Christmastime is a cinephile’s dream. Not only will they have a smorgasboard of memorabilia, Criterion Collection blu-rays and old props from the set of a Jim Jarmusch movie that went for surprisingly little money at auction under their tree come the morning of December 25th, that’ll be the icing on the cake of a whole month of superlative festive films. From It’s A Wonderful Life to Die Hard to A Muppets Christmas Carol (which features both the definitive Scrooge in Michael Caine and the definitive Charles Dickens in Gonzo), the schedules and cinemas are stuffed with classic Christmas films.
Some people’s movie tastes skew a little darker, though. A little bloodier. A little lighter on the festive cheer, a little heavier on the buckets of gore and B-movie production values. Horror film makers don’t miss a trick, though, and having already mined Halloween, Valentine’s Day and Prom Night for all they’re worth – Easter’s still up for grabs guys – they’ve long since moved onto crafting their bloodiest, nastiest fare for the Yuletide season as well.
The best horror (and let’s be honest, some of the worst as well) takes something familiar and safe, and turns it on its head so it’s suddenly frightening and nightmarish. You can disassociate yourself from a serial killer in the Victorian era who’s also a ghost, but a scary dude wearing a mask breaking into a suburban home on an oh-so-familiar holiday night? Now that’s hitting close to home.
And what hits closer to home than monsters, murderers ghosts and ghoulies stalking people around their tinsel festooned homes on Christmas Eve? With the help of professional wrestlers, evil children and Joan Collins, here are ten absolutely ridiculous holiday horror films. Because of course they are.
10. Santa’s Slay
Christmas is a time ripe for reinvention as a horrifying, blood-splattered time for mass murder, but also…it’s not, is it? It’s Christmas. The mostly squeaky clean, incorruptible holiday in the calendar. Even miserabilist indie band Eels did a song called Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas. Christmas can never really be totally terrible. Which is probably why most horror films set during the season never quite work, instead coming across even more cheesy and try hard than your usual slasher flick.
Do you know what else helps in making your horror film come across cheesy and try hard? When it involves Father Christmas as the murderous villain. Not just a maniac dressed as Jolly Old Saint Nick (something which will be coming up in good time), but Santa Claus himself, leaping down chimneys and slaughtering entire families, before escaping on a sleigh driven by his “hell-deer”.
Yes, these are all things that happen. And most of his victims appear to be getting the chop because they’re Jewish which…is a little troubling. Still, several famous Jewish actors – including James Caan and Fran Drescher – pop up to get knocked off almost as quickly. Oh, and Santa in this case is played by former professional wrestler Bill Goldberg, because of course he is.
9. Dead End
Getting impaled on a menorah by a murderous Santa Claus played be an ex-member of World Championship Wrestling who may or may not be the antichrist isn’t the sort of thing many audiences can sympathise with. Those long, trying journeys cross-country to spend time with family members over Christmas – and all the ensuing annoyance, drama and insanity that ensues – is the stuff of wry observational comedy, though, a thing that everyone has to just knuckle down and do every December. That’s the starting point of Dead End, an effective little cult horror from 2003.
At least, it starts off in that sort of grounded situation. Frank Harrington (Ray Wise of Twin Peaks) is the one driving his nuclear family through the dark, icy roads of midwestern America for Christmas dinner at his mother-in-law’s, when a series of unfortunate events lead to them picking up an insane hitch-hiker, holing up with her in a cabin in the woods, before all sorts of supernatural satanic shenanigans start up.
It’s not exactly high cinema, and there’s more than a few scenes where the low budget’s clearly straining beneath the pressure of what’s being asked of it, but Wise especially manages to sell a pretty zany premise that’s almost like a twisty-turny early Twilight Zone episode. Albeit with more evil babies, masturbation and violent car crashes.
8. Tales From The Crypt
Whilst not necessarily a Christmas film all the way through, this Amicus anthology film from the early seventies – each of its five separate segments based on stories from the EC Comics series of the same name, which also inspired a TV show – does kick off with a tale of festive horror that’s a) clearly Christmassy in its premise, and b) is so ridiculous that to leave it off of this list would be remiss. The fact that it stars plummy Dynasty actress/her off the Snickers advert Joan Collins only goes further to prove that.
Each story in the film is introduced by the Crypt Keeper, an iconic EC character who explains to a group of confused strangers how they came to die and wind end up in the catacombs with him. Their deaths range from another violent car crash coupled with hallucinations, a hounded old man coming back from the dead for revenge, and a cruel new director of a home for the blind being savaged by a ravenous guide dog.
Collins, meanwhile, is front and centre with the film’s fist story. … And All Through the House sees her as a frustrated housewife who murders her husband on Christmas Eve, all ready to hide his body when she hears a radio announcement stating that a homicidal maniac is on the loose. Who is dressed as Santa Claus. It is sort of incredible in the gaudy vein of seventies British horror.
7. Black Christmas
Not only the original Christmas horror film but the original slasher film full stop, Black Christmas provided the rough blueprint that would be perfected with John Carpenter’s Halloween not long after and then spawn a whole subgenre that would go on to dominate horror films for decades after (at least until found footage became a thing and ghosts came back into style again). Obviously it also got remade in the early noughties, as is the fate of all slasher films, but you can’t hold that against it.
Especially because the remake is so naff, and because the original is so good. Well, good by standards of horror films, which demand to be held by a different standard that basically any other film. The Citizen Kane of horror still isn’t going to be as good as Citizen Kane. Black Christmas doesn’t even try for such cinematic heights, and why should it? It’s a horror film based on the “THE CALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE” urban legend and having a murderer strangle people with fairy lights.
Black Christmas is very humble in its ambitions, hoping to bring to life the pulpy horror of those urban legends and generally trying to bring the festive tradition of the holidays down into the gutter with a slasher who menaces a sorority house first with gross phone calls, and then with actual murdering. Sometimes with a unicorn ornament. Yeah, it is pretty ridiculous a lot of the time. In the remake somebody dies from an icicle falling through their eye, though. The killer doesn’t even do anything.
6. The Children
Is there a more terrifying sight, come Christmas morning, than a horde of children descending on the presents that have slowly amassed around the tree and totally gutting them, tearing them to pieces and leaving behind nothing more than a pile of wrapping paper viscera? Seriously, it’s like that one bit from the end of Day Of The Dead when the zombies tear that guy literally limb from limb. Only with more bows. It’s that innate childhood capacity for energetic violence that informs The Children.
Creepy kids are a dime a dozen in horror films, but usually they’re just lank-haired ghosts from Japanese horror or the Midwich Cuckoos types. Very rarely are kids seen as actually physically violent menaces who could do you serious harm, and thus necessitate you being violent towards them. That’s a particular societal taboo broken by this underrated (and admittedly, at times, downright silly) British horror from a few years ago.
A few families meet up in a remote countryside home for the holidays, with their respective toddlers in tow. The kids start acting strange, being ill and stuff, before it becomes clear that something evil has taken root in their brains, and the kids start to (again) literally tear their families apart. Sometimes genuinely chilling, sometimes a little girl examining some gore in a plastic Wendy house.
5. Christmas Evil
Also known as You Better Watch Out and Terror In Toyland, the title it’s best known by really gets to the crux of what Christmas Evil is all about. A decidedly B-movie slasher from the eighties, it’s nonetheless amassed a cult following – midnight movie maestro John Waters is a particularly evangelical fan, quoted as saying it is the “greatest Christmas movie ever made.” Maybe wouldn’t go that far but boy, there sure is some fun to be had with Christmas Evil.
Possibly the first in the sub-subgenre of slasher films set at Christmas starring Santa as the villain, the movie opens with a young boy named Harry catching his mum and dad at it, whilst the latter is dressed up as Santa. Heartbroken, he rushes up to the attic and cuts his hand with glass form a shattered snow globe. Childhood trauma, for sure, but probably the sort that could easily be solved with a birds and the bees talk or a bit of therapy.
Unfortunately Harry isn’t lucky enough to receive either, instead harbouring those psychological scars through to adulthood, where a particularly crummy day at work has him enacting bad will upon all men that cross his path. Whilst dressed as Father Christmas. Worth it just to see the incredible, inexplicable ending that’s accompanied by a reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
4. Jack Frost
One of Michael Keaton’s few cinematic missteps was Jack Frost, a 1998 film where he plays a deadbeat dad who dies in a car crash but gets a second chance to raise his young son when he gets resurrected as an animated snowman. It’s really quite disturbing, possibly even more so than the other Jack Frost, a straight-up horror film from the year before about a serial killer who gets transformed into a snowman. Actually, it’s sort of a close call as to which is the true horror film.
Both are patently ridiculous, but the 1997 Jack Frost has probably the most ludicrous premise. The titular mass murderer is being driven to his execution when the truck he’s in crashes into a “genetics truck”, the material in which causes him to mutate and fuse together with the snow on the ground. Emerging as a killer snow man, he vows to get revenge on takes revenge on the sheriff who finally caught him.
In case the denouement is a little too obscure, Jack Frost hits it home by taking place in a fictional town called Snowmonton, which is the location for the eponymous killer’s spree. Worryingly a genetically mutated killer snowman isn’t the weirdest part of the film. Nope, that honour goes to the plot twist that the human soul exists as a chemical, and that the acid that transformed Jack was going to be used to contain DNA in case of a nuclear holocaust. Merry Christmas!
3. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
The pub bore’s favourite piece of trivia around Christmastime is to bring up something about the dark, mysterious history of the Santa Claus myth, or to inform you on how different incarnations of Father Christmas in foreign countries are just oh-so-different and wacky! All of those tedious conversations may have been worth it, however, if it meant that we got Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale in return.
A gloriously deranged and dark Finish film expanded from an earlier short, Rare Exports sees a group of local reindeer herders having their work disturbed by excavations on a nearby mountain. Turns out that the scientists behind the dig are messing with forces they couldn’t possibly understand, and those forces are the creatures that later inspired the stories of Santa Claus bringing presents to good children at Christmas.
Of course it turns out the truth was far more frightening than the legend, as the herders (and the young son of one of them) end up running for their lives from a supernatural being who punishes the naughty and then some. It’s violent, it’s silly, it’s occasionally quite scary, but mostly it’s a Finnish film about creepy, bloodthirsty Slender Man-esque Santas eating people during the festive period.
2. Silent Night, Deadly Night
No list of ridiculous holiday horror films would be complete without Silent Night, Deadly Night; certainly not the first slasher flick about a murderous Santa going on a rampage, but certainly the most iconic, and the one with the best title. And certainly the only one where a woman gets killed by being impaled on the antlers of a stuffed trophy deer. It’s more than a little bit of a rip on Christmas Evil but man, what a rip off Silent Night, Deadly Night is.
It even begins in much the same way as Christmas Evil, with a young boy who, after witnessing his parents’ brutal murder at the hands of a man clad in a Santa suit on Christmas, grows up in a Catholic orphanage and – who’d’ve guess it? – winds up becoming a serial killer himself. A totally OTT Halloween knock-off dressed in tinsel, Silent Night, Deadly Night nonetheless managed a fair more amount of controversy than Michael Myers ever got, with PTA groups campaigning for the film to be banned. They didn’t want Christmas spoiling for the children!
Won’t somebody please think of the children? Apparently not, since despite that and a particularly scathing review by Siskel and Ebert that involved them reading the full credits on air saying “shame, shame” after each one, it spawned five sequels. Five. The absolute nadir of which had to be the second, which doesn’t take place at Christmas and involves garbage day. Just watch the clip. It’s a gift. A festive gift.
How could it not be Gremlins, after all? It’s the greatest Christmas film ever made, bar none, not to mention a totally ridiculous horror film to boot. The mainstream debut of longtime B-movie director Joe Dante, with Chris Columbus and Steven Spielberg throwing their weight behind it, some try and argue that the story of a young boy being given the responsibility of a supernatural pet whose offspring run riot through a small, snow-covered town isn’t particularly Christmassy. Those people are fools.
For one thing, there’s all the circumstantial evidence. Gremlins is set at Christmas. Billy’s dad buys him Gizmo as a Christmas present, he just happens to open it early. Kate even has that horrific story about how her own dad died when he tried to climb down the chimney dressed as Santa Claus on Christmas Day, only to get stuck and expire in the several days it took for anyone to find him. Not child-appropriate, maybe, but definitely a Christmas film.
And really, has there been a more accurate depiction of the decadence, bad behaviour and slavish following of capitalism that we all indulge in over the holiday period than in the antics of the gremlins as they tear that backwater city apart? If nothing else, Billy’s mum using household items to kill a bunch of the creatures should be more than enough to warm the cockles of your heart. She’s like the housewife Ellen Ripley. And to all a good night!