Christmas movies are often derided as seasonal schmaltz, but the best carry a seam of darkness entwined with the sparkle.
In an image as heartwarming and festive as chestnuts roasting on an open fire. James Stewart in his best-loved role as George Bailey, stands smiling beside the glittering Christmas tree, one arm cradling his little girl (Karolyn Grimes), the other around his devoted wide, Mary (Donna Reed). The Christmas film favourite, It’s A Wonderful Life presents us with Hollywood’s approximation of a holy family: the good, decent Baileys, who pray and help their neighbours in post-war, small-town America.
Yet the tinsel and Christmas cheer of the film’s conclusion is not what makes it such a perennial favourite. There is darkness beyond the homely glow – just as there was in the Nativity story – captured by director Frank Capra as the maelstrom that whorls around George Bailey’s seemingly settled existence. If the film’s explicitly Christian worldview still resonates it is because it frames life’s disappointments and hurts so accurately too.
However, while George Bailey manages to make something of what Psycho’s Norman Bates would have termed the ‘private trap’ of Bedford Falls, Bates is totally ensnared by his own. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror classic is a Christmas picture so bleak that we can only tell the season from the date, Friday December the Eleventh across the opening shot of Phoenix, Arizona and some barely noticeable Christmas decorations seen from Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh’s) car.
In fact, the only reason the date is given at the beginning of the film at all is down to Hitchcock’s attempt to explain the second-unit crew’s glitch in filming decorated city streets that he had no time to re-shoot later. Ironically, the date’s very inclusion brings a new dimension to the entire film. If the aforementioned film still from It’s A Wonderful Life exploits aspects of what we understand in the West as the grammar of Christmas – family, tree, tinsel – then the complete absence of such tropes in an American film set at Christmas is, by definition deeply disturbing, and ultimately chilling.
But the visual absence of Christmas also serves to underscore the very tragedy of killer Norman Bates (so cleverly portrayed by Anthony Perkins) as a young man who never had a chance. He thus becomes the child of a very Unholy Family indeed, a lonely tormented lost boy in a lost world who still sleeps in his childhood bedroom, his teddy and globe on top of the bookcase beside his small bed. And, ironically, that makes him less of a monster and more human. The Bates Motel then, is an unforgiving universe where the spiritual light offered by Christmas has never been able to break in – with horrific consequences.
Psycho is made deeply disturbing, and ultimately terrifying by its void But David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) about a real-life series of killings, the first of which occurred at Christmastime days after the alleged murderer’s birthday, show how his acts mock the festival. He chillingly wishes media folk involved in the case a ‘Merry Christmass’. The sparkle and celebration, the very spiritual meaning in the December air seem to be made null and void by the man’s evil acts. Two fictional period police dramas, the Nick Cave-scripted The Proposition (2005) and Curtis Hanson’s 1997 LA Confidential, adapted from James Ellroy’s Fifties’-set novel, both steamroller Christmas celebration and comforting tradition, and leave it for dead under an onslaught of domestic violence, torture, and mass murder – and, coincidentally vicious rivalry among three men. Yet this cinematic suggestion of the religious festival, let alone the very meaning of Christmas struggling to survive in a bleak world is not a new one.
Horror and violence after all, is part and parcel of Christmas since the original nativity story when Jesus’ family fled as refugees into Egypt as Herod’s soldiers slaughtered every child under two. Brokenness and darkness is notably present and explored in often the best or most memorable of Christmas films. But then, were there not life’s darkness, there would have been no need for the original Christmas in the first place.
Yes, there are damaged film children who go on to do great evil like Norman Bates, and the protagonist of pre-Halloween slasher eye-view flick Black Christmas (1974) who lives in the attic of a college girls’ house of residence and duly bumps off the students one-by-one. But there are also those who as adults play out the trauma of their childhood Christmasses before they are healed.
About A Boy (2002) is essentially a Christmas ghost story for Hugh Grant’s moneyed layabout as he annually suffers his late father’s seasonal sole hit over the airwaves. Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself (2002) because as a 5 year old he inadvertently killed his sick mother by not letting her in the house one snowy Glasgow night. In Young At Heart (1954), Frank Sinatra’s Barney Sloan attempts suicide on Christmas Eve by memorably turning off his windscreen wipers in a snowstorm because he doesn’t believe he deserves better. This remake of Four Daughters (1938), feels like a Christmas film simply because so much of significance occurs during the festival. Unbeknownst to dour musician Sloan, the yuletide gathering of the clan of sunny wife, Laurie (Doris Day in a surprisingly successful star-coupling) sets the scene for wrongs to be righted.
The point is, these characters’ stories do not end at Christmas. Christmas is both an important stage and a signpost to where they are heading. They have passed through the darkness towards hope.