The Absolutely Definitive Final Argument About Whether Die Hard is a Christmas Movie (Hint: It Is)

Bye bye Hans

Let’s get one thing straight first: the correct answer to “is Die Hard a Christmas movie?” is “it is if you think it is.”

But lots of people enjoy arguing about this ad infinitum, and as a big fan of Die Hard who watches it every Christmas Eve, I am one of those people.

Before we go further, let me offer my personal definition of a Christmas movie (which is not the definition I will be using to argue my point in this piece): a Christmas movie is any movie that takes place primarily close to or during Christmas and/or features Christmas prominently in the film. Home Alone? Christmas movie. Batman Returns? Christmas movie. Edward Scissorhands? Christmas movie. Gremlins? Christmas movie. Santa’s Summer House? Absolutely dreadful film that takes place during a hot California summer but: Christmas movie.

On the other hand, the final scene of Spider-man: No Way Home (very mild spoiler here) takes place during Christmas – complete with decorations – but since most of the film takes place months earlier, I don’t classify it as a Christmas movie.

However, I understand my personal definition is a bit too broad for many people, and certainly makes it almost too easy to classify Die Hard as a Christmas movie.

So to offer a more rigorous way of determining what constitutes a Christmas movie, I propose using the same rule that is often applied to science fiction. Discriminating (read: snobbish) science fiction readers (and writers) often state that a true science fiction story is one that does not work if you remove the “science” element. Under this rubric, something like 2001: A Space Odyssey is science fiction because it involves humans going into space to investigate something, artificial intelligence, and an adherence to, or at least acknowledgement of, the laws of physics (alien monoliths and stargates notwithstanding). You can’t really tell the same story of 2001 by setting it in, say, feudal Japan.

Star Wars, on the other hand, is famously inspired by the movie The Hidden Fortress, which is set in…feudal Japan. Yes, Star Wars features spaceships, robots and laser guns, but it also features magic (the Force is magic, let’s not argue here), princesses, and faster-than-light travel that makes the vastness of outer space easier to traverse than Beaver Lake. And of course the movies feature sound in space.*

So here’s my proposed definition: a Christmas movie is any movie where, if the Christmas element is removed, important aspects of the story no longer work.

I want to offer some flexibility however. I suspect you could find a torturous way to make any story work without Christmas if you really wanted to, but in many cases this would leave a number of coincidences or plot holes that stretch belief. If simply setting it at Christmas resolves those plot holes easily, then I believe that counts as Christmas being integral to the story.

So let’s look at Die Hard. What are the Christmas elements of Die Hard (and of our experience of Die Hard) and if they were removed, would it still be, in essence, the same film? Would its star** still shine just as brightly in the pop culture firmament?

Let us consider.

John’s visit to LA: John McClane and his wife Holly are separated at the beginning of the film, with John still living in New York and working as a cop, while Holly has a big-time Business Job of some sort with the Nakatomi Corporation in Los Angeles. As the film begins, John is landing at LAX to visit his family for the holidays – and see them for the first time in several months.

Now, obviously John could come visit his family at any time, or for any holiday. But he has to take significant time off work (as an essential worker, mind you) and fly across the country – an expensive and time-consuming proposition. So why would John put so much effort into flying out to see his family? What time of year, more than any other time of year, would he want to be there for his children? Seems like Christmas works pretty well, right?

The Nakatomi Office Party: The Nakatomi Christmas party is a key element to the story. The terrorists’ plan requires the building to be mostly empty, but for some of the Nakatomi staff – particularly its president, Joe Takagi – to be present. There are two reasons for this: one, for the small chance that Takagi can give them the codes for the safe, and two, so they have enough people to create a hostage situation worth bringing in the FBI (but not a building full of people, as trying to track and control them all would be impossible – hell, they couldn’t even keep track of the one guy they missed at the party).

It’s possible the Nakatomi Corp could have parties for other reasons (such as landing a big account or something), but if you’re trying to plan a terrorist operation months in advance, it’s a lot easier to just wait for the inevitable Christmas party.

“Now I have a machine gun – Ho Ho Ho”: After dispatching one of the terrorists, John takes his weapon and sends him back down to the terrorists on the elevator, having written the above message (in blood) on the man’s sweater. While this is one of the most memorable seasonal elements in the film and often quoted (and the corpse is wearing a Santa hat), I will admit this particular element isn’t necessary to the plot. John could have written any taunt – such as “yippee-ki-ay mother****er” – on the sweater (with maybe a cowboy hat?) and the gag would still have worked.

The Taped Gun: At the end of the film, John is able to fool the villains by taping his gun to his back with packing tape labeled “Season’s Greetings.” This is a distinctly Christmas touch, but the question is, would it work without the Christmas aspect?

I think the answer is probably yes – although a small part of me wants to argue that that tape might not have been there without the need to wrap holiday packages.

The Soundtrack: The soundtrack isn’t part of the story, but it is an integral part of the experience of the film. And composer Michael Kamen leans hard into the Christmas theme. Most distinctive are the jingle bells that are often heard at important beats (such as when John spots the packing tape as described above). And of course, there’s “Ode to Joy” (not originally a Christmas tune, but now often associated with it), which sneaks into the score several times before culminating in the iconic sequence when the safe is opened (tagged with Theo’s “Merry Christmas” line). Kamen also weaves motifs from “Winter Wonderland” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” into the score.

Finally, there’s the presence of Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” (which McClane explicitly objects to as Christmas music) and then the full “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” playing (ironically, given the Los Angeles setting) over the credits.

I do think Die Hard would be a different film without the Christmas aspects of the soundtrack. These touches add a memorable charm to the film that stands in stark contrast to its increasingly inferior sequels.

The Film’s Continuing Pop Culture Prominence. My final argument is admittedly even less tangible than the soundtrack, but here it is: the Christmas setting is why Die Hard has remained so prominent in pop culture.

Yes, it’s easily the best of all the films, but Die Hard with a Vengeance is considered to be a good action movie by many. I personally think Die Hard 2 is underrated. But ask yourself: do you know anyone who watches those movies annually? Now ask yourself: do you know anyone who watches Die Hard annually? (Hint: if you know me, then yes, you do.) If you do know someone who watches Die Hard annually, do they do it at Christmastime? (Again, if you know me: yes.)

I didn’t create the meme at the top of this article; someone else did. But I did make this (based on a design I saw online).

Die Hard ornament

And someone wrote this:

And finally, and most importantly, every single year at Christmastime, people around the world gather together…

…to argue endlessly about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie. What I’m saying is that even those arguing that Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie are contributing to the relevance of its Christmas-ness; that the film’s Christmas-ness (regardless of whether they think it should be classified as a Christmas movie or not) is a part of what they think about when they think of Die Hard.

There are many other well-known action movies set at Christmas, including Lethal Weapon, RoninFirst Blood, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and The Bourne Identity. But there aren’t lots of custom Lethal Weapon ornaments or children’s Christmas books based on The Long Kiss Goodnight. The Internet being what it is, I’m sure there are people who argue about whether those are Christmas movies or not, but there aren’t countless online articles about them every single Christmas. Why? Because the Christmas setting isn’t that prominent or important to their stories.

But that’s not the case with Die Hard. The strange magic of the holiday season is woven deeply in the fabric of the film, resulting in a film that bizarrely, and despite dozens of shootings, massive explosions, and a guy pulling glass out of his bloody feet, delivers a feeling of exhilarating joy.

And so I believe Christmas is an integral part of most people’s experience of Die Hard – which makes it a Christmas movie. Without its Christmas setting, it’s likely Die Hard would have enjoyed a status like other great action films such as Commando or Speed – popular in its time, forever appreciated by fans of the genre, but not the permanent pop culture touchstone it is today.

* Although the super-nerd in me is often tempted to explain this by positing that the Star Wars galaxy is filled with an unknown invisible substance that carries sound.

** of Bethlehem

Thoughts on the Hellboy reboot

David Harbour in Hellboy (2019)

I just purchased my tickets to see the new Hellboy reboot starring David Harbour and direct by Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent). While I am a big fan of Hellboy, my introduction to him came through the 2004 film. I wish I had discovered the comic when it debuted in the 1990s, as I was obsessed with the X-Files and H.P. Lovecraft at that time and probably would have loved it.

It’s no secret that expectations are not particularly high for the reboot – even Hellboy creator Mike Mignola seems aware of that. The first trailer did not go over well, and the second, while better, did not wash away all the concerns. The film’s tracking is reportedly not looking so good.

My take on this film, especially with the most recent trailers and TV spots, is that while Hellboy is a character very associated with Mignola and his distinct style, the new film seems to ask, “What if Frank Frazetta created Hellboy?”

If Mignola and the producers are looking to create a new cinematic universe, I don’t see the wisdom of using this film to adapt two very late-era Hellboy stories, The Wild Hunt and The Storm and the Fury. In the comics, both of these stories take place in the early stages of what is essentially the Apocalypse; Hellboy actually dies at the end of The Storm and the Fury, leading him into a Dante-esque journey into Hell itself.

This story would have made more sense if this was the final sequel to the 2004 film by Guillermo Del Toro (although the odd subplot of Hellboy’s children from Hellboy II would have had to be dealt with). Of course, superhero films often have world-ending stakes, so it’s possible – even likely – the film’s conclusion won’t go in the same direction as the comics.

Nonetheless, it’s not the direction I would have taken with the reboot, regardless of whether it was intended to be a standalone film or the start of a franchise. Not that anyone cares about how I would have done it, of course, but here’s my pitch.

I’d keep Harbour as Hellboy; he’s a good choice, and could anchor a franchise for years. But I would have made the film a period piece – maybe the 1960s or ’70s – and made the stakes fairly low (i.e., not the apocalypse). I would have sidestepped the whole “Hellboy’s destiny” storyline, which took precedence in the comics fairly early on. The “chosen one” aspect of Hellboy never interested me very much; my favorite HB stories are the ones where he basically takes the place of some figure from a folk tale.

That’s why my take would have been somewhat like Mad Max: Fury Road or the Fistful of Dollars trilogy. The idea would be something like this: a wandering Hellboy comes to some small town that’s having a supernatural problem, gets involved in a mystery that ends up involving a monster or supernatural threat of some sort. But while Hellboy is present and gets some action sequences, the story is as much about the other characters as it is Hellboy. And again, fairly low stakes, a low, almost indie film budget (and look), not too much CGI — largely a character piece / mystery. And I’d give it to someone like Travis Knight to direct.

Finally, I would have given Hellboy a different characterization. Perlman’s Hellboy was a bit goofy and somewhat self-absorbed; Harbour’s take appears to be sarcastic and angry. Neither represents the Hellboy of the comics, who is thoughtful, a bit world-weary, and whose sense of humor is mostly of the “dad” type.

Anyway, that would have been my approach. If the film is cheap enough, it doesn’t have to be a massive hit, and if it’s successful enough you can build from there.

Man or Saruman?

While they still seem like a long ways off, Guillermo Del Toro is hard at work on a pair of films based on The Hobbit. They haven’t officially cast anyone for the films yet, though Ian McKellen is very clearly on board. But what about that other wizard, Saruman? (more…)

Review > District 9


From an aesthetic and conceptual standpoint, I liked a lot of things about District 9. Director Neil Blomkamp has already proven to be a master of the use of adding special effects (such as aliens) to documentary-style footage to heighten their realism–the grainy, shaky camera work hides a multitude of CGI sins while anchoring the viewer in a familiar, real-world context (well, as “real” as your average news show is these days).

Then there’s the concept. District 9‘s set-up is simple: in the early 1980s, a giant alien mothership appears in Earth airspace. Rather than nuking New York–or even London, or Paris, or Tokyo–it settles over Johannesburg, South Africa, where it proceeds to hover for three months until the local government decides to take action. Drilling into the ship, they discover a million malnourished, sickly insect-like aliens. They take the aliens out of the ship and set up a temporary refugee camp below the vessel, which eventually turns into a permanent residence and, finally, a slum. (more…)

The Return of Godzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla 1985)


I was introduced to Godzilla by my cousin Ed, who passed down to me his Shogun Warriors Godzilla toy as well as his love of WLVI 56’s Creature Double Feature. I took to the big green lizard like a fish to water–something about the fire-breathing, skyscraper-sized beast spoke to my young soul. I won’t bother to analyze that right now. In any event, I grew up on Godzilla movies. (In fact, Godzilla would eventually help me get into college–but I’ll tell that story some other time.)

In August 1985, at the age of six, I finally got to see a Godzilla movie in the theater. Godzilla 1985 (or The Return of Godzilla, as it was known in Japan) was an important event in my childhood.


Friday the 13th, Part II

Here’s the second (and final) movie review I wrote before my mind began to melt. Enjoy!

Friday the 13th Part II: A stream-of-consciousness review from memory

Let’s see…the movie starts with a street. We find out later it’s five years since the events of the first film, though this movie came out in 1981, a year after the first. Anyway, we see a girl’s legs walking down a street and then she goes inside, and she’s followed by a mysterious guy in boots. The music tells me he’s bad. By the way, we’re on a suburban street or something. Then we cut to Alice (Adrienne King), the heroine from the first movie, who’s lying in bed dreaming of stock footage from the first movie, which recaps the climax of that film in excruciating, lengthy detail. Finally Alice wakes up, putters around for a while, then gets herself stabbed in the head with an ice pick. Then the credits roll. Ha ha, excellent job director Steve Miner, you made me think Alice was going to be the protagonist but then she died! Kind of reminds me of the opening of Scream.

There’s a noisy credit sequence featuring nutty, chaotic music by Harry Manfredini that reminds me of The Evil Dead. I forgot to mention the distinctive “K-K-K ma-ma-ma” sound in my review of the first film, which was allegedly created by Manfredini distorting his voice saying, “Kill her, mommy!”

Of course I know going into this that the killer is Jason, but the movie’s not exactly subtle on that point anyway. But it raises the question: why the heck is Jason alive? Later we discover that he’s been living in a shack for years?hold on, I’ll save that rant for later.

Once Alice has been dispatched, we join a cast of nubile young teenagers who are basically clones of the ones from the first movie. No, someone isn’t stupid enough to re-open Camp Crystal Lake, but someone is just stupid enough to open a different summer camp nearby. The camp leader/owner/authority figure tells a legend about Jason, hammering home the fact that he’s the killer in the first twenty minutes of the film. The Last Girl?by which I mean the heroine?is named Ginny, by the way, and she’s a cute blonde played by Amy Steel. The camp leader guy is named Paul and I didn’t like him enough to look up the actor’s name on imdb.

A bunch of the counselors go to town to drink, leaving us with our core group of victims. Somewhere in there a cop sees Jason and follows him to an old shack, where he gets himself killed (the cop, of course). It turns out Jason has been living in a shack his entire life. This is bizarrely explained through a monologue from a drunk Ginny, who somehow manages to divine the entire backstory with absolutely no evidence whatsoever. It seems Jason didn’t drown, and allegedly no one ever found his body (so one wonders why Mrs. Voorhees is so sure he drowned…anyway). Apparently Jason decided to live out the rest of his life as a hermit in the woods, rather than going to his mother and explaining that no, he lived, actually. Ginny speculates that he may have seen his mother die, which accounts for why he has her head in his shack, but that makes me wonder?didn’t the cops wonder where Pamela Voorhees’s head went? The film makes it clear that it’s known Pamela was the killer in the first film. So did Jason dig up his mother’s corpse later? Or just take the head right then and there? Actually, wait, he had her sweater, too…

Lots of people get killed and Jason gets revealed as a guy in overalls with a pillowcase on his head. No hockey mask or machete in this one?just a pitchfork. Ginny manages to thwart Jason by pretending to be his mother, which is a fairly interesting scene in an otherwise lame movie. For the record, Ginny’s clearly smarter and more interesting than Alice.

Ultimately, though, I was glad just to get through this thing. These straight slasher movies are so dull. I want to see some supernatural elements and maybe some character development, if that’s not too much to ask.

Troll Market

The more I read about Hellboy 2, the more it seems that there’s something of a Harry Potter-esque vibe to it. I think it’s the idea of the “Troll Market” more than anything else, but still.

I really can’t predict how well this film will do. The first one was a moderate success, but it was no Batman Begins or even X-Men. Maybe these Rowling-esque touches, while alienating some Hellboy fans (Hi, Scott!) will draw in the casual crowd.

Friday the 13th

I wrote this piece a few months ago, when I was still thinking I could sit through all the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween movies. It turned out I couldn’t, but I did manage to write two reviews before I gave up. Here’s the first one.

Hello and welcome. I’m Jander Rothberg.

And my name is Sir Nigel Sandstone.

We’re here today to discuss the celluloid trash—I mean, the cinematic masterpie—the film Friday the 13th. Filmed on a budget of $700,000 and released in 1980, this so-called ‘slasher flick’ spawned—and I do mean spawned, as spawn is a word most often associated with slimy things with tentacles—spawned a series of sequels.

Now now, Jan, you’re getting ahead of yourself, no?

Oh very well. Hand me the tea, will you? The film’s plot, such as it is, can be summarized thusly. The movie begins in a place called Camp Crystal Lake in 1958. Two teenage camp counselors sneak off to copulate and are brutally murdered. Twenty years later, the camp is re-opened and teenage camp counselors are brutally murdered, usually after sneaking off to copulate.

Now now, Jan, there’s a bit more to it than that.

Is there? I was under the impression this was a quickie rip-off of John Carpenter’s far superior Halloween that happened to have enough nudity and gratuitous violence to be successful and give the filmmakers the wrong idea that they should keep making movies rather than turning their talents to some other medium that might better suit their talents. Like fabric sculpture, perhaps.

All right, enough. I for one thought the film was relatively effective at what it was trying to do, which is to scare you.

But what kind of goal is that for a work of art? Is there nothing more?

What about Psycho?

Touché. But I do hope you’re not comparing Alfred Hitchcock to Sean S. Cunningham, the director of this film?

What if I were?

Then I should beat you about the face and neck until I was certain your fit of madness had passed.

As everyone knows, the big twist in Friday the 13th is that the killer turns out not to be a masked male psychopath—that came in the later films—but a middle-aged woman, the mother of a boy named Jason Voorhees who drowned at the camp in 1957 while the counselors were off copulating, as you put it.

Hmph. ‘Twist.’ I suppose it was fairly clever. But once the woman, played by one Betsy Palmer, was revealed, I have to say the heroine did not handle herself very well. How many times did she beat the woman down, then leave without making sure she was unconscious?

Well, one must expect such conventions of the genre.

Oh please. But I did like the old crazy fellow in town who told them that the Camp had a death curse. If I had a nickel for every time I was told one of my vacation destinations had a death curse…

…then what?


If you had a nickel for every time that happened, then what?

I’d be rich, I believe the expression goes.

People have actually told you that a place you are going on vacation has a death curse?

I was merely making a joke, Nigel.

So no one’s ever actually told you a place you were going had a death curse.

Well, there was that one time, when I was going to visit New Haven. But that turned out to be true.

Moving on. What did you think of the cast? I thought the actors were generally a bit stilted and untrained, but that was fine, since all they really had to do was die in horribly violent ways.

Yes, it was a very rewarding film in that regard.

I suppose we ought to mention that this film features a very young Kevin Bacon.

Yes, he gets stabbed through the throat from under the bed. Excellent role for him. Unfortunately for those of you who like to play “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” none of the other actors in this film have ever done anything else.

Now that’s neither nice nor quite true.

It’s mostly true.


Also, I’m unclear as to why I had to be subjected to Mr. Bacon wearing a skintight banana-hammock and, later, his exposed buttocks.

I did like the heroine, Alice. I thought Adrienne King made her charming and believable.

Aside from the character’s astounding lack of common sense and mild-to-moderate arm strength, I’ll agree with you.

Of course, it’s the next film that the infamous Jason Voorhees takes his place as the antagonist of the series. But I’ll let Mr. Clarke tell you about that. Until next time, my friends.

Enjoy the day.

Del Toro + Lovecraft = happy JFCC

At the Mountains of Madness

Somewhat on-topic, here’s some fantastic news: it seems Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Blade II, Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) has finally gotten the green light to make his big-budget adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. (I like to think it was partly my influence–see the last question.)

Finally, someone will take a crack at a true A-movie version of Lovecraft’s work. ATMOM is probably the best one to start with, though I think The Dunwich Horror would make a great film as well. With any luck (and skill), ATMOM will be the beginning of a run of big-budget Lovecraft films (like the Austen films of the nineties or the current epic fantasy boom).

The Call of Cthulhu


Here’s an interesting tidbit. Last night I watched The Call of Cthulhu, a short independent film by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. The concept was to adapt Lovecraft’s famous short story in the style of the era in which it was written–that is, a 1920s silent movie.

I actually requested Netflix add the title to their collection, and they quite nicely obliged me (which was no doubt a better boon to the filmmakers than if I’d just bought my own copy). That said, I was wary; the concept seemed ambitious and I’d already seen more than one bad, low-budget Lovecraft adaptation.

But The Call of Cthulhu impressed me. The silent film conceit works well for Lovecraft’s writing style, which is low on character development and features lots of oblique references and impenetrable dialogue. The acting is surprisingly good, perfectly capturing the stage-like style of the period, and rarely seems amateurish. Most importantly the cinematography and film stock give the impression of an actual 1920s silent film, rather than a black-and-white student film that happens to have no dialogue.

The special effects are interesting too, particularly the Impressionistic manner in which the filmmakers present the “non-Euclidean” architecture of R’lyeh, Cthulhu’s sunken city.

The film is only fifty minutes long and well worth a rental, especially if you’re a Lovecraft fan. I may end up buying a copy for myself. While this isn’t the most realistic adaptation of Lovecraft, it is one of the most effective and faithful to the spirit of the work.

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