Christmas is usually a time of giving, caring, and familial togetherness, but if you’re the maker of exploitation movies, it’s often a time you can stir up controversy by having people get horribly murdered by people in Santa Claus suits. Since today is a day inundated with traditional Christmas movies, I’ve decided to compile a list of the ten best Christmas-themed horror movies, or horror movies that take place at Christmas. Because if you’ve never been disturbed by yuletide cheer, you’re not doing it right.
#10 – Don’t Open Till Christmas (1984)
There’s nothing like a really sleazy, British horror movie, and this little gem from the mid-’80s is one of them. A deranged murderer begins killing people dressed like Father Christmas, and Scotland Yard is baffled. (SIDEBAR: How many times in movies has Scotland Yard been baffled? It seems to happen in every movie.) The killer hates Christmas in all of its forms and intends for these killings, plus the murder of a young stripper who witnessed one of the crimes, to be the supreme sacrifice to all the evils of the holiday. A real Scrooge, you know what I’m saying?
#9 – Jack Frost (1997)
Some Christmas horror movies are just unabashedly silly; it’s like they think a horror movie set in the happiest time of the year can only be done if you fill it full of goofy puns and silly effects. I saw Jack Frost when I was a kid, and much of the humor was lost on me, because I was too busy being terrified by a giant killer snowman. A convicted psychopath is being transported when the police fan collides with a truck containing a new volatile chemical (sounds reasonable) and a horror icon is born. Not particularly good at all, but it’s not without its charms, provided you’re in the proper sugar coma.
#8 – Silent Night, Bloody Night (1974)
As we’ll see later in the countdown, people just love using the classic, biblical hymn as the basis for their horror movie. In this one, a guy is set ablaze in 1929 and thought dead, only to return in the present day to exact revenge on the escaped lunatics he had in his personal insane asylum who had killed his daughter. It’s a very convoluted story, but the deaths are brutal and the lighting is very dim. Fun fact: Troma’s head man Lloyd Kaufman served as one of this film’s producers. Also fun fact: I’m pretty sure the voice in the trailer is the same as the guy who voiced George Romero’s Day of the Dead trailer. Not interesting, but true.
#7 – Christmas Evil (1980)
This begins a trend on this very list of movies about evil Santa Clauses, be they crazy people dressed up or the actual St. Nick himself. This is one of the more disturbing outings; after seeing his mother groped by “Santa Claus” (really his dad in costume) as a kid, Harry grows up to want to be the one true Santa Claus and sleeps in his costume and makes naughty and nice lists. When it looks like people are being bad, he makes them pay for defiling the true meaning of Christmas. John Waters loved this movie so much he did the commentary for it on 2000’s DVD release, so you know what kind of company you’re in.
#6 – Santa’s Slay (2005)
This is another of those that’s much sillier than it is scary, but it does have, I think, a really awesome premise: Santa Claus, the bringer of toys and good cheer each Christmas, is actually Satan’s only son who has been cursed to be nice for millennia after losing a bet. However, this year, the Kringle Man’s hex is lifted, and he’s again free to spread holiday carnage. That Santa in this is played by former professional wrestler and Universal Soldier Bill Goldberg only makes it more enjoyable, as he beefily dispatches people with a snappy pun and a swift decapitation. It’s more of an oddity than it is good.
#5 – Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Clearly, this wasn’t the first horror movie to use Christmas as the backdrop, but for some reason in the conservative climate of the ’80s, with the fear that anything could corrupt our children, parents and critics really took against this movie, to the point where certain theaters refused to play it. It’s no more or less salacious than any of the other Christmas slasher movies, but it did make the mistake, I guess, of putting the killer dressed as Santa on all of its marketing, which is what drew the ire of most of the parents’ groups. Its sequel is famous for the horribly-delivered line “Garbage day!” Also, that’s the same damn trailer narrator as Silent Night, Bloody Night. He’s pigeon-holed himself.
#4 – Tales from the Crypt (1972)
The British film company, Amicus, made a name for themselves in the ’60s and ’70s with their anthology horror films, stringing together several disparate horror tales with linking bits. In this one, directed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis, a group of people find themselves in a crypt in which a hooded Cryptkeeper makes them relive their most horrible crimes. Before there was the TV show, this was the first adaptation of EC Comics stories, and one in particular stands out for our purposes: Joan Collins plays a horrible woman who kills her husband on Christmas Eve, just as a madman in a Santa suit breaks out of a mental hospital and finds his way to her neighborhood. They redid this story on the HBO show later.
#3 – Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
This Finnish film is actually really damn cool. After excavators uncover what they call the “biggest burial mound in the world,” a group of reindeer herders has to contend with the real Santa Claus, a magical and ancient being who punishes the naughty as opposed to rewarding the nice. It’s quirky for sure, but there’s some very well done scare moments and the guy they got to play the supernatural red-clad being is really unsettling and looks like a fair amount of vagrants you’d see on the streets of L.A. How do you act a thousand-yard stare? This guy’s great at it.
#2 – Gremlins (1984)
One of the movies responsible for the invention of the PG-13 rating, Joe Dante’s brilliant little-monster movie has a small town at Christmastime besieged by horrid, greed mischief-makers who destroy, maim, and kill without batting an eye. Certainly a very funny movie as well, Gremlins is actually very gruesome, especially in the infamous kitchen scene in which the lead character’s mother dispatches three of the evil varmints using a blender, a microwave, and a plain old kitchen knife. Originally, the movie was going to be a lot darker, with the character of Gizmo actually becoming the leader of the evil Gremlins, Stripe. However, producer Steven Spielberg vetoed that, saying Gizmo’s the hero of the movie. Fair move.
#1 – Black Christmas (1974)
Even though Gremlins is clearly a better movie, Bob Clark’s 1974 proto-slasher movie is definitely the best Christmas horror film. On the eve of going home for the holiday, the remaining girls in a sorority house are picked off by an unseen psycho who’s hiding inside. What makes Black Christmas so freaky is that we see the killings from the murderer’s point of view, and in fact we spend a lot of time with him in this manner, listening to him hysterically laughing and blithering like a deranged idiot about his mother. It’s very unsettling. And for some reason, the end of the trailer is narrated by a guy doing a James Mason impersonation. If that doesn’t make your skin crawl, it’s on too tight.
And there we have the ten “best” Yuletide Terrors. While only a few of them are actually good, they’ll all give you the proper amount of skeeve for a season that’s way too upbeat and cheerful and wholesome. Who needs it? Well, most of us, I guess. But they’re still great fun to watch. Lock your doors, and beware of Santa’s claws.
Which of your favorites did I leave off? Surely there are some. Let me know in the comments down yonder. (The Nightmare Before Christmas doesn’t count, so don’t even start.)