From Dr Becky Bartlett, Associated Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews:
Dreaming of a Cult Christmas
It probably doesn’t need stating, but 2020 has been a weird year. Christmas is just around the corner, and it’s probably going to be a bit weird for many people as well. Cult movies are often weird too – so, what better way to prepare for a weird Christmas than with some cult Christmas movies? Admittedly, many ‘classic’ Christmas favourites could be considered cult texts due to their dedicated, albeit seasonal, fans and their associated ritualistic viewing practices. Indeed, cult films are notoriously difficult to define as a coherent category, and this is somewhat reflected in the selection below. This list focuses primarily on alternative festive films: murderous snowmen, feral Santas, and yuletide serial killers. It is also a rather subjective list – these are all films that I enjoy, and I make no particular claims about them except that you might enjoy them too. Some of the movies are intentional comedies, others are ‘so bad they’re good’. Some are low-budget and incompetent, others are innovative and original. Some are well-known, others are more obscure. Some are more firmly established as cult films, with dedicated cult followings, than others. They might not all be considered ‘feel-good’ movies in the traditional sense, but each one, in its own way, offers some much-needed festive escapism.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (Nicholas Webster, 1964)
In an attempt to cheer up the children of Mars, the Martians decide to kidnap Santa Claus. This ultra-low budget, family-friendly science fiction comedy is notable for two reasons: it’s widely considered to be one of the ‘worst films of all time,’ and it features a young Pia Zadora as one of the little green children. The title is probably the best thing about the movie, and the film is funniest when it doesn’t mean to be, but nonetheless it has a certain charm to it – and is worth watching for the polar bear alone.
Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0d8beSTsMjU
Or, watch the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QgcclbBmdEY
Santa’s Slay (David Steiman, 2005)
WWE superstar Bill Goldberg stars as Santa, who has finally completed his thousand-year punishment after losing a curling match to an angel and can now stop delivering gifts and resume his Christmas-themed slaying of hapless humans. Santa’s sleigh is pulled by a buffalo, and his weapons of choice range from eggnog to a Zamboni. Come for the increasingly ridiculous deaths, stay for the groanworthy puns (“I’m just trying to spread a little Yultide fear!”).
Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1zD6vFHh8c
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Jalmari Helander, 2010)
Another revisionist Santa Claus story, this beautifully shot Finnish film, in which a young boy and his father accidentally capture a wild Santa, is a perfect blend of Scandinavian mythology, fantasy, horror and pitch-black humour. Put it this way – as a festive fairy tale, this is definitely more original Brothers Grimm than any of their Disneyfied adaptations.
Watch the short films on which the film was based here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V65zvJHd120
Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)
Although Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) is typically credited as the film that kickstarted the ‘slasher’ trend, it owes a lot to Black Christmas, in which a group of sorority girls are terrorised by a deranged killer during the festive period. Despite receiving mixed reviews on release, the film developed a cult following and has subsequently been reappraised as one of the best holiday horrors.
Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJh2y8yjrI0
Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman (Michael Cooney, 2000)
To clarify, this is a sequel to Jack Frost (Michael Cooney, 1997), a film that came a year before the better known (and possibly more terrifying) Michael Keaton movie of the same name. They’re all based on the same premise: someone is reincarnated as a snowman. In Cooney’s versions, that person is, naturally, a deranged killer hellbent on revenge. I’ve chosen the sequel because it’s even more bonkers than its either of its predecessors – Frost, a wisecracking snowman with a banana allergy and a bunch of adorably bloodthirsty snowball offspring, travels to a tropical island to murder the man responsible for his death. It’s stupid, it’s rubbish, it’s brilliant.
Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ogQTTN4E9l0
It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)
No list of Christmas movies would be complete without It’s a Wonderful Life, and this one is no exception. Initially criticised for its unabashed sentimentality, Capra’s film gained a loyal following after its copyright lapsed and it became a staple on television during the holiday season; now, going to see it in the cinema is an annual tradition for many. 2020 has been difficult, exhausting and unsettling; It’s a Wonderful Life may or may not be the ‘best’ Christmas movie, but I can’t think of any film I’d rather watch this year.
Watch the ending here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxNXtjGY_Us
Becky Bartlett is currently an Associate Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews. Her monograph, Badfilm: Incompetence, Intention and Failure is due to be published in early 2021. Her recent publications include an article in Continuum‘s ‘so bad it’s good’ special issue, and chapters in The Routledge Companion to Cult Cinema (eds Jamie Sexton and Ernest Mathijs) and The Bible Onscreen in the New Millennium (ed Wickham Clayton). Her research interests include cult cinema, bad movies, religion in film, and ape suit cinema.