The snow is falling. The mistletoe is hanging high. The halls are decked. The cookies are baked. And Santa and his reindeers’ impending arrival has kids and grown-ups alike giddy. Yet as festive as this Yuletide is, you might not know it to look at this week’s big movie release: 1917.
Set in the thick of World War I, 1917 follows two young British soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) on a perilous quest through war-ravaged France. Ahead of them lies the possibility of becoming real war heroes. But to get there, they must traverse through merciless muck, fields of corpses and a barrage of attacks, snares and brutal bad luck.
So why does a movie this dark and dramatic open on Christmas Day?
There’s typically two reasons a decidedly un-Christmassy movie would dare. 1917 falls into the first category: Oscar-baiting. Directed by Academy Award-winning helmer Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and shot by 14-time Best Cinematography nominee Roger Deakins, 1917 has a pedigree that could serve it well come Oscar night. However, to be eligible for the Academy Awards, a film must open before the calendar year closes, even in a limited capacity. Often, this means would-be contenders might open in New York and L.A. for a “qualifying run,” then hold their wide release until early the following year. That way, hopefully the building Oscar buzz will boost its box office, and vice versa. That seems to be the strategy of this grim war movie, which has already earned honors from several critics’ guilds.
The second: counterprogramming. That is, to balance out all the family-friendly, fluffy or festive movies in theaters over Christmas break, theatergoers demand something dark, dramatic or downright deranged, which perfectly goes against the grain of the jolly joints that’ll have families lining up.
To celebrate these happily un-holiday movies that dare to debut on Christmas, we’re looking back at the least festive of the bunch.
The Academy Awards were young, and so was Bette Davis: The Hollywood icon was just 27 years old, but already an established star with 27 films to her credit (this tear-jerking drama was the fifth of her films to open in 1935). In Dangerous, she starred as the notorious Joyce Heath, an alcoholic actress who fears she’s a jinx beyond saving, rehabilitation or loving. The film’s trailer boasted, “The screen’s FEMALE FURY finds a role worthy of her electric talents,” which proved to be a premonition, as Dangerous earned Davis her first Academy Award for Best Actress.
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Based on T.H. White’s novel of the same name, The Sword in the Stone spun the Arthurian legends of a noble king and his right-hand wizard into a magical coming-of-age adventure. Twelve-year-old Arthur (voiced by Rickie Sorensen) is a scrawny orphan bullied about by knights and grown-ups alike. That is until he crosses paths with the spell-casting Merlin (Karl Swenson). Through a string of misadventures that involve shapeshifting, songs and much silliness, the wise and wacky wizard mentors the will-be king ahead of his legendary moment with the titular weapon.
While not specifically festive, it’s certainly not a glum movie, so why its inclusion here? In short, its lasting effect on later Disney releases. Opening in limited release, The Sword in The Stone earned mixed reviews and only an Oscar nomination for Best Score. This might explain why it was the first and last Disney Animation Studios offering to ever debut on Christmas day. That doesn’t mean Disney gave up on Yuletide box office, of course: Instead, the studio dedicated to family entertainment carved itself a comfortable niche in the holiday season, releasing animated films between Thanksgiving and Christmas, including The Aristocats (1970), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010), Frozen (2013) and Frozen 2 (2019).
Altered States (1980)
Based on Paddy Chayefsky’s novel, this sci-fi horror stars William Hurt as Dr. Edward Jessup, a brilliant psychopathologist, who risks his career, marriage and sanity in pursuit of a mind-bending experiment. Using himself as a test subject, Jessup employs sensory-deprivation tanks and hallucination-sparking drugs to better understand the human mind. However, it’s not just his brain that’s impacted by the treatments: Stomach-churning body-horror collides with terrifying trips in Altered States.
This is a prime example of holiday counterprogramming, of which horror has long been a part. Christmas Day has been the opening of such scary movies as the 1961 psychological thriller The Innocents; the 1985 Christopher Lee vehicle Howling II:…Your Sister Is a Werewolf; 1997’s R-rated monster flick An American Werewolf in Paris; 2007’s sci-fi horror grudge match Alien vs. Predator: Requiem; and the 2011 creature feature The Darkest Hour. However, being a part of horror history didn’t help Altered States at the box office: Despite enthusiastic reviews from critics, the $15 million film proved only a modest suggest, bringing in $19.9 million.
The Godfather: Part III (1990)
With The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, Francis Ford Coppola delivered a pair of instantly iconic gangster films. Completing the story of mafia kingpin Michael Corleone was the much-anticipated The Godfather: Part III. Coppola reunited with Al Pacino, Diane Keaton and Talia Shire, adding the talents of Andy Garcia, Eli Wallach, Bridget Fonda and his daughter, future Academy Award-winning screenwriter Sofia Coppola, into the fold. It was poised to be a surefire hit and a major contender come Oscar night.
But legacy is a funny thing. The Godfather: Part III garnered critical praise, seven Oscar nominations and more than $136 million at the global box office. This would be a great accomplishment for most films, yet this sequel is remembered chiefly as the entry that didn’t stack up. It made $107 million less than The Godfather. It scored less rave reviews. And when it came to the Academy Awards, its seven noms were dwarfed by the 11 apiece stacked up by Parts 1 & 2, not to mention the nine Oscar wins between the two, including Best Picture honors in consecutive years. Simply put, despite its achievements, The Godfather: Part III is the black sheep of this film family.
Django Unchained (2012)
Jamie Foxx headlines this revisionist Western as Django, a freed slave turned bounty hunter who’s dedicated to rescuing his wife from the grasp of a sadistic plantation owner. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained gifted audiences plenty of big stars, splashy style, four-letter words and graphic violence, all of which we’ve come to expect from its audacious auteur. And it positively killed at Christmas, pulling in $30 million in its opening.
Tarantino has a history of releasing his movies on Christmas. It began in 1995 with Four Rooms, a Tim Roth-fronted comedy the acclaimed Pulp Fiction director co-helmed with Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell and Robert Rodriguez. Two years later, Tarantino rolled out the Pam Grier vehicle Jackie Brown. Django Unchained would be his next Christmas release, followed by his 2015 Western The Hateful Eight. It’s a holiday that’s treated this fanboy turned filmmaker well, hitting the sweet spot of Oscar qualifying runs and audience thirst for counterprogramming. Three out of four times, this has helped Tarantino net Oscar noms for his cast and crew. But of this lot, Django Unchained came out on top, snagging five nominations, plus wins for Best Supporting Actor Christoph Waltz and Best Original Screenplay for Tarantino himself.
American Sniper (2014)
Based on a true story, American Sniper follows Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) over the course of four tours in the Iraq War, for which he was dubbed the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history. Director Clint Eastwood aimed to reveal the triumphs, trials and trauma of such service with a biopic that also functioned as a macho tearjerker.
American Sniper was definitely gunning for Oscar gold, as its Christmas Day release was only limited — its wide release would wait until January. As mentioned earlier, this is a standard award season tactic to bump up box office numbers with Oscar buzz, and it’s a tactic Eastwood has employed twice before: Academy Award winners Million Dollar Baby and Letters From Iwo Jima had limited runs ahead of expansions in the new year. This year, Richard Jewell also boasts a December debut in a clear push for an Oscar, but a dismal box office and mixed reviews suggest Eastwood’s latest won’t stack up to American Sniper, which scored six Academy Award nominations and an impressive $350 million domestic, making it the highest-earning war movie of all time.