The Best Christmas Horror Films
I always hope to introduce some chaos to the situation, and how else to counter jolly good tidings than a well placed decapitation. The holiday horror sub-genre is annoyingly populated, but those that fall around the dates of December 24th to January 1st are more sparse. It’s possibly due to the taboo of spoiling something so sacred, but for me nothing is too far over the line. And while this list may seem to consist of every film of this subject existing, I implore you, there are a good 100 films excluded from this list. It doesn’t take a genius to know which ones to avoid (anything with crummy box art, or a digit in the title), but it doesn’t hurt to rank some of these puppies for recreational or organizational purposes. The films on this list are ranked not in order of particular quality but a more personal standard of fun and terror. I was of course, limited to films that I have seen and have access too.
12. Saint (AKA Sint)
So technically this isn’t a Christmas film, but it’s close enough. It’s got Saint Nicholas, and snow, in December. Saint presents the titular saint as a much different figure than history has led on to be. Instead of tunneling down a chimney and leaving presents for all the nice little boys and girls, he kidnaps and murders them. Of course he has help from his elf metaphor servants Zwarte Pieten, whom have been charred black by an awful fire. After a town mob torches him on his own boat, his ghost returns on December 5th, whenever the date and a full moon coincide. December 5th is the celebration of Sinterklaas, he’s more or less Santa Clause in Europe, in fact I believe they’re cousins. This Dutch Dark Comedy was distributed by IFC here in the states. Director Dick Mass learned a little trick from another film on this list. During the promotional stage of the project, a publicity stunt was set up to attract attention to the picture. Complaints that the film’s poster was confusing and scaring children about the celebration of Sinterklaas were taken to court, in a demand that the poster be shelved. Dick Mass won the case by stating if parents could explain the celebration of Sinterklaas, they could explain that the movie wasn’t the real Sinterklaas. The conniption possibly created enough pop for his little film to be heard over here in the states. The courts ruled that the face on the poster was not clear enough to be seen.
Down at its bare bones it’s a slasher, it happens to be wrapped in some quirk. Director Dick Mass steps on the gas and really goes for the in your face approach. While being a Dutch film, it feels for better or worse, very American. While my experience was hindered thanks to a terrible dubbing track, I still had a good time. It suffers from being so uninspired with its structure and plot, but it looks fantastic (lots of abrupt Dutch angles no pun intended, & cold blue lighting), something a lot of low budget American films on this list don’t get right. Also any movie about a killer Saint Nick is bound to make this list, when he’s is riding a horse that gallops on rooftops while police shoot at him from below well, you’re guaranteed the opening spot.
For a sample of that awful dubbing click here.
11. Silent Night, Bloody Night (AKA Night of the Dark Full Moon)
Forgotten for many years, Silent Night, Bloody Night had an appearance on Elvira’s Movie Macabre and generated a small cult following. Produced by Troma Founder Lloyd Kaufman, the film sat on the self for two years after being completed. It even features an elder John Carradine as a mute. Jeffery Butler is trying to sell his families abandoned mansion, though it might turn out to be not so abandoned after a lunatic escapes from a local mental hospital.
One can probably find a copy of this film in any $5 bargain bin or in an X-number movie collection. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the it’s a golden egg, but in a basket of rotten ones, it’s the surprisingly ripe. Director Theodore Gershuny has a great sense of atmosphere, using light sparingly to hint at what is to be seen. It also may be one of the fist films to have someone whispering eerily into a phone. A plot device and spook technique that is still commonly used and spoofed in horror films today.
10. Santa’s Slay
There are plenty of films on this list and off it that fabricate a tale of Santa, making him out be a very diabolical sort of character. This may be the best invention of a mythos for the Saint yet conceived. According to the Book of Klaus, Santa is the son of Satan. Christmas Day was a joyous occasion for slaughter, rampage, and terror. One day an angel disguised as an old man, challenges Santa to a curling match. If Santa losses, for the next thousand he must surrender his nefarious ways and replace it with jolly good cheer, giving presents to the good boys and girls of the world. Now that the 1000 years are up, Santa is now free again to wreck havoc, and slay an obnoxious number of people.
The film opens with a families quiet December dinner interrupted by a very large Santa Clause bursting through their brick chimney. He then punts their poodle across the room and proceeds a quite creatively slaughter of the entire dinner company. From that opening we’re given a good sense of how the rest of this picture is going to roll out. Santa, played by ex-pro wrestler Bill Goldberg, captains a sleigh pulled by a great flying buffalo. When an elder member of society refuses to clear the road for Santa’s sleigh, the man in red runs her off the road with a love tap from his great flying buffalo. There are a ton of moments like this that are applause worthy. All this goof oozes from director and producer team David Steiman and Brett Ratner.
Santa’s Slay doesn’t have much of a following but it gets acknowledge every year from lists like this one. Bill Goldberg is both charismatic enough to like as a villain, but also intimidating enough to still think he’s a bad ass. His physic is imposing and costume designer Victoria Auth and Mary-Hyde Kerr made sure Santa’s threads compliment the classic look but have a nice neo twist. He sports a flattering cape and new hat that help support his divine origins.
9. Jack Frost
This direct to video wonder never saw much of a release. It shares the title of the Michael Keaton film that is the polar opposite in tone, which actually came out two years after this little ditty. While not a scary film by any definition, it is perhaps the most fun film on this list. Jack Frost realizes what kind of movie it is, and goes for the utter most ridiculous, with style. When serial killer Jack Frost is melted by toxic waste into a patch of snow, he manifests his now snow bonded molecules into a killer snowman who’s out for a cold dish of revenge.
It’s not meant to be taken seriously, as made evidence by it’s snowman rape scene (the victim, a young Shannon Elizabeth). It’s meant to be a bundle of fun, which it is. This doesn’t mean it’s a terribly good film, but it’s interesting. The presentation is actually a child’s nightmare after being told a terrifying tale of a killer snowman by her grandfather. The use of blow dryers as a weapon against the snow man, and it’s dialogue only confirm that, along with one characters belief that anti freeze is a cooking ingredient used to keep people from getting cold. It also has an abundant use of low angles and POVs from various corpses and puddles. The low angles would be a visual metaphor for a child’s view of the world. The cinematography is simply interesting, the camera placed by the bobbing head of a man frozen in a rocking chair, the green glow of a truck bed full of anti-freeze, and the ripple of a puddle as a character bends down to touch it. They don’t really have much meaning, but they sure look nice.
You knew it was going to show up at some point. I expect a load of disappointment and disagreement about Gremlins fairly unflattering ranking on this list. I still love Gremlins and find it a fantastic film altogether. From it’s great Jerry Goldsmith 80’s melodic score, and it’s wonderful sense of Christmas spirit, it’s hard not to fall in love with the Steven Spielberg produced motion picture. And this is all before we mention those adorable little Mogwai (which is in fact Chinese, not sure which dialect, for evil spirit or demon). There’s even a band with the same name. It’s what some would call a mixed form, a very dark comedy. While browsing China town to promote his latest invention, Randall Peltzer makes off with something called a Mogwai as a Christmas gift for his son Billy. There are only three rules. Keep him out of sunlight, don’t get him wet, and never feed him after midnight. As expected all three of these rules are inadvertently broken.
Joe Dante directed a film called Piranha, Spielberg saw it and considers it the best Jaws knockoff out there. It led him to hire Dante to direct Gremlins. There are so many memorable moments from the film, like it’s kitchen chaos scene, where Billy’s mother slaughters a handful of Mogwai and that delightful reveal of their chrysalis stage accompanied by ‘Do You Hear What I Hear’. It’s great 80s quirk. It even features a young Corey Feldman and Howie Mandel does the voice of hero Mogwai Gizmo! The film’s special effects are it’s real marvel. The Gremlin and Mogwai animatronics are impressive, even by today’s standards. Credit goes to designer Chris Walas. Along with excellent use of stop motion and matte paintings. Nods also to cinematographer John Hora, who both sells the creations of Walas and gives the film a Christmas glow.
At heart, it’s a dark comedy, but those little Gremlins are vicious. They take pleasure in the suffering of mankind. It can be frightening and audiences often think ill of those little green monsters, but rarely do they terrify far beyond the very young. Gremlins spawned it’s own string of knockoffs like; Critters, Troll, and Hobgoblins. It also was a major influence along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with getting the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) to introduce the PG-13 rating. After each film was released Spielberg approached the MPAA with the suggestion of an addition rating.
7. Silent Night, Deadly Night
The most notorious of the films on this list, Silent Night, Deadly Night managed to out weekend gross Nightmare on Elm Street, spawn 4 atrocious sequels, a spotty ball-less remake, and piss off a hord of angry mothers. Thanks to a poorly thought out ad campaign, Silent Night, Deadly Night was pulled from theaters roughly six weeks after its release. Posters and trailers that paraded images of a murderous Santa Clause caused an uproar with parents, whom believed that the imagery would scare and scar children that didn’t understand. Even film critics Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel had a campaign against the film. They read the films credits and said “shame” after each name. The reactions are total overkill, Silent Night, Deadly Night is neither very bad nor is it very gory. While it’s never been labeled under the category of “video nasty” (possibly due to the fact that it’s not very out there), the films sequels were banned in the UK. Ultimately the legions of angry mothers and critics couldn’t hold the film from release and it has received many incarnations on DVD here in the states. DVD covers flaunting it’s notoriety.
It’s not a terrible film, in fact it’s fairly thoughtful. Billy (a reference to Black Christmas), has an inherent fear of Santa Clause after seeing his father and mother killed by a carjacker in a Santa suit (yes, I am serious), and his kooky grandfather implants an image of a Santa Clause who punishes naughty children. After the incident, Billy has only to believe that murder is the proper transgression for sin. Instead of tending to Billy’s sensitive nature, the orphanage he stays at attempts to callous his wounds, and stiffen him to the subject of Santa Clause. The repression builds his misunderstanding and eventually he bursts. When dressed as Santa for work one day he takes up what he believes, are the duties of Saint Nick.
Silent Night, Deadly Night is all talk. It’s current ad campaign hypes the film up but the decay of time and the poor shape of the print have the digital transfers looking pretty bad. It’s not nearly the slasher film it is made out to be. What’s important is that Billy is part of the last string of original great 80’s slashers, and should be remembered. No film should have to face a ban.
6. The Children
A shame, this film was advertised as such a tongue in cheek ordeal. It’s horrifyingly too real and perhaps too close to home for many. Children below the age of 8 are creepy to begin with. Throw some kind of virus into the mix that turns them into conspiring little devil children, makes for true horror. The idea comes across as a precarious balancing act between horror and dark comedy but the filmmakers are *almost* able to do for children what Jaws did for sharks. I almost prefer the film be without the implied virus justification. It would of been even more terrifying to think that this turn on parenthood comes from some spontaneous genetic evolution.
Two families visit a vacation home in the woods for a Christmas and New Years celebration, the lark turns sour as the youngins start to turn over ill and their behavior does a total 180. The Children does an excellent job of concealing its violence. It shows enough to imply the act but it doesn’t indulge in the art. The subject of children in harm is touchy enough without someone showing them impaled through the neck. Director Tom Shankland minds well to steer the camera clear from the face of a dying or dead child. He villainizes them well.
The horror spawns from two primal origins, one being that something so expectantly harmless and innocent has the motivation and thirst for cold blooded murder, and the other from the inevitable solution. That these parents will have to dispose of part of themselves. Children are a mother and fathers life. Directly connected through flesh, blood, and spirit. This is a betrayal of perhaps the oldest known instinct to man. Being a parent has saved the lives of many in the past, giving the directionless a sense of purpose and witnessing the blessing of the miracle of life. This film proposes that it is to be their damnation.
5. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
On occasion you’ll run into a film that is so wacky but yet unexplainable good. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is a very dark but yet uplifting tale about the determination and wonder of children. It’s not an easy choice to make a killer Santa Clause movie, or make it well. This very daring project tells the story of a group of reindeer herders and their children discovering the truth about Santa Clause. It’s another film with a lost dark history of Santa Clause, but it’s made well enough to defy your expectations. What really makes it creepy is young Onni Tommila’s performance as Pietari. As a child, he unconditionally believes all that he hears and sees. When the shit starts hitting the fan and a herd of slaughtered reindeer are discovered Pietart isn’t in awe like his parents, but he simply says “he must of been very hungry”.
I could of done without a lot of the films exposition and would of much preferred the mystery to unravel itself, but it’s put together well enough that even if you think you have a good idea of where everything is leading, then you’d be wrong. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale hardly has gathered any following since it’s US release but it’s no less deserving of one. The film has “cult” written all over it. The filmmakers were more concerned about making a touching film then one that particularly means anything. It works because like any film about children discovering magic, we cling to that adolescence. It’s the time of the year where Santa is supposed to bring happiness into every home. There’s something spectacular about a film where a child is able to bring that same magic into our hearts.
4. The Mothman Prophecies
This is another one of those films that treads the fine line between horror and psychological thriller. Why couldn’t it be both thrilling and eerie. Based on the novel hosting the same title, both incarnations of the tale claim to be based on true events. And while usually this is a ploy to evoke some cheap thrill, if it wasn’t for numerous Discovery Channel documentaries about The Mothman himself, I’d say the same for it’s use here. While it’s not word for word an accurate adaptation of the book or the reality, it is certainly a chilling film. John Klein (Richard Gere) has his wife taken from him after a car crash reveals that she has a very rare tumor in her frontal lobe. After two years of morning, a trip to Richmond has John somehow wind up 8 hours away in Point Pleasant. A small town on the border of West Virginia and Ohio, and place of many strange happenings of late.
So back around 1966-67, a bunch of towns folk of Point Pleasant reported sightings and encounters with a figure. Tall, red eyes, and “moth-like”. And these weren’t drunks turning in police reports. It was respected members of the community, and police officers themselves bringing these encounters to attention. Something was happening in Point Pleasant, I can’t tell you what because that would in turn, spoil the film. No one seemed to be able to explain the phenomena, but the sightings have been related to UFO sightings and visits from Men in Black. So without giving a history lesson about my taste for the ghastly, let’s say it’s a big deal out in West Virginia. So much so that they’ve erected a statue of the titular beast.
The Mothman Prophecies doesn’t have the greatest script but I admire it’s unfocused approach. The utterly unexplainable is attempting to be explained, and director Mark Pellington does that the best he can. His sense of pace is incredible, making this two hour film seem much much shorter. For a mainstream film it’s also very stylized. Pellington makes use of handheld cameras to have the image float like a ghost, the use of a quick cut of footage to communicate an action; like a pan of a camera along a telephone wire to visually transition into a phone call, it puts the audience on edge. It makes that phone call seem all the more exciting. The Mothman Prophecies is so high on this list because it’s so different. It’s one of the only films to take the position of tell not show. Most of the goosebumps it evokes come from eye witness testimony of the characters. They tell us what happened, stylized flashback footage is cut in and an unsettling score is laid over top to create this sense of dread about something we never quite see or understand really. Pellington took The Mothman mythos and gave it his own voice. He believes the insect invader is part of a larger whole, something that won’t, and can’t be understood. Something like fictional Mothman expert Alexander Leek (Alan Bates) seems to believe, that we “aren’t allowed to understand”.
3. Night of the Hunter
Only the end of this film takes place over the holiday, but it’s enough that I justify it a place on this list. It’s also hardly considered a horror film. It’s been clumped with Silence of the Lambs as a psychological thriller. Any movie about a money grubbing priest that’s willing to be driven to murder with the social skills of James Bond, is sadistic enough to be considered horror. Hell, Robert Mitchum’s character was based on American serial killer Harry Powers. Based upon the novel of the same name by David Grubbs, Night of the Hunter takes an expressionist visual approach. Fully taking advantage of the visual medium in which it chooses to tell its story. Heavily influenced by German expressionism, the deep shadows and sharp light of every frame aren’t just present on the screen, but carved into the frame. The hard light makes for some unexpectedly eerie imagery.
When Ben Harper is sent to prison for robbery, his cell mate is none other than Harry Powell. Before Ben was locked away he had his son hide the money he stole. Harry takes note and when Harper is sent off to the gallows, Powell gets out and pursues Harper’s gullible widow who falls into his arms, along with the rest of her town. Her children, are not so accepting.
Director Charles Laughton never made another film after the critical and commercial flop of the film. Though to day it is regarded as a masterpiece. Inducted into the National Film Registry as well as a well deserved spot in the Criterion Collection vault. Empire magazine even regards it as the 71st greatest film of all time. Rightly so, Night of the Hunter is meticulously made. Every portion of the film is poetic. And performances from even the child actors are near perfect, communicating all their thoughts and feelings in a single shot (it’s rumored that Laughton despised directing children and Mitchum was handed that torch). Perhaps this hatred is responsible for half of the aurora of the film. Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of Hate couldn’t be a finer example of gut wrenching. You know when you meet someone and they just don’t quite settle with you properly, Mitchum is able to communicate that through the screen. He harbors two tattoos on his knuckles. Love and Hate, he displays them for those he meets and tells them the tale of their battle. The film is simply that, a black and white tale of good and evil. It just happens so that Laughton editor Robert Golden, and cinematographer Stanley Cortez has given the film a look and flow so incredibly interesting. The defined juxtaposition of light and shadow is a visual metaphor supporting the film’s theme. One conversation is interspersed with dutch angle cuts of a speeding train. The effect is chill inducing. The imagery is used to evoke some sense of fear and unease. It’s a near perfect film and it’s appeal and horror stem from it’s subtlety and visual awe.
2. You’d Better Watch Out (AKA Christmas Evil, & Terror in Toyland)
While the poster may deceive many into thinking they’ll be watching a Silent Night, Deadly Night rip off (though little know it predates that film), one might be pleasantly surprised to find instead an intelligent if not brilliant, psychological study. Cult film Director John Waters (Pink Flamingo, Hairspray) is quoted as calling it, “the greatest Christmas film of all time”. It reminds me of an early Brian DePalma film, with lots of tense and quick cuts in the shots and music, along with the tight framing. Simply put, it is a better made Silent Night, Deadly Night. Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) witnesses the destruction of fantasy when he finds out that Santa Clause is nothing more than his father in a big red suit and beard. As he grows into adulthood, something doesn’t quite click in Harry’s head. He keeps journals of children on his block on weather they’ve been naughty or nice, and he has an unhealthy obsession with the commercial gift giver. His desperation for wonder and good deeds leads him to dress like the saint and deliver toys to the needy. He also slaughters those who give Christmas a bad name.
You’d Better Watch Out is magical, it truly is. I give it spot number dos because it really feels like Christmas, despite being a murdering bastard Harry is a tragic figure. Someone robbed of his belief in fairy tales, we can all relate to that. He so desperately wanted to believe in magic that he tries himself to be that magic for others. Director Lewis Jackson never directed another film, it seems he poured all of himself into that one project.
1. Black Christmas (AKA Silent Night, Evil Night)
Black Christmas directed by Bob Clark (A Christmas Story, Porky’s), grabs the first spot on this list not because it’s the biggest name or it’s received the highest critical acclaim over the years. Besides being one of actor Steve Martin’s favorite films, Black Christmas is genuinely terrifying. It was actually pulled from network television because it was deemed “too scary” by network execs. The plot is simple, a sorority house is paid a visit by a very sadistic stranger with a taste for murder and prank phone calls. True Black Christmas owes much of it’s plot elements to prior frights; like the aforementioned Silent Night, Bloody Night (unnerving voice on the phone), and the short film The Sitter (the precursor of When a Stranger Calls), but those individual moments of fright don’t loose their impact in the film. It could be argued that they are done more effectively here. The film doesn’t rely on the twist of revealing the killer is in the house at the end, we know the killer is in the house from the opening scene. Instead we witness Olivia Hussey’s creeping terror and morale decay, as she comes to accept the news as truth. It’s ultimately more affective. In place of vague dialogue that whispers clues of a past intertwined with the characters listening, Black Christmas phone calls make use of heavily sexual and grotesque language, along with a series of wails, snarls, honks, hoots, howls, and any other vocal incoherence you can conjure.
There’s a whole web of controversy surrounding the originality of the film and even the originality of a proposed follow up project Bob Clark was rumored to be working on with John Carpenter. It all comes with the territory of being an early slasher incarnation I suppose. It’s actually inspired by a series of killings that occurred in Quebec around Christmas time, and the urban legend of The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs, a tale that warrants an article of it’s own due to it’s numerous reincarnations. The films alternate title was chosen due to fear that the original would be mistaken for a blaxploitation flick.
I could talk all day about where this film succeeds, but what separates it from the slew of other slasher films that come after. It may have some of the best POV footage of any film in the sub-genre, and it’s also absent of a lot of blood. Instead the deaths are show in stylized sequences that make for a greater impact. Who could also forget that spying eye from the crack of the door. What separates Black Christmas from the pack is both it’s great sense of character, and it’s shivering music. Composer Carl Zitter, wrote every note on the piano, by tying silverware to the wires he was able to warp the vibration of the strings. The pianist’s score also mirrors the destruction of a piano that the character of Alex plays. In his lowest moment, Alex smashes the piano, in turn from then on out the music is dissonant and muddled, like the composers hands were wiping across the strings themselves. Jess (Olivia Hussey) & Barb (Margot Kidder) given the film an anchor point that we can grab onto. Jess has recently found out she’s pregnant and is at ends with her boyfriend Alex on weather or not to keep it. While Barb lets her guilt and big city ego consume her as a small town sorority sister goes missing. Our killer Billy doesn’t just hack and slash his way through the lot. We have to watch these girl unwittingly be preyed upon by a senseless evil, that begs the question of why, but only answers in incoherent babble. It’d be fascinating but pointless to speak to a killer like Billy and ask him his motivation. Something so evil can only be understood by someone acquainted with madness. If you really want to contrast the most wonderful time of the year, here’s how you do it.
1. One Hell of a Christmas
For those of you that know the horror publication Fangoria, you may be pleased to know that during the course of the 90’s with assistance of our blooming American economy, the magazine had a joint production and distribution company, dedicated to putting out very low budget, but honest horror films. One of those said films is, One Hell of A Christmas, also released as The Claw. Shot on the new advent of video (which means it looks god awful), but the film overall really isn’t. It shows slivers of brilliance in it’s production. A few more bucks may have saved it from it’s eventual disregard, and may have made it a memorable direct to video release. Fangoria has put out some other interesting films worth checking out including but not limited to; Slashers, & The Last Horror Movie. I only nod it an honorable mention because it doesn’t feel like a Christmas. There’s no snow and there’s even a thunderstorm with rain, makes me think Spring.
Ex-con Carlos has recently been freed after two years in the slammer. After a failed reconnection with his son and wife, he falls into a crazy Christmas party evening with his partner in crime Michael, whom has recently come across a mysterious artifact that induces the user with a cocaine like high. It earns my respect for being played straight. There’s a heavy Evil Dead vibe around the second half of the film, with deadite-eske corpses returning from the grave and even what seems to be a tribute to Critters, in the form of a little minion that follows The Devil around. Yes, The Devil himself makes a cameo. One Hell of a Christmas gets a spot just off the list because it’s so much damn fun. It’s a movie about demonic cocaine, that’s right up there with Full Moon’s Evil Bong Trilogy. You got to get past the production values, but maybe some eggnog could bypass all that.
2. A Christmas Nightmare
Falling again under that low budget poorly shot category, A Christmas Nightmare only gets an honorable mention for again not feeling like Christmas. I am ever so partial to snow and again the landscape is bare. It’s another one of those early 2000’s direct to video things. 10 years ago people were still perfecting the art of DIY film making, ideas like continuity… and lighting were pretty abstract. The film is well framed at times but it takes more then a good sense of framing to tell a story. Poor editing makes the film drag. What it does well, is create this sense of isolation. The film opens in the 1950’s, a farmhand commits suicide as his dog watches. His body hangs from a windmill, reflecting in his fallen glasses. The mythology of this property is established so hauntingly without a single word uttered from a narrator. It’s countdown structure builds towards the mysterious and while the payoff may not get you off, the time spent getting there was great foreplay.
A politician and his wife are moved to a remote house after a presidential candidate is assassinated. Under the watchful eye of their body guard George, they start to realize that maybe no one is watching out for George.
Director Vince Di Meglio was actually the writer of Marmaduke, that CGI talking dog film from a few years back. It’s funny because he’s a Harvard grad. Due to the theme of Christmas being hardly relevant within the story, the UK title is actually The Damned Within the Shadows, which makes even less sense. It’s titles like these that make me realize why producers slap on generic R-words for titles; Redemption, Requiem, Retribution, Resurrection…
What do you think? Leave a comment.