Another holiday season is upon us! With it comes this year’s batch of Christmas-themed TV episodes, specials, radio programming, and films. A week or so ago I had the opportunity to watch a different type of Christmas movie, Krampus. It’s the latest in a line of Christmas-themed horror films that always seem to put just the right amount of scare into our holiday season.
Released by Universal Pictures and directed by Michael Dougherty, the man who brought us the Halloween cult classic Trick ‘r Treat, Krampus tells the tale of the horned, hoofed Germanic demon who visits families at Christmastime, not to give gifts, but the punish those who lose the festive spirit. I won’t review the film now except to say that it was okay. If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry, I’ll give you a list of a few better films to watch. Krampus did give me the opportunity to think about all the other scary holiday film offerings I’ve seen throughout the years. Some better than others, all were quite memorable.
So, for your holiday-watching list, here’s a few to add: The Top Ten Christmas Horror Films!
#10 Jack Frost (1997)
This is not the Michael Keaton family-friendly film released the following year. No, this is the tale of a serial killer who gets genetically mutated in a car accident on the way to his execution; you know…that ol’ chestnut. The killer, appropriately named Jack Frost, has his DNA fused with the snow and becomes, wait for it… a killer snowman!
Directed by Michael Cooney, this is low-budget B-movie horror at its best. It’s not going to win any awards but it’s silly, it’s a bit scary, and it’s Christmas. If nothing else, this is known for being Shannon Elizabeth’s film debut and the shower scene with her and Frost is wild!
#9 Silent Night (2012)
Basically a remake of the 1984 Charles E. Sellier’s film Silent Night, Deadly Night, but with added plot points drawn from the real-life 2008 Covina, California massacre, where nine people were murdered at a Christmas Party. The killer was, you guessed it, dressed in a Santa suit and armed with handguns and a flamethrower. Seeing that played out on the big screen will definitely give some viewers nightmares.
Starring Malcolm McDowell and scream queen Jaime King, this film, directed by Steven C. Miller, had a limited theatrical run but was well-received by the horror-loving community. It’s basic Christmas horror: fun, frights, gore, with some cool music.
#8 Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Partly the inspiration for the above film, this Christmas gem was actually picketed and protested when it was originally released. Film critics Siskel & Ebert even read the credits on their show and announced “shame” after each credit was read. People just didn’t appreciate a good killer Santa Claus movie, which is odd because this was by far not the first such film, yet it did become the most notorious.
Directed by Charles E. Sellier, Jr., a pioneering director/producer of the 1970s, this film has your normal holiday spirit: after a criminal in a Santa suit kills his parents, young Billy tries to go on with his life. Later, after being forced to wear a Santa suit at work, and then subsequently catching a man attempting to rape the love of his life, Billy loses it and the bloodshed begins!
The film was only in theaters a short while before the protests took its toll and the movie was pulled. The picketers and the critics failed to understand the meaning of the film. It is a scathing indictment on everything that is wrong with the holidays, plus you never make a man whose parents were killed by a Santa suit-wearing maniac, wear a Santa suit!
The issue was the film’s marketing focused too much on the Santa aspect and not enough on the psychological trauma of Billy. After all, when we watch Bad Santa (2003), we know it’s not about the department store Santa, but Billy Bob Thornton’s con man character, Willie. A similar approach might have saved this film as opening box office numbers were promising before bad press shut it down.
The film was followed by no less than 119 sequels, alright, maybe I’m exaggerating, regardless, don’t see any of them. I’m warning you…
#7 Santa’s Slay (2005)
What? Retired professional wrestler Bill Goldberg is demonic Santa! Wow, instant holiday classic!
So here’s the premise, jolly Santa Claus is actually a hell spawn demon who lost a bet with an angel. In doing so, he’s forced to become the jovial lover of milk and cookies, giver of toys and good cheer, and fly around in his magic sleigh. However when the terms of the bet end; this demon is quick to return to his violent behavior. That’s pretty much it in a nut shell.
Written and directed by David Steiman and produced by Brett Ratner, Santa’s Slay is a fresh take on the whole killer-in-a-Santa suit genre. The whole film is done with a wink and a nod as the cast is a lot better than you would think and, per plan, consists of mostly Jewish actors. The end credits even include blooper scenes so you know they are not taking themselves too seriously.
It has a few scares, but it’s meant to be silly, not really scary. So, if you’re looking for some holiday violence, gore, laughs and nudity, this is the film for you this Christmas.
#6 Don’t Open Till Christmas (1984)
This wonderful little British import is a whodunit about a Scotland Yard detective chasing a naughty killer murdering anyone he can find in London wearing a Santa suit. This was the first-time directorial effort by prolific British actor Edmund Purdom, who also stars as our intrepid Inspector Harris hot on the trail of the maniacal Santa-killer.
The deaths are aplenty with these poor Santa suit-wearing shlubs being stabbed, burned, electrocuted, castrated, shot, chopped, you name it! The gore and blood abounds! Hardcore genre fans will enjoy it and revel in the sleaze and slasher nature of the film. They even got former Bond girl and Hammer Studios regular Caroline Munro to appear as herself in one scene; film can’t be that bad!
#5 Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)
Originally titled Night of the Dark Full Moon, this film involves a mysterious mansion that was once an insane asylum and the scene of gruesome murders. When the new owner returns to town to sell the property, the murders begin again. The film revolves around the mystery of who’s committing the murders and what are his and the victim’s connection to the mansion?
Directed by Theodore Gershuny, this is a low-budget mystery thriller that has developed cult status. The film has a unique cast that includes Patrick O’Neal, horror icon John Carradine, John Patterson, prolific cult actress Mary Woronov, and a ton of character actors that would be familiar to any fans of “Elvira’s Movie Macabre,” of Andy Warhol’s Factory films. This was a drive-inn staple for a time before returning from obscurity with annual holiday television screenings in the 1980s. The murders are intense with some jump scares and lots of blood and creepy shadows. The mood is eerie and is notable when you learn that John Carradine doesn’t really have any lines, or that co-star John Patterson died during filming with all his lines being dubbed by another actor, or that this was the last film of famous transgender actress and pop culture muse, Candy Darling.
If you can find it, you must see this one. You won’t regret it.
#4 Christmas Evil (1980)
On most top ten lists for Christmas horror, this obscure film is dark, but definitely too good to be considered standard slasher fair. Although lesser known, it predates the more notorious Silent Night, Deadly Night, though they both deal with the same themes.
The violence is comical, but bloody nonetheless. The story involves your usual Christmas-loving young boy who is devastated when inadvertently learns Santa isn’t real. The boy, Harry (Brandon Maggart) grows up obsessed with Santa, working at a toy factory, sleeping in a Santa suit, determined in many ways to fill the role of Santa Claus. After seeing so many instances of people he considers “naughty”, Harry snaps and goes on a killing spree.
Director Lewis Jackson offers up this psychological holiday horror which plays very well considering its low budget. The characters and themes are well-developed with top notch editing and cinematography. The final shot of the film still has people debating. It was released last year on 4K quality Blu-ray, so if you’ve never seen it and can only watch one of the films on this list this year, this would be the one!
#3 Gremlins (1984)
Ranking this film higher than a few of my previous entries was hard. I thoroughly enjoyed it but I have a hard time deciding if it was just that the production values were better or if it really was the story and acting that give Joe Dante’s Gremlins the edge? I’m leaving it here and let the reader’s decide where they would place it on this list (if at all…).
Most filmgoers know the story, our hero, Billy (Zach Galligan) accidentally breaks the three cardinal rules concerning his new pet Mogwai and unleashes holiday mayhem on his unsuspecting town as an ever-growing horde of nasty mischievous gremlins run amok.
Screenwriter Chris Columbus, producer Steven Spielberg, and director Joe Dante deliver this dark comedy horror that balances laughs and fright while also taking a stab at social issues such as cultural paranoia. Featuring extraordinary creature effects and some violent sequences, this was the film that tipped the scales for the MPAA to create a new ratings certification, PG-13.
The sequel becomes a goofy puppet-fest but the original should be on your list for go-to holiday films.
#2 Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
This is a Finnish horror-fantasy film written and directed by Jalmari Helander. If you haven’t seen this film, it is about a mountain community of reindeer herders who have their lives upset by a nearby excavation. The sacred grave of the real Santa Claus has been located and dug up. Soon, on Christmas Eve, reindeer are found dead and children have begun disappearing. It is soon revealed that the grave discovered was that of the source of the Santa Claus stories; a mystical being that punishes the bad, rather than leaving gifts for the good. One family lays a trap and catches an elderly man with a long white beard, who they believe is this evil Santa Claus. They soon discover that what they believed to be Santa Claus was actually only an elf, and that he and the other elves are on a mission to release Santa from his grave, unleashing him on the world.
Whoo! I got caught up there in the story. This is truly a unique script and a fresh take on the Santa mythology. Besides its originality, the film is well-crafted with great effects and horror themes, while retaining that bit of Christmas spirit. This internationally award-winning film is quickly becoming my new holiday tradition!
#1 Black Christmas (1974)
The Canadian film, Black Christmas, directed by Bob Clark, was a psychological thriller starring Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, and John Saxon. The story revolves around a group of sorority sisters during the Christmas season who receive threatening phone calls and are being murdered one-by-one by a deranged psychopath hiding in their attic.
This film draws heavily on the urban legend of the babysitter and the intruder who calls from inside the house, one of the first films to do so. Written by Roy Moore, there are rumors that the film was also inspired by real-life elements from a series of murders that occurred at Christmas time in Montreal. Whatever the base material, this cult classic is really good and one of the forerunners of the modern slasher films, inspiring many of the classics that have followed.
So that’s my list of the top ten, do you agree? Well, don’t feel bad if you don’t. I’m not sure I’m 100% on the ordering. They are all so good in different ways that each one is emblematic of the best that holiday horror has to offer.
As usual, though, here are a few that I didn’t think were in the top ten but are still worth mentioning.
By writer/director Dick Maas, Sint, or Saint (U.S. release), is a twisted retelling of the classic traditions of Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas, Sint Niklaas or Saint Nick, is a Dutch and Flemish legend involving the noble Sint, who, for his birthday on December 5th, rewarded all good little boys and girls with toys and candy.
In this Dutch film, Niklaas is a murderous fallen bishop who runs the countryside raping, murdering and pillaging. Finally, in 1492, a group of vengeful villagers trap and kill the bishop. Now, when the anniversary of his death, December 5th, coincides with a full moon, every couple of decades, he returns to take his revenge on the children of the world.
This is a dark comedy horror with kids being slaughtered and is too much for some viewers; however, Maas makes a solid film and gives us an interesting twist on the legend of Saint Nick.
Santa Claus (1959)
This fantasy comedy that you might remember from “Mystery Science Theater 3000” is basically Santa vs. Satan. It’s a Mexican film by René Cardona about Santa pitting wits against Pitch, a demon servant of Satan. Satan wants children to rebel against the good-natured Santa and commit acts of evil. Santa must stop him.
This film is not a horror film, but it is creepy enough to get a mention. Whether the filmmaker meant it or not, the creepiness factor is real high when we have Santa’s workshop filled with children from around the world as basically slave labor, or how his floating castle is filled with pentagrams, or when the demon whispers to children about how Santa likes killing kids, just weird dude!
I really love this film. It’s not on the list because I don’t find it scary in the least, not even creepy; it’s a comedy and not a horror film. Bill Murray is at his best at the cold-hearted Scrooge-character, Frank Cross, a television exec, in this modern take on “A Christmas Carol.” A black comedy to be sure, but the different ghosts, portrayed by Carol Kane, David Johansen, and John Forsythe, is more funny than scary to me.
So there you have it! I hope you enjoyed reading this list and get a chance to catch one or two of the films this holiday season. I wish everyone the very best and catch you next year!