Christmas Horror Movies: Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas!
A Case of the Christmas Creeps!!
The Halloween season is obviously the biggest time of year for horror film fans—when all things creepy 'n' spooky take over multiplexes, television schedules, and video services for an entire glorious month... but what's a scary movie fanatic to do when Halloween ends and everyone moves on to the Christmas season? Not everyone wants to watch round-the-clock movies about kids and talking puppies searching for Santa, or heartwarming dramas in which dysfunctional families are suddenly, magically healed by the power of Christmas. Thankfully (or perhaps not, depending on your tastes), Hollywood has produced a bumper crop of Christmas related horror films over the past several decades, providing gore hounds with something shocking in their stockings year after year. These are truly the gifts that keep on giving!! Some people may not think that the Yuletide season is an appropriate time for horror, but perhaps they've forgotten about the ghosts and graveyards in one of the most popular holiday tales of all time—Dickens' "A Christmas Carol!" If you prefer your Christmas movies a little bit on the twisted side, or if you simply need an antidote to the endless parade of holiday sweetness that clogs up your television every December, throw one of these Yuletide Horrors into your DVD player and scare yourself silly. Maybe there's a reason Santa's suit is so red, if you catch my drift...
"Silent Night, Deadly Night" (1984) Trailer
When it comes to Christmas themed horror flicks the Big Kahuna will always be 1984's notorious Silent Night, Deadly Night - a delightfully cheesy, sleazy, mean-spirited slasher flick that enraged a nation and scarred a generation of children. This low-budget splatter fest told the sad story of "Billy," who witnessed his parents being murdered by a guy in a Santa suit as a boy. This naturally caused him to have some lingering "issues" concerning Old Saint Nick. Spending his formative years in a cruel Catholic orphanage run by an abusive Mother Superior certainly didn't help things, either As a grown up, Billy is forced to put on a Santa suit at his toy-store job, which leads (understandably) to a mental breakdown. Soon Billy's stalking the streets of his snowy small town on Christmas Eve, picking off unlucky citizens with an axe while grunting "NAUGHTY!" or "PUNISH!"
The movie probably would've been quickly forgotten if its TV commercials hadn't scared the hell out of children across America, leading to protests outside theaters by angry parents and PTA groups. Even Siskel and Ebert got in on the act, denouncing the movie on their popular "At The Movies" television show. Tri-Star Pictures removed SN, DN from theaters within a week thanks to the public outcry, and naturally its "forbidden fruit" aspect quickly made Silent Night, Deadly Night into a must-see cult item amongst horror freaks.. (The film's original VHS release featured a box-cover tag that read "The Movie THEY Didn't Want You To See!!") Despite the controversy - or perhaps because of it - Silent Night, Deadly Night eventually spawned four sequels (three of them direct-to-video) by the early '90s. In a particularly odd twist, actor Mickey Rooney - who'd been one of the original film's most vocal celebrity critics - had a starring role in the final film of the series, Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker.
You Can't Keep a Killer Santa Down!
As the 21st century dawned, rumors of a Silent Night, Deadly Night remake began making the rounds, but the project got hung up in Development Hell for a number of years. Silent Night, described as a "loose" remake of the 1984 film, finally surfaced in 2012, starring Malcolm McDowell (fresh off of his stint as Dr. Sam Loomis in Rob Zombie's Halloween flicks) as a small town Sheriff trying to track down yet another psycho killer in a Santa suit. Unfortunately his tiny burg happens to be full of guys in Santa suits because it's the night of the the annual Christmas parade. I hate when that happens. Aside from the killer-Santa angle, this isn't a "straight" retelling of the original SN, DN story (i.e. there's no "Billy," no "Mother Superior," etc.) but Silent Night is extremely gory, ridiculously violent, and totally over-the-top, which means fans of the original should be pleased.
Other Psycho Santas
Silent Night, Deadly Night might be the most notorious killer-Santa flick, but it wasn't the first film to use that hook. In 1980's Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out!) a schlumpy toy company employee snaps on Christmas Eve after a lifetime's worth of cynicism and deception, and goes on a Santa-suited killing spree against everyone who's ever done him wrong. The result is kinda like Taxi Driver re-imagined as a Holiday special. Useless trivia: actor Brandon Maggart, who plays killer Santa "Harry" in this flick, is the father of 90s alternative singer Fiona Apple! Sharp eyed viewers may also recognize a young Jeffrey DeMunn, who would go on to play kindly old "Dale" on AMC's The Walking Dead many years later.
Santa went psycho again in the 2005 cult horror comedy Santa's Slay, where audiences learned that the jolly old elf (played by pro wrestler Bill Goldberg) isn't really very jolly after all. He's actually the son of Satan, but after he lost a battle with an angel he was sentenced to 1000 years of being "good" by delivering presents on Christmas. Unfortunately for humanity, the thousand years is now up which means Santa can now go back to his true calling, making Christmas a "Day of Slaying"...with everybody on his "naughty" list!
Just in case you haven't had enough killer Santas yet, a quick skim through IMDb reveals other mostly-forgotten gems like 1980's To All A Good Night, in which a Santa-suited nut job picks off nubile co-eds in a college dorm, and an irresistibly-titled 1996 direct-to-video cheapie called Satan Claus, where a psycho in a Santa suit axe-murders innocent New Yorkers on Christmas Eve and uses their body parts to make a macabre Christmas tree. Sounds like good, clean fun. Who knew there were so many Killer Santa movies? By this point I'd say that they practically deserve their own horror sub-genre.
On the flip side, Santa Claus is the victim, rather than the killer, in 1984's British import Don't Open Till Christmas, where a slasher is killing street corner and department store Santas all over London, with Scotland Yard in hot pursuit. The film's poster trumpeted the fact that it was "FROM THE PRODUCER OF 'PIECES'!" ...which, if you've seen that particular movie, is not exactly a selling point.
"Santa's Slay" (2005)
Big Man on Krampus
Psycho Santas may be the easy go-to concept for Christmas related horror flicks, but St. Nick's evil opposite, Krampus, is quickly becoming a familiar face in holiday-horror-film circles as well. This character from German holiday folklore - whose job is to "punish" naughty children - has been the star of one big-budget theatrical release (2015's Krampus) as well as several recent direct-to-video flicks like 2013's Krampus: The Christmas Devil and 2015's Krampus: The Reckoning. The Yuletide demon also makes an appearance in 2015's Canadian anthology A Christmas Horror Story - which also features a bad-ass, scar-faced Santa battling a zombie outbreak amongst his own elves, and William freakin' Shatner in a cameo role as a story telling radio DJ (sporting an ugly Christmas sweater)!
Killer Saints and Yuletide Demons
Not to be outdone, European horror filmmakers have produced a number of Christmas related terror tales in recent years, showcasing the dark side of their own local holiday myths. In the Finnish horror/fantasy Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010), the residents of a rural reindeer-herding village must band together to save Christmas - and the world - when corporate blasting atop a local mountain accidentally frees an ancient evil that may have provided the inspiration for the Santa Claus myth. The critically-acclaimed flick shows all the signs of becoming a cult classic and a holiday perennial.
Meanwhile, the Dutch film Sint (aka Saint, or Saint Nick for its U.S. video release) finds Amsterdam under siege by the ancient spirit of Saint Nicholas, a murderous cleric who's nowhere near as jolly as his American counterpart, Santa Claus. Packed with lots of improbable action sequences and some truly nasty gore scenes, Saint resembles a European version of the Silent Night, Deadly Night saga. Additional note: the English language version of Saint also happens to be saddled with the worst dubbing job I've seen since the glory days of the Italian exploitation-film scene. Though some may find the awkward, stilted attempts at English dialog distracting, I thought it was a total hoot and it serves to add a whole 'nother level of weirdness to an already bizarre flick.
Other Holiday Horrors...
Of course, you don't have to have a killer Santa to make a Christmas horror movie. In 1972's Silent Night, Bloody Night, an old mansion that was once a mental hospital is the site of a Christmas Eve murder spree. 1974's Black Christmas, meanwhile, has become almost as influential as the original 1978 Halloween in the annals of slasher filmdom. In this controversial classic, the residents of a college sorority house (including a young Margot Kidder and one-time "Juliet" Olivia Hussey) are victimized by an obscene phone caller who becomes a murderous home invader as they prepare for Christmas break. Ironically, Black Christmas director Bob Clark would go on to helm the warm-n-fuzzy family holiday perennial A Christmas Story several years later. A Black Christmas remake bombed at the box office in 2006, despite a high carnage factor and a cast of young, nubile hotties like Michelle Trachtenberg and Lacey Chabert. Like Silent Night, Deadly Night, the Black Christmas remake garnered its share of protests from angry parents and religious groups who objected to its Christmas Day release date.
For the truly dedicated Z-Movie bargain bin divers, there's 2009's temptingly-titled Silent Night, Zombie Night, a low-budget, direct-to-video flick in which Los Angeles' holiday celebrations are rudely interrupted by an outbreak of flesh-eating undead, or 1989's Elves, where a department store Santa (played by Dan "Grizzly Adams" Haggerty!) attempts to protect a teenage girl from a demonic Nazi Elf unleashed by a pagan blood ritual on Christmas Eve. Seriously! You can't make this stuff up, folks.
Had Enough Yet?
Sick of zombies? Slashing Santas not your style? Then how about a killer snowman? In 1997's tongue-in-cheek cult classic Jack Frost, a serial killer has an unfortunate run-in with some experimental genetic material on a cold winter's night, turning him into a psycho Frosty. Jack Frost simply has to be seen to be believed, and I'm not just sayin' that because it stars a pre-American Pie Shannon Elizabeth (whose death scene in this movie is one of the greatest things ever committed to celluloid). Obviously this flick is not to be confused with the 1998 family film of the same name that starred Michael Keaton (though by all accounts, the Keaton film is pretty horrific in its own right...).
...and hey, let's not forget that Joe Dante's 1984 creature classic Gremlins takes place on Christmas Eve, too! In addition to the massive amounts of tiny-critter carnage, Phoebe Cates' mid-film soliloquy about finding her father's dead Santa-suited body stuck in the chimney when she was a little girl is more disturbing than just about any other movie mentioned in this article. Shoot, I'm tearing up just thinking about it right now. (Sniffle...sob...)
Has this article sufficiently ruined Christmas movies for you? If so, then I'm off to enjoy some eggnog, secure in the knowledge that I've done my job. If those of you in Readerland have any other favorite Holiday Horrors that I've neglected to mention, feel free to give me a clue in the comments section below. Thanks for reading, and have a happy - and horrific! - holiday season!!!
© 2012 Keith Abt