it.

5: The Masque Of The Red Death (1964)

The Masque Of The Red Death (1964)

By the time cut-price genre-movie king Roger Corman came to make Masque Of The Red Death, he had accrued both expertise and a gathering number of props and materials in his 'Poe cycle' of movies - all dark and loose adaptations of the Boston poet's tortured musings. Thus a superb script by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell is finally matched in this series of movies by good-looking production design and first-rate performances from Vincent Price, Jane Asher, Hazel Court and a brilliant supporting cast. Ultimately Red Death is a 'party movie': the evil Prince Prospero (Price) has gathered together all the nobles of a plague-ridden medieval European province, hoping to gain power and prosperity by shielding his effete guests from the terrible Red Death ravaging the countryside. The Satanist Price draws the noble and innocent peasant Asher into his web in the run-up to a spectacular 'masked ball', hoping to convert the angelic girl to the ways of the devil. But the devil has a nasty surprise in store for Prospero. Masque Of The Red Death is a dark mid-winter dream of a movie, more parable than narrative, and to boot qualifies as a festive movie on account of its eponymous celebration.

4: Dark Star (1974)

Dark Star (1974)

Any student trying to make the best of Christmas in a crowded flat-share where no-one has any money will be able to relate easily to this tale of bored astronauts getting cabin-fever in the farthest reaches of the Milky Way, in the long stretches of travel between blowing up unstable stars with intelligent (and often argumentative) talking bombs. This is another 'party' movie, but it's a bad party where no-one is having too much fun except the guy who's sitting stoned in the bedroom (which would be Dre Pahich, the 'dome recluse' of the ship Dark Star, who spends all his time in the observation dome musing on existentialism and looking at the heavenly bodies). John Carpenter, who directed the film and co-wrote it with Dark Star actor and VFX-man (and later creator of Alien) Dan O'Bannon, described the movie as 'Waiting For Godot in space'. Space travel has been described by real astronauts as '12 hours of boredom followed by thirty seconds of sheer terror', and that's the model for the rut the characters find themselves in in Dark Star. This is a 2am December 26th movie, with Lt. Doolittle's haunting playing of empty beer bottles, and the Christmas-style lights that carry him off at the movie's conclusion.

3: The Saragossa Manuscript (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie, 1965)

The Saragossa Manuscript (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie, 1965)

I won't kid you - at 182 minutes, Polish director Wojciech Has's adaptation of Jan Potocki's 1815 novel can prove a long haul. But there's a difference between films that can only be endured by substance abuse and films that can only be appreciated by substance abuse - and The Saragossa Manuscript joins Nic Roeg's Performance in the latter category. Substantially TSM is another portmanteau creep-out, though it takes the form of tales within tales within tales, as the narrative draws you Alice-like into an ever-deeper recursion of military and domestic oddities during the Napoleonic Wars. The conventional look of the movie makes its lewder moments, and some scenes of semi-nudity, as much of a surprise as the strange twists and turns of the narrative. This is a marathon meal where you won't want to pick at every dish in front of you, but will be indelibly marked with some of the content.

2: Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma, 2008)

Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma, 2008)

Tomas Alfredson's very domestic tale of vampirism in relatively modern-day (well, 1982) Stockholm captures perfectly the down-at-heel atmosphere of a housing estate in mid-winter. The cinematography takes glorious advantage of Sweden's snowy climate and the film itself presents a perfect picture of mid-winter loneliness interrupted by the stirrings of first love, as bullied schoolboy Kåre Hedebrant has an oppressed existence lightened by new-vampire-in-town Lina Leandersson. Simultaneously dark and sparkling, Let The Right One In gets to the horror, hope and desire that often lies at the heart of Christmas.

1: The Fearless Vampire Killers (aka Dance Of The Vampires, 1967)

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

Despite the success of the Buffy TV series and spin-offs, the 'vampire comedy' has a poor cinematic history; Love At First Bite (1979) anticipated interest in John Badham's remake of Dracula with a ripe performance by George Hamilton and only one real laugh in the movie ("Children of the night - shut up!"), and we should quickly gloss over Mel Brooks' dire Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995). Not so with Roman Polanski's vampire-movie satire, which, though an equal failure as a comedy, boasts some of the most extraordinary mid-winter vistas seen in any horror movie. Or any movie of any kind. Production designer Wilfrid Shingleton conspired with Douglas Slocombe's brilliant cinematography, an expensive location shoot in the Alps and the kind of budget that would have been the envy of any of the Hammer movies TFVK was spoofing, to provide us with a glorious series of icy gothic tableaux. Watch the movie and you feel that both the summer gone and the spring to come are a million years away on either side.

Honourable mention (off-topic):

In Bruges (2008)

In Bruges (2008)

Martin McDonagh's brilliant black comedy put Europe's 'Christmas city' on the map in a way that may have pleased the Bruges tourist office more than the locals. Like Magic, In Bruges has the superficial set-up of a 'Christmas break' movie - except that our two heroes, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, are actually two gangsters who have been sent into hiding there after accidentally killing a child in a botched assassination attempt on a priest. But there's still burgeoning new romance to be had, along with drink, drugs and dwarves (sorry, 'little people'), all capped with a spectacular chase through the city when the hoods' boss Ralph Fiennes comes to make the 'hit' on child-killer Colin Farrell that Gleeson has chickened out of. In Bruges has everything you could want from a Christmas break movie - laughs, great characters, scenery, snow, tons of yuletide atmosphere and a love story, all set during a type of Christmas holiday. Except that it is about as dark a Christmas comedy as you could hope to find, and a worthy shelf-mate to Bad Santa.

Also consider:
The Hudsucker Proxy (1992)
Batman Returns
The Last Detail (1973)
Barbarella (1967)
Wings Of Desire (1987)
Avanti (1970)
The Tenant (1976)

Lists at Shadowlocked


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