Posted in Film, Writing

How to Write Dark Stories Set at Christmas

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Bad Santa Review

Every holiday season, audiences are bombarded with at least half a dozen family films that beg and plead for all to have jolly keen smiles on their faces. In November 2003, cheery films released included Elf, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, The Cat in the Hat, and The Haunted Mansion. The hilarious Bad Santa, which at the time seemed like just another holiday movie, turned out to be nothing close to a family film. Instead, it was something truly special.

Billy Bob Thornton, in the defining comedic performance of his career, plays Willie, a cynical, miserable drunk who dresses as Santa every December with Marcus (Tony Cox), an optimistic, intelligent midget, who dresses up as an elf. Together, the two annually rob malls every Christmas so that they never have to work the rest of the year.

Willie doesn’t really like his job. Little brats walk over to him and tell him what they want for Christmas, only to be tossed aside so he can have a drink or a cigarette. One boy, known only as The Kid (Brett Kelly), particularly grates him with his curiosity, and he keeps bumping into him. Eventually he gives The Kid a ride home, only to find a mansion that is inhabited by just him and his clueless grandmother. He stays at the house, as the kid thinks Willie is Santa Claus and will do anything for him.

Willie begins to get noticed for his outrageous behavior. Both Gin (Bernie Mac) and Bob (John Ritter), his bosses, become suspicious of him, and Bob is especially offended by him. Willie also meets a girl named Sue (Lauren Graham) who has a fetish for Santa Claus, and she falls for him. The real focus of the story, though, is on the relationship between Willie and The Kid and their bond that makes both of them stronger and wiser.

Okay, who had the balls to make this movie? This was easily the most vulgar, crude, politically incorrect, in-your-face film about the Christmas holiday made, at least up until that time. That such a renowned director (Terry Zwigoff, Ghost World) even touched this material is an ode to what a darkly funny screenplay, written by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, wrote.

The reason to treasure this movie can be summed up in three words — Billy Bob Thornton. This guy has always been good (see Sling Blade), but nothing prepared people for the sheer pitch-perfect performance Thornton delivered. Willie is mean, impolite, foul-mouthed, messy, and uncaring, and one can see Thornton just loves very minute of inhabiting this guy.

Other performances in the film are top-notch. Kelly is flat-out terrific as The Kid, who is a fat loser but also a well-meaning young man filled with curiosity. Mac and Cox are really funny in their respective roles. The only main problem with the film is that some of the supporting characters aren’t fleshed out as well as they should be. Ritter and Graham are especially not used to their full potential.

However, Bad Santa, like the similarly themed Death to Smoochy, became a cult classic in the years to come, and even spawned a (less successful) sequel. There’s nothing like a dark comedy to remind audiences that it’s okay to spit and curse in other people’s faces during the holiday season.

Watching Like a Writer

I’m like the Shane Black of novelists… I’ve always been pulled to setting my darkest fiction at Christmas time. My new MFA thesis novel has its most intense section set a few days before Christmas, and my horror novel Toothache, which I wrote in 2015, is set entirely around the holiday. That time of year is designed to be so cheery, so wondrous, that in many ways it can make an already unsettling suspense story even creepier. Bad Santa isn’t a suspense film by any means, but it subverts the Christmas comedy we’ve all come to know so well and give us the anti-Christmas comedy, not horror by any means, but certainly with a darker, cynical edge.

Exercise!

Think of a darkly-themed story set at Christmas. What would it be about? Who would be your main character?

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