Christmas is a time for giving, for good cheer, and for bonding with your family. It is also a time for murder, if the horror community has anything to say about it.
Yes, nestled within the canon of Christmas movie classics like IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET is a whole subgenre of scary movies set during the holidays. Often they are about homicidal Santa Clauses, which is a cheap shot if you think about it (“He was wholesome, but now he’s scary!”) but – in the right hands – the sort of concept that genuine nightmares are made of. Just the poster for SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT was enough to make young children sleep with the lights on. No wonder their parents protested.
(Although really, if you look at it, this doesn’t make sense unless the killer’s a contortionist. Where’s his head? Is it crammed all the way up into his rib cage?)
In any case, there are actually quite a lot of Christmas horror movies out there. A few of them have managed to become crossover classics that the whole family can enjoy, but most of them are hardcore scare flicks and/or obscure oddities. For those of you looking to explore this subgenre, be careful, because there’s a lot of junk out there. (DON’T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS should never be opened, at all.) But don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
Here are the eleven essential Christmas horror movies, the ones that every horror fan should see. (If you’re looking for #12, to round out the whole “Days of Christmas” angle, then just trust me: KRAMPUS is great.)
TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972)
Before HBO’s hit television show, the twisted comic book series TALES FROM THE CRYPT came to the big screen with a disturbing 1972 anthology film, directed by Freddie Francis (TROG). The movie consists of five disturbing tales, most of them great, and starts with a delirious and sordid story about a woman who kills her husband, and then – pretty much by chance – gets attacked by a homicidal Santa Claus. She can’t call the police because, well, yeah, the dead husband part would be a little hard to explain. Joan Collins plays the murderer/victim, whose daughter’s belief in Santa Claus eventually backfires hard.
BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)
Where did the slasher genre begin? Some say it was with Bob Clark’s yuletide serial killer thriller BLACK CHRISTMAS (although the debate rages on). This 1974 classic stars Margot Kidder, Olivia Hussey and Andrea Martin as sorority girls who are completely unaware that a maniac is living in their attic, and picking them off one-by-one. An extremely witty screenplay (watch out for that “fellatio exchange”), eerie cinematography and the creepiest phone calls in movie history keep BLACK CHRISTMAS scaring audiences year after year after year.
The remake, Black X-Mas, is a mess by the way. But it’s kind of a fun mess.
CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)
Originally released as YOU BETTER WATCH OUT, originally ignored, but eventually elevated to cult status by filmmaker John Waters, who freaking loves this movie. It’s easy to see why. Lewis Jackson’s holiday tragedy stars Brandon Maggart as a mentally disturbed man who starts to believe he’s Santa Claus, spying on children in the neighborhood and deciding who’s naughty and nice. Unlike many other Santa slashers (like the next film on our list), the maniac in CHRISTMAS EVIL spends just as much time helping needy children as he does slaying the wicked. And it ends with a twist that’s either deeply sad or oddly inspiring, depending on how you look at it.
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984)
The film that made Siskel & Ebert declare “shame” on everyone responsible for making it, Charles E. Sellier, Jr.’s 1984 slasher wasn’t the first killer Santa Claus movie – as you might have noticed – but it was the definitely most notorious. Sadly, critics of SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT missed the point entirely. The film may be violent but it’s also a damning indictment of everything wrong with the holiday, as fear-mongering, consumerism and Catholic guilt transform a normal little boy into a raving lunatic in a Santa suit who chops up everybody he deems “naughty.” It’s not just a slasher, it’s a tragedy, and it’s damn near poignant.
All the sequels suck, by the way.
Joe Dante’s impish horror comedy GREMLINS is a Christmas classic whether you’re a fan of the horror genre or not, showing how a downright Capra-esque community is violently undone after a Christmas gift goes awry. Zach Galligan plays the teenager who receives a furry creature called a Mogwai for Christmas, but he fails to take care of it properly and accidentally unleashes an army of mischievous and deadly monsters. Dante clearly revels in the horror his title creatures unleash upon the unsuspecting town, but the reason GREMLINS really works is because his characters were likable and believable beforehand. Phoebe Cates’s monologue is one of the saddest Christmas stories you’ve ever heard.
Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A CHRISTMAS STORY is, if you can look past the treacly finale, a horror story at its core. A mean-spirited bastard haunted throughout the night by specters that terrify and guilt trip him into being nice to people, filled with hellish imagery throughout. And although there have been many exceptional motion picture versions throughout the years, it’s Richard Donner’s 1988 comedy SCROOGED that gets the phantasmagoria just right. Bill Murray is a cynical TV executive who gets dragged throughout his past, present and future, beat up by ghosts, forced to confront the horrifying consequences of his apathy. The Ghost of Christmas Future alone is enough to give you nightmares, even though – once again – in the end everything more or less works out.
Christmas horror movies don’t get much weirder, or more perverse, than ELVES. Jeffrey Mandel’s awkward monster flick stars Julie Austin as a young woman who accidentally raises a Nazi elf from the woods behind her house (and only one elf, because the title lies). Then she teams up with a chain-smoking Grizzly Adams to solve the mystery, fend off the pervy bullying of her younger brother, stand up to her MOMMY DEAREST abusive mother, and discover that her real father is really, really gross. ELVES is cheap, dumb, ugly, and compulsively watchable. It’s the best bad Christmas horror movie ever.
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)
Conceived by Tim Burton and directed by Henry Selick, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is a beloved family classic that – if you think about it – is still pretty danged disturbing. A skeleton undergoes a midlife (middeath?) crisis, kidnaps Santa Claus, and assaults an entire planet full of children with homicidal toys on what should have been the most wonderful night of the year. Danny Elfman’s music is ethereal and catchy, the stop-motion animation is endearing, but THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is now and always will be a film for horror-lovers everywhere.
JACK FROST (1997)
A serial killer dies and comes back as a snowman in Michael Cooney’s low-budget, silly horror comedy. The sense of humor is usually tone deaf, and the scene where future AMERICAN PIE co-star Shannon Elizabeth is pretty much sexually assaulted by a carrot is wince-inducing, but there’s an audience for tawdry horror films, and they have – against our protests – often rallied around JACK FROST as one of their favorite holiday horror movies. You know damn well if this movie is up your alley or not.
Note: Not to be confused with the 1998 family movie in which Michael Keaton dies and comes back as a snowman. Although that version of JACK FROST is pretty scary too.
SANTA’S SLAY (2005)
David Steiman’s killer Santa movie goes where few other Christmas horror movies dare, by making the villain the actual, supernatural Santa Claus. It turns out he’s actually the Antichrist, and he’s been cursed to do good deeds for centuries. Now that the curse is finally lifted he’s free to use all of his super-strength (he’s played with burly relish by wrestler Bill Goldberg) and mow people down with his reindeer. SANTA’S SLAY is quick and clever, and surprisingly funny. What’s more, even though many people haven’t even heard of it, they threw some real money at this movie so the visual effects are better than you might think.
RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)
RARE EXPORTS is to Christmas horror movies what GOONIES was to pirate movies, if that makes any sense. This Finnish import from BIG GAME director Jalmari Helander is the story of a young boy who, after discovering an archaeological expedition to dig up the remains of Santa Claus, is the only one who can save his town from the vile beast they unearth. Sumptuously photographed and utterly rousing, RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE is a wonderful blend of adventure and scares, and absolutely essential holiday viewing.