Top 10 Cinematic Christmas Combatants

by Warren Cantrell on December 20, 2011

in Top 10s

Well, we’re in the final stretch of the season.  That means the last of you holiday hold-outs have nowhere to hide, at least not any longer. If you’re among this miserly sub-class, you’ve probably done your best to dodge seasonal staples like shitty shopping, deplorable sweaters, and Santa-shaped cookies poisoned with a pint of food coloring. This is a difficult thing to do, however, for these year-end celebrations throw a cloak over every half-civilized corner of the Judeo-Christian universe, and lest one is holed up alone in a cabin in the middle of Canada, the holidays will almost certainly find you, some way, somehow.

There are options available to those who hate Christmas, however, the aforementioned hermit retreat into the wilderness just one of several coping mechanisms. There’s always the “straw amongst hay” method, whereby a Christmas combatant feigns interest in the holiday just enough to get by the curious eyes of holiday vampires looking to turn any naysayers to their cause.  Another method, far more devious in execution and scope, is to actively sabotage or otherwise machinate to disrupt the holidays.  These activities almost always get a person shunned, cursed, or roundly despised, and for good reason.  Indeed, anybody who sets out to annihilate another person’s joy and happiness isn’t one that’s going to be invited to very many parties afterward: Yet for the truly stout of heart, it’s a small price to pay.

Today’s list pays homage to those movies that showcased especially vigilant Christmas combatants: the movie characters that really put their weight behind some heavy-handed yuletide interference. I weighed consideration for entry today against how militantly the character in question battled and/or ruined Christmas against their notoriety within this specific holiday movie genre. Certain names (which I won’t mention now so as not to ruin the surprise of the ranking below) have become synonymous with Christmas-hatin’, so I had to weigh that against other more recent contenders who have made a valiant push for one of the top slots. To keep things from getting too lop-sided in one genre (and because it would make its own awesome list) I eliminated all Christmas horror movies from contention (so my apologies to all of you Silent Night, Deadly Night fans out there).  Some other very painful eliminations included Gary Busey’s Mr. Joshua from Lethal Weapon, Denis Leary from The Ref, Alan Rickman from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (“…and call off Christmas!”), and Hugh Grant from About a Boy.  Lastly, because these were all Christmas movies, most of the entrants below eventually changed their ways and softened up in the end, so understand that such conversions were not held against the characters in question.  Just sayin’.

Anyway…

10. Frank Reynolds from It’s a Very Sunny Christmas (2009)

An 11th hour on-the-field ruling allowed this TV movie into today’s ranking, for it was released (albeit straight-to-DVD) as a movie, and was far too hardcore to get an unedited television airing. For dedicated fans of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the Christmas special answered a lot of questions about the show’s main characters, and how these individuals came to maturity without so much as a morsel of compassion or humility. While Mac (Rob McElhenney) owed much of his boyish immaturity and narcissism to a father whose idea of Christmas was a good home invasion, and Charlie (Charlie Day) connected the dots about how the holidays brought out the best in his mother, a whore, Dennis and Dee were the ones that truly suffered.  Their father, Frank (Danny DeVito), had always used Christmas as a way to rob his kids of whatever innocent humanity might remain inside the pair, and used the Christmas in play during the movie to take things up yet another notch.

As Dennis and Dee explained early in the film, Frank didn’t buy his kids terrible presents: that would have been too easy.  No, you see Frank bought Dennis and Dee the most expensive, outrageous, and coveted items of the season, then spitefully gave them to other people. Dennis and Dee reminisced about their father’s strangely brutal proclivities in this regard when the bastard pulled up in Dennis’ dream car, eating cheese balls out of a designer purse Dee would have bled a kitten alive to secure. Even as adults, Dennis and Dee were still subject to their father’s torment, for the man’s cruel barrage of Christmas knew no bounds. Well, that’s not true. By the end of the episode Frank came to realize the error of his ways, and turned charitable (right before getting his ass double-crossed by an old business partner). Still, Frank spent something like three decades actively working to ruin Christmas for his children. If that ain’t worthy of a #10 slot, I’d like to hear what in the hell is.

9. Tie: Randy Quaid and Brian Doyle Murray from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

When I discussed candidates for today’s list with an associate of mine, one Mr. Nosko, he reminded me that while Randy Quaid was certainly a reasonable choice for this ranking, Clark Griswold’s boss from Christmas Vacation was equally deserving of recognition. And by God, the man was right. Though Quaid’s Eddie certainly ruined the shit out of Clark’s Christmas, what with the illegal sewage dump, the creepy kids, and the whole kidnapping ordeal, it was the boss that really put the kibosh on the Griswold’s holidays. Brian Doyle Murray’s Mr. Shirley was a cold, absent, thoughtless boss who seemed to scorn his employees and went so far as to eliminate a traditional Christmas bonus without warning his staff beforehand.

For a man like Clark, whose rapidly deteriorating sanity was held gingerly in place by this promised monetary windfall, the sudden reveal that it had been withdrawn was simply too much to handle.  Sure, Eddie had all but declared his intention to squat his family in the R.V. outside Clark’s house, and brought a S.W.A.T. team into the Griswold home, yet if Mr. Shirley had at least come through with the bonus, all of this might have been palatable for Clark.  Luckily, both Eddie and Mr. Shirley redeemed themselves in the end, giving Clark the joyous, Rockwellian Christmas he’d hoped for at the beginning of the season.  The main character of this next movie went through Christmas trials no less arduous, though he had a shit-ton of booze to cope…

8. Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie T. Stokes from Bad Santa (2003)

Billy Bob’s Willie in Bad Santa is one of my all-time favorite cinematic characters.  In the picture, he went through all the predictable stages of his character arc, having gone from nihilistic criminal to compassionate father-figure in roughly 99 minutes. Yet it was the savage cruelty that leaked out of the man prior to his spiritual rebirth that really made this film sparkle. For audiences, this profane and unapologetically immoral Santa incarnation was immediately juxtaposed against all the traditional representations of the beloved figure, something that made his ruthless outbursts all the more delightful. When questioned about his fake beard, Willie explained that he had lost the real one because he’d “loved a woman who wasn’t clean.” Later, in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Willie (some might argue justly) berated a woman ferociously in front of her child for having dared ask him to play Santa while he was on his lunch break.

Still, it could have been worse. Willie didn’t go out there looking to ruin Christmas, per se, he just happened to have found a nice criminal gig that took full advantage of the holiday. Willie and his partner Marcus (Tony Cox) took on seasonal temp jobs at malls each year as a Santa-elf combo-pack. While Marcus’ diminutive stature allowed him to hide on-site so as to disable any alarms, Willie was charged with the cracking of safes, something he did surprisingly well.  Of course, in the lead-up to their yearly caper, they naturally had to dutifully play their roles in the nativity section of the mall, with Willie’s self-destructive alcoholism threatening each new gig more and more.  The man pissed himself on the job, swore at children, and regularly undercut any person’s attempts to enjoy or otherwise spread the cheer of Christmas.  Though I generally applaud that kind of behavior, the movie demonstrated that it wasn’t exactly suited to Marcus and Willie’s front.  Yet like most people on today’s list, Willie eventually turned a corner, something this next pair never appeared to do…

7. Tie: Joe Pesci’s Harry and Daniel Stern’s Marv from Home Alone (1990)

These bastards. Not only did they explicitly set out to rob people during the Christmas season (presumably because they’d be away), Marv (Daniel Stern) went so far as to make things extra worse for their victims.  Since the pair had self-anointed themselves the ‘Wet Bandits,’ Marv opened up all the faucets in the houses they robbed and flooded the domiciles. What a dick! Not only were these guys ripping the financial guts out of families during Christmas, but Marv made sure the adults were as miserable as the children who’d be going without any presents. The costs associated with a house’s complete flooding would have probably made the victimized homeowners more upset about the gang’s calling card than the actual robbery!  Luckily, a plucky, sadistic little bastard was bouncing off the walls of his recently abandoned home right in the middle of this little crime spree, and holiday justice was meted out.

It’s a well known fact that those who interfere with Christmas’ righteous mission to fool humanity into loving itself for a few days risk an aggressive karmic counterattack. In this particular instance, this meant a series of ridiculous traps put in place by a pre-pubescent sociopath that nearly killed two full-grown men. The last third of Home Alone played out like the adolescent fantasies of H.H. Holmes, with Harry and Marv running through a homemade abattoir fit for Wile E. Coyote. Rather than flee once they realized they’d been made by a pre-teen, Harry and Marv tried as hard as they could to rob/kill Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin character.  Luckily a strange old man, who’d been shunned by his own family, suddenly appeared to save Kevin and subdue the thieves, presumably because he’d been stalking the young boy (not at all creepy…okay, yeah, that’s really fucking weird).  So, for trying to ruin multiple Christmases for multiple families, for young and old alike, Harry and Marv certainly deserved what they got, both in the film, and in this ranking.

6. Charlize Theron’s Ashley Mercer from Reindeer Games (2000)

Oh, this bitch. Clearly aware of the fact that she was like six different shades of hot, Theron’s Ashley had every swinging dick in this picture falling all over themselves to help her. First, it was Ben Affleck’s Rudy, who was cunt-struck enough with her picture alone to initiate an elaborate ruse to win her heart via a little deception. Then there was Gary Sinese’s Gabriel, who thought he had one hell of a scam going with the delicious dish, and her connections with a con on the inside.  Yeah, Gabriel tried to use Ashley as the bait to draw out a former casino worker for a Christmas heist. This casino-connection was supposedly Rudy, but since he took the place of his cellmate after getting out of the shithouse, the clueless, blue-balled Rudy had to admit that he’d been an imposter all along. But Rudy wasn’t the only one who’d fibbed. Ashley not only lied to Rudy about her involuntary participation in the casino robbery, she’d lied to Gabriel about her true intentions.

Yeah, Ashley had concocted the whole scheme with Rudy’s cellmate, Nick, who had planned to set everybody up so that he and Ashley could get away with everything from the casino job in the end. In case you’re a little confused, don’t worry. The film was so lousy that even the people who participated in it now admit that the whole thing was a disaster. What’s important is Reindeer Games’ qualifications, however, for this list’s bylaws stipulate that any cinematic character that actively participated in actions that ruined Christmas for others should be considered for a slot in the ranking. That viper-fanged whore Ashley ruined what could have been a perfectly splendid Christmas Eve, what with Rudy getting out of the can, and likely primed for a fuck-session rigorous enough to make Errol Flynn blush.  For putting Rudy through such hell when splendid treats such as this awaited him was cruel indeed, and more than enough to get Ashley a position just behind …

5. John Lithgow’s B.Z. from Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)

Though I eventually settled on Lithgow’s B.Z. from this craptastic debacle, really, any number of people could claimed the spot for Santa Claus: The Movie. There was Dudley Moore’s Patch, who left the North Pole so that he might commoditize, package, and sell the magic of Christmas to greedy industrialists. I might also argue for this movie’s backers, for the film was so fragmented and shoddy that it nearly killed Christmas! Ultimately, though, the greedy toy manufacturer B.Z. secured the designation for this picture, for his avarice and disregard for the sanctity of the holiday put him in a league all his own.  After Patch retreated to New York City, in possession of the shame known to every exiled elf, he turned to B.Z. and the man’s promises of wealth and success. The toy manufacturer didn’t let ol’ Patch down.

Though Patch made toys for B.Z. that were just as shitty and defective as those turned out for Mr. Claus, the North Pole magic he’d pilfered lifted sales, and it started raining Benjamins. Of course, B.Z. was just exploiting Patch and the mystical elven technology the little bastard had access to.  When a small hiccup developed that promised to blow the heads off any innocent children stupid enough to have consumed a candy cane in tropical weather, B.Z. called his lawyer and started shredding documents. Yeah, that’s right: B.Z. didn’t recall the candy, or put out warnings that might very well have saved thousands of lives, he brushed the evidence under the rug and started kidnapping children who knew too damn much. A truly evil character that could have only sprung out of the ramshackle corners of so terrible a movie as this, Lithgow should at least get credit for finishing this project out (for he must have wanted to bail almost immediately).

4. Lionel Barrymore’s Harry F. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

A nasty, one-dimensional bastard like Harry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) could have only existed in a Frank Capra film, for even asshole industrialists with little radish hearts thought that this guy was a little raw. Early in the film, Potter tried to convince a Building and Loan organization that they should cut off funds to help subsidize low-rent housing for the poor. While this wasn’t an overtly anti-Christmas act, it certainly set the stage for the holiday cruelty that would follow later on.  When George (James Stewart) banded together with his fellow citizens of Bedford Falls to combat the real estate monopoly formerly maintained by the cruel slumlord, Potter tried to bribe the shepherd away, dangling robust salaries and lavish trips abroad in front of George as bait. Noble Capra hero that he was, George wasn’t having any of it, though. No, George was on a journey, nay, a magical quest whose terminus was the glowing realization that working like a galley-slave in some shithole town isn’t really all that bad.

Sorry, those of you who have read my treatise on the Top 10 “Classics” That Got It All Wrong know how much I disdain this film and its vapid “message,” so its mention often sends your dutiful author off on tangents. The farcical lunacy of this picture’s supposed “message” aside, I think everybody can agree on the unfettered malice Barrymore brought to his Potter character. This was a guy who straight up stole eight-large from a kindly old man on Christmas Eve.  Though Potter knew that the money’s disappearance would likely be the ruin of a well-meaning, pious family man (on Christmas!), he kept the loot, and even threatened to have George arrested for fraud and theft. Talk about old school! Potter was living according to jungle-law, where one either eats or is eaten! Potter’s theft of the money not only threatened to ruin Christmas for George and a hell of a lot of other families, but it damn near precipitated the suicide of an admittedly good man who almost single-handedly kept a community together. That’s raw-dog, man. This next thief only just beat out Potter, who might have slid into the #3 slot had he shot somebody in the face…

3. Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber from Die Hard (1988)

You have to give Alan Rickman credit, for the man went from an obscure theater player to an internationally recognized name practically overnight, and he did it playing an un-relatable antagonist in a film that used his character as a veritable punching bag. On the page, there wasn’t a lot there for Hans Gruber. Though seemingly in control and confidently in charge at the beginning of his caper, a rogue, wise-cracking N.Y.P.D. flat-foot got loose and eventually reduced poor Hans’ and his crew to practically nothing. While the story didn’t call for Hans to do much except slowly lose out to the good guy, the seasoned actor injected a coy vibrancy into his character that allowed it to jump right off the screen. Rickman and director John McTiernan made the decision to provide Hans with a reserved yet vicious demeanor that seemed the perfect match for Bruce Willis’ rowdy John McClane. No matter how bad things got for the German thief and his mercenaries, Hans seemed calm, collected, and completely at peace with the disaster spiraling out of control all around him.

But the guy had it coming. As discussed earlier, anybody who engages in devious or malicious acts that interfere with a person or (worse) group’s ability to enjoy Christmas is asking for it.  Not only will people usually band together to combat this external holiday cancer, but karmic forces unseen to mere mortals will begin to align against the threat. John McClane, tough old war horse that he was, certainly didn’t peel through a dozen baddies with just grit and determination: the man had Christmas on his side. Hans Gruber came rolling into Nakatomi plaza, looking to steal some bearer bonds, only to destroy what appeared to be a rocking Christmas party (booze, coke, loose women: the works), and one man’s attempt to use the holidays to get back on good terms with his wife. Though the holiday party probably provided the perfect opportunity for Hans to get into the building with sufficient hostages to pull off his little ruse, when he made the decision to fuck with Christmas, and start killing some relatively innocent holiday-loving yuppies, the man crossed a line. Try as he did, Hans wasn’t able to ruin Christmas, at least not for the McClane family! True, the family of Holly’s boss (Mr. Takagi) probably had a pretty shitty Christmas, along with the acquaintances of Ellis, and those two F.B.I. assholes, Johnson and Johnson, but, well, that’s just how the cookie crumbles, and why Hans got an honorable spot in the top 3.

2. Reginald Owen’s Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol (1938)

Some of you Dickens fanatics are probably gnashing teeth and pulling out handfuls of hair right now, but really, was Ebenezer Scrooge all that bad? Sure, he hated Christmas, charity, and joy, yet he certainly didn’t go out every day looking to strangle the life out of the holiday. While his Draconian managerial style certainly didn’t win him any points with employees or colleagues, can you really blame the guy for his shrewd and proven business savvy? Bob Cratchit may have lamented his access to just one lump of coal, or his inability to secure a paid Christmas day off, yet Scrooge’s business model wasn’t set up to subsidize the shattered, broken lives of the company’s employees. If Cratchit wasn’t digging his job then it was up to him to quit, for as Scrooge astutely pointed out in the novella, he wasn’t asking Cratchit to work one day of the year for free, so why should the boss be required to pay for a day’s labors not completed?  As most are well-aware, however, this was very much the point.

Economic arguments rooted in neo-libertarian politics aside, Scrooge was a sour old bastard that didn’t sweeten a tick with the holidays. Charles Dickens hoped that his short book would inspire kindness in his readers, and make them more conscious of the plight of the less fortunate. Using the Christmas holiday as the foundation from which he hoped to encourage magnanimous sentiment, Dickens told a tale that he hoped would challenge his readers to care, and might possibly remind them of this long-lost sentiment every December. As committed as Ebenezer Scrooge was to his miserly ways and the hard-nosed business ethics that had seen him through to cozy old age, witnessing the affectionate spirit of Christmas that had long-since passed him by had a profound effect on the old man. As much as he seemed to despise and actively work against Christmas, Scrooge could not escape that basic human proclivity to make personal connections, and live in a world outside his own. Fortunately for him, Scrooge had three ghosts on standby, waiting to help him through this conversion. The final character on today’s list had no such help …

1. Boris Karloff’s The Grinch from Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

I hope you never doubted this dastardly creature’s appearance in the ranking, for The Grinch has become as much a part of Christmas, and what it means to experience the holiday, as any other term or phrase. If only as a counter-point to one’s own joyous celebration, the Grinch is a necessary ingredient to the holiday stew. The Grinch is one of the Western world’s most recognizable symbols of Christmas, right there with Scrooge: an amusing paradox considering the characters’ aversion to the holiday. But the Grinch is always present this time of year, be it in the attitude of whatever sour-puss you have in your life that refuses to have a good time and some eggnog, or in the random alignment of coincidences that seem to fall into place every December, and test a person’s resilience in the face of calamity. Wherever there is a threat to Christmas, be it manifested physically or ethereally, the Grinch lives.

For his part, the Grinch as written by Dr. Seuss was a thorny and easily agitated troll-like creature akin to Gollum or some damn thing. Living high atop the rocky crags of Mt. Crumpit, the Grinch seemed to hate Christmas and the town of Whoville below purely out of a disregard for their singing, which seemed to keep the ornery bastard up at night. Rather than descend his mountain and politely request that the noisy swine below keep things down after, say, 9 p.m., the Grinch resolved to steal Christmas, thereby negating all like-celebrations and the noise associated. To this end, the Grinch slipped into town dressed as Santa and systematically eliminated any trace of the holiday, right down to the tree tinsel. Of course, the ghoulish demon never had a chance, for Christmas is transmitted not through presents or decorations, but through the hearts of all men, women, and children. This lesson learned, and learned well, by the end of the picture, the Grinch found himself redeemed, and with a heart bigger than what could be measured by cartoon technology. Yet for taking it upon himself to actually, physically steal Christmas, and for taking up the namesake mantle of holiday combatants everywhere, The Grinch came in at the front of the line.

Warren Cantrell is the madman who writes all kinds of revved-up hyperbole at 10rant.com. Go there now.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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