Forget candy canes and festive cheer — this selection of alternative Christmas films and specials celebrate those on the naughty list more than the folks who have been nice all year.
By setting their stories during the so-called ‘happiest time of the year,’ these off-kilter adventures have a inherited a contradictory seasonal edge that, like mixing sweet with sour, somehow manages to hit just right.
Read more: The best movies on TV over Christmas
Whether it’s alternative humour or full-on Christmas craziness, if you’re looking for Christmas adventure with a sting in the sleigh, this batch should do the trick nicely.
Violent Night | In cinemas now
“Time for some season’s beatings…” Stranger Things’ star David Harbour dons the iconic red coat, big beard and erm… gruff attitude to play Santa Claus in a holiday action adventure that’s guaranteed to become an alternative festive favourite in years to come.
Beaten down with the increasingly materialistic nature of kids — and the fact that fewer and fewer little uns’ seem to believe he actually exists — we find Santa drowning his sorrows in a dive bar whilst doing his annual present run. However, when his route takes him to a house that’s in the midst of a heist by some people who are definitely on the naughty list, Harbour’s gruff St. Nick is forced to take matters into his own hands and dish out his own dose of festive justice. Ho Ho Hold onto your butts — because things are about to get spicier than a cinnamon coated candy cane.
The Office Christmas Specials | BBC iPlayer
Whatever your thoughts on Ricky Gervais’ exploits post-The Office (we don’t have enough of a word count to go into that right now), it’s impossible to deny the power and hugely satisfying nature of the way he and show co-creator Stephen Merchant decided to wrap the series up.
Picking up shortly after the exploits of the show’s second outing, we once again meet gloriously oblivious boss David Brent — only this time, he’s no longer the boss of anyone, having been made redundant from paper merchants Wernham Hogg and cast out on his own without his beloved employees. What follows is festive redemption tale - well, about as redemptive as Brent can get — as we follow a bloke in crisis find a moment of happiness just in time for the holidays. It’s gutting that Grevais effectively un-wrote this perfect ending for subsequent Brent outings — but we’ll always have the Wernam Hogg Christmas party.
Community: Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas (S02E11) | Netflix
Dan Harmon’s brilliantly-meta cult favourite series — the one that preceded current megahit Rick and Morty — was never afraid of taking traditional story tropes and flipping them on their head. For the series’ second Christmas outing, Harmon and his team of writers sent the Greendale seven — a study group who spend more in a world of pop-culture homages than in community college textbooks — on not only one of their best festive outings but one of their most memorable adventures full stop.
When the movie loving Abed (Danny Pudi) starts to loose sight of the true meaning of Christmas, his psyche gets lost in a stop-motion world, leading his pals to transform into festive toys and head into his animated mind to save him. A love letter to the colourful kids’ specials like 1964’s Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, it’s a special that’s worth revisiting each and every Christmas.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia - A Very Sunny Christmas (S06E13+14) | Netflix
Let’s be honest: there aren’t that many Christmas specials that accuse Santa Claus of sleeping with mother of one of the show’s main characters. Then again, there aren’t that many shows quite like the brilliant and long-running comedy series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
For their first (and so far, only) Christmas special, the gang — consisting of Mac (Rob McElhenney), Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Charlie (Charlie Day), Dee (Kaitlin Olson) and Frank (Danny DeVito) — try their hand at a redemption tale via a festive two-parter, helping restore some festive spirit to those they’ve burned in the past.
Cue lots of yelling, depravity and very little lesson learning. However, while the gang fails to learn anything meaningful, us viewers are left with one of the most debauched festive specials going. Nice.
The Royle Family Christmas Specials (Various) | BBC iPlayer
Some seasonal specials become so deeply ingrained with the fabric of the festive season that it’s not really Christmas until you’ve watched them with a box of Quality Street. The numerous Christmas episodes of Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash’s gloriously down-to-Earth and brilliantly written, The Royle Family, undoubtedly tick this box.
Read more: The best Christmas TV specials to stream
While the series itself is full of muted, kitchen-sink brilliance, its cast — led by slobish patriarch Jim (Ricky Tomlinson), doting mum Barbara (Sue Johnston), dolled-up daughter Denise (Aherne), her hubby Dave (Cash) and her monosylabic brother Antony (Ralph Little) — really come into their own during their many Christmas specials. At the mercy of festive telly and wearing rubbish paper crowns — while the scant dialogue is brilliant enough, it’s the show’s prolonged silences that give them their uncanny power, made all the more resonant following Aherne’s tragic death in 2016.
A Christmas Carol | BBC iPlayer
Considering Charles Dickens’ iconic text A Christmas Carol is effectively a ghost story, there haven’t really been that many adaptations that lean into its inherently spooky nature. Thankfully, screenwriter Steven Knight, creator of Peaky Blinders and the same scribe behind features like David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, decided to buck this trend with his 2019 take on the tale.
Led by Guy Pearce’s Ebeneezer Scrooge, this gothic retelling features plenty of shadowy, horror movie vibes and an all-star cast including Stephen Graham as Scrooge’s tight-fisted boss Jacob Marley, Andy Serkis as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Jason Flemyng as the Ghost of Christmas Future. Combined, this three-part mini-series offers a nice and sinister counterpart to the Muppets’ all-singing, all-dancing take on the same story.
Elves | Netflix
Netflix is full of foreign language gems that all too often only come to the attention of wider viewers when a usually sub-par English language remake is made. However, if you want to really pour yourself into a fun festive story with a bit of a bite this year, stick Elves on.
This six-part mini-series dropped on Netflix back in 2021 and follows a Danish family who relocate to a remote island for the holidays. Before they can start getting in the Christmas spirit, the clan discover that they’re not alone on their new island home — it’s actually filled with flesh-hungry, carnivorous elves. Pretty soon, they’ve ditched the gift-giving altogether in favour of fighting for survival with the help from a baby elf that they’ve taken in after accidentally hitting it with their car. Watch the original before the inevitable remake arrives.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale | Freevee/BFI Player
Too long has Santa been depicted as a round, rosy-cheeked guy who’s eager to dish out presents and munch mince pies. In 2010’s action horror Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, audiences met a very different take on the man in the red suit — and it was about as far from jolly as you can possibly get.
Taking us deep into remote Lapland, this Finnish indie-horror introduced us to a group of researchers who accidentally stumble upon a blood thirsty wild Santa Claus lurking out there in the hills. Once they’ve disturbed him from his entrapment, this folk lore take on Christmas’s main-man soon turns bloody as the researches are forced to fight for their life in order to stay off the naughty list and avoid meeting a grizzly end. A cult favourite, the film spawned a sequel, Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions, in 2005.
Inside No. 9: The Devil of Christmas | BBC iPlayer
As proven above — and a handful of other times on this list — the season of delight and a good old scare work pretty well together. It’s a trend that can be traced all the way back to Charles Dickens’ haunting classic A Christmas Carol and one that has continued throughout pop-culture, punctuating the sweetness of the season with a little heart-pounding terror, reminding you of the redemptive power of second chances.
With that in mind, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the Inside No.9 boys, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, put their own devilish spin on the holidays — albeit without any such redemptive qualities. Here, they tell a devilish Krampus tale that isn’t at all what it seems. With a new festive special due to air this year, they’re clearly not done with the holidays just yet.
In Bruges | Prime Video
Earlier this year, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson reunited with director Martin McDonagh for one of 2022’s finest offerings, The Banshees of Inisherin. This rural-set tale painted a painful picture of the end of a friendship as the bromance of two islanders slowly dissolves to disastrous and heartbreaking results.
The film was a spiritual sequel to 2008’s In Bruges, a black comedy that also saw Farrell and Gleeson share the screen under the directorial eye of McDonagh. Here, they played a couple of hitmen sent to picturesque Bruges to hide out during the holidays. However, it’s not long before we discover the real reason why they’re there - the full ramifications of which are yet to fully play out.
Like its 2022 follow-up, In Bruges is darkly funny, with the sweetness of its Christmas-coating cushioning the blow for a heartbreaking story. An unlikely festive offering but one certainly worth unwrapping this Christmas.