Red London buses, the bumbling Brit and the over-zealous American, and endless messages of goodwill and cheer: Christmas movies are often guilty of presenting a very one-note image of the festive period.
In fact, the genre is so rigidly defined, throngs of people light up social media each year to argue how Die Hard cannot possibly a Christmas film, even though it’s set at Christmas – presumably because it isn’t filled with festive clichés.
Perhaps audiences have Hollywood to blame for establishing a genre that feels like it relies so heavily on stereotypes. “It’s funny rewatching a couple of Christmas films and reminding myself about them,” says Isibeal Ballance, TV producer who worked with writer-director Mark Gatiss on subversive Christmas drama The Dead Room.
“The characters are always stereotypical. More so than any other time of year, these films lack nuance and get straight down to the point – the story of a character’s redemption.”
Whether Love Actually, Miracle On 34th Street, The Holiday or even Scrooge, characters in the most famous Christmas films appear to play into Isibeal’s argument. Over here in the UK, we’re often awkward, miserable or earnest, and over in the States, hugely vivacious, positive and romantic.
“I think it is amazing how little people in America know about the UK and how little people in the UK know about the USA,” adds Douglas Mackinnon, director of Doctor Who Christmas special Husbands of River Song and Sherlock special The Abominable Bride.
He recalls one memorable instance: “I had a shoot that started on Buckingham Palace and an American exec asked what ‘that old building’ was. So I’m not surprised that the stereotypes come out very quickly!”
Paddington, for one, is guilty of “ruthless use of red buses,” says Douglas, who believes the British accent often attempted by Americans in Christmas films is “inevitably a posh accent, often based on not-too intensive research by listening to old interviews with Diana or Charles, or by watching The Crown.”
What do English actors do? They’ll likely copy Sean Connery’s accent if they’re playing a Scottish character, and other actors will turn to Dick Van Dyke if they need to play British, he suspects.
Of course, there’s a comforting familiarity about certain stereotypes. “Great writing doesn’t head for cliché, but the complication is that often a story can start in a familiar place to let the audience in,” explains Douglas. “The problems start if you also finish in a familiar place.”
Not all Christmas shows follow this cookie-cutter approach. The Dead Room is a clever example of how we can rethink Christmas drama while avoiding cliché: set in an old radio building, haunting shots show a crumbling studio, as an older man relives trauma from his past. It is perhaps inspired by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but the feel is grittier, more modern and more realistic, as an older man recounts trauma from his past.
Die Hard is perhaps the most famous example of a Hollywood Christmas blockbuster subverting expectations of the genre. Bob Clark’s thriller Black Christmas about a killer who is never caught – hardly the fairytale ending – is unusual too, much like Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: another example of a properly dark, unusually witty Christmas film.
In the psychological horror Better Watch Out, stereotypes about Christmas are manipulated to trick the viewer into thinking they are in familiar territory. “Our goal was to get audiences comfortable, yawning, ‘I’ve seen this before...,’” Chris Peckover, director, tells HuffPost UK.
“So when the turn came it would be utterly upheaving. And then to drive the knife in, we continued with the holiday stereotypes ― characters wearing ugly Christmas sweaters, serving hot cocoa to the carollers ― to create a disturbing juxtaposition with the unfolding events. It’s the very nature of stereotypes as lazy and familiar that we harnessed.”
Due to the pandemic, this year’s crop of Christmas films is minimal: but while Holidate starring Emma Roberts and The Princess Switch: Switched Again with Vanessa Hudgens appear more on familiar territory, Netflix’s major seasonal release Jingle Jangle stylistically switches things up.
Sure, it plays on some Christmas cliches: there’s a toymaker at the heart of the plot and it’s set on the snow-laden cobbled streets of Victorian England, but the way director David E. Talbert has fused African prints, hairstyles, music and dance with the classic Dickensian Christmas movie aesthetic stretches the genre excitingly toward pastures new.