It’s nearly Christmas! To celebrate, the writers of One Room With A View are going to present their arguments as to why their choice is the Ultimate Christmas Movie. Dave campaigned for Die Hard, Steve fought for Die Hard 2, and Chris D battled for The Muppet Christmas Carol. Now Christopher must mount his challenge for the crown, with 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
“Listen up everybody. I want to tell you about Christmas Town!”
Christmas. It’s a time for scarf swaddled snowmen to snuggle, for fat little robins to perch on branches of mistletoe, for pine trees to be wrapped in twinkling lights. Our visions of Yuletide are always the same: unabashed clichés of chocolate box snapshots, freshly squeezed into the latest John Lewis adverts.
There is no room for ghosts and ghouls. No mentions of vampires and witches. No place for Pumpkin Kings and fleshy rag dolls.
So how can it be that Henry Selick’s tingle and tinsel treat, The Nightmare Before Christmas, (a film actually released over Halloween in 1993) is the season’s ultimate film?
Peeled from the mind of Tim Burton, Halloween Town is a horror movie with a postcode. It plays host to a community of monsters, demons and all the other mythical nasties that may have invaded your dreams over the years. They all live together, as happy neighbours, under the rule of Jack Skellington; their celebrated Pumpkin King.
As October 31st dawns, the town’s people rejoices at the return of their favourite spooky season. A creepy carnival mushrooms in its honour, with Jack right at the centre of the morbid merrymaking. But beneath his jolly masquerade, the Pumpkin King is being haunted by his own boredom. The eternity of his life stretches out before his skeletal feet as barren land; peppered only with photocopy after photocopy of All Hallow’s Eve – Jack Skellington’s Groundhog Day.
Even death is not without its routines, and Jack has slipped into one as if it was icy dog mess.
Feeling festive yet?
Well, that’s the point of The Nightmare Before Christmas: it presents us with a world initially completely devoid of any Yuletide magic. Unlike most Christmas films, which are usually greedily sucking on candy canes before the opening titles play out, Halloween Town exists in a void; its inhabitants have absolutely no idea what Christmas even is. All they do is wait for Halloween, celebrate Halloween, then wait for Halloween again.
Which is precisely what causes Jack to wander away from his home and friends and routine. Hungover from the holiday that made him, he rids himself of its stifling grasp by ambling through the woods on the edge of town, past the point of the cemetery. The darkness of the forrest swallows him whole and, by accident, he discovers a portal which evacuates him to Christmas Town.
This is where The Nightmare Before Christmas kneels to be crowned as the ultimate Christmas film. Selick spends so long dwelling in the dark, morose setting of Halloween Town, that when we see Christmas again – in the sugary form we have been spoon feed to see it as – it makes the season all the more potent to our systems.
When Jack first stumbles into Christmas Town, it is like watching the children enter Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The place is such an overwhelming rush; crammed to the brim with all the trappings and footnotes of Christmas-ness: snowballs and laughter and cakes and presents and just utter joy. Granting Wizzard their annual wish for a perpetual state of Yuletide, Christmas Town is a snowcapped, fairly lit beauty; the kind of place found inside a snowflake inside a Dr Seuss story.
Jack’s whirling exploration of Christmas Town is the best sequence from The Nightmare Before Christmas, and my main case for why I believe the film is the season’s ultimate champion. In those few wide eyed moments, Selick is able to capture the sheer wonderment of experiencing the bizarre magic that is Christmas for the very first time. Fuelled and chronicled by Danny Elfman’s giddily euphoric “What’s This?” (a number that has, unfortunately, been mugged senseless by advertisements in the last few years), Jack doesn’t just observe Christmas. He falls into a condition of obsessive love with it: it must be his.
Music is such an important part of Christmas, and one of cinema’s most prized ball gowns; which is why any festive film has to get its tunes right. Danny Elfman’s witty soundtrack, simultaneously as chilling as Halloween and as triumphant as Christmas, is a jukebox of genius; he doesn’t just contribute towards the The Nightmare Before Christmas, he throws a bag over its head and steals it completely. The smokey, rasping vocals he lends to Jack are also pitch perfect.
As the Pumpkin King returns to his shadowy domain, bubbling with ideas on how to heist Christmas, it becomes clearer still that The Nightmare Before Christmas is not the traditional festive fare we have become accustomed to. A stark contrast to Christmas Town, the Halloween equivalent throws open the sunken chest of terror and smashes Pandora’s box; when Nightmare is frightening, it’s subconscious piercingly horrible, ringing with an unsettling mania.
Selick is also able to identify peculiar similarities between the two antithetical holidays, and even weave them together. Christmas Eve, for example, is the only night of the year when we are happy to hear a bump in the night. It must be reindeer hooves, we say. Santa is on his way. But only one day before and dread would sink its fangs to our bones; it must be the one hiding beneath my bed, we’d shake. Or the one hiding under the stairs! This film will change how you see Christmas night forever.
The Nightmare Before Christmas celebrated its second decade this year but it still has not aged a day. In twenty years, nothing has come even close to challenging the Pumpkin King for his festive title, and I doubt anything will. Standing alone, it is It’s A Wonderful Life, slashed with mascara and tattooed with black lipstick; a twisted, punky cover of a Christmas classic. A real gem.
Do you agree? Is The Nightmare Before Christmas a festive treat? Or just a Nightmare to watch over Christmas? Let us know below!