With the Halloween festivities behind us, Thanksgiving on the way and the inevitable rush of Christmas advertising on the horizon, it seems like the perfect time to talk about the ever-present, slightly annoying holiday movie genre. Holiday movies come out every year whether there is a need for them or not and whether they’re in the spirit of the holiday in question or simply a money-making venture for large studios. There’s no real loss for the studio because everyone knows what to expect from these films, and most follow a formulaic and sometimes uninspired approach.
When I say “holiday movie,” I mean any movie set during a holiday, whether a largely commercial one or a less important and rarely celebrated one. During Halloween, people generally watch horror movies, and usually not films set during the actual holiday. That doesn’t mean Halloween-themed films do not exist. Most, if not all, Halloween-themed movies are made for children and feature spooky effects rather than scary ones. Films such as “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” “Hocus Pocus” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” have become Halloween classics not just for kids, but also for the adults they inevitably become.
Halloween films usually deal with the eccentric, marginalized traditions surrounding the holiday, and therefore distinguish themselves from Thanksgiving and Christmas movies. Halloween simply doesn’t have the family-friendly appeal of bringing everyone together and celebrating what you’re thankful for. Halloween is about celebrating the weird and being someone else without the negative impact of social rejection—that and egging people who give out fruit instead of candy. Halloween movies oftentimes reflect these ideas and feature outsiders as main characters. Whether it’s a boy who talks to the dead in “ParaNorman” or an undead psychopath like “Beetlejuice,” these films always reflect the otherness of society in a fun and ghostly way.
Christmas and Thanksgiving films have become a bit more formulaic and predictable, celebrating the good and the familiar. It’s become common practice to release films that feature a Christmas or holiday setting for no apparent reason. Sometimes this feels warranted, like in films where a family is brought together and comedy ensues. Though these films are sometimes heartwarming, much of the time they’re just predictable.
Films that have nothing to do with holiday’s traditions or customs are also sometimes categorized as holiday films. “Die Hard” is set during a Christmas party in John McClane’s wife’s office building. Therefore, the film is usually linked to the holidays, but does it have anything to do with Christmas? If blasting German terrorists reminds you of the Baby Jesus, then yes, it does. There’s really no reason why “Die Hard” has to be set during the Christmas season, and only diehard fans usually remember that it even is a Christmas-themed movie.
Not all films released during the Christmas season concern the holiday. Many large, costly, too-big-to-fail films are released on Christmas day to corner the market on burnt out people who’ve finished their Christmas celebrations and want some action or comedy. One of the strangest release dates this year is for the film “Labor Day”—a film about a woman sheltering an escaped convict during the Labor Day weekend—which is slated to be released on Christmas Day. Other films include “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which are both sure Oscar bait.
With the schmaltzy films of yesteryear plaguing the market, this year has a lack of holiday-themed fare coming out. Except for “The Best Man Holiday”—the sequel to “The Best Man”—there’s very little coming out at the end of 2013 featuring any season’s greeting. Bad Christmas movies have been commonplace for the past 10 years, with duds like “Christmas with the Kranks” and “Fred Claus” stinking up the box office. Something must have made us all snap and stop watching these god-awful comedies, and I’m guessing it had something to do with these types of films.
That’s not to say that all holiday-themed family fare is bad. Classic films always seem to get it right, whether it’s the perfect holiday capper “It’s a Wonderful Life” or the seminal Santa Claus film “Miracle on 34th Street.” Black and white always seems to encapsulate the magic and joy of the holiday season. But even some modern films have made their indelible mark. Whether it’s so-bad-it’s-good comedies like “Jingle All the Way” and “Bad Santa” or modern classics like “The Santa Clause,” studios are still putting out their tried and true formulas with some great results.