There’s something nice about watching a classic movie on Christmas. The tree’s plugged in, the presents are opened, and there you are with a rocket-fuel eggnog, sinking into your couch and taking in a festive film you’ve seen a dozen times before…until you realize that the movie is in fact horrifying. Over the course of 90 twinkly minutes, you let TBS transport you to a strange new ring of hell, where reindeer swoop down from the skies and sugarplum fairies dance on your grave. Tidings of comfort and joy? Nowhere to be found.
The truth is that the yuletide cheer and winter magic at the core of most Christmas movies is, to the experienced adult eye, absolutely grotesque. While kids may see Santa squeezing down a chimney or meeting your guardian angel as charming, those of us who know the world a little better can understand just how earth-shaking and shudder-inducing they are. In fact, some Christmas movies beg the question: why would I show this to my kids? Why’d my parents show this to ME? Is…is Rudolph why I am the way I am?
Here are 10 Christmas movies that might as well be directed by Ari Aster….
The Santa Clause (1994)
Here’s a terrifying concept: if you accidentally murder Santa Claus, his coat asks you to put it on — thus irrevocably binding you to your role as the new Santa. Somewhere between Venom and An American Werewolf In London, this ‘90s Tim Allen vehicle is a terrifying tale of body dysmorphia and mental illness, as your average deadbeat dad slowly morphs into Santa after knocking the actual Saint Nick off his roof. Packed with satanic gluttony, inescapable curses, and a flirtatious scene between Tim and an ancient elf who’s definitely played by a child, this film will make you gag all through the Christmas season.
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
George Bailey’s wholesome small-town life is built on his shattered dreams of seeing the world and becoming an architect. One day, when his alcoholic uncle destroys the family business, he tries to kill himself, only to be saved by his guardian angel, a dottering old man named Clarence. When George wishes he’d never been born, Clarence transports him to a psychedelic hellscape in which millions died without George’s intervention, and his wife — no, please God NO — wears a hat when leaving the library. An unspeakable journey of disillusionment and biblical black magic, Frank Capra’s holiday classic is guided by the principle that no matter how shitty things are, they’re worse when God gets involved. Zuzu’s petals? That’s drugs, George.
Jingle All The Way (1996)
The villain of this 1996 Arnold Schwarzenegger film might appear to be hardworking dad Sinbad or boneriffic neighbor Phil Hartman, but at the end of the day it’s something bigger and scarier: human greed. Jingle All The Way celebrates the rabid, violent hunger for stuff that runs rampant during the holiday season, making Ahnold’s every encounter seem like his fault even though the other humans around him have become toy-obsessed zombies. Though seemingly a madcap romp through various parental nightmares, this film is actually a mirror in which we can see the beasts we become every December. Also features that wholesome line, “I’M NOT A PERVERT!”
Bad Santa (2003)
Is there any scarier monster than alcoholism? Bad Santa is a hilarious film if you’re the type of sick individual who likes to see a dude chug vodka and piss himself in front of children. In truth, it’s the cinematic journey of a man who goes from a drunk to a miserable, sodomy-obsessed drunk, to a hopeless, miserable, sodomy-obsessed drunk who learns the true meaning of Christmas. In the meantime, our booze-soaked hero, portrayed perfectly by Billy Bob Thornton, spits obscenities at a developmentally challenged child and bangs an extra-tall bartender who dreams of being railed by Santa Claus. Not for the faint of cheer.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1965)
We all know the story — Rudolph’s red nose gets him ostracized by his fellow reindeer, until Santa realizes it’ll be beacon on a foggy Christmas eve. What Rankin/Bass Animation Entertainment added to the story in their 1964 stop-motion TV special was bullying, cruelty, and a giant yeti with a maw full of saw-teeth. Rewatch this beloved childhood classic and you’ll find Rudolph’s dad Donner verbally abusing him at home before forcing him to wear a fake nose. Even Santa gets in on the action, calling Rudolph out as useless and telling Donner he’s a failure due to his freakish sun. Then, of course, there’s the gun-toting arctic explorer hunting the giant Abominable Snow Monster. Somewhere between Whiplash and Critters, this children’s film has not aged well.
Home Alone (1990)
Two down-on-their-luck men turn to robbery around Christmas, only to be trapped in a maze of torment where they’re burnt, lacerated, repeatedly bludgeoned, and dropped out of the sky. No, that’s not a write-up of the latest Saw movie, it’s Home Alone, the story of irresponsible parents leaving their psychotic son to scare off two burglars in the most sadistic way possible. It’s good that director John Hughes (also know for The Breakfast Club and Uncle Buck) went cartoony with this one, as a recent YouTuber’s version of certain scenes with realistic gore included shows just how brutal a movie this truly is. Watch the whole series below — Home Alone 2 is even more repulsive!
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Here’s the basic premise of Miracle on 34th Street: a man who looks exceedingly like Santa and claims he is Santa ends up befriending a woman and her little girl, until he’s committed and takes his claims of being Santa to court. The implication by the film’s end is that Kris IS in fact Santa Claus — but it’s never proven. Which means these people let a strange, confused elderly man into their homes, and let him play with their children. Which means that this man is telling everyone he’s Santa so that he can infiltrate their houses, their lives, their most private moments. Think of it as Parasite only with a lot more holly and jingle bells.
The Muppets Christmas Carol (1992)
Somehow, it took the Muppets — and, granted, Michael Caine — to remind us that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a straight-up ghost story. The movie gives viewers a surprisingly realistic depiction of Victorian London (with talk felt pigs and penguins, obviously), down to the looming buildings and cracked cobblestones. But it’s the movie’s surreal, unholy specters that really make this one shiver-worthy, particularly the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come who looks like he stepped off of a funeral doom album cover. Somehow, Jim Henson continues to be the scariest creature designer throughout movie history.
The Polar Express (2004)
No body horror will ever compare to the dead-faced grotesqueness of The Polar Express. Directed by Back to the Future and Forest Gump’s Robert Zemeckis, this adaptation of a whimsical, atmospheric children’s book uses motion-capture CGI in a time before Avatar, resulting in what appears to be a series of child-shaped sacks filled with water leaping around a North Pole-bound train. A claymation film would’ve looked far less creepy than this; as it is, it feels like we’re observing that mosh pit simulator from years back. Welcome to the Uncanny Valley.
How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Man, this might as well be David Cronenberg’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Between Jim Carrey’s unmovable wrinkles and the Who nose prosthetics, there’s a shitload of pure body horror going on here. Even creepier is that the film resets Dr. Seuss’ classic story so that it’s all going on inside of a snowflake. So, every time you catch a snowflake on your tongue, you’re devouring millions of tiny, plucky creatures. Who are Christian. Except one, who maybe denies Christ, because he wants to destroy Christmas. Because Jeffery Tambor gave him a gag gift. Wait, what the fuck is going on here? Where are the wuzzles?
Words by Chris Krovatin