Christmas movies are a genre unto themselves, presenting numerous, far-ranging stories set in or around the holiday season. Whether discussing family-friendly Christmas movies like The Santa Clause, romantic holiday films like Love Actually, or notable classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, there are dozens of movies that make for an entertaining viewing experience come December.
Given how many Christmas movies are at your disposal, narrowing down your watchlist for the holidays can be difficult. With that in mind, we decided to make a list of the greatest Christmas movies that are a bit outside the norm for traditional Yuletide movies. These are movies that present Christmas in a somewhat darker light, such as using the holiday setting as the backdrop for a horror movie, or as a vehicle for an action or comedy film.
Here are some of the outside-of-the-box Christmas movies to enjoy for anyone looking for a darker holiday film.
Die Hard remains one of the most controversial movies of all time, not for its language or violence or anything, but rather for its status as a Christmas movie (a debate that continues to be argued about to this day). Given the movie's placement within the holiday season, though, it's fair to assume Die Hard indeed falls within the framework of a Christmas film.
The plot of the film sees New York City police detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) join his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) during her company’s annual Christmas party in a Los Angeles skyscraper. Though the party begins with a somewhat rocky start between McClane and his wife, things take a dramatic turn when a group of terrorists seize control of the tower. On his own and cut off from help, McClane enters an intense game of cat-and-mouse to stop the terrorists and rescue the hostages (his wife among them).
One of the most iconic action movies ever made, Die Hard set the standard for the modern action film, prompting numerous movies that took its central premise (an underdog hero caught in a restricted environment with an overwhelming number of bad guys to battle) and tweaked it to new settings.
No matter how many Under Siege, Air Force One, or Speed movies came out over the years, though, no film comes quite as close to capturing the humor and suspense of the original Die Hard. It’s a modern classic that everyone should see, and what better time of year is there to check it off the bucket list than Christmas?
Struggling inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) searches to find the perfect gift for his son, finding it in the form of a cute, furry creature called a mogwai. Despite their disarming appearance, the Peltzer family soon realizes these creatures make anything but ideal pets, multiplying and transforming into disgusting, mischievous little monsters that wreak havoc on the town amid the holiday season.
More of a dark comedy than a straight horror movie in the same vein as Black Christmas, Gremlins is a fun, nightmarish adventure movie as funny as it is disturbing. Directed by cult filmmaker Joe Dante, it’s also one of the movies responsible for the M.P.A.A. altering their rating system and creating the PG-13 rating.
For that exciting little piece of trivia alone, Gremlins is well worth seeing, in addition to it being an offbeat, fan-favorite movie perfect for those looking for something darker than the average family-friendly holiday movies playing on cable.
Mere days before Christmas, a dysfunctional family gathers to celebrate the holiday. When their constant bickering causes them to lose sight of the true meaning behind Christmas, an ancient evil spirit is summoned to punish the naughty family, whose only hope of survival lies with each other.
Krampus may not be the best Christmas horror movie ever, but it does offer a fun, fresh depiction of the holiday, turning many holiday traditions on its head in unexpected ways (killer gingerbread men, man-eating jack-in-the-boxes, and so on). For those who enjoyed director Michael Dougherty’s other holiday-centric film, Trick ‘r Treat, this is a must-watch, containing plenty of stylistic similarities to the director’s previous film. (Both movies delve deeply into the mythology and traditions of their respective holidays and feature characters from folklore who punish non-believers, I.E., Samhain in Trick ‘r Treat, and the eponymous Krampus in this movie.)
It may not be as sharp or original as Trick ‘r Treat, but Krampus still manages to deliver plenty of genuine frights and a few campy laughs, balancing its comedy with plenty of startling horror sequences.
One of the most underrated and influential horror movies of all time, Black Christmas presents the most frightening depiction of the holiday season out of any film on this list.
In classic slasher set-up, a group of sorority sisters receives several threatening phone calls from an unknown caller. Brushing these calls off at first, they soon realize the calls are from a deranged serial killer, preying on the girls and picking them off one by one.
One of the key movies credited with establishing the slasher, Black Christmas relies on a somewhat cheesy, stereotypical premise, but the last half hour or so will leave viewers legitimately wanting to turn off the TV and check every closet in the house to ensure sure they're alone.
Its stark minimalism and realistic nature made it a movie truly ahead of its time: a Hitchcockian thriller that maintained an air of mystery that was never fully resolved. (The killer’s face is never explicitly shown, and his motives remain a complete mystery. A cult classic today, it remains an absolute must-see film for those who enjoy creepy tales of horror set during the holiday.
Better Watch Out
Another horror movie, but one far removed from the proto-slasher Black Christmas, Better Watch Out offers a wonderful plot twist-heavy blend of horror and suspense to create an engrossing, edge-of-your-seat psychological thriller.
Seventeen-year-old babysitter Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) is hired to watch over precocious 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller), who harbors some not-so-subtle romantic feelings for her. As the two settle in for a quiet night in the suburbs around the holiday, they soon discover that someone is trying to break into the house, forcing Ashley to protect Luke against the would-be home invaders.
In a movie with plenty of dramatic reveals and plot twists, Better Watch Out offers a fresh, bold thriller, using its relatively simple setup to catapult the plot forward with new, didn’t-see-that-coming twists. It may be light on genuine scares or holiday cheer, but Better Watch Out never slows down. It feels like an all-in masterclass thrill ride carried by its talented young cast.
As a general rule, a movie featuring Bill Murray in his comedic prime (the '80s and '90s) is a movie well worth seeing. Just look at any one of his numerous hits from that time period, and you’re likely to find either a groundbreaking comedy classic (Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, Stripes) or a cult favorite that only continues to appreciate in value (Scrooged).
A modern take on A Christmas Carol, Scrooged tweaks Charles Dickens’ classic story with a contemporary spin, setting it in the yuppie world of the New York media industry. An extremely successful though immoral television executive, Frank Cross (Murray), has long since forgotten the meaning of Christmas, having grown selfish and misanthropic since his rise to the top.
As he leads an effort to stage a live, televised performance of A Christmas Carol, Frank is visited by three ghosts who take him on a journey through his past, present, and future to try and help him regain his humanity.
Though released to a mixed reception at first (critics and audiences believed it too unsentimental and mean-spirited for a Christmas movie), Scrooged’s standing has grown more favorable over time, many now praising it as an interesting satirization of everything from cutthroat business ethics and the entertainment industry to the commercial nature of Christmas.
One of the greatest dark comedies ever made, Bad Santa is a cult favorite among those looking for a hilariously off-kilter heist movie featuring the absolute worst mall Santa of all time.
Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) is a cynical, alcoholic thief hired to work as a local mall Santa every year. Alongside his partner Marcus, the two plan elaborate robberies at these malls, although their plans soon come under fire when Willie meets a good-natured, naive young boy (Brett Kelly) who believes Willie is the real Santa Claus.
Like many movies on this list, Bad Santa is not for everyone. It’s mean-spirited, dark, and boasts comedic moments you feel somewhat guilty laughing at. But it's the kind of movie where the cast and crew go all in on the dark comedy and don’t hold anything back, presenting a movie that may offend those who love friendlier depictions of Santa, but is sure to make everyone else in the audience chuckle.
Most of us know about that fabled moment in history known as the 1914 Christmas truce, a triumph of human spirit and brotherhood that saw soldiers on opposing sides of the World War One trenches cease fighting and come together to celebrate a shared Christmas together.
It’s a moment that lives on in history, an unprecedented moral victory in which the Great War paused for one joyous, peaceful day of the year. In Joyeux Nöel, the events of this inspirational moment are replicated through a somewhat fictionalized lens, telling the story of the famous truce from the perspectives of various German, French, and British soldiers who participated in the event.
A wartime Christmas movie (how many of those exist?), Joyeux Nöel may be a little sobering in some of its scenes, but it manages to send a tender, endearing message about pacifism and goodwill towards others (one of the hallmark lessons the holiday teaches us to abide by).
Upon first glance, it may seem like a stretch to count Edward Scissorhands as a Christmas movie (its style and gothic tone is pretty much the exact opposite of what most people would expect in a traditional Christmas movie). Because several key scenes place the story near the holiday, though, it's fair to call Edward Scissorhands a Christmas movie by proxy.
Set in a 1950s-esque suburban neighborhood, a traveling saleswoman (Dianne West) happens across an artificially-made young man named Edward (Johnny Depp) with scissors for his hands. Inviting him into her home, Edward tries to adjust to life in this strange new world he finds himself in, falling for a young woman (Winona Ryder) and learning how to use his hands to trim hedges, sculpt ice, and cut women’s hair.
One of Tim Burton’s greatest movies (as well as one of his most tender and tragic), Edward Scissorhands showcases all of Burton’s regular collaborators at the top of their games: Ryder and Depp bring an unbelievable amount of romantic chemistry on screen, and Danny Elfman’s ethereal soundtrack sounds like something out of a classic fairy tale.
We don’t know what it is with Tim Burton and Christmas. It’s almost like any time the holiday rolls around, he takes it as a personal challenge to inject as much of his signature gothic sensibility into it as possible. Just as he’d managed to provide his own version of a Christmas story with Edward Scissorhands, Burton used his next project, the 1992 sequel to his earlier Batman film, to once again portray Christmas in his famous macabre light.
Three decades after being abandoned by his parents and left to fend for himself in the sewer, the enigmatic Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito) returns to Gotham City with the express purpose of murdering the city's firstborn children. The only person standing in his way is Gotham’s Caped Crusader (Michael Keaton), who is busy investigating the appearance of the mysterious Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and a corrupt tycoon (Christopher Walken) she seems to be targeting.
As with Edward Scissorhands, Christmas barely figures into the film’s plot, although several scenes set the story around the holiday (including its opening scene). One of the coldest and strangest films among Burton’s career, Batman Returns is nonetheless an exciting addition to the director's filmography, one most people can't forget after their initial viewing experience.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Perhaps an obvious choice, but it’s impossible not to discuss darker Christmas movies without bringing up The Nightmare Before Christmas. An immortal classic in the holiday genre, it’s one of the finest stop-motion animated movies ever put to film, offering an unforgettable Christmas story based on Tim Burton’s unique imagination.
Having lost his taste for Halloween, the star resident of Halloween Town – Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon) – falls in love with Christmas, encouraging his fellow residents to celebrate the holiday in their own special way.
Put in simple terms, The Nightmare Before Christmas can be best described as Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas by way of Tim Burton, focusing on a character’s attempts to hijack Christmas for their own gain (although Jack’s motivations are far more sympathetic than The Grinch’s). While perhaps a bit unsettling for younger viewers, teens, and older audiences are bound to love this 1993 cult favorite.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
As with most of the films that appear on this list, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang makes very few allusions to Christmas aside from the incidental time frame the narrative is set against (Los Angeles during the holiday season). And yet, like Die Hard or Batman Returns before it, the minimal focus on Christmas shouldn’t prevent viewers from watching this overlooked 2005 comedy masterpiece.
Mistaken for a professional actor, a small-time thief (Robert Downey Jr.) spends time with a private detective (Val Kilmer) in preparation for an upcoming role, the pair stumbling into a mystery involving an unidentified corpse.
Characterized by a razor-sharp script and agreeable performances from almost every cast member involved, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang serves as a brilliant stylistic precursor to director Shane Black’s later work on The Nice Guys. Loaded with laugh-out-loud comedy that never slows down or lets up, it’s a hilarious buddy action film that makes clever use of its two lead actors.
The polar opposite of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, In Bruges nevertheless channels the same wintery spirit as Shane Black’s 2005 neo-noir comedy. By comparison, however, Martin McDonagh’s directorial debut features a far darker sense of humor than its counterpart, showcasing McDonagh’s complex, morally gray characters and penchant for humanistic themes.
Following a botched assassination, two Irish hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) hide out in the idyllic city of Bruges, biding their time by visiting local landmarks while waiting for their employer’s (Ralph Fiennes) orders.
Focusing on the characters’ psyche and motivations, In Bruges touches upon the age-old belief that it’s never too late to change for the better, with characters able to build a new life for themselves in the wake of personal tragedy. It may make for an upsetting or thought-provoking film, but it’s for this very reason In Bruges is worth watching in the first place.
Richard Chachowski is an entertainment and travel writer who has written for such publications as Wealth of Geeks, Looper, Screen Rant, Fangoria, and Sportskeeda, among many others. He received his BA from The College of New Jersey and has been a professional writer since 2020. His geeky areas of interest include Star Wars, travel writing, horror, video games, comic books, literature, and animation.
Richard has been an avid consumer of movies, television, books, and pop culture since he was four-years-old. Raised on a diverse mix of Clint Eastwood Westerns, Star Wars, sci-fi and horror films, Alan Moore comics, and Stephen King novels, he eventually turned his various passions into a creative outlet, writing about film, television, literature, comics, and gaming for his high school and college newspapers. A traveling enthusiast, Richard has also managed to create a career out of journeying abroad, venturing to such awe-inspiring places as the Sonoran Desert of Mexico, the rainforests of Costa Rica, and the scenic coastline of Haiti. Upon graduating from TCNJ, Richard set his sights on a career in journalism, writing extensively about the art of traveling and the entertainment medium for various online publications. When he’s not busy making his way through The Criterion Collection, he can be found either reading or planning a trip somewhere (preferably someplace with a scenic hiking trail).