Holiday Movies

Plenty of Christmas films set in the holiday put us in the proper spirit! But for the Scrooges amongst us, here are five films set during the Christmas season which have little to do with the holiday other than using it as a backdrop.

Just The Facts

  1. "Psycho" never mentions the holiday, but the establishing date is "Friday, December 11th" and street decorations are visible, with the bushes outside the Bates' home sporting holiday lights.
  2. "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" takes place during the Christmas season, including Christmas Day, and is fully visible and mentioned, but not essential to the plot.
  3. "Batman Returns" takes place from mid-December up to New Year's Day. The holidays are brazenly obvious, discussed, and play into the story.
  4. "The Lady in the Lake" is set during the Christmas season, but serves as a backdrop and little else.
  5. "Gremlins" is set just before Christmas, touches upon a tragic Christmas memory for dark irony and character development purposes, then steps back to make room for full-throttle gremlin mayhem.
  6. Honorable Mention: "Reindeer Games", "Bad Santa"

5) Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece opens on December 11th, ends December 20th, and is no jolly cakewalk through Christmas Land. Based on Robert Bloch's novel based on real-life serial killer and cannibal Ed Gein, this film focuses on bathroom walls decorated with blood, stuffed corpses rather than dolls and teddy bears, and a pleasant but mysterious man who doesn't bring gifts, but makes sure his victims are well-fed before hacking them up with a butcher knife, then gift-wrapping them in plastic shower curtains before immersing them in a lake bog, which only rhymes with "egg nog."

Nevertheless, there are flashes of Christmas in the film. And while no one says "Merry Christmas," there are jolly decorations adorning the streets of Phoenix. Even the bushes outside the Bates' house have festive Christmas lights glowing in them. All of these moments, however, are effectively de-jollified by the black and white cinematography which takes the color out of Christmas neatly while still accentuating the horror of blood flying from a wet naked woman being hacked to pieces by a maniac wielding a butcher knife.

So many, many cuts!

Actually, the Christmas setting was coincidental, but necessary because filming exteriors in Phoenix meant filming the Christmas displays in store windows and along the streets. So Hitchcock, on a shoestring budget that prohibited paying store owners and the City of Phoenix a couple of grand to take the festive decorations down for a few days, wisely decided to explain all that holiday bling, and the intensely hot December temperature mentioned by John Gavin, by running the opening caption stating it was December 11 in Phoenix, around lunch hour. That way audiences wouldn't spend the next 45 minutes speculating as to where the film was taking place until their musings were rudely interrupted by a screeching shower murder scene.

4) On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Poor George Lazenby. Not only was he a one-shot James Bond with two co-stars, Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas, who outshined him, but he had to get the one Bond film that required some very serious acting because of its tragic outcome. Just what a former male model needs on his first acting assignment! And the whole thing was set during Christmas! This rendered top British Secret Agent, with a license to kill, Commander James Bond into someone akin to a Wal-Mart employee who draws the short straw and has to work the Christmas Day shift!

"At least Santa brought me a blow-up doll!"

"At least Santa brought me a blow-up doll!"
Well, at least this film is loaded with Christmas cheer as Blofeld, doubtlessly happy that he no longer looks like Donald Pleasance, wishes the girls who will soon return to their farming district homes carrying his deadly agricultural bacillus sprays capable of wiping out all the produce, poultry, and meat in the free world a "Merry Christmas." James Bond wishes a Spectre guard he'd knocked out "Merry Christmas," then wonders if he should have gift-wrapped him. Then all hell breaks loose on Christmas Day as Blofeld and his Spectre goons try to kill Bond in a spectacular ski chase which leads to one hapless bad guy falling into the blades of what appears to be the world's largest snow plow, thereby getting ground up and sprayed all over the place like razzleberry dressing. And in full Technicolor! How jolly!
If only he'd been served up this way!
Secret ingredient: Steve Buscemi.
James Bond runs into Tracy (Diana Rigg), and together they escape Blofeld and his minions by becoming last-minute unofficial entries in a Swiss winter NASCAR rally, much to the delight of the Swiss rednecks. But Tracy is abducted eventually, and Bond, in defiance of M's orders not to rescue her because Blofeld's plot will likely be expedited if he does, enlists the aid of Tracy's dad, a gangster boss for the Unione Corse, to get her back, ruin Blofeld's New Year's, and maybe break M's thumbs. And somewhere in all this, Nina sings her forgettable Christmas tune, "Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?"
"I'm a Baroness now, so no Clifford Irving jokes!"
"I'm a Baroness now, so there will be no Clifford Irving jokes!"
So essentially, this Bond action tale is set during Christmas simply because Ian Fleming set it there in the novel, and nobody wants to upset a deceased thriller writer, especially if he hangs with the ghost of Arthur Conan Doyle.

3) Batman Returns

Taking place between mid-December to New Year's Eve, the second Tim Burton Batman epic is packed with his requisite dark imagery blended with brighter images normally presented as cheerful and jolly within the context of your standard Christmas movie, but of course take on sinister overtones because Burton is, let's face it, a really sinister kinda dude. He is not quite like the miserable souls Lou Reed sings of in Berlin, but does make an outstanding prototype. So here comes the Penguin, right in time for the Christmas season with his insane clown posse in tow, and a plan of vengeance against the wealthy of Gotham City because he was abandoned in the sewers by his wealthy parents because he was born deformed. And maybe because he murdered their cat with his bare flippers at Christmas time. And because his dad was Pee-Wee Herman! (Whole lotta factors at play here!)

There are some people you just don't treat like a #2!

There are some people you just don't treat like a #2!

The Penguin secretly carries out a chaotic crime spree with his crazed carnival of creeps, but is halted by Batman who shows that, unlike Superman, he has no code against killing, and proceeds to torch a fire-breathing arsonist and blow up a morbidly obese clown. The anti-Christmas imagery reaches its pinnacle when the Penguin sends Ms. Gotham plummeting to her death into the Gotham Center Christmas tree, which unleashes a horde of angry (and possibly rabid) bats into the stunned crowd, and Batman gets blamed. Of course, this being a movie called Batman Returns and not The Penguin Triumphant, our hero reverses the situation with a little high-tech wizardry, and the Penguin decides to ruin New Year's by dipping all the first-born kids of Gotham's wealthiest into raw sewage, turning them into little #2s. Batman stops that as well, but since it occurs on New Years, many people would probably find snotty rich children getting immersed in raw sewage a lot less upsetting than Jennifer Lopez prancing around in a see-through body stocking at the stroke of midnight. Still, Batman has his own redemption for not being as goody-two-shoes as Superman by adopting Cat Woman's kitty and exchanging holiday greetings with Alfred.

Uh-oh! Someone needs a trim!

Essentially, this film happens during the holidays because it shows that there are no holiday vacations for the vigilant. Or crime never sleeps. Or something like that. Or maybe Burton was thinking "Ha-ha-ha! This will put the people of the world at unease about their favorite holiday until I can drop my Nightmare Before Christmas big one on them!" He is a really kinda sinister dude, after all.

2) The Lady in the Lake

Christmas became fodder for noir long before Time Burton, however, with this tepid little hard-boiled Phillip Marlowe thriller directed by and starring Robert Montgomery. While not as utterly confusing as The Big Sleep (both versions), it may take some time getting used to with its extensive use of first-person point-of-view camera technique. But that's okay, because it will allow you to experience the Christmas cheer from Marlowe's perspective as he receives and returns seasonal greetings while tackling a murder mystery. And shares a smooch with a hot dame. And wakes up from an auto crash to find a dirty detective pouring booze on him to discredit his professionalism. And realizes that a perpetual 1st-person POV film is pretty lame, no matter what time of year it's set in.

And it's not this Lady of the Lake, either. Sorry!

And it's not the story about this Lady of the Lake, either. Sorry!

This is probably, next to Psycho, the film that least uses Christmas as a backdrop. It's pretty much limited to a few greetings and some decorations, and maybe a quick shot of a tree, but that's about it. In fact, you actually see more shots of Robert Montgomery checking himself out in a mirror than anything related to Christmas, and the real message from this private eye opus is that first person narrative is terrific on the printed page, but as a cinematic technique, it's the Grinchiest!

"Get outta the way, gorgeous, you're blocking my view of me."

"Get outta the way, gorgeous, you're blocking my view of me."

Actually, this is the only film on this list that hasn't even got a reason to be set during the Christmas season. It does not tie into the plot, it's strictly a studio-interior production so there were no street decorations to worry about, Raymond Chandler made no mention of the holiday in the novel, the season actually detracts from the mystery at hand (though not like that constant POV), and it was released in late January of 1947, though it might have been postponed from a planned December release. So of all the non-Christmas films using Christmas as a setting, this one is the un-Christmasiest.

1) Gremlins

Gremlins does its damnedest to subvert all that is Christmas, and does it brazenly: a dog gets strung up in Christmas lights; a man mailing Christmas cards finds his hand trapped inside a mailbox with the suggestion that it is about to become a gremlin's snack; Phoebe Cates' character tells a woeful story of how a sweet effort by her father to bring Christmas cheer to her family by coming down the chimney dressed as Santa turned deadly, and plenty of other psyops-style attacks on the holiday gleefully performed by the army of reptilian gremlins and lovingly served up by Joe Dante. In fact, the holiday images mixed with all the devastating Christmastime carnage got people talking about introducing a new movie rating, not quite R but stronger than PG, and, with the backlash about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the PG-13 was created that year, 1984, by the MPAA. Since Steven Spielberg had his hands in both hugely successful films, it can be said that for him, this was the best of times and the worst of times. But mainly the best. And Gremlins did have one advantage that kept it from being forever condemned as the ultimate anti-Christmas experience: The lovable and heroic Mogwai, Gizmo!

Awww. Anything this cute can easily save Christmas!

"Everybody, now: Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!"

Yes indeedy, snuggly and huggy Gizmo dolls found their way under many, many Christmas trees that same year, and hopefully, nobody's dad died trying to deliver the freakin' things via chimney!

So why was it set during Christmas? Er, hello, that subvert the holiday subtext, with Gizmo the savior of the day thing? I suppose this makes Gremlins the closest thing to an actual Christmas movie on this list-- but not too close.

2 Honorable Mentions

Reindeer Games: A thriller about ex-con Ben Affleck trying to stop a Christmas bank robbery. But casting Ben Affleck in a movie set during Christmas is the same as giving a little person in an elf costume the hero's part.

Or maybe not.

Or maybe not.

Bad Santa: Yes, it's foul-mouthed, bloody, and has a nasty little person dressed in an elf costume, but since Billy Bob Thornton's hard-drinking, womanizing recidivist character risks his life for others and redeems himself thanks to pure Christmas spirit, this is without a doubt the best R-rated Christmas film ever made, even suitable to be shown around Christmas. When the kids are fast asleep with visions of sugar plums in their heads.

Great Christmas film for the entire family except the children!

Yessiree, Bob, nuthin' better than pure Christmas spirits!

As for those Christmas horror movies... maybe next year.