As someone who loves the more exploitative side of American cinema, I take comfort in the fact that if we celebrate a holiday, someone out there will find a way to make a scary movie out of it, even if said holiday has been termed “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
Christmas horror films have a long history, predating even John Carpenter’s holiday-set touchstone of the slasher genre, Halloween. Something about the contrast between the brightly wrapped gifts and an axe to the face has always fascinated horror filmmakers, so much so that many of them have boiled that contrast down to its purest concentration: a murderous madman in a Santa Claus suit. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, even when the films are at their schlockiest, there’s something innately terrifying about that most jolly of holiday mascots lurching toward us in the dark with a bloody knife glimmering in his gloved fist, and so the blending of Yuletide cheer and bloody mayhem has prospered.
Now, you could spend your holiday season watching nothing but Rankin/Bass stop-motion specials and Will Ferrell in an elf costume, and I wouldn’t blame you, but for those of you who want to dig into the darker side of Yuletide, I went on a journey through the history of holiday horror and rounded up 14 (for 2014, naturally) standouts. I specifically went after films that are deliberately Christmas-themed either through their title or their subject matter, and not just films set at Christmas (sorry, Gremlins), and my search has delivered everything from the classic killer Santa to Nazi-elf mating rituals (yes, seriously). Check out my rankings, and have a bloody Merry Christmas.
14. SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT (1974)
This one automatically gets the lowest ranking because it goes to the least trouble to be Christmassy, but it’s not without its merits. After a very slow opening and an intriguing-if-predictable second act, the film’s third act delivers with an extended black-and-white flashback sequence featuring some of the creepiest footage I’ve ever seen.
13. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2 (1987)
This sequel spends so much time trying to remind you of its cult classic predecessor that when its own killer Santa antics finally do begin, it feels like too little, too late. Still, there’s enough ‘80s holiday slasher insanity here to interest a completist.
12. DON’T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS (1984)
Instead of a killer Santa, this film features a killer who’s actually targeting Santas. It’s a welcome twist on a common Christmas horror formula, and there are some suitably wacky kills to enjoy, but the overall film is a bit lacking in the impish glee that makes other holiday slasher films shine.
11. TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980)
To All a Goodnight is, by today’s standards, a very formulaic slasher movie with all the twists, tropes, and sex you’d expect. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, it’s an endearingly inviting film, and you’ll have a crush on at least one of its stars by the time it’s over.
**10. SAINT NICK (SINT) (2010) Instead of a killer Santa Claus, this Dutch film gives the slasher treatment to the Sinterklaas tradition of Holland. There’s a lot of reliance on slasher formula here, but the film is elevated by its zany and gleeful twists on the Sinterklaas mythology.
9. BLACK CHRISTMAS (2006)
As a remake of what might be the greatest Christmas slasher film ever, this movie was never going to work, and indeed it doesn’t. As an exercise in Christmas light-strung holiday gore, however, there’s a kind of brutal charm to how over-the-top it’s willing to get.
8. ELVES (1989)
You think you’re going to get a relatively by-the-book movie about killer Christmas elves, and then suddenly you’re watching Dan “Grizzly Adams” Haggerty unravel a Nazi plot to mate an Aryan virgin with a two-foot tall elf creature. No, really. This is a film worth seeing just to witness how crazy the plot gets.
7. SILENT NIGHT (2012)
A loose remake of Silent Night, Deadly Night, this film takes its killer Santa premise to gruesome extremes, which might be annoying if it weren’t for a cast that’s always game for going further. Everyone knows how wild and lurid the movie they’re making is, and that allows you to be part of the bloody fun.
6. SANTA’S SLAY (2005)
Former wrestling superstar Bill Goldberg is an evil Santa who, after a 1,000-year deal with an angel, is finally free to let loose and be his murderous self again. The whole thing is rather predictable, but it’s also so comfortable in its own campiness that you have to love it. Plus, Santa’s reindeer beast is kinda adorable.
5. JACK FROST (1997)
A serial killer is melted by acid and reincarnated as a murderous snowman. It’s exactly as ridiculous as it sounds, the special effects are as bad as you think, and the performances are as wooden as you expect. All those ingredients, plus copious amounts of bourbon in your eggnog, combine for a film that has no business being this much fun.
4. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984)
This might be the most famous “Killer Santa” movie of them all, not just because of the controversy its release caused, but also because it’s a pretty effective holiday slasher flick. The juxtaposition between the angel-faced killer and his Santa suit is effectively creepy, and the death scenes are satisfyingly inventive for their time.
- CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980) It’s not as famous as Silent Night, Deadly Night, but Brandon Maggart’s performance as a man obsessed with Santa who soon becomes a murderous version of the Jolly Old Elf makes this film superior. Maggart is scary not just because he’s crazy, but because even he’s not sure how crazy, and that makes the film unpredictably creepy despite its predictable framework.
2. RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)
There’s a lot of killer Santa on this list, but no other film imagines Santa quite like this dark Finnish thriller, in which a mountain excavation reveals the terrifying truth about Father Christmas. It’s creepy, it’s imaginative, it’s ambitious, and it stops just short of overstretching its very clever premise.
1. BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)
Black Christmas is a masterpiece, a slasher film that doesn’t play by the rules, because the rules weren’t invented yet when it was made. Its killer is terrifyingly cryptic, its Christmas atmosphere is a satisfyingly cheery counterpoint to its gruesome plot, and its “Final Girl” (Olivia Hussey, who you will fall in love with) doesn’t behave like we’re told Final Girls should. Four decades after its release, it’s still skin-crawlingly creepy.
Matthew Jackson is a freelance pop culture writer/nerd-for-hire and Contributing Editor at Blastr.com. Find him on Twitter at @awalrusdarkly.