Sadly, this week won’t bring any genre movie joy to the movie theatres for you fine readers. There will be no film review. But dammit, I, your trusted neighbourhood film critic, wouldn’t dare leave you without something to watch on this cold December weekend. Since there’s a Christmassy vibe in here, the time seemed right to make some X-mas movie recommendations to watch while sitting by the fire. But we here at CGM don’t just sit by and watch It’s A Wonderful Life again. That’s boring. Why change our weirdo ways just to suit Hallmark’s holiday wishes? Instead, we would like to invite you to indulge in oddball cinematic treats around Christmas. You know, just like any time of year—Only now with a Christmas setting.
So this holiday season, let’s take a look back at the time Tim Burton released a secret Christmas trilogy from his Smiths and monster-movie addled brain in the mid-90s. It came at the peak of his critical acclaim and commercial success. He’d just broken box office records with Batman and the world was falling in love with his cutesy Goth aesthetic. He was at a point where he could do whatever he damn well pleased and for some reason Christmas connected three of his strangest and most personal creations.
The first movie Tim Burton delivered when he was at the top of the Hollywood heap with unlimited freedom was Edward Scissorhands. The film was the least Christmassy of his X-mas trilogy, but felt like a raw nerve of adolescent emotion filtered through fairy tales and classic monster movies. The titular hero was an instantly iconic Goth metaphor for loneliness: a beautifully pure soul made by Vincent Price with scissors for hands that accidentally harmed everything he tried to touch. The story is a twist on Frankenstein set in a cartoon satire of suburbia. Every feeling and imagine is oversized. Tim Burton cast his favourite actor (Johnny Depp) for the first time in the title and they created a magic innocent for the ages. It’s a movie guaranteed to move even the most dead and blackened of hearts, defying genre and playing like an art film for the masses (a pop art film?). It’s hard to imagine there is anyone who has seen Edward Scissorhands who could ever forget it. Yet few remember it as a Christmas movie.
To emphasize the fairy tale nature of Edward Scissorhands (one of the few movies Burton was passionate enough to entirely conceive of and co-write himself), Burton frames the tale as a bedtime story told from grandmother (Winona Ryder) to granddaughter. It’s a tale of why it snows in their sundrenched Californian suburb every Christmas. That annual holiday miracle isn’t particularly emphasized until the finale, but it is very clear, very beautiful, and unbelievably moving in a sweetly childlike way. Edward Scissorhands might not apply its Christmas message very thickly, but hit in theatres for everyone who wasn’t watching Home Alone during the Christmas movie season of 1990.
Two years later (and oddly enough in the summer) Tim Burton delivered his second secret Christmas movie in Batman Returns. Burton didn’t particularly want to make a Batman sequel. He agreed only when the studio offered him complete creative control to do whatever he wanted with the iconic characters that roam the streets of Gotham City. Inspired by a dark period of his life that Burton has never specified, he completely transformed Batman into his own vision. He turned the comic book sequel into a tale of three very distinct freaks that felt completely outcast from the world and decide to lash out against it in very different ways. His version of Batman was a Michael Keaton shaped mope who could barely function unless he was in his rubber costume. His version of Catwoman was Michelle Pfieiffer as a kind woman ruined by men who dresses up in a fetishistic leather cat suit to seduce dudes and whip them into shape. Most dramatically, his version of The Penguin was a snarling monster man abandoned by his parents and raised by penguins who wanted nothing more than to punish all the parents of Gotham by stealing their children. It’s all nasty, dark, and harshly comedic. A world where Christopher Walken is the most human character on screen and the sickest joke of all was the Christmas setting.
Determined to deliver a big summer superhero blockbuster that deliberately attacked normalcy and served as an ode to letting freak flags fly, Batman Returns also goes out of its way to pervert cozy Christmas imagery. It opens with parents abandoning their deformed child to the sewers on Christmas Eve. It then doubles down with an opening action scene in which an evil circus explodes out of giant Christmas presents. Burton stages a murder at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony and for the climax has a monster kidnap sleeping children in a mass murder plot. Yep, that’s all there in a summer blockbuster with a massive merchandising machine. The film is a delightful twist on holiday schmaltz to watch now, but Burton’s sick Batman joke freaked out every corporate entity involved (especially McDonalds who didn’t sell nearly as many tie-in Happy Meals as expected) so intensely that he was essentially fired from the franchise before the third chapter (even though Batman Returns was a big ol’ hit, just not big enough).
Finally, in 1993 Tim Burton delivered his most overt Christmas movie, and one that has become a genuine holiday classic. Of course, I speak of The Nightmare Before Christmas, a stop motion epic that was likely in production concurrently with Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns, explaining why the guy couldn’t get Christmas out of his mind. The project was a dream of Burton’s dating back to the 80s when he worked at Disney as an animator. He pitched The Nightmare Before Christmas as his twist on the classic stop motion holiday specials of his youth, but the studio had no interest. They owned his intellectual property at the time though, so Burton couldn’t take it elsewhere. It languished until Batman was a hit and then suddenly Disney wanted to do it.
Burton didn’t officially direct The Nightmare Before Christmas since stop motion is so time intensive and he had bigger fish to fry. But he did write it and produce it, and he also designed every character and set (so he was pretttttty involved). Directing duties fell to stop motion genius Henry Selick, which was likely for the best. Burton’s musical muse Danny Elfman wrote all the songs. Sure, his Halloween/Christmas mashup doesn’t make much sense in the plotting department (Jack Skellington decides he doesn’t want to be the King of Halloween anymore, so he tries Christmas instead. That doesn’t work. End of story), but it’s magical to behold and features some endlessly hum-able music. When it was done, Disney was so weirded out by the darkness that they released it through Touchstone (so as not to tarnish the Disney brand) and barely marketed it. The movie didn’t do well in theatres. But it exploded on home video and has since become one of the most profitable merchandising machines Disney produced in the 90s. Now the company is happy to claim it as their own. The world is weird.
So there you have it, three alternative ways to celebrate or avoid Christmas cheer from the cuddliest master of darkness to ever make a movie. If you want to Christmas differently this year, put on some eye shadow, turn off the lights, and play this trilogy back-to-back-to-back. You’ll get that Christmas magic that you crave without any of the syrupy sentiment you want to avoid. Happy holidays you wacky weirdos!