In light of the festive period, VHS Revival looks back at some of the most iconic Christmas Movies of the era.
Home Alone (1990)
For those whose childhood preceded the release of this Chris Columbus festive vehicle, Home Alone might be perceived as just another in a long line of silly seasonal movies, but for those whose prepubescence coincided with its release, and even for those generations of kids who would follow, the cultural impact of this cute little package cannot be underestimated.
Macaulay Culkin gives a star turn as the impervious little tyke who not only survives Christmas by himself, but also manages to stave off the interests of bumbling crime duo Harry and Marv, while even finding the time to overcome his personal fears and help an estranged loner reunite with his family just in time for some festive snow.
Sure, the plot is contrived (how many of those impossibly convoluted devices would actually have served their purpose), its sentiments as sickly-sweet as a mountain of multi-flavoured ice cream, but for someone young enough to be free from judgement and criticism, this is everything a kid could ever dream of, a carnival of cartoon violence, reckless independence, and sobering self-indulgence.
You show me a kid who hasn’t prayed for independence without a single thought for the consequences. Who has not, in their juvenile idealism, imagined that they know better, that adults are boring zombies who are slaves to all those joyless constraints life subjects them to?
It is perhaps ironic that those imaginings inevitably become reality.
Lethal Weapon (1987)
The spirit of Christmas offers forgiveness and redemption, the opportunity to start over, and nobody encapsulates that spirit more than officer Martin Riggs and his surrogate family the Murtaughs. When we meet Riggs he is a whacked-out former special ops sniper with a death wish, the grief of his lost love too much to bear, but by the end he is a wise-cracking family man with a heart of gold, even if he has left a plethora of bloodied corpses lying in his wake.
Lethal Weapon is perhaps on a par with the likes of Die Hard as one of the greatest action movies ever made, and one that catapulted Mel Gibson to the realms of Hollywood superstardom. Directed by genre maestro Richard Donner, it is a cathartic buddy movie which is elevated by the magical onscreen chemistry of its leading men, as well as its ability to tap into the the kind of family element that the festive period is renown for.
The movie concentrates on both the darker and lighter sides of Christmas: the harsh truths it has the tendency to highlight and the hope its less cynical traditions can offer us. Book-ended by a suicide and a family gathering, the movie weeds out the exploitative drug dealers and attempted suicides as an unlikely friendship develops into the kind of unconventional family unit that offers hope to us all.
Would Gremlins have been made today? Probably not. At least not in the way it was imagined back in the 1980s. Even then, critics were concerned about its dark tone and how it might be received by its target audience, and were in fact perplexed as to who that audience was. Presented by Stephen Spielberg, it has all the hallmarks of a family Christmas movie: a cute little protagonist, a set of rules and responsibilities, and even a scrooge-like antagonist in the frightfully cruel Mrs Deagle, but the tone is less It’s a Wonderful Life, more An American Werewolf in London, and in fact Gremlins set the bar for the plethora of wickedly alternative festive movies that would follow.
Gremlins is that age-old tale of a cute little creature known as Mogwai, who once wet multiply at a quite astonishing rate, and if fed after midnight quickly mutate into a band of cretinous critters hellbent on torture and destruction. So if your idea of festive fun involves old ladies flying through windows, dogs being hung from Christmas lights, or mother using her microwave as a gruesome exploding device, make sure you revisit Joe Dante’s quasi-macabre coup de grâce this Christmas. Oh, and you might want to put the kids to bed first.
Bad Santa (2003)
Okay, so this might be remembered more as a DVD era picture, but technically is was available on VHS for a whole three years. Bad Santa is another in the alternative mould, a movie that manages to capture the spirit of Christmas the way Family Guy captures the spirit of the family unit.
Willy is a small-time crook who exploits Christmas by masquerading as Santa at leading department stores with his midget sidekick, using their position to gain access to the store’s safe just as the equally immoral spending rush reaches its pinnacle. The problem is, Willy is on the drunken side of unprofessional, a nihilist who takes advantage of young girls and masquerades as a bullied kid’s uncle just so he can have a place to stay during the stealing season.
With the help of his latest lay and the sobering bite of betrayal, Willy grows to appreciate the kid’s selfless spirit and realises that Christmas is about more than just how much you can consume, it’s about being with your loved ones, however dysfunctional they may be. The original idea was for the movie to be much darker, but where Hollywood marketing is concerned, a little festive spirit can go a long way.
Die Hard (1988)
For me Die Hard is the ultimate Christmas movie, the only one I make a point to watch without fail, and which I refuse to see at any other time during the year for fear of overexposure. Before John McClane, action stars were larger-than-life superheroes whose hypermasculity flexed in the face of cartoon tyranny, but Bruce Willis brought a hard-earned relatability to the McClane character with his prodigious blend of wry, proletarian sarcasm and human vulnerability.
McClane is someone who is mired in consequence, a conflicted character who can’t do right for doing wrong. He may be a great cop, but he is also a lousy husband, a man with the capacity to go toe-to-toe with a gang of highly trained international terrorists, but one who is unable to relate to his wife or do right by his kids. Of course, there is no time like Christmas to try and make amends, and when death looms large for him and his wife Holly, petty quarrels and bad feelings give way to the importance of family, as the estranged couple reunite to take on the sneering Hans Gruber in their quest to make it home in time for eggnog.
Die Hard is a movie that drips with irony, as our reluctant superhero bumbles his way through one bad guy after another with nothing more than a pack of cigarettes and a cowboy pseudonym, and never is our hero’s cynical wit more prevalent than when he sends Karl’s dead sibling up in the elevator, his white corpse punctuated by a Santa hat and the appropriately heartless message ‘Now I have a Machine Gun. Ho-ho-ho!’ When McClaine’s back is truly against the wall, it is a strip of festive tape that gets him and his wife out of their life-threatening pickle, while the two ride away not into the sunset, but under the festive blizzard of snowy debris plummeting from the dilapidated skyscraper left burning in their wake.
Cedric Smarts: Editor-in-Chief and Art Director
Science fiction author, horror enthusiast, scourge of plutocracy, shortlisted for the H. G. Wells Award, creator of vhsrevival.com
Likes: 80s poster art, Vangelis, classical liberalism, dystopian allegories, dissident political activism, Noam Chomsky, George Orwell, George Saunders, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut