Five Films That Celebrate the Darker Side of Christmas

Not everyone embraces sugarplums, mistletoe and holly during the holiday season. Some folks even get a wee bit cranky, what with all the crowds, the shopping and the endless carols blasted at us wherever we go. Thankfully, there are some great Christmas movies on DVD for all of us curmudgeons, chock-full of family dysfunction, violence and mayhem:

Die Hard (1988)

One of the great holiday films of all time, with one of cinema's finest bad guys -- Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), a terrorist who takes over an entire skyscraper as part of a plan to steal $640,000,000. Bruce Willis is unforgettable as cop John McClane, who only happened to be in the building because he was visiting his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) on Christmas Eve. A seminal action film that would spawn many, many imitators (and a handful of lousy sequels), and a picture that actually uses the Christmas theme repeatedly as a motif.

The Ref (1994)

Denis Leary plays a thief who kidnaps a wealthy couple during a botched burglary, and soon finds that the pair are so unrelentingly horrible that he wishes he hadn't bothered. Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis chew scenery and drip venom as marrieds whose union has turned to utter loathing, and Leary's angry frustration is utterly hilarious. If there can be such a thing as a feel-good black comedy, this is it.

Bad Santa

This Coen Brothers-conceived comedy, directed by Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World) isn't for those with delicate constitutions. Billy Bob Thornton is Willy, a sex-addicted, alcoholic, foul-mouthed safecracker who teams with a black dwarf (Tony Cox) every holiday season to work as Santa and his Little Helper at a major department store so they can rob it on Christmas Eve. In classic tradition, Willie softens a bit -- just a bit -- after he gets involved with a slow-witted suburban kid (Brett Kelly) and a pretty bartender with a Santa fetish (Lauren Graham). Unrelentingly profane, and uncompromisingly funny.

Black Christmas (1974)

There have been at least three movies released under this name, but you definitely want the 1974 version, directed by Bob Clark, who helmed the family-friendly classic A Christmas Story. Shot for a little over $600,000 in Canada over eight weeks, Black Christmas predates Halloween by four years and is one of the most influential slasher flicks ever made. The set-up is pretty basic -- it's Christmas break, and there are four girls (Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Lynne Griffin and SCTV's Andrea Martin) left at their sorority house, along with the house mother. First come the phone calls, then one of the girls goes missing, and eventually it turns out ... the killer's in the house! It may seem a little slow by today's torture-porn standards, but the ending is still a pulse-pounder.

Gremlins (1984)

In his review of the theatrical release, Roger Ebert called Gremlins "a confrontation between Norman Rockwell's vision of Christmas and Hollywood's vision of the blood-sucking monkeys of voodoo island." A canny send-up of monster movies, everything starts out adorable when dad (Hoyt Axton) brings his a kid a furry little creature from a creepy Chinatown shop. But after the family ignores the spooky warnings from the shop's owner (Keye Luke), the cuddly Christmas present mutates, procreates, and everything turns surprisingly nasty, while director Joe Dante deconstructs holiday commercialism and sentiment with chainsaw wit.

Dawn Taylor watches Die Hard every Christmas, and Forbidden Planet every New Year's Eve.