Is This a 1980s Christmas Movie?

by Will Padilla

Whether a movie is good or bad is subjective. One person’s “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” is another’s “Mac and Me.” But whether a work of cinema is also a Christmas film, however, is as objective as Judge Stephen “The Hammer” Wexler.

After reviewing opinion pieces from popular magazines including Entertainment Weekly and Mens Health, professional guidance from writing trades such as Screenwriting Magazine and Screencraft, and statistical analysis from data scientists, we created a surefire method for determining whether your favorite film qualifies as a yuletide classic.

To arrive at our definitive criteria, we eliminated a some of the unhelpful considerations applied by other analysis. The release date of a film, for example, most often only informs us as to when a studio thought their property would bring in the biggest box office. It’s the likely reason “Miracle on 34th Street” premiered in the summer of 1947.

Likewise, testing whether removing Christmas from a film (whatever that means) destroys its plot would strike many other tried-and-true holiday hits from Christmas film lists (see “White Christmas,” for example).

Finally, the opinions of the cast or creative team behind a particular work need not be considered, simply because they’re subjective. The differing takes by director John McTiernan, Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia and Reginald VelJohnson, for example, don’t crack the code of "Die Hard" as easily as Theo may open a safe.

Instead, we need only consider the following objective criteria to determine a movie is a Christmas film.

1. Is it set at Christmas time?

2. Is it a tale of redemption?

3. Is it about family?

4. Is it Christmassy?

Admittedly the answer to this question may seem a bit wishy-washy, but we need only consider the presence of Christmas imagery, music and “magic.”

That said, here are three 1980s movies that someone on the internet believes may also be Christmas films. As noted above, whether they’re good or bad works of cinema is for you to decide. (Although no. 2 is an indisputable stinker.) To hear our analysis of these and four other 1980s films, check out this episode of The 80its.

1. Gremlins

Directed by Joe Dante and written by Chris Columbus, this film was released June 8, 1984.

Super-short plot summary: Billy (Zach Galligan) fails to properly care for his new pet and brings chaos to his small town and death to some of its residents.

Is it set at Christmas time?

Sure is. The film opens with a desperate Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) finding a last-minute Christmas gift for his son.

Is the story a tale of redemption?

No. If any lesson is to be gleaned from this harrowing story, it's this: Don't give an animal as a gift. Whether a puppy or a mogwai, a pet is a lot of responsibility.

Is it a story about family?

Not really. Randall cares for his son--although he does buy him an unclassified creature from a mysterious man who doles out vague warnings about the being. And Kate (Phoebe Cates) tells a tragic story about her father's accidental death on a Christmas eve years earlier. So, no, it doesn't include the traditional heart-warming family tale.

Is it Chrimassy?

Yes, the film is filled with Christmas imagery, including the evil Gremlins caroling for potential victims. We hear at least four Christmas songs, including Darlene Love's classic "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)." "Christmas" is mentioned 15 times throughout the script and "Santa" is referred to four times--although those mentions are part of the terrible monologue Kate gives about her well-intentioned father's demise.

Conclusion: "Gremlins" is no more a Christmas movie than Stripe can be trusted with an alarm clock.

2. Less Than Zero

Directed by Marek Kanievska and written by Harley Peyton (based on novel by Bret Easton Ellis), this film was released November 6, 1987.

Super-short plot summary: Clay (Andrew McCarthy) returns home from college to find his high school girlfriend Blair (Jamie Gertz) is now a drug addict, who is now dating Clay's best friend Julian (Robert Downey, Jr.), who is also a drug addict.

Is it set at Christmas time?

Sure, Clay's trip home is during his Christmas break, but so what? See the summary above!

Is the story a tale of redemption?

No. Julian, the only character who attempts redemption, fails quickly and dies shortly thereafter.

Is it a story about family?

Maybe. The three old friends are a family of sorts. And dysfunctional families are often at the heart of holiday classics.

Is it Chrimassy?

Not at all. Sure, the screenplay refers to "Christmas" 22 times, but there is a disconnect between the mere words and everything else about this film. There is a lack of Christmas imagery and what is presented only provides an ironic background to the dark story. Even the inclusion of "Christmas in Hollis," a hip-hop holiday favorite, is not enough to steer this move in the direction of the North Pole.

Conclusion: Not only is "Less Than Zero" a Christmas movie, it is only a movie in the technical sense. Yes, the cast and crew filmed something. That someone on the internet included this movie on a list of 1980s holiday films means they probably didn't receive the Cabbage Patch doll or He-Man action figure they wanted that Christmas long ago.

3. Lethal Weapon

Directed by Richard Donner and written by Shane Black, this film was released March 6, 1987.

Super-short plot summary: Wildcard Sergeant Riggs (Mel Gibson) partners with the too-old-for this Sergeant Murtaugh (Danny Glover) to fight crime in Los Angeles.

Is it set at Christmas time?

Yes, with the most poignant moment of the tale occurring on the holiday iteself. (See redemption and family discussions below.)

Is the story a tale of redemption?

Absolutely! At the start of the film, Riggs is a suicidal loner, still wrestling with the tragic death of his wife. The end of the film, however, finds Riggs handing over the bullet that was to be his undoing to his new partner.

Is it a story about family?

Of course. Nearly inseparable from Riggs’ redemption arc is his transition from loner to newly-adopted member of the Murtaugh clan. The film concludes with Riggs accepting an invitation to share Christmas dinner at the Murtaugh home.

Is it Chrimassy?

Does Santa only appreciate Rudolph once a storm rolls in? Yes, of course. The film includes at least three Christmas tunes beginning with “Jingle Bell Rock” during the opening credits. In fact, Darlene Love, who sung the chart-topping “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home) before Mariah Carey was born, plays Murtaugh’s wife.

From the first frame to the last, Christmas decorations abound. The first action sequence takes place at a Christmas tree lot. Even the villains wish one another a merry Christmas.

The word “Christmas” is mentioned 24 times throughout the screenplay.

Conclusion: “Lethal Weapon” is Christmas movie enough to keep Murtaugh from retiring.

Listen to More Analysis

To hear our analysis of these and four other 1980s films, check out this episode of The 80its.