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'The Santa Clause' and 10 more surprisingly dark Christmas films

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The Santa Clause
Everett Collection

The Santa Clause is 20 years old today—and while the series spawned a trilogy of family-friendly holiday films, we can’t forget the franchise’s dark origins. Tim Allen’s Scott Calvin becomes Santa Claus by accidentally causing the original St. Nick to fall to his doom. Sure, the film pushes a “seeing is believing” message and includes plenty of warm and fuzzy holiday cheer—but it still starts off with the death of Santa Claus.

The Santa Clause isn’t the only movie to put a dark spin on the holiday season; there’s a long and storied cinematic history of strange, bleak, and darkly hilarious Christmas stories. Here are 10 of the most notable:

1. Die Hard (1988)

Yes, Die Hard is a great film—but it also turns a swanky office Christmas party into the site of a violent heist. Christmas Eve is supposed to be spent with family and friends, not drunk co-workers while men with guns threaten to kill you. To make matters worse, the heist is perpetrated under the guise of a domestic terrorist plot. It’s only by luck that John McClane is around in time to save the day.

2. Gremlins (1984)

Buy a gift for a 21-year-old and tell him specific things not to do with it? There’s a good chance those rules won’t hold up. That’s the case with Gizmo the Mogwai, a Christmas gift that turns dangerous when water is spilled on him. As the Mogwai multiplies into several more of his kind—all much more hostile than Gizmo—the film will make any current parents think twice about buying their kids a Furby.

3. Bad Santa (2003)

When a holiday movie stars Billy Bob Thornton, you know there’s going to be some sort of twist. Thornton stars as a drunk department store Santa who moonlights as a burglar, robbing stores with his foul-mouthed sidekick/elf Marcus (Tony Cox). Lauren Graham plays a woman who has a Santa Clause fetish, so there’s also that.

4. Jack Frost (1997)

Only a week before Christmas, serial killer Jack Frost (conveniently, his actual name) comes into contact with genetic material and snow at the same time, transforming him into a snowman. Who happens to be homicidal. A slightly more family-friendly (but still pretty effing weird) Michael Keaton film with the same name would be released in 1998.

5. The Family Man (2000)

Imagine It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Brett Ratner and staring Nicolas Cage, and you essentially have The Family Man. In this bizarre tale, a man trades in his rich, solitary lifestyle for suburban living and a minivan. The idea is that Cage’s Jack Campbell would rather have a family than wealth. But really, isn’t the idea of a screaming Nic Cage as your father—and Jeremy Piven as your neighbor—frightening enough to make viewers wish Jack had stayed rich and alone?

6. Black Christmas (1974)

This slasher film was mostly about killing sorority girls, with a light sprinkling of holiday festivities on top. It starts off with a Christmas party and a plastic bag suffocation. Ho ho ho!

7. Home Alone (1990)

Home Alone is a classic holiday film, full of fun hijinks and Macaulay Culkin’s aftershave face. But really, it’s about a neglected kid who’s left to fend for himself when a pair of burglars strike. Seemingly laying the groundwork for the Saw movies, Culkin’s Kevin McCallister resorts to torture, setting up a bunch of sadistic booby traps for the crooks to fall into. Doesn’t sound quite so warm and fuzzy now, does it?

8. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Viewers recall the Frank Capra classic with warm memories, but the film had plenty of dark moments. At its beginning, George Bailey is suicidal; he’s continually struck by misfortune, despite committing good deeds left and right. To quote Phoebe Buffay, who stops watching the movie partway through: “It should have been called It’s a Sucky Life, and Just When You Think It Can’t Suck Any More, It Does.”

9. Rare Exports (2010)

Remember how Santa doesn’t just bring good children presents—but also punishes the bad ones? Well, Rare Exports takes that basic premise to disturbing conclusions, pitting a group of reindeer herders against the original creature who inspired the story of Santa. Throw in some naked elves, hordes of dead reindeer, and even more twisted spins on classic Christmas themes, and Rare Exports delivers one of the most off-kilter takes on Christmas you’ll ever see.

10. Batman Returns (1992)

Batman is framed for a murder at the Gotham tree lighting, decorations are used as weapons, and mistletoe is a deadly threat. Yep, not even even Christmas is a day off for Batman. In Tim Burton’s second outing with the dark knight, Batman Returns puts Bruce Wayne through the wringer during the holiday season, when all the rich playboy would like to do is spend a quiet evening at home with Alfred soaking in the Christmas spirit. Unfortunately for him, Catwoman and the Penguin have other plans in mind.

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