Christmas is a time for friends, family, food, and gift-giving. But for us horror fans, it’s also a time for monsters, mayhem, gore, and psychotic Santas armed with axes. The last few decades have a produced a number of delightfully twisted holiday horror flicks, all of which provide some much needed darkness in the festive season. Here’s some of the best.
13. Jack Frost (1996)
Not to be confused with the sentimental Hollywood family fantasy of the same name from the following year, this Jack Frost is the tale of a killer snowman who terrorises the town of, er, Snowmonton. The movie features some of the least convincing fake snow ever committed to film, a scene where a victim is crucified on a Christmas tree, and an early appearance from American Pie star Shannon Elizabeth (who gets killed with a carrot). Jack Frost boasts a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 7%, and it’s a deliciously awful load of festive nonsense best enjoyed after a few eggnogs.
12. Silent Night Deadly Night Part 2 (1987)
None of the Silent Night Deadly Night sequels are very good, but the second entry is worthy of a place on the list simply because it is so, so bad. The tiny budget didn’t even provide director Lee Harry with enough to shoot a full movie, so much of the running time is given over to extensive “flashbacks”. Nearly 50% of the entire movie is simply a repeat of scenes from the first film, to the extent that the end of credits includes the full casts of both. The new material is so incompetent that it’s utterly fascinating to watch. And of course, the movie also provided the internet with one of the all-time great memes: “GARBAGE DAY!”
11. A Christmas Horror Story (2015)
Anthology movies are a big part of horror, so it’s no surprise that we eventually got a Christmas one. Set on Christmas Eve and with a wraparound that features a hilarious William Shatner as an increasingly drunken DJ, it presents a trio of ghoulish seasonal stories. Unlike many anthologies, this one intercuts the stories throughout. There’s the teenage trio who discover a nasty surprise when they visit the scene of an unsolved high school murder, a cop whose kid starts acting very strange on a Christmas Tree shopping trip, and a family who are hunted by something terrifying in the snow after their car breaks down. The mix of stories and the fact that three directors are involved means that A Christmas Horror Story is tonally pretty inconsistent, but it’s also nicely gory with some good twists along the way.
10. Silent Night Bloody Night (1972)
The eerie Silent Night Bloody Night played briefly in drive-in theatres 1972, before disappearing into obscurity and falling into the public domain. In the early ’80s it was resurrected for the cable TV horror marathon Movie Macabare and began to play annually as an antidote to traditional festival programming. It’s a tale of small-town murder on Christmas Eve, with variable acting and a sometimes bafflingly complicated whodunnit plot, but plenty of chilly atmosphere.
9. Saint Nick (2010)
Originally titled Sint but released as Saint Nick in the US, this Dutch shocker comes from the twisted mind of Dick Maas, director of such cult gems as The Lift and Amsterdamned. It is based on the legend of Sinterklaas, who, like Santa, was adapted from the historical figure of Saint Nicholas. In Maas’s darkly funny shocker, Sinterklaas is a ghostly figure who turns to murder whenever his annual celebration coincides with a full moon. Like Silent Night Deadly Night many years earlier, Saint Nick caused some controversy with concerned parents in the Netherlands, forcing Maas to go to court to defend the movie’s poster campaign.
8. Home for The Holidays (1972)
This creepy made-for-TV movie from the early ’70s combines an Agatha Christie-style mystery with a proto-slasher movie involving a pitchfork-wielding killer. Four sisters (including a young Sally Field and Arrested Development‘s Jessica Walters) gather in their estranged father’s house over Christmas after he tells them he believes their stepmom is trying to poison him. Home for the Holidays was written by Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano and produced by ’80s TV soap king Aaron Spelling. Surprisingly, considering it was an ABC Movie of the Week, it doesn’t hold back on the unwholesome festive murder.
7. Christmas Evil (1980)
Despite the punny title and similar storyline, Christmas Evil predated Silent Night Deadly Night by four years. It’s also a weirder, creepier movie that is less interested in gory shocks and focuses more on the fragile mental state of its main character, Harry. Poor Harry had an early Christmas ruined when he saw his dad, dressed as Santa, having some illicit fun with his mom. As an adult he works in a toy factory, and inevitably becomes convinced he is the real Father Christmas, who must “punish” the bad adults in his neighbourhood. An underrated movie, Christmas Evil has a compelling, sympathetic lead performance from Brandon Maggart (who is also the father of ’90s singer-songwriter Fiona Apple!).
6. Better Watch Out (2016)
The most recent movie on this list, this smart, subversive shocker can be found on the horror streaming service Shudder. The movie starts as a fairly standard home invasion horror, as a teenage babysitter and the 12-year-old boy she is looking after over the Christmas period are forced to deal with terrifying, masked, shotgun-carrying intruders. But a clever twist a third of the way in turns the movie on its head, and leads to a far more original, but equally tense next hour. Better Watch Out is marked by dark humour, strong performances, and a couple of satisfyingly gruesome kills. The holiday setting is more a backdrop than a major plot point, but it’s a strong entry into the canon of Christmas horror movies.
5. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
While there have been many cinematic depictions of Santa over the years, there are none like the Father Christmas of this wacky Finnish fable. When a British drilling team blast a hole a mountain, Santa’s icy home is uncovered, leading to a series of encounters with his “elves”, and finally the big man himself. Rare Exports is an uproarious, fast-moving horror comedy that gets crazier as it continues, but still finds time for a happy ending.
4. Krampus (2014)
The Krampus is a demonic horned creature from Austrian folklore who punishes naughty kids at Christmas. He’s also the perfect holiday horror villain. The aforementioned anthology film A Christmas Horror Story features a Krampus in one of its stories, but for the true Krampus experience, this recent seasonal gem is a must-see. Written and directed by Michael Dougherty, who will next helm the upcoming Godzilla sequel, it focuses on a young boy called Max who isn’t experiencing the best Christmas. With his house full of unbearable relatives and a freak storm cutting off power to his town, Max is forced to do battle with a visiting Krampus. Dougherty takes a similar approach to his festive horror as Joe Dante did with Gremlins, delivering a movie that is gruesome and scary, but also funny and heartwarming.
3.Silent Night Deadly Night (1984)
While it’s not the first Christmas slasher movie, Silent Night Deadly Night is the most notorious. It’s the twisted tale of a troubled young man whose parents were murdered on Christmas Eve, and who suffered subsequent abuse in a Catholic orphanage. Donning a Santa suit, he picks up an axe and gets busy. The film opened to big box office but also countrywide protests from the Planet Teacher Association, who were dismayed at the depiction of Santa as a crazed killer. It was pulled from theatres after only six days, but this gruesomely entertaining classic has subsequently found an appreciative audience at home. It was followed by four sequels and a 2012 remake.
2. Black Christmas (1974)
Black Christmas is not only a classic of seasonal horror, it’s also one of the key movies in setting the template for the slasher genre that was so popular in the following decade. A group of students are menaced at Christmas by a campus killer who torments them over a phone line. It’s tense and scary, and features one of the earliest uses of the now-clichéd killer’s POV shot. Director Bob Clark later made another holiday classic, the perennial family favorite A Christmas Story, which features a lot less hacking and slashing.
1. Gremlins (1984)
Commercially the most successful movie on this list, Gremlins is the perfect meeting of two different filmmaking sensibilities. On one hand we have producer Steven Spielberg’s vision of a classic Christmas in an all-American small town, and on the other, director Joe Dante’s anarchic, satirical demolition of the festive period and all its cloying conventions. The movie doesn’t hold back on the murderous monster mayhem, but still packs plenty of heart. And Phoebe Cate’s Santa Claus monologue remains one of the darkest, yet most hilarious scenes of the whole decade.