Christmas is generally seen as a jolly old time for the whole family – if you are to believe the TV commercials, everyone gets together for huge communal feasts while excited urchins unwrap whatever new toy has been hyped as the must-have gift of the year. It is not, generally speaking, seen as a time of horror.
And yet horror has a long tradition of being part of the festive season. Admittedly, the horror in question was traditionally the ghost story, ideally suited for cold winter nights, where people gather around the fire to hear some spine chilling tale of ghostly terror – a scenario recreated in the BBC’s 2000 series Ghost Stories for Christmas, with Christopher Lee reading M.R. James tales to a room full of public school boys.
That series was part of a tradition that included a similar one in 1986 with Robert Powell (Harlequin) and the children’s series Spine Chillers from 1980, as well as the unofficially titled annual series Ghost Stories for Christmas than ran for much of the 1970s and is occasionally revived to this day.
The idea of the traditional Xmas ghost story can be traced back to Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol, where miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts in an effort to make him change his ways. It’s more a sentimental morality tale than a horror story, though in the original book and one or two adaptations, the ghosts are capable of causing the odd shudder. Sadly, the story has been ill-served by cinematic adaptations – the best version is probably the 1951 adaptation, though by then there had already been several earlier attempts, going back to 1910.
A few attempts have been made at straight retellings since then, but all to often the story is bastardised (a musical version in 1970, various cartoons) or modernised – the best known versions are probably Scrooged and The Muppet Christmas Carol, both of which are inexplicably popular.
A 1999 TV movie tried to give the story a sense of creepiness once again, but the problem now is that the story is so familiar that it seems cliched even when played straight. The idea of a curmudgeon being made to see the true meaning of Christmas is now an easy go-to for anyone grinding out anonymous TV movies that end up on Christmas-only TV channels or gathering dust on DVD.
Outside of A Christmas Carol, horror cinema tended to avoid festive-themed stories for a long time. While fantasies like The Bishop’s Wife, It’s a Wonderful Life and Bell, Book and Candle played with the supernatural, these were light, feel-good dramas and comedies designed to warm the heart rather than stop it dead. TV shows like The Twilight Zone would occasionally have a Christmas themed tale, but again these tended to be the more sentimental stories.
The only film to hint at Christmas creepiness was 1945 British portmanteau film Dead of Night, though even here, the festive themed tale, featuring a ghostly encounter at a children’s party, is more sentimental than terrifying.
Meanwhile, the Mexican children’s film Santa Claus vs The Devil (1959) might see Santa in battle with Satan, but it’s all played for wholesome laughs rather than scares.
In Hollywood Horror House aka Savage Intruder (1969), ageing 1930s star Katharine Parker (played by Miriam Hopkins) is the “Queen of the Christmas Parade” on Hollywood Boulevard. Unfortunately, her intended comeback becomes an alcoholic nightmare and Katherine finds it difficult to emote on TV, blaming the street’s downhill on “hoodlums and queers”.
The darker side of Christmas continued to be explored in the 1970s, and it was another British portmanteau film that defined it. Based on an EC Comics tale, the Amicus film Tales from the Crypt (1972) opened with a tale in which a murderous wife played by Joan Collins finds herself terrorised by an escaped psycho on Christmas Eve, unable to call the police because of her recently deceased hubby lying on the carpet. The looney is dressed as Santa, and her young daughter has been eagerly awaiting his arrival, leading to a suitably mean-spirited twist. The story was subsequently retold in a 1989 episode of the Tales from the Crypt TV series.
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This film would lead the way towards decades of Christmas horror. Of course, lots of films had an incidental Christmas connection, taking place in the festive season (or ‘winter’, as it used to be known). Movies such as Night Train Murders, Rabid, Umberto Lenzi’s Eaten Alive! and even the misleadingly named Silent Night Bloody Night have a Christmas connection, but it’s incidental to the main story.
Those are not the movies we are discussing here. No, to REALLY count as a Christmas film, then the festive celebrations surely need to be at the heart of events?
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Two distinct types of Christmas horror developed. There are the Mad Santa films, like Tales from the Crypt on the one hand, and the ‘bad things happening at Christmas’ movie on the other.
The pioneer of the latter was Bob Clark’s 1974 film Black Christmas (aka Silent Night, Evil Night), which not only pioneered the Christmas horror movie but also was an early template for the seasonal slasher film.
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Some critics have argued, with good cause, that this is the movie that laid the foundations for Halloween a few years later – a psycho film (with a possibly supernatural slant) set during a holiday, where young women are terrorised by an unseen force. But while John Carpenter’s film would be a smash hit and effectively reinvent the genre, Black Christmas went more or less unnoticed, its reputation only building years later.
In 2006, Black Christmas was remade by Glen Morgan for Dimension Films (and promoted as Black X-mas) in a gorier but less effective loose retelling of the original story. Interchangeable ‘eye-candy’ victims add nothing to a concept that was creepily effective in the 70s but now seemed like death-by-numbers, albeit with a gruesome back story.
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Preceding Black Christmas was 1972 TV movie Home for the Holidays, in which four girls are picked off over Christmas by a yellow rain-coated killer who may or may not be their wicked stepmother. A decent if unremarkable psycho killer story, the film was directed by TV movie veteran John Llewellyn Moxey (The City of the Dead).
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Also made for TV, this time in Britain, The Exorcism was the opening episode of TV series Dead of Night (no connection to the film of that name) broadcast in 1972. One of the few surviving episodes of the series, The Exorcism is a powerful mix of horror and social commentary, as a group of champagne socialists celebrating Christmas in the country cottage that one couple have bought as a holiday home find themselves haunted by the ghosts of the peasants who had starved to death there during a famine. While theatrical in style and poorly shot, the show is nevertheless creepily effective.
1980 saw Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out), a low budget oddity by Lewis Jackson that has since gained cult status. In this film, a put-upon toy factory employee decided to become a vengeful Santa, putting on the red suit and setting out to sort the naughty from the nice.
It’s a strange film, mixing pathos, horror and black comedy, yet oddly it works, making it one of the more interesting Christmas horrors out there.
Also made in late 1979/early 1980, but rather less successful, was To All a Goodnight, the only film directed by The Last House on the Left star David Hess and written by The Incredible Melting Man himself, Alex Rebar. This generic slasher, with a house full of horny sorority girls and their boyfriends being picked off by a psycho in a Santa outfit, is too slow and poorly made to be effective.
The most notorious Christmas horror film hit cinemas in 1984. Silent Night Deadly Night was, in most ways, a fairly generic slasher, with a Santa-suited maniac on the loose taking revenge against the people who have been deemed ‘naughty’.
The film itself is gory fun but is nothing special — essentially the same premise as Christmas Evil without the intelligence — and might have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for a provocative advertising campaign that emphasised the Santa-suited psycho and caused such outrage that the film was rapidly pulled from U.S. theatres.
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Nevertheless, it had made a small fortune in the couple of weeks it played, and continued to be popular when reissued with a less contentious campaign. The film is almost certainly directly responsible for most ‘psycho Santa’ films since – all hoping to cash in on the publicity that comes with public outrage – and spawned four sequels.
Silent Night Deadly Night Part 2 is notorious for the amount of footage from the first film that is reused to pad out the story, and was banned in the UK (where the first film was unreleased until 2009).
Part 3: Better Watch Out! was directed, perhaps surprisingly, by Monte Hellman (Two Lane Blacktop) and adds a psychic element to the story.
Part 4, directed by Brian Yuzna, drops the killer Santa story entirely (!) and has no connection to the other films beyond the title, telling a story of witchcraft and cockroaches, while Part 5 – The Toymaker – is also unconnected to the other movies.
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Tales of the Third Dimension (1984) was another of producer/director Earl Owensby’s 3-D productions shot in North Carolina. The black comedy horror anthology features a final tale about a murderous granny who tries to do away with her grandkids on Christmas Eve. She uses kitchen appliances and cutlery, poison and a rifle to try and kill the pair of unfortunate kids but the tone is silly rather than nasty. Santa eventually shows up and sends the psycho granny up the chimney and into space!
Also made in 1984, but attracting less attention, Don’t Open Till Christmas was that rarest of things, a 1980s British horror film – and one of the sleaziest ever made to boot. Starring and directed by Edmund Purdom from a screenplay by exploitation veterans Derek Ford and Alan Birkinshaw, the film sees a psycho killer, traumatised by a childhood experience at Christmas, who begins offing Santas – or more accurately, anyone he sees dressed as Santa. With excessive gore, nudity and an overwhelming atmosphere of grubbiness, the film was become a cult favourite for fans of bad taste cinema.
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The third Christmas horror of 1984 was the most wholesome and the most successful. Joe Dante’s Gremlins is all too often overlooked when people talk about festive horror, but from the opening credits, with Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) belting out over the soundtrack, to the carol singing Gremlins and Phoebe Cates’ story of why she hates Christmas, the festive season is at the very heart of the film.
Gremlins remains the most fun Christmas movie ever made, a heady mix of EC-comics ghoulishness, sentiment, slapstick and action, plus some of the best monsters ever put on film.
Gremlins would spawn many knock offs – Ghoulies, Munchies, Critters and more – but only Elves, made in 1989, had a similar Christmas theme. This oddball effort proposes that Hitler’s real plan for the Master Race was human/elf hybrids!
When the elves are revived in a pagan ritual at Christmas, only an alcoholic ex-cop played by Dan Haggerty can stop them. Alas, it’s not as much fun as this brief synopsis suggests.
Family horror returned in 1993 stop-motion film A Nightmare Before Christmas, directed by Henry Selick and produced/co-written by Tim Burton. This chirpy musical sees Pumpkin King Jack Skellington, leader of Halloween Town, stumbling upon Christmas Town and deciding to take it over. It’s a charming and visually lush movie that has unsurprisingly become a festive family favourite over the last twenty years and now comes with a 3-D conversion to boot.
Rather less fun is 1996’s Santa Claws, a typically rotten effort by John Russo (Night of the Living Dead), with Debbie Rochon as a Scream Queen being stalked by a murderous fan in a Santa outfit. This low rent affair is pretty forgettable.
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It is one of several low/no budget video quickies that aimed to cash in on the Christmas horror market with tales of killer Santas – others include Satan Claus (1996), Christmas Season Massacre (2001) and Psycho Santa (2003).
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1997 saw the release of Jack Frost (not to be confused with the family film from a year later of the same name). Here, a condemned serial killer is involved in a crash with a truck carrying genetic material, which – of course – causes him to mutate into a killer snowman.
Clearly inspired by the Child’s Play movie, Jack Frost is pretty silly, but the outlandish concept, some knowingly unpolitical correctness and a mix of tongue-in-cheek black comedy and horror made it popular enough to spawn a self-mocking sequel!
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Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman is set on a Tiki-themed holiday Hell tropical island. Less confrontational than the original, the second “cold-blooded killer” outing features Warners Bros-style cartoon violence that includes one victim killed by a frozen snow anvil and possibly the world’s first and only point-of-view shot from an ice cube!
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A headless killer snowman also turned up in the ‘A Scooby-Doo! Christmas’ episode of the animated TV series What’s New, Scooby-Doo? Scooby and his pals arrive in a town where Christmas is not celebrated because a headless snowman terrorises the residents, so the amateur sleuths set out to solve the mystery…
That might seem as ludicrous as Christmas horror goes, but 1998 saw Feeders 2: Slay Bells, in which the alien invaders of the title are fought off by Santa and his elves. Shot on video with little money, it’s a film you might struggle to get through.
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Rather better was The League of Gentlemen Christmas Special (1999) which mixes the regular characters of the series into a series of stories that are even darker than usual. Mixing vampires, family curses and voodoo into a trilogy of stories that are linked, Amicus style, it’s as creepy as it is funny, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that Mark Gatiss would graduate to writing the more recent BBC Christmas ghost stories.
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Two popular video franchises collided in 2004’s Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys, with the great-nephew of the original Puppet Master battling an evil organisation that wants his formula to help bring killer toys to life on Christmas Eve. Like most of the films in the series, this is cheap but cheerful, throwaway stuff.
2005’s Santa’s Slay (“Violent Night, Gory Night”) sees Santa reinvented as a demon who is forced to be nice and give toys to children. Released from this demand, he reverts to his murderous ways. Given that Santa is played by fearsome looking wrestler Bill Goldberg, you have to wonder how anyone ever trusted him to come down their chimney and NOT kill them.
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The Christmas Tale also came in 2005. Part of the Spanish 6 Films to Keep You Awake series, it depicts a group of children finding a woman dressed as Santa at the bottom of a well. It turns out that she’s a bank robber and the kids decide to starve her into handing over the stolen cash. But things take a darker turn when she escapes and the kids think she is a zombie. It’s a witty, inventive dark little tale.
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2006 brought Two Front Teeth, a rather ludicrous low-budget effort in which Santa is a vampire assisted by zombie elves.
Equally silly, Treevenge is a 2008 short film by Jason Eisener, who would go on to shoot Hobo with a Shotgun. It’s the bizarre story of sentient Christmas trees who have enough of being cut down and displayed in people’s homes and set out to take their revenge.
Bikini Bloodbath Christmas is, unfortunately, a knowingly sub-John Waters Troma crass abomination that ranks as one of the genuinely worst films of all time. This psycho Santa’s homicidal holiday intervention is most welcome as he decimates most of the bitchy amateur-class cast!
Aside from being set on Christmas Eve, when normally busy places can be scarily empty, P2 is not very festive, being the story of a workaholic young executive trapped in an underground car park with a fixated stalker psycho…
In Jim Mickle’s superior vampire apocalypse film, Stake Land (2010), the protagonists come across a mean-looking undead Santa Claus in the road but he’s quickly despatched with a stake through the heart.
Also set on Christmas Eve, the obscure low budget 12/24 is about a group of disparate characters heading home for the night when the dead begin to rise and seek human flesh. Scream Queen Tiffany Shepis stars.
The undead wearily cropped up again in Joe Zerull’s knowingly self-referential comedy horror A Cadaver Christmas, also known as Zombies at Christmas (2011).
Christmas horror has also become more international, with two European films in 2010 offering an insight into different festive celebrations. Dick Maas’ Sint (aka Saint) is a lively Dutch comedy horror which features a vengeful Sinterklaas (similar to, but not the same as, Santa Claus) coming back on December 5th in years when that date coincides with a full moon, to carry out the mass slaughter. It’s a fun, fast-paced movie that also offers a rare glimpse into festive traditions that are rather different to anything seen outside the local culture (including the notorious Black Peters).
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Finnish film Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, on the other hand, sees the original (and malevolent) Santa unearthed during an excavation, leading to the discovery of a whole race of Santas, who are then captured and sold around the world. Witty and atmospheric, the film was inspired by Jalmari Helander’s original short film Rare Exports, Inc, a spoof commercial for the company selling the wild Santas.
But these two high-quality, entertaining Christmas horrors were very much the exception to the rule by this stage. The genre was more accurately represented by the likes of 2010’s Yule Die, another Santa-suited slasher, or 2011’s Slaughter Claus, a plotless, pretty unwatchable amateur effort from Charles E. Cullen featuring Santa and the Bi-Polar Elf on an unexplained and uninteresting killing spree.
Bloody Christmas (2012) sees a former movie star going crazy as he plays Santa on a TV show. 2009 film Deadly Little Christmas is a ham-fisted retread of slashers like Silent Night Deadly Night and 2002’s One Hell of a Christmas is a Danish satanic horror comedy.
And, of course, the festive horror movie can’t escape the seemingly endless low-budget zombie onslaught. Besides the aforementioned movies, 2009 saw Silent Night, Zombie Night, in 2010 there was Santa Claus vs. the Zombies, in 2012 we had Christmas with the Dead, Stalled was set in a ladies’ toilet during a Christmas Eve party, and Silent Night of the Living Dead is currently in pre-production. Most of these films, except perhaps the more cynical Stalled, are likely to fill you with the spirit of the season.
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With a remake of Silent Night Deadly Night, called Silent Night, recent British movies Silent Night, Bloody Night: The Homecoming and Christmas Slay it seems that filmmakers fascination with the dark side of the season isn’t going away anytime soon.
Body (2015) is set on Christmas Eve: A trio of college co-eds break into a seemingly empty mansion to have their own private party. However, the young women are soon faced with dire choices after they unexpectedly encounter the property’s groundskeeper…
If one psycho Santa weren’t enough, British slasher Good Tidings offers a tale of three vicious villains wearing Santa suits!
David Flint, with addition information by Adrian J Smith, MOVIES and MANIA
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More festive fear:
This article was posted in 2013 and many more Christmas-themed horror movies have been released or unearthed. Here’s a selection of what goodies are also on offer:
Dial Code Santa Claus aka Game Over – France, 1989
Cruel Christmas! – Norway, 2013
Silent Night, Bloody Night 2: Revival – USA, 2015
Red Christmas – Australia, 2016
Axemas – short, USA, 2017
Christmas Blood – Norway, 2017
Clinical (2017) – A psychological thriller about trauma patients with hidden secrets. The film has a Christmas backdrop but the yuletide theme is used merely to juxtapose the onscreen twists and machinations of a dark plot (and darkly-lit film).
Secret Santa – USA, 2017
All the Creatures Were Stirring – USA, 2018
Christmas Presence aka Why Hide? – UK, 2018
Dead by Christmas – USA, 2018
Mother Krampus 2: Slay Ride – USA, 2018
Santa Jaws – USA, 2018
Slay Belles – USA, 2018
Unholy Night – Canada, 2018
Black Christmas – USA, 2019
13 Slays Till X-Mas – USA, 2020
Christmas Zombies – USA, 2020
Letters to Satan Claus – USA, 2020
The Advent Calendar – USA, 2021
Stuffings – Australia, 2021
Christmas Bloody Christmas – USA, 2022
Christmas Craft Fair Massacre – USA, 2022
Christmas Slasher – USA, 2022
The Killing Tree – UK, 2022
The Last Slay Ride – USA, 2022
The Leech – USA, 2022
Mistletoe Massacre – USA, 2022
Reunion from Hell 2 – USA, 2022