when christmas interrupts non-christmas movies

At this point, we're all well aware that Die Hard, Gremlins and the collected works of Shane Black are "secretly" Christmas movies and that when it comes to le cinema, Christmas classics can be found where you least expect them. This piece isn't an attempt to add to the ever-expanding canon of unexpectedly Christmas-y horror flicks, action blockbusters and films noir, but a look at the moments when Christmas pops up in movies that otherwise have nothing to do with the holiday season.

John Cribbs, Marcus Pinn and Christopher Funderburg have personally curated this artisanal, hand-crafted listicle containing the most memorable instances of Christmas making a brief cameo in films otherwise blessedly free of tinsel and mangers.

leo mccarey / james w. horne, 1929

Of all the most enduring silent film comedians (Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd) the duo of Laurel and Hardy most lack nuance - they have a sledge-hammer sensibility in the most literal sense of the word. Big Business, like the majority of the duo’s shorts, serves as a delivery system for chaotic destruction. Chaplin had his flair for melodrama and social commentary, Keaton his meticulous construction of inventive physical gags, Lloyd his fleet-footed boyish tomfoolery, but no one on the planet (not even Our Gang) could match Stan and Oliver when it came to smashing shit up reeeeaal good.

In this short, our work-bereft heroes eventually find themselves as door-to-door Christmas Tree salesmen in California. It seems like one of those gags (like the Diplomaniacs being barbers on an Indian reservation) based on an uncomfortable stereotype or cultural cliche only dimly remembered, if at all. It’s a comedy of miscommunication, escalation, retaliation and (above all) demolition that achieves a peerless gleefulness to its violence against conifers, cars, vases, doorframes and entire homes. The insertion of the holiday into the proceedings only serves as a minor joke on the very idea of the Christian holiday spirit to which Laurel and Hardy were violently opposed. To the homeowner whose property they wreck stem to stern, their parting gift is a reconciliatory cigar… that promptly explodes in the poor schmo’s face. Merry Christmas, buddy.

~ christopher funderburg

adrian lyne, 1990

Every December, while other people DVR Frosty's Winter Wonderland and share favorite quotes from Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, I tend to go more Southeast Asian with my holiday viewing. First, I watch the Christmas episode of China Beach where Boonie surprises everyone with snow. Then the Tour of Duty where the troops are dashing through the jungle on an M35 bound for a holiday party at some orphanage when they get ambushed by the VC and all the presents burn up. Next it's The Bob Hope Vietnam Christmas Show, featuring the smutty Redd Foxx and sultry Miss Peru, Madeline Hartog-Bel, sporting a bouffant so big you could store a cannister of napalm underneath. The marathon dries up after that, and I have to content myself with lying beneath the Christmas tree, closing my eyes and fantasizing a Rankin-and-Bass animated TV special based on issue #23 of The 'Nam where the new bean makes an intimate and meaningful connection with a sexy performer at the USO holiday show. Of course, the Green Goblin shows up and he pumpkin-bombs the hell out of the place, but aside from that it's a mirthful Marvel milestone.

But why aren't there any Vietnam-themed Christmas movies? Sure, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is blatant anti-communist, pro-war propaganda but you'll find any recon mission to locate a festive flick set among the burning rice paddies of the Ho Chi Minh trail fruitless. Which is weird, when you consider how historically entwined are the proxy war and the birthday of baby Jesus. There was the 24-hour ceasefire on December 25 honored by the North Vietnamese just before the start of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Then Nixon's decidedly less-peaceful 1972 Christmas Bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong. And the song played on Armed Forces Radio on April 30, 1975 as a pre-arranged signal instructing American personnel to evacuate Saigon? "White Christmas."

Sadly it's an untapped subgenre. The closest you'll get to a proper Vietnam War Noel is a single scene in Jacob's Ladder, Adrian Lyne's Francis Bacon-infused mindfuck of a film with Tim Robbins' Camus-reading postal clerk skipping back and forth between violent seizures, nightmarish hallucinations and flashbacks to an attack in the Mekong Delta that resulted in his innards hanging off the tip of a friendly bayonet. Convinced a government-administered agent is responsible for the spectral gentrification of his Brooklyn neighborhood by vibrating people with no faces and disfigured nurses with teeth coming out of their heads, Jacob knocks on the wrong doors and is subsequently kidnapped by mysterious men-in-black. Forced to leap from their moving car, he finds himself prone on the pavement while a nearby sidewalk Santa clangs his bell. This disheveled Gowanus St. Nick approaches the wounded lost soul writhing on the corner, possibly to offer a charitable hand? Nope - the shabby Santa casually steals poor Jacob's wallet before going about tingling his bell.

It's the creepiest and most sinister part of a movie constructed on sinister creepiness, even moreso than the disorienting scene with a Mothman freak-dancing on Elizabeth Peña at a strobe-lit Christmas party, getting his tentacles all over her as a sweaty Robbins looks on aghast (the movie was originally going to star Tom Hanks, what would that have been like?) Of all the grimy city Santas we've seen - Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places, the meth addict in Ziggy's Gift - there hasn't been one to stoop so low as to pick the pocket of a PTSD victim, reflecting the general public apathy towards tortured veterans in the mid-70's. For some reason, I was sure that Robbins played a dual role as Santa, but it turns out it was Jan Saint - the street preacher from Frankenhooker!

(By the way, I made up that thing about the presents blowing up in that episode of Tour of Duty. That doesn't actually happen; just seems like it would be funny if it did. Sad and ironic... but funny.)

~ john cribbs

david lynch, 1990

The Jingle Dell section in Wild At Heart is the memorable cutaway moment that tells the story of Lula’s mentally unstable cousin "Dell" (Crispin Glover) and his unhealthy obsession with Christmas. Besides the opening scene where Nicholas Cage smashes a man’s skull in to mush and various Willem Dafoe moments, the Jingle Dell scene is easily the most memorable part from Wild at Heart

I know this sounds a little too convenient to be true but it's the god's honest truth that this was the very first scene from Wild At Heart that I walked in on as a kid. For some strange reason it was on in the middle of the day on HBO and my parents happened to be watching it. I don't even think my parents were enjoying the movie either. It was just so strange that they couldn't look away. This is an interesting callback to when my mother used to watch Twin Peaks. Like Wild At Heart, she didn't particularly enjoy the show. She was just so intrigued by all the surreal quirkiness.

When I was younger I never understood why David Lynch & Crispin Glover never collaborated more. * I guess I got caught up in the whole "this eccentric guy should work with that eccentric guy more often." I always felt Glover could have played the role of "Andy" in Lost Highway (and if not him, Willem Dafoe would've been my 2nd choice.)** He would have fit right in with the cast of Twin Peaks, and I can't put my finger on a specific role but I used to picture Crispin Glover somewhere in Inland Empire (the movie is so long and borderline structureless that David Lynch could have crafted another random cutaway scene for Glover just like he did with Wild At Heart and it wouldn't have made any difference to the "format" of Inland Empire.) 

But now that I'm older I honestly don't want them to work together again. The Lynch/Glover collaboration in Wild At Heart is one of those one time only/lightning in a bottle moments that can't be duplicated just like Claire Denis & Denis Lavant (Beau Travail) or Stanley Kubrick & Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange.)

~ marcus pinn

* David Lynch co-produced some of Crispin Glover’s films.
** I also think Kyle Maclachlan would have made a better Fred.

savage steve holland, 1985

More than most of the other films on this list (indeed, against the very idea of this list!! (!)) Christmas plays a fairly significant role in Better off Dead. For example, our heart-broken hero Lane Myers’ parents don weird reindeer get-ups for the holidays and there’s plenty of winter wonderland-ishness to the subplot about beating a high school bully… at skiing? There are high school ski teams? That’s Hollywood for you, I guess - buncha rich phonies who divided their youths between Aspen and Spago. Anyhoo, one of the greatest moments in Savage Steve Holland’s suicide comedy comes when the charming French exchange student living with Lane Myer’s grotesque neighbors spends Christmas morning opening presents with them.

Portly doofus Ricky has spent weeks rubbing his testicles - sorry - tentacles all over Monique, but is too shy to give her the present he’s selected specially for her. While a muzak rendition of “Here comes Santa Claus” jangles on the soundtrack, Ricky fidgets with a harlequin doll and avoids eye contact with the girl on the couch beside him. Sandwiched between mom and son, for her part Monique is in no hurry to find out what horribleness awaits her in Ricky's Christmas package - but the chain-smoking mom coyly insists that he “go on… give her your present!” before squeezing Monique’s cheeks and inquiring “Do they have Christmas in France? Chriiiiiis-maaaaaaas.”

The gift? It’s a picture of Ricky himself. “You can take that where ever you go, to always remember your trip to the United States.” Of all the bad Christmas gifts in the annals of le cinema, this is my favorite. Just look at Ricky’s expression in that photo! Go on, look at it!

~ christopher funderburg

paul schrader, 1979

It's a jolly Calvinist Christmas at the home of the Van Dorns in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "Away in a Manger" is played on a piano as debates on original sin grow heated around the holly-strewn dining room. Kids clutter in front of a television broadcasting a Christmas special until a cranky relative turns it off, rambling about the Paul Schraders of the world who abandon their Reformed faith to go off and make sick movies and TV shows in Hollywood. And in the kitchen, a burly George C. Scott performs his impression of a turkey pleading for its life to the delight of his prepubescent audience. It would all be perfectly innocent, if the air weren't tinged with bitterness and unspoken resentment.

Weeks later, Scott's daughter Kristen disappears from the Great White Knuckler roller-coaster while on a church-sponsored trip to Bellflower, California. She eventually turns up performing in an 8mm stag film, prompting Scott to burrow deep into the underworld of sex shops and rape parlors in an effort to "rescue" her. Before beginning his sleaze-soaked odyssey and still ignorant of the name "Jizzum Jim," he stands in Kristen's bedroom gazing longingly at a picture of his pint-sized sweetie sitting happily on Santa's lap: a depiction of innocence, especially considering the next image of his daughter he'll be looking at is a nauseating still from the stag film.

Though flawed, Schrader's movie is successful at presenting two lifestyles at opposite ends of the extreme that represent the fault in Dutch Reform mentality. One group resides in a picturesque town blanketed in winter snow where family, industry and community all function harmoniously at the same languid pace (the opening shots of the movie). The other dwell on a garrish neon avenue of sleazy San Francisco, where strangers and dark cars go about their business as police scrape a bloody body of a snuff film merchant off the pavement (the last shots of the movie). Traversing the border between is Scott, a staunch Calvinist so ignorant of city life he's forced to rely on the street smarts of a private eye who's a practitioner of mind science and a Venusian prostitute. The subtle moments of friction at the Christmas party suggest a sordid disharmony brewing long before this "angry, unhappy man" journeys west to browse dildo display cases and subject himself to a sermon on equality in the adult film industry by Big Dick Blaque. Wholesome Christmas can exist in the halls of Total Depravity, and vice versa.

Hardcore would be an interesting movie to get the Irreversible treatment, opening with a scene of Season Hubley's damaged Niki walking back to Scott instead of away from him. From there, everything is mended. Scott's exasperated tears fall back into his eyes, the bullet fires back into the gun, the beaten punk rolls up the San Francisco street as his wounds heal, Scott un-sees the stag film of his daughter who returns to Grand Rapids on the church bus, the cranky relative turns on the innocuous Christmas special for the kids to enjoy and, as the hymn "Precious Memories" plays backwards over the opening - now closing - credits, all those seedy slices of urban decadence and vulgar bodies are buried once again under a sheltering canvas of soft blue Michigan snow.  

~ john cribbs

volker schlondorff, 1976

There's only one isolated Christmas section in Coup De Grace but the entire film is covered in snow and a large chunk of the chime-heavy score is reminiscent of subtle holiday music (if you really want to experience this film’s wonderful score, watch it late at night with the lights dimmed). In fact, one of the most iconic images from this movie is Margarethe Von Trotta decorating a giant Christmas tree. That moment is followed by one of the most pivotal parts in the film…

To give some context, Coup De Grace is a film that gives depth to the scorned/rejected woman. In the film, one of the main characters (Sophie) professes her love to her brother’s best friend (Erich) only to be coldly rejected (we learn later on in the film why he rejects her). Because Sophie doesn’t know how to handle the heartbreak, she deals with it by sleeping around and giving it up to anyone (she also feels this will make Erich jealous but in reality it just makes her look more pathetic in his eyes).

At a Christmas party following the Christmas tree decorating scene, Sophie finally gets under his skin by kissing another man when she catches Erich watching her. This enrages Erich and he storms over and slaps her (another iconic image from the film), ultimately ruining the Christmas party.

~ marcus pinn

william friedkin, 1971

After a brief prologue in Marseilles that connects the film to France, we’re introduced to William Friedkin’s anti-hero cops Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Bojangle” Russo. Doyle and Russo are on an undercover stakeout, watching the goings-on of a Harlem bar. It must be Christmastime because while Russo has settled on pretending to be a hotdog vendor, Doyle’s donned a Salvation Army Santa suit for his disguise. He asks a group of kids what they want for Christmas while sneaking furtive glances into the nearby bar, waiting for a drug deal to go down. When Russo moves in, one of the suspects bolts and the law-enforcement duo take off after the perp, Doyle still in his Santa suit and beard (he loses the hat almost immediately at the start of one of Friedkin’s famed kinetic footraces.)

Based on Freidkin’s interviews and research with real cops, The French Connection attempts to capture the grime and danger of the particularly pungent brand of crime spored in New York in the 70’s, but the tone is all wrong. Almost everything about this introduction to the characters has aged poorly: there’s stomach-churning police brutality in this scene; they kick the black suspect in the stomach after he’s collapsed on the ground out of breath, beat him with a rock and then whale on his some more after dragging him in handcuffs to a discreet alleyway - you get the unbelievable sense that you’re not supposed to instantly despise these repulsive creeps. Or worse, that something about this Santa-delivered beating is supposed to be funny.

This is the scene with the memorably dumb bit where Doyle grills the suspect about picking his feet in Poughkeepsie and that bit of supposedly authentic tough-guy patter is ridiculous to a point where it’s tough to believe it wasn’t laughable even back in 1971. The Santa suit only makes things worse. The sheer ridiculousness of it all might be intentional on Friedkin’s part, but that doesn’t help anything - if it’s supposed to be funny, it’s brutally unfunny. If the scene is humorous, it can only be of the unintentional sort. Doyle is intended to be a real cop - on the edge! - driven to extremes by the culture of crime around him, but he’s some goofball dressed up like Kris Kringle jive-talkin’ about Poughkeepsie to a handcuffed man he just beat with a rock.

~ christopher funderburg

dario argento, 1975

A Christmas tree in the corner. A phonograph radiating an eerie lullaby. On the far wall, a shadow is seen making violent stabbing motions again and again. Then a bloody knife hits the floor and a pair of child's feet in androgynous kneehigh socks enter the frame. This is the first shot of Dario Argento's masterpiece Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) - it appears abruptly in the middle of the opening credits and is gone just as quickly, leaving a beguiling yet indelible impression upon the viewer. It isn't apparent until much later in the film what this macabre holiday portrait has to do with edgy German psychics, alcoholic jazz pianists and a chattering life-sized wind-up doll with its head split in two by a cleaver. But each subsequent act of disorienting violence is portended by the same bone-chilling berceuse, bringing the image firmly to the forefront of the viewer's mind.

Amateur sleuth David Hemmings begins slowly putting pieces together. Having uncovered a grotesque child's drawing depicting that brutal Christmas morning etched into the wall of an old house, he pickaxes through the plaster only to make the ghoulish discovery of a dried-up dead body next to the skeletal remains of a fir tree! It's hard to say what's more disturbing: the sight of the mummified corpse, or the sagging tinsel still hanging from the stale branches of that entombed tannenbaum, its dull red ornaments having long since lost their jovial luster.

The implication of a holiday homicide is unsettling enough, but it's not like murders never happen on Christmas: just check the lyrics of the Mississippi John Hurt song "Stagger Lee" (or The Clash's "Wrong 'Em Boyo.") What's really menacing about Argento's enigmatic staging of a scenic family Christmas is how the rest of the film slowly paints a clearer picture of that less-than-merry moment. The child, extravagantly duded up like Little Lord Fauntleroy in frills and fancy velvet suit, is revealed to be afflicted drunk and self-hating homosexual Carlo, who watched his mother butcher his father after learning that he planned to commit her to an asylum. The experience shaped Carlo into the human wreck of an adult that he's become, reduced to wallowing pitifully as his mother carries out a fresh murder spree to cover up her mariticidial Christmas celebration from years before.

There's no significant reason for the opening shot to be set at Christmas, except that it serves as the Ghost of Christmas Past for the rest of the film, scarring one lead character psychologically while threatening another physically, the more details of the crime Hemmings ends up unwrapping like a gift from a festive psychopath. His investigation leads him to what is reputed to be a haunted house, except the ghost is very much alive, still tormenting the city and tainting everyone she comes into contact with. As in all of the giallo master's best movies, the malfeasance of broken minds corrupts totally, even amidst the profound redness of the holiday season.

~ john cribbs


seijun suzuki, 1963

Do they celebrate Christmas in Japan? From what I understand, over there they call Santa Claus “annual gift man” and he lives on the moon - but that’s just taking John Waters’ word for it. Of course, you and I can google it and have an answer to the question quicker than I can finish typing this sentence. But back in 1963 when Seijun Suzuki made another one of his usual boldly stylized and brazenly weird yakuza freak-outs, who knows what he was thinking about the true meaning of Christmas in Japan.

Hell, for the majority of the films’ running time, the only evidence that Suzuki was thinking about Christmas comes from a series of background radio transmissions utterly unrelated to the plot. I don’t speak Japanese, so I’ll just have to trust the subtitles that the radio announcements are even about Yule tidings - the voice-overs about the impending holiday are a touch that could conceivably have been inserted by American distributors worried their audience would be baffled by a late-film, left-field sexy dance number centered around a Christmas tree (the gyrational interlude takes place at one of the gang-run clubs infiltrated by our hero, the outlandishly chipmunk-cheeked Japanoir icon Jo Shishido.) Suzuki’s sexy-tree dance vision of Christmas is a cliche of Japan-alia: a borderline non-sequitur that’s inappropriately sexualized and splashed with violence. That’s certainly as apropos as a secular, moon-dwelling, gift-giving robot.

~ christopher funderburg

976-EVIL II:

jim wynorski, 1992

In the late 80's, the man behind the burnt visage of America's favorite razor-gloved child molester-slash-dream stalker, Robert Englund, hopped into the director's chair to deliver the chilling allegory of what happens when nerds get hold of a hotline straight to Satan. Alas, the movie was greeted with general indifference by the horror fan community and became instantly dated when the "976" number generated enough complaints as to be largely discontinued in most states by the early 90's. This of course didn't stop Roger Corman from capitalizing on its non-popularity by commissioning a follow-up script for straight-to-video release.

Delightfully, Jim Wynorski's resultant sequel (gloriously subtitled "The Astral Factor," or "the asshole factor" according to Wynorski)* has absolutely nothing to do with Englund's movie. Despite one of the lead actors carrying over from the previous film and the horror hotline being somewhat incorporated into the plot, it's mostly an unrelated story about a serial killer who uses astral projection to murder co-eds. Not surprising considering Wynorski is the king of non-sequels, his Return of the Swamp Thing, Sorority House Massacre II, Munchie, Big Bad Mama 2, Deathstalker II and Ghoulies IV all only tangentially linked to their predecessors.

976-EVIL II is as largely forgettable as Englund's movie, except for one scene that has even less to do with the rest of the film than even the sequel itself has to do with the original. Two gal pals are sitting on the couch flipping channels: one of them wants to watch the end of It's a Wonderful Life, the other to change over to Night of the Living Dead. The softie who prefers an onslaught of Frank Capra sentimentality to that of flesh-munching home invaders wins the argument and sits back to bask in the warm goodness of Jimmy Stewart being reunited with his friends and family under the Christmas tree. Suddenly, she gets sucked into the television and ends up in the Bailey's black & white living room just as the caroling townsfolk pile in to flood Stewart with the contributions that will keep his building & loan business afloat. The girl is ecstatic to find herself a part of this iconic finale, that is until the bell on the tree chimes and little Zuzu spouts her famous line, "Look, daddy. Every time you hear a bell, a zombie drags a soul to hell!" Wait, what?

The citizens of Bedford Falls turn around and reveal themselves to be the horde of hungry zombies from Night of the Living Dead. Zuzu takes on the role of Karen Cooper, the infected girl in the basement, and skewers the horrified TV viewer with her masonry trowel. As her screams echo, the screen returns to Wonderful Life's "The End" title card. The use of actual footage from Capra's movie (Wynorski took advantage of the fact that both films were in the public domain) is seamlessly incorporated into the new scene, which looks as good as anything from Romero's classic. This wonderful mash-up of Halloween and Christmas movie binge-watching staples was added to the movie by Wynorski based on a nightmare he'd had (added to the script by writing partner R.J. Robertson), substituting a scene where a victim was sucked into a Pac Man game and devoured. Besides subverting the treacly conclusion of Capra's wholesome holiday film, this moment is a rallying cry for anyone frustrated over the horror genre's exclusion from the ranks of acknowledged "American classics." A sentiment which is pure Wynorski.

~ john cribbs

* Amazingly, there's another movie called The Astral Factor, although its original title was Invisible Strangler. Check out the GLORIOUS VHS BOX! {LINK}  

lynne ramsay, 2002

It's clear that Lynne Ramsay had some kind of traumatic experience in her personal life during Christmas time. I’m totally speculating this but it just feels so evident in her work. Most of her films take place around Christmas time and something bad always happens.  

In Gasman, we watch a young girl discover that she has a half sibling because her rolling stone father has a second family on the other side of town (she makes this discovery at a Christmas party that they both attend). Needless to say she doesn't take this news too well.

The title character in We Need Talk About Kevin goes on to commit a series of murders with a bow & arrow set he got for Christmas (I still find this aspect of the story very stupid. I can understand getting off two shots at most but after that just tackle him! Jesus Christ...)

But the most traumatic Lynne Ramsay Christmas moment comes in the form of Morvern Callar's intro. The film opens moments after Samantha Morton's Morvern discovers her boyfriend's dead body on the living room floor. He's just committed suicide. And what's even more messed up is that the body is kind of positioned near their Christmas tree almost as if it's one of the gifts (before taking his life, Morvern’s BF leaves behind a few personal gifts – one in particular that essentially changes the rest of her life). What makes this scene so impactful is that it’s dead silent. There’s no dialogue or music (Morvern Callar is known for its eclectic/Pitchfork media-friendly soundtrack so any scene in the film without music just stands out even more).

~ marcus pinn

g. w. pabst, 1929

G.W. Pabst’s taboo-pushing 1929 classic proves that outlandish, ill-considered twist endings aren’t a recent phenomenon. Late in the film our heroine Lulu, finding herself in wretched ruin, living in squalor in turn of the century London, turns to prostitution for survival. (This is after having escaped an Middle Easterner’s brothel and accidentally murdered a newspaper magnate.) On one of cinema’s most delightfully dire Christmas eves, Lulu takes to the streets where - get this! - she brings home for a trick and is murdered by Jack the Ripper! The film is melodramatic and outlandish even by the standards of silent cinema but Lulu’s demise at the hands of history’s first celebrity serial killer still plays like left-field insanity.

Lulu’s inexhaustible charm is enough to make ol’ Jack temporary reconsider his prostitute-murderin’ ways. She touches his heart - they even share a tender moment under the mistletoe! - so he decides not to do her in… until he’s seized by his inexorable compulsion (you can tell this is happening because the actor’s extremely subtle “crazeee face!!!”) He stabs Lulu to death with a kitchen knife and wanders out into the night. The bonkers, seemingly randomly assembled script (based on a pair of fin de siecle plays) revels in concocting the most lurid and grotesque humiliations imaginable for its bisexual, free-spirited heroine. Having Jack the Ripper kill her on Christmas eve in an unforeseeable twist? That’ll do.

I’d also like to mention that a major subplot hinges on Lulu’s refusal to join the circus, but this is neither the time nor the place to do so.

~ christopher funderburg

bill duke, 1992

Deep Cover hasn't exactly stood the test of time which is disappointing because it's a really good film (the soundtrack ended up becoming more timeless than the movie). In the film, Larry Fishburne plays “Russell Stevens” – a police officer recruited by the CIA to go undercover in an effort to help take down a Los Angeles drug trafficking operation. As the title suggests, Stevens gets in way too deep and ends up hooked on drugs which hits him close to home. At the beginning of the movie we learn that Russell’s father was an addict and because of this he vowed to never use drugs. At the start of Bill Duke's underrated crime drama, a young Russell watches his father (played brilliantly by Glynn Turman) get gunned down by police on Christmas Eve after trying to rob a store and, like Morvern's last memory of her boyfriend, Russell's last image of his father is a pretty grim one.

Don't get me wrong, there are a few folks out there who recognize Deep Cover’s greatness but for the most part it doesn’t often get name dropped in too many film discussions.

I know Glynn Turman will go down in history for his roles in Coolie High and A Different World but had Deep Cover gotten the respect it initially deserved, I feel his small yet impacting role as Fishburne's drug addicted father would still be talked about today. The problem is Deep Cover came out during a time when crackheads & heroin addicts were portrayed a little too cartoonishly on the big screen in popular "urban" films like New Jack City, Menace II Society and South Central (funny crackhead characters even showed up in the background of other similar films like Poetic Justice and Boyz N Tha Hood.)  Turman’s performance gave sympathy to a character that people often make fun of. Let’s be honest, we all laugh at Chris Rock’s portrayal as “Pookie” in New Jack City or the cheeseburger carrying crackhead in Menace II Society but in reality, none of that shit is really funny and Turman brought the drug addict character back to reality (note the way he goes in & out of laughing, crying & angrily shouting in one fluid motion).

~ marcus pinn


"jim dibergi," 1992

There doesn't seem to be much cultural awareness of 1992's aptly-titled The Return of Spinal Tap, the only official follow-up to groundbreaking documentary This is Spinal Tap. iMDB lists it under "A Spinal Tap Reunion: The 25th Anniversary London Sell-Out" and it's only available on dvd in the UK, the film shortened to 58 minutes for some reason. I just recently had a conversion with a rabid Spinal Tap fan who was absolutely convinced I'd made it up - it's just strange that it isn't better known. Although it's mostly made up of a 1992 concert at the Royal Albert Hall, there are worthy interviews and sketches included throughout. Jeff Beck and Robin Williams pop up in it, as does the great Paul Benedict. Marty DiBergi even puts in an appearance, further tying it to the original film (the director of Return is listed as Jim DiBergi - who the hell knows who actually helmed it.)

I'm not claiming that this follow-up doc is anywhere near as brilliant as the first one, just that it's good enough to deserve to be considered an actual sequel. Catching the group in the middle of promotion for their new album Break Like the Wind, they rock such essential tracks as "Bitch School," "Clam Caravan" and the eponymous song, possibly the most perfect hair metal song ever produced (Slash guests on guitar; the band performed a portion of it on their Simpsons appearance). The album is Tap's best since Shark Sandwich - you heard me right! - and the concert is capped off with the epic "Christmas with the Devil."

Opening with a chilling organ solo and an intro by St. Hubbins that proposes a satanic angle to the Christian holiday, "Christmas with the Devil" features such stirring lyrics as, "There's a demon in my belly/And a gremlin in my brain/There's someone up the chimney hole/And Satan is his name." As fully-inflated devil head descends from the rafters, a guy in a reindeer costume angrily pelts the audience with confetti while, of course, druids posing as dwarfs skip about menacingly. Even Derek Smalls (recently reunited with the band after a stint with the Christian rock group Lambsblood) gets into the spirit of the song, rocking a giant devil tail that he uses to pound the stage as St. Hubbins reclaims Christmas for the dark one: "The rats ate all the presents/And the reindeer ran away/There'll be no Father Christmas/'Cause it's Evil's holiday."

It's an angry song (possibly the group's reaction to Metallica stealing This is Spinal Tap's album cover for 1991's Black Album?) but undeniably festive. Spinal Tap later performed it on Arsenio Hall, to forever preserve its place in pop cultural history. "Christmas with the Devil" may not be the greatest holiday novelty song (that would be Weird Al's "Christmas at Ground Zero"), but it certainly gets me in the mood to place the pentagram on top of the tree.

~ john cribbs

kenneth anger, 1947

Sometimes during the arduous, endless holiday season, a commercialized hellhole that now stretches interminably from October to New Year, it’s a little easy to feel like you’re having Christmas rammed up your chimney. Satanist/Gossip-Maven/Experimental-Pioneer/major-Scorsese-Influence Kenneth Anger literalizes that feeling in the finale of his jolly 1947 film’s climactic sailor-daddy gang-rape. Like most Anger films, Fireworks' intelligibility is dependent on the audience penetrating a swirl of impenetrable symbols: homosexual iconography, occult runes and markers of seasonal pagan festivities that have been re-appropriated by Christianity.

There’s a playful maliciousness to it all, the idea of perverting and degrading the ol’ tannenbaum as much of a joke on the horror of fantasy fulfillment as any kind of coherent statement about the repression (of people, of cultures, of sexualities) inherent our the Lord and Savior’s birthday bash - Anger’s definitely not too snooty for visual puns about dangling ornamental balls and explosive releases. Cram that up your smoke-hole.

~ christopher funderburg

jean renoir, 1937

Yes, we all love Pierre Fresnay trading aristocatic banter with Erich von Stroheim. Each of us admire Renoir's observations of class fellowship that transcends national boundaries. And we collectively wince at Julien Carette's über-French caricature. (Seriously, Carette is too bloody French - he needs to French it down at least 40%.) But the real moment that resonates in this peerless standard of French cinema comes in its final reel. Escaped POW's Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and injured Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) are painfully making their way to Switzerland via snowy Germany countryside. On the brink of collapse, sick of each other's company and ready to go their separate ways like a French Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara (read: a French C3-PO and R2-D2), they luck upon a farmhouse and take shelter in the barn, where they are discovered by German widow Dita Parlo.

From her first appearance, Parlo is a portrait of deflated beauty. We're only 3 years removed from her turn as a budding newlywed in the incomparable L'Atalante, yet she appears to have aged 20 years as a result of hardship and grief. Yet despite the death of her husband on the fields of Verdun fighting their countrymen, she takes pity on Maréchal and Rosenthal and allows them to remain hidden under her roof. A trust develops between the three adults, nurtured by their mutual love for Parlo's adorable daughter Lotte, for whom they work together to construct a patchwork nativity set peopled with onion wise men and potato shepherds the night of Christmas Eve.

Lot of grown-ups dismiss their continued involvement with the holidays as, "Well - it's fun for the kids." While any potential hokum is skirted by a ravenous Lotte stating her intention to eat the delicious-looking baby Jesus, Renoir manages to capture how this yearly ritual so many of us dread is good for everybody. Parlo, shriveled to a shell of her former self, comes alive in this scene. Maréchal and Rosenthal have set their squabbles aside and temporarily ignore the hardships they've suffered (when Rosenthal wonders out loud whether their compatriot perished at the prison, Maréchal politely asks that he drop it). Evoking the film's theme of cultural tolerance, Rosenthal, a proud Jew, doesn't make a stink about participating in the festivities around the manger specifically centered on a spud messiah (back in the camp, he would generously share care packages sent by his affluent family with fellow prisoners, making him the most Santa-like character of the film). Most importantly, once Lotte's back in bed Parlo and Maréchal hook up for the first time: a language barrier has stood between them, but they wordlessly embrace in the fading glow of the Christmas candles.

If you want to be a Scrooge, you could say that the point of this scene is the transitory nature of peace and happiness, like von Stroheim's single geranium perched on the window sill of his stone fortress. But why not simply accept it as an optimistic view of solidarity from the all-time greatest director of poetic cinema? For me, right alongside genuinely moving Christmas movie moments (such as the Gremlins caroling and Jake Lloyd telling Arnold Schwarzenegger that he doesn't need a Turbo Man figure after all) is the phrase Maréchal stitches together in poorly-accented German: "Lotte has blue eyes."

~ john cribbs

That's all, folks: peace on earth, good will towards men, enjoy your holidays and don't eat potato jesus no matter how tempting he may be.

~ DECEMBER 23, 2015 ~