What exactly is it that compels the proliferation of Christmas-themed horror films over the years? Is it the inherently transgressive nature of bloodying a holiday meant to represent joy, peace on Earth and goodwill toward everyone? It is, after all, too easy to set a horror film on Halloween, a day when evil forces are expected to roam free. But a bloodbath against the pristine, jealously guarded specter of Christmas, on the other hand, will always angle for a certain level of purposeful offense, because there have always been folks who take the defense of the holiday’s image very seriously. Perhaps tearing down that institution (or at least gently ribbing it) is simply too tempting to resist.
Regardless of the why, though, Christmas has been a fertile ground for horror cinema for half a century, with entries going back at least as far as 1972’s Silent Night, Bloody Night, and arguably including every adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Along the way, there have been classics like Bob Clark’s deeply influential Black Christmas in 1974 (about to see its latest remake from Blumhouse and Sophia Takal, the 2006 reboot already rightfully forgotten), and an innumerable array of cinematic coal lumps and bad puns, from Santa Claws to Santa’s Slay.
If the new Black Christmas proves worthy, we’ll add it to this list, but in the meantime, enjoy this starter collection of Christmas horror classics, along with a few entries of the “so bad they’re good” variety.
Director: Lee Harry
A film that both typifies the sequel-laden late ’80s slasher genre and illustrates its pitfalls, the woeful Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 is known more today for its infamous “garbage day!” meme fodder than anything else. As a sequel highly constrained by budget, it spends the vast majority of its runtime simply re-hashing footage from the run-of-the-mill original installment of this “killer Santa Claus” franchise, but it’s the sequences of Part 2 that venture off onto their own that truly make it an absurdist camp classic. In particular, actor Eric Freeman as serial killer “Ricky” leaves an unforgettable impression for how genuinely and haplessly out of his depth he appears to be throughout. It’s a bad performance for the ages—Freeman’s stilted and hesitant delivery of what are meant to be the menacing words of a psychopath can never hide the clear anxiety written on his face through every frame. As the film runs on, there’s an increasingly surreal thread that worms its way to the surface, exemplified by the scene wherein Ricky goes to a movie theater and somehow manages to watch segments from the first film on the screen, despite the fact that the original killer was supposed to be his brother. If you’re programming a “bad Christmas movies” lineup, Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 is essential viewing.
Director: Charles Band
Like just about anything else from director Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment, The Ginderdead Man looks like it was made on a wing, a prayer and a budget that can barely be said to exist at all. But at a mere 75 minutes, and with the promise of a deranged Gary Busey as the title character, we’re willing to look past a lot. A highly Child’s Play-derivative film that is lighter on the overt Christmas theming than some other holiday horror movies, it compensates with sheer, stupid gusto. Busey plays a mad dog killer who was executed via the electric chair, cremated, then has his ashes secretly mixed into a batch of gingerbread spices, whereupon he rises from the dead as a homicidal cookie with disturbingly Busey-esque features. His voice has zero of the charm that someone like Brad Dourif brings to his many appearances as Chucky, but you already knew that—you’re here to watch Busey disconnect from reality and cackle to himself constantly, while occasionally severing the odd digit or limb. The film moves pretty slowly, but the blood effects aren’t half bad—and they don’t get much shorter than this. If bad Busey performances are your guilty pleasure, it’s a holiday must.
Director: Jeffrey Mandel
Doubtlessly an automatic blue chip selection when it comes to “fun bad” Christmas horror movies, Elves manages to take what could have been a comfortably familiar 1980s horror premise (Gremlins, except even more Christmas-y) and distills it into a far more bizarre tincture of insanity. I mean really—with even a modicum of a budget and some decent puppets, you could make a competent version of “Santa’s elves are evil and they kill people,” but Elves lacks even the most basic FX work, which makes its completely inarticulated antagonists even funnier. They all look like they’re stuck in mid-sneeze, and have to be physically thrown by someone offstage when “attacking” the protagonists. Factor in the revelation that the elves are actually the result of Nazi genetic experimentation, in an effort to create “a pint-sized master race,” and you’ve got a bonkers premise for the ages. Dan “Grizzly Adams” Haggerty stars as a pathetic, alcoholic mall santa/ex detective who must save the day via such activities as looking up “elves” at the library and barging into a professor’s Christmas dinner so he can ask about elf sex in front of his watching family. Suffice to say, there are jaw-dropping moments aplenty.
Director: Michael Cooney
The only reason that 1996’s original killer snowman movie, Jack Frost, isn’t on this list is that the sequel is even more insane. Previously dissolved by antifreeze in the first movie, Jack Frost is reborn—thanks to a spilled cup of coffee—with new powers, including the ability to split into a pack of carnivorous snowball children, ‘ala Critters. Shockingly low-budget, the film is anything but sincere, but it still attempts to be both funny and scary at times while visually looking like a high school film project. It has that uniquely tawdry visual quality that you can only find in films that have been shot on video with absolutely nothing in the budget for video editing. If The Days of Our Lives ever did a killer snowman episode, this is what it would look like. Bonus: Because the snowman was recreated in part with the hero’s DNA, he shares various traits with him … including a banana allergy. Which means that the killer mutant snowman’s only weakness is bananas. Clearly, you’re in for a goofy good time here.
Director: Theodore Gershuny
Grainy, low budget and objectively on the bleak side, Silent Night, Bloody Night isn’t nearly so well known as the similarly titled Deadly Night, despite pre-dating it by 12 years. Likewise, this film didn’t attract the kind of attention and outrage that Deadly Night engendered, presumably because it at no point features a killer Santa Claus, although the story is set around the holiday. With an unusual mix of elements, it heavily presages certain aspects of the slasher genre while also containing quite a bit of seeming giallo influences. There’s a mystery killer in black leather gloves, for instance, although some of the short “killer’s POV” shots evoke the pioneering work that John Carpenter would crystalize in Halloween. So too do the killer’s threatening phone calls remind one of the similar calls in Bob Clark’s Black Christmas two years later, although this film’s script is truly nonsensical in comparison. Still, the axe murders are suitably graphic, and the central killer performance is more than a little creepy. You just have to put up with a whole lot of nothing to find the nuggets of good in there. With a cast that is mostly notable today for being filled with Warhol Superstars like Mary Woronov, you almost wonder if he secretly directed the film as well for how committedly weird it is in editing and dialogue. Still, this is a film that helped pioneer the idea of “Christmas horror,” along with the same year’s Tales From the Crypt.
Director: Charles E. Sellier Jr.
It’s funny to think what a commotion this film managed to make in 1984, despite the fact that its content was really in no way different than standard slasher fare of the time—a textbook example of a hysteria or moral panic being thrown up around a film by people who were unaware that the same “unwholesome” material had been depicted numerous times before. In particular, detractors were enraged by the fact that Silent Night, Deadly Night was besmirching the hallowed figure of Santa Claus by making a slasher killer in his image, but the same depiction of a killer Santa had already been in several films beforehand, including 1972’s Tales From the Crypt and both 1980’s Christmas Evil and the same year’s To All a Goodnight without inspiring similar headlines, picketing and boycotts. This time, however, the fervor around the film’s release resulted in TriStar pulling all ads for the movie only six days after its initial release, ultimately resulting in a lackluster box office, and an impact that was more cultural than literal.
This was all ultimately that much sillier for the fact that, in all reality, Silent Night, Deadly Night is a fairly harmless entry in the golden age slasher canon. It makes a semi-serious attempt at a psychologically driven backstory for killer Billy, who witnessed his parents’ murder by a man dressed as Santa Claus, but then quickly (and thankfully, really) transitions into a spate of classic slasher killings—none better than the kid who gets beheaded by an axe-wielding Santa while sledding. Today, the famously abysmal sequel is likely the better-known film of the two, but the original is easily the stronger (if not necessarily more memorable) film. Certainly, it proved influential upon the many, many killer Santa movies that would follow.
Director: Lewis Jackson
Christmas Evil sounds like a derivative slasher, but it’s so much weirder than that. In fact, it predates Silent Night, Deadly Night as the first of the feature-length “killer Santa” movies, and it’s also much more disturbed. A man is literally driven insane as a child when he sees Mommy performing sexual favors on Santa Claus, so the film naturally then fast-forwards about 40 years to this sad, middle-aged loser (Brandon Maggart) who works at a toy factory and spends his time at home dressing up as Santa and spying on the neighborhood children. Weirdly, he’s an almost completely sympathetic character for the first two-thirds of the film before he starts killing folks for no good reason, culminating in what is, with no hyperbole, one of the most unexpected, WTF endings in film history. I won’t spoil it. Just watch, with the knowledge that up to this point, the film has made pains to be completely “realistic.” The ending is of course the star of the show, but it’s by no means the only bizarre sequence. Case in point: After committing his first murder, Santa is wandering the street when he gets pulled into an office party. He then spends literally five full minutes of screen time playing with the children and dancing before taking his leave. It has no bearing on the plot of any kind. It’s just another head-scratching moment in one of the Christmas season’s most off-kilter horror features.
Directors: Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban, Brett Sullivan
A Christmas Horror Story seems more or less like an attempt to manufacture an anti-seasonal classic for Christmas in the vein of Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat for Halloween, pulled off with a partial degree of success. Although this anthology lacks the warmth and true sense of appreciation for the holiday that makes Trick ‘r Treat such an easy film to love, its stories do benefit from being pretty uniformly well cast and acted. The choice to have them all unfolding simultaneously arguably hurts the film’s coherence, however, especially in the sense that one of them (Santa fighting zombie elves, suitably amusing) is in completely different tonal territory as an Evil Dead 2-style horror comedy, in comparison with the serious, grounded approach of several others. Nor do the stories really link up in a substantive way, save for a bit of last-minute trickery, but in terms of pure execution in each self-contained tale, A Christmas Horror Story does overcome a meager budget. Admit it: You always wanted to see Santa dismembering his elves anyway.
Director: John McPhail
This sometimes confusing, sometimes endearing genre mish-mash is one part zombie comedy and one part high school musical, but has a tendency to throw itself entirely into one or the other until you’ve forgotten quite what it is you’re watching. Anna (Ella Hunt) is a British teen looking to toss her “uni” plans aside and live abroad for a while—plans that are derailed by the sudden holiday arrival of what certainly seems to be a zombie apocalypse. Peppered with hyperkinetic song-and-dance numbers that have a decidedly Broadway vibe, the film starts a bit slow, feeling for all intents and purposes like a lost entry in Disney’s High School Musical series before it blooms in its second and third acts into a surprisingly satisfying (and plenty gory) zombie-slaying farce. Capable of more pathos than you’d give it credit for, Anna and the Apocalypse tosses most character archetypes aside and can boast a few genuinely toe-tapping numbers, especially once the world has gone to hell. It’s a film you may need to warm up to, but Game of Thrones fans will enjoy the presence of Paul Kaye, one Thoros of Myr, as the school’s draconian principal.
Director: Chris Peckover
Attractively directed and shot, but wonkily scripted, Chris Peckover’s Better Watch Out puts a twist on the tropes of home invasion horror while simultaneously lashing itself to the Christmas holiday as an additional framing device. Its central twist and gimmick display a fair bit of promise, which I won’t spoil here, except by saying that it’s a challenging role for young actor Levi Miller, who can’t quite match leading lady Olivia DeJonge as the resourceful babysitter-in-peril. It’s also clearly intended as a rather searing portrait of toxic masculinity, latent sociopathy and the internet era’s caricature of the so-called “nice guy” archetype, which it doesn’t exactly handle with much subtlety. At its weakest, the contrived plans of Better Watch Out’s antagonist have a tendency to beggar belief in their overwrought complexity, but when it’s able to simply let its characters bounce off each other, it proves surprisingly effective. That goes doubly for when the blood starts flowing in disturbingly realistic fashion. A tonal upheaval by design, the film is not always on point, but it’s easy to admire the effort, particularly when the gore is appropriately visceral.
Director: Michael Dougherty
Krampus begins on a fantastically sour note. Bing Crosby’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” plays during the film’s opening credits sequence as consumers pummel one another all in the name of a good Christmas bargain. Women get punched in the face, children scream and store employees stare on in slack-jawed apathy. It’s clear from these opening moments that director Michael Dougherty has his tongue planted firmly in cheek. Krampus is a horror film, filled with horrific imagery (it’s one of the harshest PG-13 films in recent memory), but it also has a solid sense of humor, albeit a nasty one. In fact, Krampus owes a lot to Joe Dante’s Gremlins: Both films inject the holiday with zany violence, and Krampus, in the spirit of Gremlins, makes heavy use of practical effects over CGI. The actors (Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Allison Tolman, David Koechner) fight with actual, physical creations, and as a result the terror seems more realistic and brutal. Dougherty, after all, is no stranger to holiday-themed horror comedies—he also directed the superb Halloween horror anthology Trick ‘r Treat—which means we’ve maybe got a new anti-Christmas classic on our bloody hands. —Andy Herren
Director: Freddie Francis
We’ve hit on a lot of other “killer Santa” entries on this list, as you no doubt knew we would, but we’re now ready to argue that the original is arguably the best. This is, as far as we know, the first cinematic depiction of Father Christmas/St. Nick as a frothing psycho, and it benefits from its conciseness: As a single segment in a larger anthology film, “... And All Through the House” can simply present a realistic (and horrific) scenario in progress rather than attempt to pad itself out with feature-length characterization.
The story concerns a put-upon wife (Joan Collins) who chooses to murder her clueless husband (Martin Boddey) on Christmas Eve, staging the death to look like an accident. At the same time, however, an escaped lunatic from a local asylum (Oliver MacGreevy) chooses just that moment to pay the home a visit, and wouldn’t you know it—he’s picked up a very recognizable costume along the way. This version of the “killer Santa” is considerably more menacing than those that make the “real-life” Santa into a killer, precisely for the fact that we have so little idea of what’s going on behind his vacant expression. We don’t even really know if he understands the significance of the suit he’s wearing. A suspenseful cat-and-mouse game ensues, as our quasi-protagonist (who is a murderer herself, mind you) must fend off the attacker rather than call the police, lest her own crimes be discovered. It’s by far the high point of this original adaptation of the EC Comics staple Tales From the Crypt, and would go on to be remade as an episode of the beloved 1990s Tales From the Crypt series on HBO, directed by Robert Zemeckis.
Director: Joe Dante
In the same vein as Die Hard, Joe Dante’s Gremlins is a yearly Christmastime argument waiting to happen: Both are annually tossed onto “best Christmas movie” lists, but when it comes to the latter, at least, those debates often overlook the dark comedy of an expertly crafted ’80s horror film from Dante at the height of his powers. Taking the lessons he learned as a ’70s Roger Corman protege, Dante borrows character actors like Dick Miller to create a cynical, biting rebuke of maudlin sentimentality and children’s entertainment. The film’s surprising counterpoint between comedy and graphic violence was a source of consternation that matriculated it into the early class of genre films that led to the PG-13 rating, but its more important impact was shaping the aesthetic of nearly every horror comedy to come.
Director: Jalmari Helander
Of all the films that have attempted to tackle Christmastime mythology through the lens of horror, none have done it with half the gonzo weirdness of Finland’s Rare Exports. Although the subject of Krampus became popular horror fodder in the back half of this decade, the Fins were definitely laying some foundations here, dredging up the figure of Joulupukki, the so-called “Christmas goat” of Scandinavian folklore, who like Krampus punishes wicked children for their sins instead of dispensing candy and gifts. We see this particular story through the eyes of rural Finnish kids and their destitute parents, their livelihoods trampled by the engine of economic progress and consumerism, in a message that reflects the cynicism of Joe Dante’s Gremlins. It seems fitting, then, that it’s a government research team that dredges up horrors from beneath the crust of the Earth, representing the greed of adult children as they do. With a magical Nordic setting that perfectly suits its fantastical vibe, Rare Exports settles in alongside chilly, Scandinanvian horror contemporaries such as Let the Right One In or Dead Snow, although it never strives for the emotion or gravity or the former. It does, however, build to a formidable conclusion, giving us perhaps the most oddly unique origin story for Santa Claus that has yet been brought to the horror genre.
Director: Bob Clark
Fun fact: Nine years before he directed holiday classic A Christmas Story, Bob Clark created the first true, unassailable “slasher movie” in Black Christmas. Yes, the same person who gave TBS its annual Christmas Eve marathon fodder was also responsible for the first major cinematic application of the phrase “The calls are coming from inside the house!” Black Christmas, which was insipidly remade in 2006, predates John Carpenter’s Halloween by four years and features many of the same elements, especially visually. Like Halloween, it lingers heavily on POV shots from the killer’s eyes as he prowls through a dimly lit sorority house and spies on his future victims. As the mentally deranged killer calls the house and engages in obscene phone calls with the female residents, one can’t help but also be reminded of the scene in Carpenter’s film where Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) calls her friend Lynda, only to hear her strangled with the telephone cord. Black Christmas is also instrumental, and practically archetypal, in solidifying the slasher trope of the so-called “final girl.” Jessica Bradford (Olivia Hussey) is actually among the better-realized of these final girls in the history of the genre, a remarkably strong and resourceful young woman who can take care of herself in both her relationships and deadly scenarios. It’s questionable how many subsequent slashers have been able to create protagonists who are such a believable combination of capable and realistic.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.