As we have learned from Dickens (and every holiday movie ever), Christmas brings out the worst and best in us. It does make sense that because we are straining to create the best, most-magical memories we are also creating the potential for the most disastrous and traumatic.
Christmas horror used to be a rare (and deadly) bird, but over the past decade it has come merrily out from the shadows to defy those Hallmark movies with mirthful mayhem. There are a lot of them these days – many straight-to-streaming – and Krampus is becoming an unofficial franchise himself. I have a long, but not exhaustive, list here: https://letterboxd.com/dawnofthedead/list/christmas-horror/
Below I am sharing some of my personal favorites:
Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)
While the current re-make-for-the-#MeToo-era is receiving mixed reviews (I haven’t seen it yet), I still stand by the original. It was made in Canada by the same director who gave us A Christmas Story — coincidence? I think not! And it also has the distinction of being the first, the prototype, for the 70s-80s slasher film: stylish killer-point-of-view cinematography, younger generation disbelieved, killer is calling from within the house, an array of young lovelies (it’s set in a sorority house). But whereas later films feel — or reveal in being — cliched, this pre-cliche film is able to pull off a surprising amount of sincerity. It’s low budget, yes, but all these fresh faces, early in their careers brought their A-game. There are certainly gags, but not of the har-har-wink-wink variety. Need I say more? OK: Olivia Hussey, Heir Dullea, Margot Kidder and John Saxon.
Pooka! (Vigalondo, 2018)
I’m cheating a little because this one is not a theatrical release, but as the distinctions continue to blur and I am not a purest, I want to mention this one because it is the most startling one I’ve seen this year. It’s from Hulu’s terrific Into the Dark series with super-high production values and stellar performances. It feels a little like a Black Mirror episode due to its non-linear narrative and hallucinatory sequences all of which keep us working at the puzzle of the reality behind this tale of an aspiring actor who takes a job promoting a seasonal must-have toy in a giant, furry suit. While yes, it is funny to see a big, soft, “Pooka” acting evily, there’s actually a serious story here. It also reminded me a bit of Joker in that it’s a character study, except where Joker fetishizes mental illness, this film is doing exactly the opposite with heart-wrending results. It leaves you going back over the whole thing in your mind and truly pondering the darkest corners of the human heart. I highly recommend it, but it is definitely the least escapist film on this list.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (Sellier, 1984)
I suppose Christmas Evil (1980) was the first Santa-as-slasher film, and it has its fans. I prefer the less crass and more deeply twisted is Silent Night, Deadly Night. This film manages to be seriously horrific and absurdly comic in turns. It begins with a creepy-but-comic visit to grandpa in the old folks home. On the drive home the family is accosted by a man dressed as Santa who kills the father, sexually assaults and kills the mother, and leaves the two young boys traumatized in the back seat. Trigger Warning: you’ll be traumatized too. It’s not only graphic but the inclusion of the helpless children in this scene is more than even Gaspar Noe would dare today. Nonetheless, there is something about this film that calls attention to and underscores the slasher genre’s objectification of women and their slaughter. So while you may not agree with this strategy, I believe this early scene is intentionally brutal for that reason and the children, of course, remind us of the very real consequences of violence against women.
As if they haven’t had enough trauma, they wind up in a Catholic orphanage. So naturally the older boy, Billy, grows up to conflate Santa with capital punishment for sinners. Everything would probably still have been fine if it hadn’t been for that office Christmas party during which his coworkers ask him to don the red suit. This film has an extremely black sense of humor, and it has a grand old time contrasting all the tackiness and hypocrisy of the season with the earnestness of young Billy-the-killer-Santa. I’ve never seen the sequels and turned off the remake. I stand by the original.
Gremlins (Dante, 1984)
Does Christmas brutality get any more fun or more 80s than Gremlins? You know you’re an old-timer when you wax nostalgic for practical effects and puppetry. We just don’t make ’em like that anymore. You know the premise? They’re cute and fluffy, unless you get them wet.
Jack Frost (Conney, 1997)
Do not confuse this with the “heartwarming” (ick) fantasy starring Michael Keaton. That would be a truly memorable family movie night because this Jack is a murderous mutated-criminal snowman, and look out for that carrot! This is one of those horror comedies that makes you laugh out loud and hate yourself for it.
Rare Exports (Jalmari Helander, 2010)
(I previously included this in my “Not-Quite-Of-This-World-Christmas-Movies” post, but repeat it here as it’s a horror film too).One of my all-time favorites — I am giggling just thinking about this movie. On Christmas Eve in Lapland, something has been unearthed in an archaeological dig. Herds of reindeer are slaughtered, then children start disappearing. A group of reindeer ranchers set out to capture whatever is wreaking this devastation… I can say no more. Tee hee hee. Beautifully shot, dead-pan acting, wry humor – a winner!
Krampus (Doherty, 2015)
This one has grown on me with subsequent viewings. I do love Doherty’s ability to meld 80s-family-sensibilities, childlike wonder, and a perverse sense of humor. Revisiting this film in the Trump era, the Holiday clash between the rural, right-wing of the family and the upper-middle-class lefties is now the scariest aspect of this movie. Give me a possessed gingerbread man and a cloven demon-thing any day.
A Christmas Horror Story (2015)
Another Canadian entry, this anthology films is perhaps a tad uneven, but rollicking fun nonetheless. William Shatner – in a nod to James Cameron’s The Fog – is the local radio D.J. in the center of it all, imbibing a bit too much holiday cheer. Zombie elves, secrets in the high school basement, Krampus — a little something for all.
A Nasty Piece of Work (Hood, 2019)
Another from Hulu’s awesome Into the Dark series, this film is not as thematically ambitious as Pooka! but it is a hoot to watch while wrapping presents or sipping nog. We begin with two extremely ambitious coporate underlings who work for the biggest jerk since Scrooge (Julian Sands) competing for a big promotion. They are invited to a Christmas-time dinner at the boss’s mansion where his predictably boozy (and handsy) wife gets the party going. The plot twists are thicker than the plush carpet. There are all manner of familiar elements candied and steamed into this fruitcake movie. The ones that sprung to my mind were: The Most Dangerous Game, The Twilight Zone, Sleuth, and Deathtrap. But the movie knows it’s stuff, evoking Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf outright, and if it’s not deeply meaningful, it is a lot of mean fun. You really can’t ask more than that this time of year.
There are so many more. I can’t wait to see In Fabric and I still haven’t watched Anna and the Apocalypse or Elves…