Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.
The Distinctive: The Nightmare Before Christmas
What mad, hallucinatory mind could ever concoct The Nightmare Before Christmas? Well, Tim Burton’s of course…which makes all the sense in the world. Whether crafting a classic like Sleepy Hollow or a dud such as Planet of the Apes, the director always features a distinctive visual style, and a macabre sense of humor.
Eye-popping visuals and dark humor obviously inspired The Nightmare Before Christmas, and while Burton deserves props for writing the story and producing the movie, for our money, director Henry Selick (Coraline, James and the Giant Peach) and art director Deane Taylor deserve the lion’s share of credit.
The movie follows the adventures of Pumpkin King Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon), the icon of Halloweentown that’s grown disenchanted with only ever celebrating Halloween. One night along a lamenting stroll, Jack wanders into the magical world of Christmastown…a town where Christmas is every day, presided over by Santa Claus (Ed Ivory) himself. Enchanted and renewed, Jack brings Christmas to Halloweentown, ordering his minions to retool the city for the holiday. Jack also decides to let Santa have the year off, hiring bratty trick-or-treaters Lock, Shock & Barrel (Paul Reubens, Cathrine O’Hara and Danny Elfman) to bring Santa to Halloweentown. The three don’t so much claim Santa as kidnap him, leaving him with the evil Oogie Boogie (Ken Page) to keep him busy. Jack believes his Christmas triumph will finally come to pass, though a dark vision by his friend Sally (O’Hara, again) suggests otherwise.
Director Selick employs a technique called “stop-motion animation” (sometimes called Claymation) to bring the film to life. That technique on its face recalls the classic Rankin-Bass holiday specials of old (Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Year Without a Santa Claus). In Nightmare, the technique reaches a new level of fluidity–though made of rubber, the characters here seem totally alive and natural. It helps too that the movie employs a spectacular group of actors (including gay actors Page and Glenn Shadix, as well as gay fav O’Hara), each one ideally cast in their roles. Frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman composes one of his most memorable scores here, adopting the same Broadway musical format to integrate songs to the narrative. Quite simply, the tunes, while specific, are some of the best musical numbers of the past 30 years. That Elfman didn’t score Oscar nominations for “Sally’s Song” (a tune since adopted by pop singers, including Billie Elish and Amy Lee), “Kidnap the Sandy Claws” or “Oogie Boogie’s Song” is dumbfounding.
Then, of course, there are the characters: some of the most vibrant, funny and memorable to grace the screen. Jack’s story will, no doubt, also strike a chord with LGBTQ viewers. Depressed if determined, he tries to be something he isn’t, naively entering a hostile world. If the Pumpkin King learns one thing over the course of the movie’s runtime, it’s that he needs to be himself–no amount of alternative dress and mannerisms can suppress his nature. For that matter, Sally’s story of secret love for Jack will also resonate with queer audience members for obvious reasons.
And yes, Jack’s final recognition of Sally’s feelings in their love duet makes us weep every time.
Films don’t get more imaginative or original than this. Looking at it almost 30 years on, it still sweeps us up with its characters, music, visuals and humor. No wonder the movie’s cult following is bigger than ever.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is not just a good movie–it’s everything we go to the movies for in the first place.
Streams on Disney+, Amazon, YouTube & VUDU.