My favorite Christmas movie isn’t really your stereotypical Christmas movie. It’s pretty dark and gothic, definitely creepy, and it doesn’t really evoke the sense of “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men” that we’ve come to expect from the truly great Christmas films.
Except that it does.
The Nightmare Before Christmas was released in October of 1993. From the moment I first saw the trailers for this clay-animated movie, I wanted to see it. I loved the notion that someone could be dark and twisted enough to make a movie that served as both a great pick for Halloween and a great pick for Christmas. And that song in the trailer (What’s this? What’s this? There’s color everywhere. What’s this? There’s white things in the air. What’s this?) had been stuck in my head from pretty much the first moment I heard it. There was a snafu, though, in my plans to see this movie. Two of them, in fact. I knew no one in my circle of friends who had any interest whatsoever in spending an evening watching a cartoon and I had no driver’s license, so I could not drive myself.
Yes, it’s true. I was a Senior in high school and I had no driver’s license. My step-father had made this tyrannical and humiliating decision because he did not want his insurance to go up just because I had my license. Especially since he had no intentions of ever letting me drive any of his cars. If I wanted to go places or do things with my friends, I had to rely on them to drive me, to pick me up, to take me home. And since we lived six miles out of town in the country, the chances of people agreeing to that were fairly slim. It happened, but it was rare.
For this reason, among others, I was pretty depressed and lonely through most of my Senior year of high school. Yes, I had friends. Lots of them, in fact. But my license-free, no-car existence excluded me from most of the social gatherings. In addition, there was an ex-girlfriend involved here, a girl who had become friends with my friends and always seemed to be hanging around. Sometimes, admittedly, the decision to stay home on Friday night and catch up on movies I had missed was a conscious choice to avoid any further heartbreak. High school romance is the pits and I can’t blame that on my stepfather.
So. . . okay. Gibson City. 1993. I was a Senior. My younger brother was a Freshman. He had a girlfriend. Her name is, at the moment, escaping me (but I will never forget that she had a pick-up truck that we referred to as “the screwdriver truck” because you had to, you know, jam a screwdriver into the ignition to start it). They were going to see this movie at the Wings Cinema in Rantoul. Naturally, I did not want to be so lame as to tag along and (oh, the shame!) BE A THIRD WHEEL to (someone please kill me!) MY YOUNGER BROTHER, but I was desperate to see this movie. We do what we have to do.
Let me pause for a moment and explain that my younger brother has always somewhat accused me of being an elitist snob when it comes to movies. “Overly critical” are the words he often used. And to a certain extent, he was right. I was young and a good writer. I was hyper aware of the latter fact, and definitely pretentious about it. I had designs on working in the film industry and was almost 100% completely incapable of watching a movie for fun, for sheer entertainment value. To that I will just say that, now that those dreams of being a famous screenwriter never came to fruition, I have watched the entire Mission: Impossible catalog at least six times and stop pretty much everything I am doing when I realize that Tremors is on television. I’ve gotten better, that’s all I’m saying.
Where was I? Oh, yes. Me, my brother, his girlfriend. Depressed. Lonely. Third wheel. Date night. I’m an overly critical, elitist snob. And . . . wait for it . . . we both loved this movie.
That’s right. We both LOVED this movie. Immensely. And I do believe that this might have been the first time in our entire lives that this had EVER happened. Whenever I see this movie, I always think of that awkward evening. I think of my brother in the theater parking lot: “If you hated that, I don’t even want to know you anymore.” I think about trying to be contrary and play it off like this was the worst god damn movie I had ever seen. But I couldn’t do it with a straight face. Because the movie, let’s be honest, had for pretty much the first time in my entire Senior year, made me feel so ridiculously ALIVE. I’ve already told you my Senior year was rough, and this clay-animated (!) Christmas movie (!!) had given me a reason not to, I dunno, hate myself for a couple of hours. Which is somewhat ironic, I guess, given how dark and gothic the movie actually is.
I won’t speak for my brother now, because I’m not sure how this movie has held up for him over time, but it still holds up for me (as I’m sure it probably does for his wife, who loves this sort of thing more than I do). This is, without question, my favorite Christmas movie ever. There is, admittedly, some nostalgia thrown into that assessment, but even without that, it’s a damn fine film.
Well-written. Well-plotted. Visually breathtaking (I’m still floored by how they animated, with clay, the spotlight in the “Sandy Claws” musical number and how the tree spins in one direction while the ornaments spin in the other). Unbelievable music. Jaw-dropping villain (Oogie Bogie is horrifying and adorable all at the same time). The absolute creepiest depiction of Santa Claus I have ever seen in any movie before or since.
The Nightmare Before Christmas isn’t just a Christmas movie for me. It’s a macabre reminder that there isn’t any good reason that the feelings and compassion and friendliness that overtake us this time of year can’t exist all year long. That’s really all Jack Skellington wanted, right? To feel this good all year.