A guide to a merry scary Christmas.
In early November I put together a list of Thanksgiving-themed horror films to help smooth the transition from October and into November. Now that our bellies are full, our bank accounts are empty and we’ve moved into December the Christmas season has officially arrived. And of course the arrival of Christmas means we now need a list of Christmas-themed horror movies to get us through this joyous holiday season.
Christmas horror films are actually quite common and have seen a bit of an uptick in recent years. Despite this tracking down a good list to watch can be rather tricky. The same movies seem to get talked about constantly leaving countless others to be forgotten. With this in mind I’m going to preface my list by saying up front that I’m leaving out the more popular titles. Titles like Black Christmas, Silent Night Deadly Night, Krampus and even Gremlins will not be found here. I love all those movies, but we’re all very much aware of them already.
Grab your ugliest sweater, pour yourself a nice class of peppermint hot chocolate and gather ‘round the warm, comforting glow of the television set – we’re going to have some yuletide horror fun!
Home for the Holidays – 1972 – Dir. John Llewellyn Moxey
Home for the Holidays is a made-for-TV production from Aaron Spelling that aired on ABC in November of 1972. It’s the story of a wealthy man who while on his deathbed has one last Christmas wish for his four daughters – kill his current wife. Once the daughters visit home and contemplate taking on such a task they discover their stepmother has a dark past and soon they find themselves the targets for a killer wearing a yellow rain coat.
The cast of Home for the Holidays is quite impressive. Walter Brennan stars as the father while the the four daughters are played by Sally Field, Jessica Walter, Jill Haworth and Eleanor Parker with Julie Harris taking on the role family’s target. Those six actors alone combined for 11 Oscar wins/nominations. Behind the camera was just as loaded with the aforementioned Spelling working with The City of the Dead director John Llewellyn Moxy and Psycho scribe Joseph Stefani.
So how did all this talent fare? The end result is a bit mixed, but overall it’s a rather entertaining murder mystery with a Christmas backdrop. It’s a little slow at times but you have to remember this was made to broadcast on network television in the early 70’s. If you’re looking for something tame but engaging enough this is a solid option.
Silent Night, Bloody Night – 1972 – Dir. Theodore Gershuny
It’s confusing that there’s a Christmas-themed horror movie called Silent Night, Bloody Night and another Christmas-themed horror movie called Silent Night, Deadly Night. To this day I still can’t remember which is which without looking them up. You’d think the more violent, gorier film would have “bloody” in the title, but nope! So Silent Night, Bloody Night is the lesser known, uncontroversial film, but it’s still absolutely worth a watch.
A small New England town is hit with a string of murders that can all be tied to an old mansion that belonged to a man that set himself on fire on Christmas Eve twenty years prior. The mansion contains some dark secrets and at one point served as an insane asylum.
Silent Night, Bloody Night dabbles in loony bins, incest, holiday slashing and self mutilation all while enjoying a cast full of Warhol Superstars like Mary Woronov, Candy Darling, Tally Brown and Ondine. All the ingredients for a true Christmas classic are present and accounted for!
Christmas Evil – 1980 – Dir. Lewis Jackson
Christmas Evil, also known as You Better Watch Out (a better title) and Terror in Toyland (a good title, but not fitting for this film), is probably my favorite Christmas-themed horror film of all time. It’s the story of Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart), a worker at a toy factory who suffered a traumatizing event as a small child involving Santa Claus. As the Christmas season approaches Harry loses it and eventually goes on a winter killing spree, but that’s after a lot of other weird stuff happens first.
I would say that Christmas Evil is to Santa Claus movies what Vampire’s Kiss is to vampire movies, which is to say the line between fiction and reality is blurred heavily. At times it is genuinely hard to decipher what is really happening and what is just in Harry’s head, but that’s all part of the film’s strange charm.
Harry’s descent into madness has a number of stops along the way. The man doesn’t just jump into killing head first. He starts with what appear to be good intentions as he seemingly wants to become Santa Claus. Then the sadness kicks in and things go completely off the rails.
It’s worth noting that Christmas Evil is a personal favorite of John Waters and features an early, albeit brief, performance from Patricia Richardson.
To All a Goodnight – 1980 – Dir. David Hess
In 1980 the legend that was David Hess directed his sole feature film with To All a Good Night, a slasher involving a Christmas party, sorority girls and a crazed Santa Claus out for blood. The 80’s were something else, I tell you what.
To All a Goodnight came out when slashers were booming but instead of becoming beloved it took a bit of a beating from fans of the genre. In some regards I understand why. The film follows a pretty standard slasher formula and the production values are pretty poor even for the time. The entire film feels under lit.
Even with these flaws there is a lot here to enjoy. The effect work of Mark Shostrom is awesome, even if it is hard to see. This is actually Shostrom’s first film and that is a pretty big deal given that Shostrom would go on to things like The Mutilator, Evil Dead II and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. But really it’s the only film directed by David Hess and that should be enough to make anyone want to tune in.
Elves – 1989 – Dir. Jeffrey Mandel
Including Elves is a bit of a cheat because I actually haven’t seen it yet. A friend of mine brought it to my attention earlier this year and I’ve been saving it until December to give it a watch. Still I feel pretty confident having it as an addition because it sounds awesome.
From what I understand the film is about an evil elf that is somehow involved with the present-day Nazi movement. Apparently, according to plot descriptions I’ve found online, Hitler’s real plan for a master race consisted of elf/human hybrids. I guess the evil elf plans on carrying this true plan out. So then the evil elf is Steve Bannon?
Dan Haggerty, playing a department store Santa, saves the day, I think. Look, I haven’t seen it yet, but it sounds incredible, right? It’ll be the first Christmas movie I watch this year.
Santa Claws – 1996 – Dir. John A. Russo
Santa Claws is a movie about a B-movie starlet (Debbie Rochon) that is talked by an obsessed fan. This weirdo wants his favorite actress all for himself and he won’t let anyone stop him from getting what he wants.
This is a bad movie. In fact some would say it’s horrible. I would include myself with that some. With that said there is a very particular scenario in which you should watch this.
About five years ago some friends had a little Christmas get together and they asked me to pick a Christmas horror movie for us to watch. I wanted to be cool and pick something no one had seen. So I picked Santa Claws, which at that time I had not seen either. It seemed like a good idea at the time. A Christmas horror slasher directed by the dude that co-wrote Night of the Living Dead. What could go wrong? Turns out a lot.
Not only is Santa Claws poorly made, but it’s incredibly sleazy and borders on soft core porn at times. And don’t get me wrong, that’s all fine and well, but when you’re sitting down to watch it with a group of people, some that don’t know you very well, and they’re all expecting to watch some ridiculous Christmas horror it makes for an awkward situation. Still I made everyone sit there and watch the entire thing. And that’s exactly what I suggest you do! When your friends reach out to you about a Christmas shindig, make them all watch soft core porn!
Jack Frost – 1997 – Dir. Michael Cooney
Jack Frost is about a serial killer that just before he’s scheduled to be put to death gets involved in a bizarre accident that results with him turning into a mutant snowman. Jack Frost is awesome because instead of just using the fictional character that is Jack Frost and turning him into some kind of blood-thirsty creature director Michael Cooney decided it was best that he be a snowman. Genius!
This low-grade Christmas fun is soon going to be getting a Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome and it will undoubtedly be gorgeous. I can say with full confidence that this upcoming Blu-ray will be the best version of this movie ever released.
Also if you were a high school boy in the late 90’s-early 2000’s you’ll be pleased to know that Jack Frost features an early Shannon Elizabeth performance.
Santa’s Slay – 2005 – Dir. David Steiman
In 2005 David Steiman got his first and to date only shot at directing a feature film. The end result was Santa’s Slay. If Steiman never directs again at least he’ll be able to say he directed the most muscular Santa ever…probably. Has there ever been a more muscular Santa? Bill Goldberg is pretty muscular.
In Santa’s Slay we learn that Santa (Goldberg) is basically the Antichrist. Santa is to Satan as Jesus is to God and Christmas used to be Santa’s day of slaying. That all changed when he lost a curling match (yes, a curling match) to an angel who then sentenced him to deliver presents on Christmas day for a 1,000 years. Well guess what? That 1,000 years is up and it’s slay time, baby!
The movie opens with cameos from James Caan, Fran Drescher, Rebecca Gayheart and Chris Kattan. In addition to those cameos the movie was produced by Brett Ratner. I only bring this all up because for a number of years Steiman served as Ratner’s assistant. Given that this is Steiman’s only film as a director and all those names are involved it would appear as if Steiman cashed all his chips in at once.
Santa’s Slay is a silly, over-the-top movie that doesn’t take itself seriously. Santa is played by Goldberg, he loses a curling match, a Jewish deli owner is murdered with a menorah and reindeer are called “hell-deer.” The movie’s sole purpose is to have fun and that’s exactly what it does. I would have loved to see it push things just a bit further, but all things considered I can’t complain. Plus it has Dave Thomas and who doesn’t love Dave Thomas!?
The Children – 2008 – Dir. Tom Shankland
Kudos to Rob Hunter for reminding me of Tom Shankland’s The Children, which I nearly left off this list. This was released in 2008 as part of Robert Tapert and Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Underground DVD series and has gone mostly unnoticed since. Hell, it even slipped my mind! That’s a real shame because this film is legit.
A family attempts to have a nice Christmas vacation when one-by-one the kids begin to get ill. The illness turns out to have unexpected consequences and the kids become increasingly violent. Eventually it turns into a battle of survival between adults and children.
The Children ends up being not only a Christmas horror movie, but also a killer kid movie and an infection movie, meaning there’s a little bit of everything here. It’s sort of like a fruit cake, if fruit cake was any good.
Sint – 2010 – Dir. Dick Maas
Sint, known as Saint Nick in the United States, marked the return of Dick Maas to the world of horror after a nearly decade-long hiatus. Somehow this film seems to have slipped under the radar and for that I have no answer. Out of all the modern Christmas horror films, I think Sint might be my favorite of the bunch. At the very least it’s a contender for one of the best to come out in recent years.
The film is based on Sinterklaas, a mythical being who gives gifts on the night before Saint Nicholas Day in the Northern Netherlands, making this the Dutch version of Santa Claus. Maas takes the basic idea of Sinterklaas and makes a few tweaks. The film opens on December 5, 1492 with St. Niklas (Huub Stapel) being murdered by villagers who finally get tired of all the havoc he has raised. This leads to Niklas and his group of thugs returning as bloodthirsty ghosts on every full moon that falls on December 5th to seek revenge. And December 5th just so happens to be the same day that Sinterklaas is celebrated. So a full moon on December 5th brings death rather than gifts.
Much like Silent Night Deadly Night was subject to censorship attacks in the U.S. upon it’s initial 1984 release, Sint faced similar problems in the Netherlands. A legal complaint was filed asking that all posters be removed from public places, like movie theater lobbies, because they depicted a mutilated representation of Sinterklaas which was too frightening for children. Maas fought against these complaints and ultimately won.
If you watch to see a Dutch take on a murderous Santa you can’t do any better than Sint.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale – 2010 – Dir. Jalmari Helander
I’m not sure if Rare Exports is the film responsible for starting this “renaissance” of Christmas horror, but the Finnish film was the first one I saw and it certainly gave me great hope for the ghost of Christmas horror future.
In Rare Exports an American research team drilling near the Korvatunturi mountain make a startling discovery. While digging they discover what appears to be an ancient burial ground. Buried deep inside is the true story of Santa Claus and it’s not so jolly.
In a word Rare Exports is rad. So why don’t you have yourself a rad little Christmas?
A Christmas Horror Story – 2015 – Dir. Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban & Brett Sullivan
A Christmas Horror Story came out a year ago but was overshadow by the much more popular Krampus. And I get it. Krampus has Adam Scott. Don’t sleep on A Christmas Horror Story though because it can more than hold its own!
Instead of having individual stories with a beginning, middle and end, this horror anthology has four stories that play out simultaneously, with two pairs of stories that sort of interact with one another. A wrap around segment with William Shatner as a DJ playing Christmas tunes to get you through Christmas Eve ties everything together.
All four stories work but have varying degrees of success. The best two involve Krampus – one of which follows Santa has he prepares to go to battle with the beast after his elves become infected and turned into foul-mouthed demons and a second story where Krampus hunts down a family that kind of deserves to be disposed of. The other two stories share a common thread about two high school students who are brutally murdered in a ritualistic fashion on Christmas Eve. You expect these two stories to eventually cross paths due to their shared link but instead they go down wildly different paths that appear to be completely separate from one another which is pretty bizarre.
None of the stories are bad, but the one with the high school students is kind of annoying because all students involved are just asking to be punched. If you’re able to look past that annoying-ness you’ll actually encounter a few good scares.
A Christmas Horror Story isn’t great but it’s a lot better than it has any right being and deserves some Christmas love. The moments of stupidity are outweighed by bloody holiday cheer!
Bonus: Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 – 1987 – Dir. Lee Harry
Up front I said I would not include Silent Night, Deadly Night but sequels are fair game and including one as a bonus is the perfect topper for your Christmas tree. Thus we have the incredible Silent Night, Deadly Night 2!
SNDN2 takes place four years after the events of the first film. Ricky is now 18, the same age his brother was when he began his season of slaying, and he’s awaiting trial the murders he committed while following in his brother’s footsteps. If you’ll recall from the ending of the original film it was clear that Ricky was going to go on a murderous rampage of his own.
What’s that? You didn’t see the first film? That’s ok because this sequel does you a favor and shows you a good chunk of the first film through a series of flashbacks. According to a DVD commentary track with director Lee Harry just wanted to completely re-editing the first film and call it a sequel. Harry actually had to fight to shoot new footage. Amazing.
Ultimately Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 isn’t very good. But it’s kind of insane and there’s a ‘garbage day’ scene that can only be described as incredible. That’s good enough for me.