“On the first day of Cryptmas, my Ghoul-love gave to me, a trip to the mort-u-a-ry….” - The Cryptkeeper, “Tales from the Crypt”
“Fuck Christmas! It’s a waste of fucking time! Fuck Santa! He’s just out to get your dime…!” - Eric Idle, “Fuck Christmas.”
There aren’t many things in life more horrible than Cliff Richard prancing around to “Mistletoe And Wine” on some archive “Top of the Pops”, though horror cinema has tried its best to rub our faces in the black heart that beats beneath all that irksome festive cheer. Mainstream Hollywood would have you believe that Christmas is a time of picture-postcard snow, a time where grumpy bastards become warm loving souls and a time when the best in humankind emerges triumphant. The reality of Christmas is being piss-poor, falling asleep in front of a dreary elongated soap episode and pretending not to look awkward during a family argument about the fact that the turkey doesn’t actually fit in the oven. Outside it’ll be raining and, if you live with a grumpy bastard, chances are they’ll be a shade less grumpy on the 25th and back to full bastard-strength by Boxing Day.
As far as horror goes, the dark icy nights of the season lend themselves nicely to ghost stories : the BBC wheels out its evocative - if very dated - Ghost Story For Christmas episodes every year and has even tried to resurrect the format to varying degrees of success. Slasher movies like P2, Pranks, Santa Claws and the magnificent Inside have used a festive backdrop to give an extra frisson of fear, while the recent, wonderful Mum And Dad culminates with a barely exaggerated nightmare version of the typical British Christmas Day. Its simultaneously hilarious and distressing festive set piece comes complete with a Noddy Holder-esque cry of “It’s Christmas”, too-loud chintzy Christmas music, Mum and Dad pissed on sherry, crap presents and your typical garish decorations (you know, the usual stuff, like a tinsel-laden, barely alive “guest” nailed to the wall).
We’ve left out some, ahem, crackers in this selection of ten festive fear flicks : if you’re so inclined, you should check out the loveably rubbish British slasher Don’t Open Till Christmas , David Hess’ nicely tacky Christmas slasher To All A Goodnight and the on-release killer-kid fest The Children , which has already received much deserving praise on this very site. In choosing these ten movies we’ve not necessarily gone for quality, though some of these ten are very good indeed. Instead we’ve opted for the titles that will give you either a knockabout-fun alternative to standard festive fare or those that squat down above the whole concept of Christmas and unleash a spectacular, steaming turd on its tinsel-draped, goodwill-spewing face. Wake us up when it’s the New Year, and pass the Twiglets…
10 .Santa's Slay (2005) There’s nowt sophisticated about Santa’s Slay - after all, among its most intelligent gags is the naming of cop characters Dick, Bush and Caulk (pronounced “cock”) - but it does boast one of the best ever festive horror sequences. The scene in question is pre-titles and features Jewish wrestler Bill Goldberg as an evil Santa (the son of Satan and the result of an immaculate conception!) interrupting a bile-laced Christmas family dinner by busting through the chimney to announce “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”. He proves the point by offing a succession of guest stars : Fran Drescher gets her head set on fire, Rebecca Gayheart is brained with a chair leg and best of all James Caan (check out his pre-death reaction shot!) is pinned to the table and choked with turkey legs.
The rest of the movie struggles to live up to this initial majesty, but it’s still a lot of fun, and Goldberg has a great time riding around on his “hell deer”, ogling big titties, decapitating Christ statues and replacing genuine presents with deadly versions that cause kids’ heads to explode come Christmas morning. One magic moment early on involves the big guy running a foul mouthed old biddy (“Thank you and go fuck yourself!”) off the road on Christmas Eve. God bless us, everyone.
9 .Jack Frost (1996) Of the two movies called Jack Frost made in the late 90’s, this is the one in which the title character says “It ain’t fuckin’ Frosty” and decapitates a school kid for the hell of it. In other words, it’s the one you need to see (the other stars Michael Keaton and is only slightly less excruciating than being wanked off by Freddy Krueger…).
A nasty serial killer en route to his execution finds his evil soul transported into the physical form of a snowman following a freak accident and subsequently has the ability to melt and freeze at will, a bit like a bargain basement, snowman version of the T-1000. At his most perverse, he uses this ability to act as bath water for the town’s resident teen babe (a pre American Pie Shannon Elizabeth) before molesting her with his carrot-nose (!!) in a uniquely sick variation on the Psycho shower murder. If they showed this on festive TV every year instead of The Snowman , the world would probably be a better, happier place.
The movie is so cheap that they couldn’t even afford fake snow to decorate its back drop (the town of, um, Snowmonton). It is also, however, frequently funny and fully aware of its own absurdity. Stand out gags involveFrost smashing a woman’s face into some baubles and turning her into a giant, bloody Christmas decoration (deputy on the scene : “Aren’t you gonna keep her up for the 12 days of Christmas?!”) and a priceless moment in which the snowman-monster steals a car and runs over its dumbfounded owner. The self-mocking gags continue into the credits with lines like “The thing about snowmen is they really don’t have arms….”
8 .Christmas Season Massacre (2002) A mean spirited Yuletide parody of 80’s slasher flicks, made for about 10 bucks by U.S. indie horror outfit Sub Rosa but full of nudity, gore and a free-wheeling sense of fun. Set entirely in broad daylight in “Christmas Town”, California on Christmas Eve (jingling bells herald the killer’s presence), it revolves around the vengeful killing spree of a smelly, poor kid cruelly nicknamed “One Shoe McGroo” at school. Bitter, grown up and still sporting the pirate’s eye patch he got for Christmas as a kid, One Shoe offs his surviving classmates at a festive reunion.
There are many nods to classic stalk n slash pictures - mostly Friday The 13th - though the movie has a zesty charm all of its own, and a bunch of amusing spins on genre stereotypes. The ill-fated cast members include a class geek named “Dorkus Cunningham”, a horny dude who serenades his long-term girlfriend with lame romantic platitudes (“You are like a power line in a high school…”) in the hope of finally getting her to put out, and a busty bimbo named Abby Honeydew who spends the whole flick in her underwear and participates in a spoof gratuitous shower scene accompanied by a radio DJ getting turned on by erotic recipes (“beautiful white jiggling dough…”).
En-route to a suitably smarmy “five years later” epilogue (capped by a terrific original song called “A Pirate’s Christmas”), the movie has one genuinely nasty sequence (the fate of Ms Honeydew, who’s tied to a tree and stabbed in the crotch and chest) and plenty of funny drunken small talk : “Is fish meat?” / “Fish is fish!!”.
7 .Sheitan (2005) If Inside is the ultimate in fucked-up 21st century French horror and just happens to be set at Christmas, Sheitan (or Satan to you English peasants) exists purely to pay off its insidiously creepy long build-up with an outrageous, deliciously sick festive punch line.
It’s Christmas Eve, and a trio of dumb horny guys get thrown out of a nightclub, do a “gas and dash” and wind up at the country retreat of a babe they’ve just met. They soon meet madly grinning housekeeper Joseph (Vincent Cassel) who’s fond of racial slurs like “camel rider”, has a randy niece who jerks off dogs and a wife devoted equally to collecting hair and preparing for her imminent “birth”.
Cassel’s crazed performance is at the core of this broad, blackly funny descent into madness, with throwaway comic asides nicely mixed with some genuinely disturbing stuff. It’s a uniquely Gallic variation on all those in-bred families of post-’Nam American horror, and the sour finale involves an uneasily hilarious Christmas family gathering in which a key character has his eyes gouged out for the purpose of entertaining a new born Christmas baby. Just like Jesus, really.
6 .Christmas Evil (1980) In 1947 on Christmas Eve, a small boy sneaks downstairs late to catch a glimpse of Mommy rogering Santa Claus and is consequently scarred for life. He attempts suicide with a broken snow globe and grows up to be down-trodden middle aged loner Brandon Maggart, a supervisor at the Jolly Dreams toy factory. Dismissed as a loser by almost everyone, Maggart nonetheless clings desperately to the true spirit of Christmas, attempting to bring it back to a bleakly depicted New York City. In the process he goes over the edge and ends up killing anyone who doubt either him or the festive season.
Though sold as another holiday-season slasher flick, this surprisingly low key character piece opts for melancholia and well judged black humour instead of stalk n slash gore (save for a decent axe-in-the-head kill and an toy soldier eye gouging). Maggart, maniacally humming festive tunes and deluding himself into thinking his van is a sleigh, is terrific as a well-meaning misfit who finds the modern world not conducive to his heartfelt old-fashioned ideas of what Christmas should be about.
The finale pays homage to Universal monster movies with a delicious sense of irony, as crowds of panicky parents violently pursue “Santa” through the city streets, though the final scene provides one final, fantastical surprise destined to split audiences right down the middle with its unexpected whimsy. There are excellent comic touches, including a Christmas Eve news announcement warning everyone to “avoid anyone dressed as Santa” and a police station ID parade in which the collective Santas are ordered to step forward and say “Merry Christmas” (“Louder! With more feeling!”).
5 .Tales from the Crypt (1972) There are five stories in this deservedly admired Amicus anthology, and all of them are pretty exceptional, following the EC comics tradition of doling out grisly justice to foolish and / or unpleasant people. The one everyone remembers, however, and a landmark in Christmas horror, is the opening episode “And All Through The House”. Remade very well by Richard Zemeckis for the 90’s HBO TV series (with a creepy Larry Drake well cast as the evil Santa), the 70’s British version still stands as the most atmospheric.
It’s Christmas Eve and middle class man of the house Martin Boddey is getting into the festive spirit. He’s wearing a silly hat, tuning into a broadcast of Christmas carols on the radio (which, in a nice touch, play continuously on the soundtrack throughout the episode offering an ironically warm counterpart to the on-screen mayhem) and having a butchers at the newspaper. Sadly he doesn’t make it through to the all-singing all-dancing Two Ronnies Xmas Special, because cheating wife (Joan Collins) shoves a poker into his bonce. Poetic justice awaits in the sinister form of an escaped lunatic (Oliver MacGreevey) who has kitted himself out as Father Christmas and been let in by Collins’ daughter (Chloe Franks).
Characteristic of the very best of the Amicus shorts, this unforgettable mini-movie achieves a pitch-perfect balance between the grimly funny and the decidedly uneasy : the moments with Franks and the psycho-Santa together are icky in all sorts of ways.
4 .Dead End (2003) A particularly astute combination of chilly seasonal ghost story and a jet-black comedy about the festive period’s monstrous impact on already fragile familial relationships. On the night before Christmas, Dad Ray Wise and Mom Lin Shaye and their teen offspring are on their annual Christmas journey to Shaye’s parents’ house. Dad does the typical Dad-thing of taking an ill-advised short-cut, and it leads them to a stretch of road haunted by the restless spirit of a young mother killed in an accident years earlier.
From this simple set up, the movie builds a relatively subtle sense of mounting dread, garnering bonafide chills from modest visuals (the recurring image of a mysterious old black car that drives past the characters after each successive death) and finding a significant amount of terror in the unseen, notably for a couple of scary forest-set sequences.
Perhaps the flick’s strongest facet, however, is the way it wittily, heartlessly deconstructs a typical family Christmas as its overwrought, mostly unsympathetic and hateful characters find themselves trapped in an escalating nightmare that might only be slightly worse than spending Christmas Eve with mother in law / granma. Shaye flips out alarmingly as the mom, enthusing callously “What a wonderful Christmas!” after her son’s death and stuffing her face with pumpkin pie before vomiting it up in the patented festive tradition of indulgence and puke.
Wise, an unforgettable malevolent dad in Twin Peaks , plays the father’s descent into whiskey-swigging, face-slapping near-hysteria with just the right amount of believable patriarchal menace. Meanwhile, their pothead son is content to pass the time by staging inappropriate, insensitive fake-scares and masturbating over a pin-up. They all deserve to die - and do - though their behaviour is scarily close to that of the average feuding family brought reluctantly together for nothing more meaningful than nodding off during an endless Only Fools and Horses “special”.
3 .Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) Memorable as much for its controversial, banned original publicity campaign (“You’ve made it through Halloween…now try and survive Christmas!”) and for the expected critical outrage (“What next? The Easter Bunny as a child molester?” moaned Leonard Maltin) as for anything in the movie itself, this simplistic 80’s festive slasher is still a must-see for any horror fan during the three months of Christmas.
SN, DN riffs on earlier killer-Santa stories like the aforementioned Tales From The Crypt episode but ups the sleaze factor : its female victims usually have their boobs exposed before being horribly murdered. And what’s wrong with a bit of that during the period in which we celebrate Mr Hankey’s annual visits?
A third of the running time is devoted to back-story : back in the 70’s, poor little Billy is warned by his hitherto catatonic grandpa that “Christmas Eve is the scariest damn night of the year! All the naughty ones he punishes! You see Santa tonight, you’d better run for it!”. This proves prophetic when a mugger dressed as Santa molests Billy’s mom in front of his eyes before slashing her throat and offing dad for good measure. This trauma, coupled with regular spankings at the orphanage in which he grows up, leads to Billy growing up to be a buff but nutty teen hunk. Driven over the edge by a new job as a toy store Santa and also by the rampant pre-AIDS sex happening everywhere, Billy goes on a kill spree.
The movie makes novel use of its seasonal backdrop, giving it an excuse for novelty murders : a guy is hung with Christmas lights, Linnea Quigley (with an unflattering 80s ‘do) has sex on a pool table before being impaled topless on some antlers; and a guy on a makeshift sleigh is decapitated in motion. Even an innocent snowman loses his head. Along the way there’s a lot of deliciously mean-spirited dialogue summing up the season nicely (“So it’s not all phoney sentiment? A lot of its is genuine greed…” moans the ill-fated convenience store clerk) and a once-in-a-lifetime heart-warming climax in which a bunch of orphaned kids witness a kindly deaf priest in a Santa outfit gunned down by dumb cops… immediately prior to the actual murderous Santa also being violently killed!
2 .Gremlins (1984) Don’t be deceived by the slushy strains of Jerry Goldsmith’s “Gizmo” music, or the unabashed sentimentality of the movie’s E.T.-tinged resolution, or by the cuteness of the mogwai themselves…this Steven Spielberg production - filtered through the distinctively warped imagination of director Dante - is as dark-hearted as any of the movies on this chart. Its repeated references to the immortal seasonal classic It’s A Wonderful Life provide sobering reminders that the Capra film, until its saccharine, uplifting ending, was also preoccupied with the dark side of Christmas.
Dante’s movie wittily mates Invasion of the Body Snatchers with The Muppets , setting a bunch of cheerfully vicious and sadistic “gremlins” on a gleeful rampage around a satirically portrayed snow-covered American town. Much of the fun on repeat viewings stems from the many ways in which the director, working within the boundaries of a PG-rated family holiday movie, relishes trashing small town U.S.A. and all it stands for. The gremlins destroy a bar, a cinema, a Grinch-like old lady, some dumbass cops, a toy store and, in one memorable moment, are even seen violently attacking Santa. It winds up being a surprisingly bitter critique of our modern culture’s callous, greedy, self-absorbed nature - a factor highlighted by the festive season and specifically by the central character’s mistreatment of a miracle of nature.
Best of all, away from all the monster movie mayhem, the movie has THAT legendary speech from 80’s babe Phoebe Cates. It’s a uniquely show-stopping, macabre moment in a movie purporting to be a bit of knockabout fun for all the family : the monologue is played straight but beneath it lies the dark cackle of a filmmaker mocking the holiday season. Cates explains her life-long hatred of Christmas, recalling the time her father broke his neck while climbing down the chimney on Christmas Eve, his rotting corpse remaining undiscovered until a few days later. And so, kids, that’s how we know there is no Santa Claus.
1 .Black Christmas (1974) The ultimate festive slasher movie, and probably destined to remain the creepiest Christmas horror movie of all time. Despite a general absence of nudity, sex and explicit gore, it was a prominent forerunner (along with Bay of Blood , Fright and a handful of others) to the post- Halloween slasher sub-genre, effectively using many of the tropes and devices that would be established clichés a decade later. It holds up better than most of its type.
Black Christmas unfolds at a girls’ sorority house during the festive season. In a supremely sinister opening sequence, eerily set against the backdrop of Christmas carols and a Canadian winter, the unseen killer quietly invades the house, killing one of the occupants on the night before most of the girls leave for the holidays. Her disappearance sparks a police manhunt spearheaded by John Saxon (The man! The legend! The hair exactly the same from 1962 to 2008!), while her friend (Olivia Hussey, whose bosoms inspired many a schoolboy wet dream after the 1968 Romeo And Juliet ) is terrorised by the deranged killer, mostly via telephone.
Among the most subtle and controlled of all slasher flicks, this movie - which inspired a 2006 remake that went for gore and tits and, despite being unpopular, is actually a fun view - places an unusual emphasis on character development and suspense. There are low key but credibly harrowing scenes, like a nocturnal search party that, in looking for a missing sorority girl, shockingly discovers a murdered schoolgirl. The festive backdrop is used to heighten the sense of unease rather than for cheap gimmicky purposes : note the clever way Clark intercuts the superbly shot stabbing of Margot Kidder with something that would normally be charmingly festive.
For maximum effect watch this alone on a frosty Christmas Eve and feel the hairs prick up on the back of your neck during the scene in which the killer (who remains mysterious and at large at the very end) sings a lullaby as he rocks a chair in which sits one of his victims, her head wrapped in a plastic sheet, her hand cradling a teddy bear. And you thought Val Doonican was frightening…