Christmas has always been the most spiritually profound and emotionally packed holiday -- for all the good and bad that entails -- and this importance is reflected in the wide range of Christmas films that have been produced. The Christmas holiday, so richly encrusted in legend and fantasy, has proven to be particularly fertile ground for cultish variations on its theme, staking out its own territory within the cult-film genre. The myths and fantasies of Christmas create a season of emotional extremes -- a time that demands goodwill and humanitarianism while dealing out dashed hopes and a record number of suicides.
And like anything passed down from antiquity and adorned with a halo of religious purity, it begs for reaffirmation as well as debunking. Consequently, as filmmakers seek to offer modern updates on age-old motifs, the holiday prompts both maudlin veneration and blasphemous, bloody satire.
Christmas cult movies can be divided into two opposite types: those that seek to reaffirm the goodness in the human soul and those that use the festive trappings of the holiday season and its pervasive spirit of trust as an ironic counterpoint to humankind's evil urges -- setting up Christmas as an impossibly idealized concept that's begging to be defiled.
Films falling into the former category are usually soaked in nostalgia and tagged with tear-jerking happy endings. We are all too familiar with this group -- "It's a Wonderful Life," "A Christmas Carol" and "Miracle on 34th Street" are three of the best known. But those films falling into the latter category -- Yuletide troublemakers -- offer some interesting fun that's almost therapeutic. During a season that basically pressures us to be virtuous, some people naturally rebel. It's the perfect time of the year for things to go disastrously -- sometimes hilariously -- wrong.
Cult filmmaker John Waters was always keenly aware of the potent duality inherent in Christmas, and he included unforgettable Christmas scenes in his two biggest underground hits. If others saw Christmas as a time to look inward and find the goodness, Waters saw it as a time to look inward and find the weirdness. In "Pink Flamingos" (1972), the nefarious Connie and Raymond Marble mail gift-wrapped dog shit to 300-pound-transvestite Divine on Christmas as a holiday carol blares on the soundtrack. In "Female Trouble" (1974), Divine plays the role of teen-age schoolgirl Dawn Davenport with glorious implausibility as she towers above her parents. Unhappy with her present, she flies into a rage on Christmas morning, stomps the unwanted gift to pieces like a bull elephant, and pushes the Christmas tree over on her mother in a scene that many consider to be Waters' most hilarious.
The shopping season of 1974 also brought "Black Christmas," Bob Clark's stalk-and-slash fest. Olivia Hussey, famous for her role as Juliet, gets terrorized in this fan favorite, and as a cop, John Saxon does what he does best -- hang in there long enough to pick up a paycheck.
While John Waters adopted a more mainstream style in the '80s, other filmmakers, like Jon Moritsugu, held firmly to the low ground. It is in his short movie from 1988, "Sleazy Rider," that another notable underground-style Christmas burlesque appears.
A wholly irreverent parody of "Easy Rider," "Sleazy Rider" is a crude, low-tech trash tale of two teen-age biker chicks on Harleys who threaten the innocent, take drugs and generally act awful as they trip across the country. At one point they arrive in Pleasantville and, looking for gas, invade the home of an abnormally cheerful and wholesome middle-class lady played with nauseating niceness by Wendy Edwards. Of course, when they break into her home it happens to be Christmas! They destroy her house and Christmas tree and slash the stuffing out of her stuffed donkey to boot -- only to later succumb to Christmas cookies poisoned with PCP and LSD that she slips them with the sweetest holiday smile.
Other cult films offer dark permutations on the sacrosanct figure of Jesus. Although not specifically a Christmas film, Roman Polanski's 1968 cult masterpiece, "Rosemary's Baby," gives the proverbial manger scene a twist by placing the devil's baby in a crib surrounded by grinning witches instead of gentle wise men and shepherds.
In the absurdly low-budget 1975 TV movie "Christmas 2025," a young James Cromwell ("Babe," "L.A. Confidential") stars as a playful Christlike figure named George who encourages freedom, hope, love and spontaneity in a bleak, repressed future where the very utterance of the word "Christmas" is punishable by death. George is eventually arrested, tried and executed by the fascist authorities who then face rebellion. This is undoubtedly Cromwell's most bizarre role, and it's amazing that his career survived it.
In America the face of Christmas is represented by the face of Santa Claus, who offers a whole host of dramatic and perverse film possibilities. After all, he's a fat man with a weird costume and a face concealed by hair, one who sneaks down the chimney into your house without permission and messes around there while you're asleep.
Santa has long served as a tempting target of sometimes pornographic parody, and he has also been cast as an inscrutable menace who disguises depravity behind the gleeful grin of the nicest man on earth. After all, anyone to whom we give our complete and unqualified trust is naturally in a position to betray that trust and become malevolent. A mean, vengeful, slaughtering Santa is much more shocking than Halloween's stock procession of witches, goblins and devils precisely because he is cast against type.
In the '80s, while the splatter-film genre was still going strong, a number of variations on the "evil Santa" theme cropped up in several commercial horror pictures that explored the dark core at the heart of the fat man in red. The 1980 film "Christmas Evil" (a.k.a. "You Better Watch Out," a.k.a. "Terror in Toyland") centers on the dangerous delusions of a toy-factory foreman, played by Brandon Maggart, who was traumatized as a youth when he witnessed his mother having sex with "Santa" -- an experience that left him obsessed with all things Christmas. He indulges in strange versions of the rituals of Christmas, such as keeping lists of children who are "naughty" or "nice." Finally, costumed in a Santa suit and singing "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," he sets out on a murderous rampage. (The film's tag line was "He'll Sleigh You.")
"Christmas Evil" was re-released in 1983, but the very next year the Charles Sellier-directed splatter film "Silent Night, Deadly Night" stole the spotlight. The film centered on an ax-wielding psychotic disguised as Santa, and, despite the fact that it was a very effective little horror movie, it was universally and savagely slammed by critics. Roger Ebert, America's most influential movie critic, worked himself into a self-righteous rage over the movie on his nationally syndicated TV show, damning it as indefensible bad taste. And this from a man who once co-scripted a film ("Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," 1970) about an LSD-tripping gay hermaphrodite mass-murderer running around in a cape and fake tits and swinging a sword. Hermaphroditic killers on acid we can all tolerate -- apparently -- but not a bad Santa!
The outrage over "Silent Night, Deadly Night" was overwhelming and exceeded anything that the Halloween films ever provoked. Theaters were picketed and angry editorials were dashed off across the land. "What's next?" moaned critic Leonard Maltin. "The Easter bunny as a child molester?" Thanks to the outcry, the film achieved minor cult status and spawned a sequel in 1987.
Santa has been known to disturb the wee ones on a much more subtle level, too. The nightmare sequence that opens the visually stunning French cult film "City of Lost Children" begins innocently enough, but the kindly Santa who enters the little boy's room soon turns into a roomful of sinful Santas, one of whom goes for the hip flask and throws up on the kid's floor.
Of course, Santa can be just as freakish when he's being good. Witness the 1959 Mexican kiddie Christmas movie that K. Gordon Murray unleashed upon unsuspecting American children in the 1960s: "Santa Claus," directed by none other than schlockmeister Rene Cardona Jr. In this epic, the "right jolly old elf" battles the mischievous "Old Pitch" for the souls of a peasant girl who desires a doll for her present and a rich boy who longs for nothing more than the loving attention of his nightclubbing parents.
Other portrayals of Santa rendered the old fatty as a more benign if simply bizarre figure: Who can forget Crispin Glover's brief but effective cameo as a loony psycho Santa in David Lynch's 1990 film "Wild at Heart?" And who can forget the 1964 film "Santa Conquers the Martians?" Maybe everyone would like to forget it. The story unfolds as Santa and two Earth kids are kidnapped by green Martians and a robot. Santa is forced to make toys until he leads a revolt and escapes back to Earth just in time for ... Christmas!
Acclaimed as one of the worst movies ever made, this poverty-row science-fantasy oddity, directed by the obscure Nicholas Webster, was certainly also one of the most outlandish. The film's cult status is enhanced by the fact that Girmar, the green Martian midget, was played by an 8-year-old actress who would grow up to traffic in trash of a more, well, mature nature, acting with camp abandon in films (like "Butterfly" and "Lonely Lady") that were loaded with incest, perversion and rape. Yes, it was none other than Pia Zadora. But it was as Girmar that she made the greatest contribution to cult lore.
Santa might be able to escape from Mars, but it seems no one can escape from Christmas. A sackful of some special Christmas cult flicks can help make it more bearable. Whether St. Nick is showing someone the meaning of life or hitting someone with a hatchet, Christmas is a day that brings out the devils and angels alike.