It’s… that time again. Even amid the deepest recession since the Second World War, during a global pandemic which has – at time of writing – claimed nearly 1.5 million lives, and with Brexit and climate change still waiting in the wings to make everything even worse, it’s still somehow the most wonderful tiiiime of the yeeeeeaaaaar.
It’s time for tinsel; it’s time for turkey; it’s time for retail workers to be subjected to Guantamo Bay style torture, as the same five songs play endlessly on a loop for the next four weeks; it’s time for everyone to lose their minds over another festive glut of adverts where dewy eyed children teach us on the values of love and family while a whimpering pianist butchers another unsuspecting pop classic; and it’s time for the brands shamelessly deploying that mawkish stream of effluence to dine heartily on our gluttonous, fetishistic consumption of things we actively hate the rest of the year, surrounded by people we actively avoid.
No wonder television is always dominated by Rennie commercials in December, just thinking about it is enough to give you indigestion, if not a full-blown stroke. For those of you in need of a little palate cleanser just two days into the annual orgy of intentional over-consumption, I can relate. Allow me, then, to recommend five family unfriendly films for your Holiday viewing.
As seen in Rare Exports (which is also well worth a watch), many of the classic December traditions are rooted in mythology which is fairly nightmarish, if dwelt upon for long. While, having lived in the Netherlands for the last four Decembers, I am well aware that Sinterklaas is not Santa, but he is an evolutionary offshoot of the same myth, even if the modernised version is greatly sanitised. Like finding a perfectly preserved Homo Erectus in a block of ice, then, examining the Sint you will see the origins of the character everyone has come to love as being a little brutal, to put it nicely.
Dick Maas’ Sint finds a fruitful hunting ground by doing just this, delivering a tongue-in-cheek horror which manages to play on both the most backward parts of the story itself, and the ham-fisted way modern society has dealt with that past to try and keep the tradition alive. The most troubling aspect of the Sint myth regards his infamous ‘Moorish assistant’ Zwarte Piet, a racist caricature who in the old days was said to abduct children the Sint deemed naughty – making reference to the barbary slave trade.
The movie opens with the man who would become known as Saint Nicholas on horseback, terrorising a village with the help of his goons. When the village fight back and burn the Sint and his minions alive, the film savages the particularly ungainly approach Dutch centrists have taken to revising Piet – who was traditionally played by a white person in blackface, but more recently is someone whose skin ‘is just dirty from soot.’ No matter how you dress the performance of Piet up, Maas’ film reminds you that the tradition has its roots in something far more sinister.
4. Dawn of the Dead
When there is no more room in hell… Here we are in the middle of an increasingly Apocalyptic world – facing social, systemic and ecological collapse – and yet still we find ourselves adhering to the same mind-numbing traditions as we did in the before time. In a time of crisis, the bizarre reluctance to see anything is wrong is perhaps best summed up by looking at my home city of Norwich – where despite everything, people from across the county of Norfolk are currently converging on a tube of fairy lights that doesn’t actually lead anywhere. Drawn by some innate urge to just keep going they shamble listlessly through the regionally renowned Tunnel of Light – pausing only for an obligatory selfie with the wife and kids, before continuing the migration from the rubble of a former Primark to the bottom of a grey plateau of concrete, a short distance away from the city’s Forum library. They don’t know why, they just remember.
As with the last film, Dawn of the Dead is not a Christmas movie per se – but in the weeks following the bizarre consumer rituals of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, it is hard not to relate to both the trapped survivors, hiding in an American mall, and the insatiable horde of mindless corpses themselves.
In the most famous chapter of George A. Romero’s franchise, the zombies seem to almost lament the fact it is now impulse alone driving them, forcing them to tirelessly scrape and pounding at the doors of the local mall, pushed on by a hunger to fulfil some innate craving they do not fully understand or control. They have lost themselves, and become undying participants in a toxic and destructive culture of endless consumption.
3. Batman Returns
Tim Burton became a bloated, self-indulgent victim of his own success somewhere in the early 2000s – however his early career was marked out for a daring and uncompromising desire to piss people off. Fired from his job as a Disney animator for spending company resources on short film Frankenweenie – which was deemed too frightening for kids at the time – Burton somehow continued to win new work from the studio system, only to similarly bite the hand that fed him. The best example of this is what happened when he was handed the reins of the revived Batman franchise – and particularly the film that saw him spectacularly binned by Warner Brothers; Batman Returns.
As iconic as both Burton Batman films have since become, there was increasing unease at some of the more adult elements he injected into the previously kitsch property – and while Danny DeVito’s grotesque Penguin is comparatively cuddly alongside the sustained psychotic nightmare that is Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Penguin’s plan to literally murder the whole of Gotham seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. There were numerous reports at the time of bawling children being carried from the theatre by angry parents – and an air of hysteria still surrounds the film to this day, with a generation of bloggers having since come of age to claim on various platforms that Batman Returns traumatised them in their youth.
Personally, I love it. Batman Returns is filled with all the garish characters, kinky villainy, and daring heroics you could hope for, and serves as a perfect antidote to many of the season’s gawdy family-friendly excesses.
As with Tim Burton, Jason Eisener and Rob Cotterill’s films seem intentionally hard to love – as though they actively sought to put people off with his garish and grotesque productions. Unfortunately, they have not enjoyed the same longevity; their short-lived Hollywood career standing testament to an admirable refusal to compromise – even if their utterly tone-deaf approach to social commentary does undermine some of the more worthy points they make.
As seen in Hobo with a Shotgun, the excesses and tonal dissonance of Eisener and Cotterill’s brand of filmmaking do not make for good feature cinema. Something which was an entertaining mock trailer quickly runs itself off the rails, and out of ideas. Fortunately, the duo’s ideas are much better suited to short film, the cartoonish vulgarity working as excellent cinematic short-hand to flesh out all the archetypes we might expect to find in a gory B-movie horror, but in a sixth of the time!
Treevenge utilises some of the most repugnant and distasteful imagery imaginable to inform us of the plight of a community of trees during the Christmas season. In some of the most notably unpleasant moments, the camera-work is purposefully arranged to resemble footage of war crimes, complete with barbed wire prison camps hemming in the trees, and pits into which piles of the harvested bodies are dumped. After further unspeakable acts befall the trees, a sequence of righteous revenge sees them turn the table on the insufferable humans that have debased and tortured them – an admittedly gratuitous ending which probably shouldn’t be viewed on a full stomach.
Reprehensible? Perhaps. It might be argued that the film trivialises some very real atrocities for the sake of a series of cheap, gory payoffs in its climax. I think the balance is just about right however, because it focuses on one of the most universal symbols of Christmas’ hyper-consumption. How many of us have festooned our living room with the desecrated corpse of a tree in December, before dumping it or burning it in January? How many of us think for even a second about the scale of the industrial slaughter of plants and animals that is needed to fuel our annual binge, the endless splurge of carbon created by governments and corporations urging us to ramp up our consumption, or the impact that has on the environment, and our long-term survival? Abrasive as Treevenge might be, maybe it has a point about a coming reckoning, should we fail to change our ways.
Whether Gremlins is an actual Christmas movie or a horror (it is both) is a debate on par with whether zombies can run, or whether ‘scone’ is pronounced sk-own or sk-ohn. Utterly asinine, and the preserve of a dullard looking to distract from how little they actually have to say. Don’t let that bore put you off actually watching the film though; this is an exceptional seasonal satire, full of wit, charm and suspense.
As with Treevenge (though in a thoroughly more likeable way) Joe Dante’s film serves as a cautionary tale about the carnage that occurs when consumer society fails to pay the natural world the respect it is due. By naively trying to commodify a force they don’t understand – underestimating the responsibilities which come with caring for an adorable furry ‘Mogwai’ named Gizmo – a father and son are left powerless as a supernatural force ravages their town over Christmas. In a global society where someone can eat a bat, and the rest of the world catches viral pneumonia, that has to be a message worth repeating. Truly, Gremlins is the Christmas film for the Covid-19 age.
Is there a film you would like to recommend for the festively challenged this Christmas? Would you like to complain about my refusal to recommend Die Hard or Bad Santa? Let me know in the comments below. I’ll read them… probably.