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10 dark and dystopian movies to balance out the holiday cheer

Contributed by
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Denny Watkins
Dec 22, 2017

We all deserve time to relax and unwind in front of a great classic flick during these winter months. Unfortunately, most holiday movies are relentlessly saccharine and upbeat — not always a great fit for your 2017 mood. While there's more than a few movies that delve into the melancholy undercurrents of the holiday season, we narrowed the list to films with the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror elements we love here at SYFY WIRE.

Queue up one of these dark tales when you want to feel December's chill to your core...

Children of Men (2006)

This bleak film about a dystopian future where society is crumbling because no children have been born in two decades is remembered mostly for director Alfonso Cuarón's impressive one-take action sequences. But the fact that Children of Men was initially released on Christmas Day in the United States is a big hint. You start off watching a near-future sci-fi thriller and by the end you're witnessing a clever retelling of the Nativity, complete with a skeptical foster father (Clive Owen) and a miracle birth that promises to bring peace to a troubled world.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

The idea of Santa Claus is unsettling enough to begin with: An immortal magical being who continuously logs all your good and bad deeds, then sneaks into your home once a year to bring either the Nintendo Switch you asked for or something like a lump of coal. In Rare Exports, a beautifully shot thriller from Finland, the most vengeful version of that 'real' Santa is unearthed from the snowy mountain tomb where he had been imprisoned for centuries. Once free, 'Santa' begins a murderous, kid-snatching rampage that is only stalled when he stumbles into an animal trap set by a rugged, gun-toting father and his determined young son. From there, the story takes one surprising twist after another, right up to the end. Rare Exports was a hit in Finland but flew under the radar in the U.S. Fortunately it's currently streaming on Amazon.

Gremlins (1984)

On the surface, this Steven Spielberg production directed by Joe Dante is a straightforward morality tale about personal responsibility. For Christmas, Billy receives an exotic pet Mogwai with three simple rules of care to follow that anyone who's seen this movie still remembers. He completely fails, of course, and murderous Gremlins take over the town until Billy and his family can destroy the rapidly multiplying demons. Gremlins also functions as a dark reminder that the breathless consumerism woven into the holidays — the climactic fight is in a department store, after all — sometimes feels like it's going to kill everyone. It's not exactly an original idea, but no other film dared to satirize our fixation with high-tech goodies by blowing up Gremlins in a microwave.

Brazil (1985)

This is the movie where Monty Python director Terry Gilliam asks, "What if you took George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, but set it around Christmas... and also made it a little silly?" Gilliam's vision subverts just about every holiday trope you can think of. Children innocently asking about Santa, your office holiday party, shopping at the mall, reading A Christmas Carol, and even meeting Santa himself are all twisted into their worst possible form. While the real world of Brazil is a nightmare, the middle-aged government functionary who functions as the film's hero (played by Jonathan Pryce) can only find solace in his weird fantasy dreamscapes. In Brazil, the holidays are no respite from the crushing bureaucracy — which might make you appreciate the days you have off work during this time even more.

Christmas Evil (1980)

In this low-budget slasher that grew into a cult classic, a young boy learns that Santa Claus isn't real on Christmas Eve when he spots his mother doing something sexual (it's honestly not clear what's happening, exactly) with his father dressed in a Santa costume. As an adult, Harry Stadling is more than a little fixated on Christmas, creepily spying on neighborhood kids to record their good and bad deeds, while also working in a toy factory that's clearly meant to be the most depressing possible version of Santa's workshop. Jealous of his older brother's success and ridiculed by his co-workers, Harry finally snaps. He dons a homemade Santa costume and drives around town distributing presents to worthy children and brutally murdering cynical adults. With a genuinely affecting performance by character actor Brandon Maggart, Christmas Evil has earned its cult status (helped by an endorsement from cult movie auteur John Waters). It's even currently playing in a few theaters around the U.S.

Batman Returns (1992)

Batman Returns sometimes feels like a forgotten film. It's not as groundbreaking as Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, as tightly wound as The Dark Knight, or as brutally painful to watch as Batman Forever. But the holidays are the perfect time to appreciate Tim Burton's deeply weird sequel. Danny DeVito practically disappears into the disgusting Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer brings more kinky sexuality to Catwoman than any superhero character we've seen on screen since, and Christopher Walken is, well, Christopher Walken. With Michael Keaton still threading the needle as a lonely and repressed (but still heroic) Batman, all these freaks still manage to feel believable in Burton's insane asylum portrayal of Gotham City at Christmastime.

Psycho (1960)

It’s easy to miss Psycho's holiday milieu. The Alfred Hitchcock horror film is set in Arizona and California, after all, so you won't see any snow. But a title card informs the viewer that the story begins on "Friday, December the eleventh" and Christmas decorations can be spotted in the background in a few scenes. The decorations were apparently accidental, caught on camera during the film's December 1959 production, and Hitchcock decided to leave them in rather than reshoot. At the same time, there's quite a bit in Psycho to remind you of the worst parts of the holidays: Feeling broke and desperate, a road trip with a stay in a sketchy motel, and family that drives you crazy.

I Am Legend (2007)

Christmas lights in December are beautiful. Christmas lights left up all year are depressing (just look at how they're used to convey Winona Ryder's despair in Stranger Things). Most of I Am Legend takes place during a sunny and green season, but in flashbacks it's clear the vampire virus that wiped out mankind hit in mid-December when colored lights and wreaths were hung everywhere. That leaves Will Smith to drive around a New York full of sad, disintegrating holiday decorations even in the middle of summer, but with no humans left to celebrate the happiest day of the year.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Before Batman Returns, Tim Burton had already played with the contrasting imagery of peacefully falling snow and black vinyl-clad misfits in 1990's Edward Scissorhands. Set in a retro California town with perpetually sunny weather, the snow is only made by the titular character, a goth Frankenstein with blades for fingers played by Johnny Depp. After training those blades on shrubbery and suburban housewives' coiffures, Edward creates a comically impossible amount of snow when he turns his talents to ice sculpture. That doesn't stop the town from being convinced he's a danger to everyone (and let's be fair, running around with those things on his hands was bound to draw blood at some point). The third act of the movie takes place on Christmas, making the tragedy of outsiders who find a rare romantic connection and family that ignores their best interests all the more poignant.

Ghostbusters II (1989)

Reuniting the full Ghostbusters cast of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, and Rick Moranis, Ghostbusters II follows the same beats as the original while turning the premise on its head. The enemies of the first Ghostbusters are the ghosts, drawn in by high-priced real estate built on Central Park West, plus the educational and government institutions that try to keep our plucky small business owners from bustin' said ghosts. In the sequel, however, the enemy turns out to be every person in New York: a literal sewer of supernatural slime fueled by holiday frustrations and anger. Strictly speaking, Ghostbusters II is a rare New Year's Eve movie instead of a Christmas movie — the climax involves New Yorkers uniting in voice to sing "Auld Lang Syne." But it's also the rare film on this list where a positive holiday spirit wins out over misery and depression.