One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 23
By Laurence Lerman
Like the seemingly endless barrage of fungal blatherings from our outgoing Commander-in-Chief, the previous month’s onslaught of holiday movie programming—though not nearly as unpleasant—have been something that must be endured through the arrival of 2021. And with good news arriving last week in the form of the national rollout of a COVID vaccine and a resounding “Get the hell out!” for our soon-to-be-former President, the standard saccharine holiday fare hasn’t really offered anything more than surface-level alleviation of our collective tense mood this year.
So, instead of running down what’s new and cloying on the Yuletide film front—or a roundup of classics that you may have already dusted off for yet another viewing (okay, okay, there are some perennials that warrant it!)—how about an abbreviated look back on a genre of films that might not immediately be identified as Christmas movies? I’m referring to the ones where Christmas may be on the screen or in the air, but “peace on earth and good will toward men” (and women too!) ain’t part of the picture. I’m thinking that when Luke the Evangelist was working on that “peace on earth” shtick for the canonical gospels, he probably wanted to take an occasional break and read or write something a little different for a change of pace, right?
And I’m not just talking about a random Christmas reference motif thrown in willy-nilly—Idris Elba setting up a tree for no good reason after awaking from hypersleep in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) or Michael Keaton stumbling into a Times Square liquor store decked out in chili pepper Christmas lights in Alejandro Iñárritu’s Oscar winner Birdman (2014). No, I’m talking about movies that have an “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” level of pervasiveness, even if they don’t really feel like that way.
The quintessential “Is it a Christmas Movie?" movie remains, of course, Die Hard, the 1988 instant holiday action-adventure classic starring newly minted superstar Bruce Willis as wisecracking NYC cop John McClane. On the West Coast to resuscitate his troubled marriage, McClane ends up at an L.A. Christmas Eve party picking off a phalanx of high-tech Euro-baddies who’ve penetrated Century City's Nakatomi Plaza skyscraper in a plot to steal a zillion in bearer bonds.The film’s incendiary climax finds said bonds floating down to the ground in a paper blizzard to the strains of Dean Martin crooning “Let It Snow.”
Sequel-spawning-sized box office aside, another holiday gift the John McTiernan-directed Die Hard bestowed upon Hollywood was the creation of an instant shorthand in elevator pitches for large-scale action flicks. Thus, Under Siege became Die Hard on a battleship, Speed was Die Hard on a bus, and so on. Lesser among these is the 1997 action-disaster flick Turbulence, a “Die Hard on a plane” affair about a Christmas Eve prison-transport flight that leads to a shootout, a pair of dead pilots and a stewardess matching wits and weapons with a serial killer who’s commandeered the jet and threatens to crash it into L.A. Lauren Holly is the plane’s plucky and resourceful flight attendant, Ray Liotta (in maximum post-Goodfellas lunatic mode) is the initially smooth-talking madman, and a Boeing 747 dripping with seasonal decorations is Nakatomi Plaza. (Best moment: Liotta’s trademark maniacal cackle as the plane does a 360 in a lightning storm.) Directed by veteran Robert Hunter (who helmed the similarly plotted 1976 TV film Mayday at 40,000 Feet! two decades earlier), Turbulence tanked at the box office even while its high-concept sheen spawned a pair of follow-ups.
Jumping quickly to the bottom of the food chain but still worth a mention are the exploitation cinema’s inevitable slasher-styled variations on Hollywood’s standard Christmas confections, led by a number of movies featuring a murderous psychopath or two clad in Santa suits. Most notable among these are 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night and its four sequels, along with the “All Through the House” segment of 1972’s Tales from the Crypt, wherein an escaped mental patient donning Santa’s familiar togs stalks a terrified Joan Collins (and deservedly so, as she’s just killed her husband while he was placing gifts beneath the family Christmas tree).
There’s another wave that finds the holiday season serving as a vivid and constant backdrop upon which the central story is set—Christmas is happening behind all the action, but there’s not that much being celebrated up front. Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) darkly exemplifies the approach, with Gotham City decked out in decorations and a tree in the town square as it ignores the accepted idea that Christmas is a time for family and togetherness. Instead, it puts forth two lonely antagonists: Oswald Cobblepot aka The Penguin (Danny DeVito), who’s been abandoned by his parents as a baby and left to drown; and sad secretary Selina Kyle aka The Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose only family is her crew of cats. And let’s not forget Bruce Wayne, aka Batman (Michael Keaton), one of fiction’s most famous orphans.
Twinkling Christmas lights and glittery, decked-out trees provide a sinister embellishment to the 1999 erotic drama Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick's modern-day adaptation off Arthur Schnitzler's 1926 novella Dream Story. One holiday season night finds Tom Cruise’s Dr. Bill Harford yanked away from his addled wife (Nicole Kidman) and thrown into a series of increasingly enticing, infidelity-baiting scenarios. The good doctor does his damnedest to resist, until it all comes crashing down around him at a climactic Carnival of Venice-styled ritualized orgy. Christmas may be a time for giving, but in Kubrick’s telling, a sexually unsettled couple may be in danger of losing it all.
Christmas drifts even further from the center in Sydney Pollack’s paranoic 1976 spy thriller Three Days of the Condor, which finds C.I.A. code breaker Robert Redford on the run across Manhattan and Brooklyn from his own agency after he unwittingly stumbles upon a government conspiracy that’s—as the expression goes—“far above his paygrade.” The movie’s only holiday signifiers—it takes place in a chilly New York December—are the sounds of three popular Christmas tunes that make diegetic appearances in the background: “Good King Wenceslas,” “Joy to the World” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” The last is sung by carolers during the film’s final scene, where Redford is about to blow the whistle at The New York Times’ midtown offices. With murder and deceit surrounding him, it’s doesn’t turn out to be a very festive season for Redford, though he does spend some time in bed with his hostage-turned- accomplice Faye Dunaway, which would be considered a Christmas gift by many.
The final pair come courtesy of bad-boy Seventies auteur William Friedkin, whose “Christmas scene” five minutes into his classic 1971 cop drama The French Connection sees Gene Hackman’s Brooklyn police detective “Popeye” Doyle going undercover as a Brooklyn street corner Salvation Army Santa. The charitable bell-ringing quickly gives way to Santa chasing down a knife-wielding drug dealer on a street in Bensonhurst—Santa knows if you’ve been bad or good, right?—and then beating the hell out of the perp in a garbage-strewn lot. Ho-ho-ho, indeed.
Finally, from Friedkin comes 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A. Set in the city of not-so-pleasant dreams, the sun-soaked noir takes a deep dive into the not-so-legal maneuverings of an unscrupulous Secret Service agent (William Petersen) as he attempts to take down a wily counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe in his career-launching performance). As a series of title cards informs us, the crime sage unspools over the month of December into early January, while it disregards any talk of or reference to the holiday season. No trees, no decorations, no snow, no Santas, nothing, save for murders, double-crosses, corrupt lawyers, entrapment schemes, strips clubs, shotgun blasts to the head and the movies’ best car chase since The French Connection.
Friedkin has described car chases as being “the purest form of cinema,” while never to my knowledge mentioning his dismissal of Christmas in two of his most lauded efforts. Then again, this is the guy who made 1974’s The Exorcist, his most famous film, so maybe we shouldn’t even be asking him…even if did inspire a detailed figurine of a possessed Linda Blair levitating above her vomit-strewn bed, which remains the most bizarre Christmas tree ornament I’ve ever seen.
Happy holidays, all!
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.