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A Beginner’s Guide to Christmas Horror Movies

A Beginner’s Guide to Christmas Horror Movies: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

There’s something very quaint, calm, and comfortable about the Christmas season. Even for a Jewish kid who didn’t actually celebrate the holiday, there was always a lot to enjoy about the yuletide season: the music, the parties, the cookies, the TV specials and, of course, the movies. But once I got past the good-natured family favorites like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and A Christmas Story (1983) and went on to discover some truly sleazy Christmas B-movies, such as a deservedly obscure turkey called Christmas Evil, I realized that the year-end holiday season could also be pretty creepy.

Unfortunately, the low-end Christmas thrillers seem to outnumber the decent ones by a healthy margin. With that distinction in mind, let’s all break out our notebooks for a beginner’s guide to noteworthy Christmas horror movies. They won’t all be classics (or even good films, necessarily) but they represent a decent jumping-off point for those in the market for a little violently subversive Christmas viewing material.

Tales from the Crypt (1972) The title will no doubt recall the classic 1980s horror series from HBO, but this one actually goes back a bit further than that. 1972’s Tales from the Crypt, based on the EC comic book of the same name, is the fourth of seven anthology (or portmanteau) horror films produced by British production company Amicus between the years of 1965 and 1974. (The best of the “septet” is 1972’s Asylum, if it’s me you’re asking.) The first story in Tales from the Crypt is called “And All Through the House,” and it’s about a scheming woman (Joan Collins) who earns the attentions of a psycho in a Santa suit. It’s not a particularly deep or insightful mini-movie, but it is darkly amusing and adequately suspenseful.

Black Christmas (1974) Arguably one of the most influential horror films of the 1970s, Black Christmas borrowed liberally, and rather artfully, from Italian giallo films and is generally considered the great-granddaddy of slasher cinema. It’s also a damn fine Canadian chiller that still holds up four decades later. It’s a simple story about a sorority house full of young women who have no idea that a raving lunatic is sharing their residence during Christmas break.

Directed by Bob Clark, about a decade before he’d treat us to a much sweeter Christmas story called, well, A Christmas Story (1983), Black Christmas benefits from a rock-solid cast (which includes Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, Keir Dullea and B-movie hero John Saxon), and a collection of scare scenes that focus more on shock and suspense than on the simplistic carnage that would become the norm for most “slasher flicks” that aren’t called Halloween (1978). Note: There are some who will tell you that the 2006 remake of Black Christmas is a decent modern slasher flick. I do not agree with those people, although the movie certainly warrants at least a mention here.

Gremlins (1984) It’s hard to say if screenwriter Chris Columbus, producer Steven Spielberg and director Joe Dante set out to create one of the finest Christmas movies of the modern era — but history has spoken, and it seems to like this raucous holiday treat a whole lot. Chalk it up to the wonderfully quaint small-town production design, a bunch of great performances, some wonderfully cool creature effects and a colorful tone that strikes a masterful balance between “family friendly” and “playfully nasty.” (Along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins directly inspired the creation of the PG-13 rating.)

Unlike most Christmas-oriented films, Gremlins doesn’t lean too heavily on the standard holiday clichés. It’s a comedic horror flick that just happens to take place during Christmas, which adds more than a dash of class and color to the proceedings — but be warned, parents: Phoebe Cates delivers an anecdote involving her late father’s ill-fated trek down a chimney, which may be enough to give your kids nightmares.

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) Only the most ardent of horror freaks would even bother digging this icky obscurity out of mothballs for the holiday season, but it definitely earns a spot on the list, if only because of the wild controversy it kickstarted.

See, back in the mid-‘80s we had these activists (mostly angry moms, it seemed like) who wanted to ban pretty much everything. Twisted Sister albums, violent video games and slasher flicks were going to turn all us kids into psychopathic maniacs. (I think they also hated The Dukes of Hazzard.) So along comes this low-rent Santa-themed Halloween rip-off — and those angry moms went more or less insane. I think Silent Night, Deadly Night even got its own 60 Minutes story, which is weird because the flick is so remarkably amateurish it makes Friday the 13th Part 2 look like The Godfather Part 2.

“A psycho in a Santa suit stalks and slays several stooges” There’s your plot in a nutshell, and (aside from a few bizarre kill scenes) there’s really not much worth remembering here — but that didn’t stop the producers from courting controversy again with Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987), Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989), Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: The Initiation (1990), and Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toymaker, starring Mickey Rooney, and no I’m not kidding. One more surprise: the original Silent Night, Deadly Night spawned a 2012 remake (entitled simply Silent Night) that’s actually pretty decent. So perhaps there’s a happy ending to this whole ugly mess.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) I’ve actually seen Twitter debates over whether Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s sublimely adorable The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie, and I can settle that argument right now: it’s both! This early '90s cult classic is as widely adored today as ever — it’s still running strong in the merchandising department! — and it’s not hard to figure out why: it combines the best parts of two beloved holidays without short-changing either of them. Plus there’s that intangible magic that comes with world-class stop-motion animation. Oh, and all those great songs.

Between Selick’s stop-motion mastery, Burton’s patented stamp of darkly playful imagery, Danny Elfman’s pitch-perfect music and Caroline Thompson’s surprisingly heartfelt screenplay, The Nightmare Before Christmas has at least two generations of fans through sheer force of full-bore movie magic. The amount of work that goes into a film like this is staggering (three years for this particular movie), and the effort all but pops off the screen. Plot-wise, it’s a simple fable about how the King of Halloween falls in love with the Christmas season, which means it will appeal to the smallest of tots — but it also exhibits a wonderfully mischievous mean streak that will delight animation fans of any age.

Treevenge (2008) Have you ever felt bad about the fir tree massacre that takes place every December? Doesn’t it seem sort of cruel to treat living beings like this, and all for a bizarre religious ceremony? I say, “Yeah, kinda,” but I’m Jewish so I doubt my vote counts. I digress. More to the point: what if all those lovely Christmas trees had friends and family members who struggled to avoid the woodsman’s axe every Christmas season? And what would happen if those tall, majestic trees finally decided to team up and fight back against their attackers in freaky, ferocious, and exceedingly gory fashion?

All of these questions are answered in Treevenge, an undeniably amusing short film from Jason Eisener (Hobo With a Shotgun) in which an army of Christmas trees finally strikes back against its annual oppressors. The first half of the film almost feels like a satire of a documentary about war atrocities (note: this is a dark parody and is probably not suitable for small children — although as a kid I would have found it hilarious) and then the second half is full-bore Christmas carnage of the most creative variety. Note how Mr. Eisener and co-writer Rob Cotterill find a use for just about every Christmas tree cliche imaginable. I got a kick out of the tinsel lasso, and the innate nastiness of something as simple as a Christmas tree stand is a nice touch.

Rare Exports (2010) If film critics serve any purpose at all in the modern world of film exhibition, it’s in their ability to champion the best in independent and foreign cinema. And fortunately for some film critics (like me), there are film festivals like Fantastic Fest that not only seek out the finest in genre cinema from around the world, but also allow genre-addicted writers (like me) to start spreading the word as early as possible. In other words: If you’ve never heard of Rare Exports at this point, well, then you’re in for a big Christmas treat.

Based on a pair of very amusing short films, this irrepressibly bizarre Finnish / Swedish / Norwegian production feels precisely like something that’d spring from the mind of someone raised on only the finest vintages of Spielberg, Zemeckis, Dante and Carpenter: A shocking discovery is made deep within the lovely yet ominous mountains of Lapland; an excavation that threatens to alter everything we think he know about good ol’ Santa Claus. To say much more would destroy the surprises, but suffice to say that Rare Exports is one of the oddest, funniest, darkest and most unusual Christmas movies under the sun.

Saint (2010, aka Saint Nick) This one would probably make for a pitch-perfect double feature with Rare Exports, and not just because they hail from the same section of the globe. This wild import from the Netherlands has its own uniquely violent spin on the legend of Santa Claus. It marked a return to horror cinema for Dutch filmmaker Dick Maas (The Lift, Amsterdamned) – and while it seems to split viewers right down the middle (not literally), this offbeat, unique, gory import won me over pretty quickly. Saint is a bizarre concoction of comedy, horror, action and holiday movie, and while it doesn’t pull off everything its shooting for, there’s enough ambition and audacity to warrant a look, provided you’re on the hunt for something seasonal yet exceedingly strange.

A Christmas Horror Story (2015) If you’re looking for sort of a grab bag of bite-sized yuletide terrors, you could do a whole lot worse than tossing a rental fee at this unexpectedly clever collection of terror tales. Unlike most horror anthologies, which generally play a consecutive series of shorts (sometimes with a “bumper” story running in between), this creepy Canadian import manages to combine four disparate tales (as well as a William Shatner-anchored framing story!) into a crafty two-hour frame.

From a fairly bad-ass rendition of Krampus (more on him in a moment) to an invasion of elven zombies, this one does an admirable job of balancing horror, comedy and seasonal mayhem – and while it’s probably not entirely safe for younger viewers, A Christmas Horror Story should prove to be a perfect “conversation level” movie for your yearly holiday party. (Note of interest: if you’re shopping in Walmart, this movie is called A Holiday Horror Story, and no I’m not kidding.)

Krampus (2015) When the director of the instant October classic Trick 'r Treat (2007) announced that he’d be setting his cinematic sights on an entirely different sort of holiday horror stories, well, a good portion of us got very excited. Although toned down just a bit from the mayhem we experienced in Mike Dougherty’s bad-ass Halloween anthology — Krampus is rated PG-13 — there’s still ample opportunity for the legendary anti-Santa to make his presence known in all sorts of devious ways.

Fortunately that PG-13 doesn’t prevent Krampus from unleashing all sorts of holiday hell on its amiable ensemble cast. From a maniacal jack-in-the-box to a squadron of monstrous little gingerbread men — and let’s not forget the brilliantly-designed head baddie himself — Krampus doesn’t skimp on the lunacy, plus it’s pretty funny, beautifully shot and ends with an ironic twist that you’ll either love or hate. Personally I thought it worked like a charm. It’s tough to say if Krampus will turn out to be an annual favorite for horror fans — hell, it’s still playing in theaters — but I’d be willing to wager that it keeps earning new fans every December.

For the more “advanced” lessons, feel free to dig up some of the more obscure titles: Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972), Christmas Evil (1980), To All a Good Night (1980), Don’t Open Till Christmas (1984), You Better Watch Out! (1984), Elves (1989), Jack Frost (1996) and its equally goofy 2000 sequel, Santa Claws (1998), and Santa’s Slay (2005). I accept no responsibility should you choose to marathon all of these movies.

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