B-Movies Extended: How to Make a Good Christmas Movie

Bibbs and Witney take a close look at the holiday genre and explain how it really works.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

The Christmas season is upon us, and for film critics that means two things. Firstly, it is prime “Prestige Picture” season, wherein all the major studios finally whip out their heavier, more adult dramas in order to bait Oscar voters, which always has me asking why movie studios don’t try to produce awards bait movies all year round. You know it’s Prestige Picture season because the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast was taken up with insightful and salient reviews of complex and heady dramas like The Collection (from the writers of Saw IV, Saw V, Saw VI, and Saw: The Final Chapter, a remake of Silent Night, Deadly Night called merely Silent Night, and the sixth film in the Universal Soldier franchise, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, which featured more blood and violence than your average slasher film, making it the bloodiest action movie since perhaps Punisher: War Zone. I can smell Oscar gold already, can’t you?

Secondly, we must – must! – ponder the myriad Christmas-themed movies that are gleefully watched in households across the nation as part of ever-growing Christmas traditions. William “B-Cup” Bibbiani and I not only reviewed Silent Night, but debated the merits of the 1984 original. Bibbs feels it should count as a legitimate slasher classic. I think despite its gleeful tastelessness, toplessness, and occasional bouts of fun Christmas-themed mayhem (someone is strangled with a string of Christmas lights, for instance), it’s still only a middling film at best, and it is, at the very least, far outstripped by Bob Clark’s excellent slasher Black Christmas from a decade previous (and which has, incidentally, also been remade). I would, however, say that Silent Night, Deadly Night is one of those must-see films for nascent slasher fans. It’s one that should be seen merely for its dubious notoriety.

Whatever their respective merits, I personally know a few people who watch either Black Christmas or Silent Night, Deadly Night every year around this time. Both are perfectly decent Christmas movies, and can stand openly as regular and legitimate Christmas traditions.

Let’s analyze that notion, shall we? What kind of movie counts as a “Christmas movie” as opposed to a movie that is simply set at Christmastime? Surely this question has been pondered by minds greater than mine; Alonso Duralde of The Wrap and Linoleum Knife, and a sometime guest on The B-Movies Podcast, has authored a book called Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas (which you should buy immediately), and has likely come up with a very concise definition as to what makes a “proper” Christmas movie. But I will now personally bend my own soft, moist, pinkish brain to such a task, and ponder ever so briefly what makes a good Christmas movie.

It must be set at Christmas, of course. The backgrounds must incorporate all manner of Christmas imagery, and include no small amount of Christmas muzak. Trees, tinsel, guys in Santa suits, twinkle lights, crèches, the whole schmear. The iconography is key. I would, however, differentiate a movie that is merely set at Christmas from a “Christmas movie” in this regard: some of the film’s notable events must also be Christmas related. By that thinking Batman Returns could be considered a Christmas Movie, as there are several elaborate criminal actions tied in with the lighting of the Gotham City Christmas Tree, one of which results in the death of a ditzy spokesmodel. In contrast would be Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon, which does indeed take place at Christmas, but only incidentally.

The screenwriter of Lethal Weapon, Shane Black, seems to have a penchant for Christmas, however, as many of the films he had written take place around the holiday. His amnesia-themed actioner The Long Kiss Goodnight is very reliant on Christmas imagery, and his excellent 2005 comedic neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is very much about the holiday. I suppose the season must be in the air.

Indeed, many include Die Hard as one of the best Christmas movies ever made. Not only is it awesome, but it effectively captures the Christmas spirit. Is it a proper Christmas movie? By my criterion above, not really, but I’m fully prepared to give this one a pass. My point is: the genre almost doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be straightforwardly jolly. It just has to be Christmas. The feel-good stuff will come naturally.

It shouldn’t necessarily feature Santa Claus. I have seen many, many films to star jolly old St. Nick, and but a sliver of them are of any note or quality. Sure, you have films like Henry Selick’s stop-motion animated Goth catnip The Nightmare Before Christmas – a twisted Christmas/Halloween mashup that is still peculiar and fun to watch despite its Hot Topic overexposure – or maybe the original 1947 Miracle on 34th Street, but good films with Santa are few and far between. Rise of the Guardians was pretty good, and I heard good things about Arthur Christmas (which I missed), but I’m not sure if either of those CGI animated films would ever be considered a legit classic of any stripe. Santa is such a pure, peerless figure that it becomes difficult to construct any sort of meaningful drama around him. As such, we’ve been treated over the years to all manner of bizarre and off-putting iterations to put the jolly fat man in the spotlight. If you haven’t seen the 1959 Mexican film called simply Santa Claus, be grateful for the small scrap of sanity you still possess. A film like Santa Claus Meets the Ice Cream Bunny kind of speaks for itself. Many people of a certain generation seem to possess an affection for 1985’s Santa Claus: the Movie with Dudley Moore and John Lithgow. I could not explain why.

So Santa may be ultimately prove to be a detriment to your movie. Although the strength of a good Santa should not be overlooked. The only reason anyone remembers the maligned Ernest Saves Christmas is because of Douglas Seale as Santa, who is a sweet old guy and a cherubic presence, and who elevates some of the shrill humor into something much more tolerable.

They shouldn’t ever, ever be sexy. Ever. Maybe this is just a neurosis of mine, but I think hot half-naked human beings become instantly less hot as soon as they don a Santa cap. The mixture of Christmas and sex seems, I dunno, unwholesome to me. The only person who is allowed to mix sex and Santa is Eartha Kitt when she sings “Santa Baby.” Otherwise it’s just a little oogy. Listen to any rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and marvel at how sticky it will make you feel. Seriously, one of the lyrics is “Hey, what’s in this drink?”

Also, and this may make a few readers cringe, but it has to have a happy, happy ending. Not just an ending where everything is resolved, but one where the heroes all live, everyone is happy, and the characters have all gathered around to sing songs, make merry, and generally celebrate the glories of being alive through the wonders of such a magical season. Corny? Yes. Your Christmas film must be – must be – at least a little bit corny. Christmas is, after all, the one time of year when sentimentality should be openly permissible, and warming brief platitudes should perhaps be dropped without a hint of irony. We can be cynical at other times, but not at the end of a Christmas movie. It is just not done.

Sure, some Christmas films are plenty dark, especially the entire Christmas horror genre; Indeed, if you’re going to have a somewhat dark ending to your Christmas movie, it can only be a Black Christmas or a Santa’s Slay or a Jack Frost. But the ultimate effect of a good Christmas movie should be the cinematic equivalent of snuggling under a blanket with a warm loved one, drinking hot cocoa, and eating frosted cookies. It’s comfort food. Even the action films. Even the horror films. They should all leave you warm, whether with hugs, with toys, or with a gentle cascade of arterial spray.

Lars Von Trier, for instance, should never make a Christmas movie.

From the Desk of William Bibbiani:

Christmas comes but once a year. Once a year! Now it’s here. And, as usual, very few major studios are whipping out honest to god “Christmas movies.” There’s Rise of the Guardians, Silent Night, and that’s about it. This season the film industry is focusing instead on family friendly movies like Playing for Keeps, about a pro hockey player who reconnects with his estranged family, and Parental Guidance, about Billy Crystal getting hit in the balls a lot. These are films that seemingly fit the Christmas season, being family-oriented and suitable (albeit not necessarily recommended) for all ages, but they don’t actually have Christmas in them so they could, if necessary, be shifted around the yearly release schedule. But a Christmas movie? You gotta release it at Christmastime, and you only get a couple of weeks to appeal to holiday shoppers who are already at the mall, since after December 25th your Christmas movie is useless. And you have to wait to release it on home video for a-whole-nother year, so it’s just sitting there in your vault until then, gathering dust and wasting money.

But we’ve had some good Christmas films, thank goodness. Witney has talked about what he thinks makes a good Christmas movie, but I’d like to roll it back a bit. Before we can think about what makes a good Christmas movie, we have to figure out what makes it a “Christmas movie” in the first place. It’s more than just setting your movie at Christmas. And it has nothing at all to do with Jesus, at least not necessarily. In order to be a real Christmas movie, your movie needs to be about Christmas, and the shared experiences that those who celebrate the holiday can all relate to. The iconography helps, and if you focus on the religious aspect that’s all well and good too, but that’s all incidental. The important thing is that if you took these movies and set them at any other time of the year, they wouldn’t make as much sense, whether or not they actually work.

Look at the film Home Alone, for example. That’s a film about a kid defending his homestead from scary (well, not really) home invaders after being separated from his family at the holidays. All the business with Macauley Culkin actually being home, alone, makes Home Alone a great comedy. But what makes it a great Christmas movie is the family element. For many, Christmas is a time when family members make time for each other, if only for one day, after a year’s worth of focusing on their own separate lives. Being separated from your young child is a plot point that works best during a season that emphasizes togetherness. Their happy reunion, on Christmas Day, affects us emotionally in part because Christmas is already a time for happy reunions, and this one – after Culkin’s many hilarious misadventures – feels particularly earned.

Other films focus on the long road to Christmas, as opposed to the day itself. For kids, this takes the form of being good (always a crucible in and of itself) and completing a familiar series of rituals, like writing a letter to Santa, sitting on his lap and leaving milk and cookies out by the tree. And waiting to open your presents. Bob Clark’s perennial favorite A Christmas Story nails this aspect of the holiday season, focusing the story on period nostalgia and the suspense built up around whether little Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) will get the only item on his Christmas list, a Red Ryder B.B. Gun. On the flipside of that equation, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation looks at the same rituals from the perspective of the parents, who are responsible for making sure everyone’s holiday is magical and also keeping food on the table, enduring visiting relatives and performing annoying, impermament tasks like cutting down a tree and putting up blinky lights. Chevy Chase’s famous holiday outburst works because we’ve all been there, but have never (or at least rarely) had the opportunity to unload all that nervous energy all at once. Like every other great Christmas movie, films like A Christmas Story and Christmas Vacation exploit the anxieties inherent to the holiday and, because it’s Christmas, they both end happily.

My very favorite Christmas movie, Christmas in Connecticut, feels really ahead of its time from this perspective. Before anyone was really talking about how annoying Christmas was for all the parents required to meet unrealistic standards of familial and housewarming perfection, Peter Godfrey’s film was focusing on the specific frustrations of housewives, back when women were expected to be happiest in the kitchen (by sexist assh*les, granted, but there were an awful lot of them). In the film, Barbara Stanwyck is expected to live up to these expectations, since she has a proto-Martha Stewart magazine column about her happy homemaking experiences, but that’s all an elaborate con. She’s a single woman in a studio apartment who can’t cook to save her own life. When her editor, Sydney Greenstreet, insists on coming over to her farmhouse for a good, old-fashioned holiday celebration, she bends herself into pretzels trying to do what housewives are supposed to be doing to prepare for Christmas, failing miserably and hilariously all along the way. Yes, again it ends happily.

Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? I’d say only barely. John McTiernan’s film uses the holiday as an excuse for a few jokes (“Now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho”) and set pieces, but for most of the film Christmas is completely incidental to the kick-ass action storyline. I suspect it seemed a little more Christmasy back in the 1980s, when sexy cocaine-centric holiday office parties were still de rigeur. Nowadays, that’s probably the aspect of Die Hard that seems most dated, and therefore most swiftly ignored. I suspect that, for many, films like Die Hard and Die Hard 2 are considered someone’s “favorite Christmas movies” because it’s an excuse to watch an exciting action flick when the rest of the family just wants to watch sentimental treacle instead. It’s okay. The first two Die Hards end happily, right?

But horror movies can be Christmas movies too. The murders are incidental so long as Christmas is the thematic cornerstone. Gremlins is a perfect example, demonstrating the dangers of gift-giving when the recipient can’t handle the responsibilities inherent to their new toy (or in this case, a pet), which gives birth to a host of little homicidal monsters. It’s no coincidence that the finale of the film takes place in a shopping center, and that many of the film’s battles are fought with dangerous household products, even though it ends happily. Silent Night, Deadly Night is also a great Christmas movie, killer Santa or no killer Santa, because the maniac couldn’t have been created with the moral manipulations, rampant capitalism or religious fervor inherent to the season. The remake, Silent Night, isn’t as much of a Christmas movie as near as I can tell. The “naughty or nice” motivations of the villain can be found in many non-holiday slasher M.O.’s and despite several people getting murdered with Christmas lights, the plot would be basically the same on any other holiday with a parade route in it. Silent Night isn’t a particularly bad film, but as I said in my review, it’s particularly disappointing because it doesn’t take more advantage of its holiday trappings. The Silent Night movies don’t end very happily though. Maybe that’s why they’re so controversial.

But even if a film’s story is intrinsically linked to Christmastime, that doesn’t make it a “great” Christmas movie. It makes it a “real” Christmas movie either way, but it still has to be “good.” Jingle All the Way was a clever idea for a slapstick holiday movie, about two fathers fighting for the “must have” toy of the season on Christmas Eve, each afraid of ruining their sons’ childhoods, but it also sucked. The pacing is slow, most of the jokes fall flat and Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t have the comic persona necessary to carry such a manic film with only Sinbad to support him. And don’t forget the boring 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street, which took an excellent story about childhood wonder and squandered it on a cast with little chemistry, and changed one of the most satisfying endings ever filmed into a weak monologue about the dollar bill that says and proves almost nothing, particularly when compared to the original film’s headshot closing argument, which most everyone knows whether they’ve seen the movie or not. Oh well, at least they both end happily.

There are lots of good Christmas movies out there, but the ratio of good films to bad films wouldn’t impress anybody. For every It’s a Wonderful Life we seem to get a dozen Christmases with the Kranks. That may not seem like much of an observation, since you could say the same thing about any genre (except for the Christmas with the Kranks part), but Christmas movies have certain tropes that are just plain difficult to pull off. The forcefully happy endings, the sentimental storylines, the adherence to strange mythology and the potential for overselling (or underselling) the religious elements are difficult lines to walk without teetering too far on either side. So it’s easy to see why, outside of Made-for-TV movies (which depend on saccharine stories whether they work or not), we don’t see too many of them. They’re a tough sell, and they’re even tougher to do right. But those few films that do become holiday favorites all have one thing in common: they’re actually about Christmas, and the many reasons why the holiday season actually means something… even if it means something awful.

And that’s what Christmas movies are all about, Charlie Brown!

William Bibbiani and Witney Seibold are the co-hosts of CraveOnline's B-Movies Podcast. Follow them on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani and @WitneySeibold