The 12 Scares of Christmas
When you think about it, there’s a lot of scary stuff, intentional or not, associated with Christmas. From the Santa Claus legend to the likes of Krampus, Sinterklaas, and the Yule Goat, it’s no wonder some kids are petrified by the supposedly jolly man in red and white and his companions. “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake…” Santa kind of sounds like a stalker, you know?
Not to mention the fact that the guy breaks into your house when you’re asleep. Sure, he’s leaving presents- but only if you’ve been good. What exactly is he doing to the naughty ones? Well, I’m here to tell you, it’s nothing good, if the many movies dedicated to his darker side are any indication. Not that Santa’s always the one wreaking havoc- sometimes he’s also the target.
Indeed, there may well be more horror movies centered around Christmas time than any other holiday- even Halloween, believe it or not. Let’s take a look at some of my personal favorites, and have ourselves a scary little Christmas! Be forewarned, though- hardly any of these are family friendly…unless, of course, the little ones have been naughty- very naughty.
Not to be confused with “Troll” or “Leprechaun,” this freaky little flick might well be worse than either. (Okay, maybe not than “Troll 2,” which not only features no trolls or has anything to do with the original, but actually has a movie detailing just how awful it is, entitled “Best Worst Film.”) Still, this one has a lot of bad movie goodness going for it. Try this on for size: when a group of teenage girls perform an anti-Xmas pagan ritual in the woods, they bring forth an evil elf, which is the result of Nazi experiments!
Yep, a Christmas movie with Nazis- just what the world was missing. The film stars former “Grizzly Adams”-star Dan Haggerty, in what must be the low point of his career, I’m guessing, and no one else you’ve ever heard of. It’s completely ridiculous, but it’s a lot of trashy fun, even if the title is a bit of a misnomer- there’s actually just the one evil elf, not a group of them. But hey, there’s a crazed neo-Nazi cult and inbreeding, so it’s got that going for it! If Ed Wood was still around in the 80s, this is probably the sort of thing he would have been making, so if that sounds like a plus, welcome to your new favorite bad movie!
Missing “The Walking Dead” already? Have I got the movie for you! When a mad doctor’s experiments on the dead go horribly awry, it’s up to a motley crew of stragglers to stop the undead from taking over a small town. They are: a cop, his perp, a security guard, a janitor, a bartender and the town drunk. This unrated fear fest was filmed in Iowa, because the Heartland needs its own zombie flick, too. I mean, why not? Everyone else has one! Plus, it’s set on Christmas, so there’s that. It’s a gory, fun time, and passable living dead antics for zombie fans.
In this British entry, Santa is the victim, not the killer. Yep, there’s a serial killer stalking Santas, and anyone unlucky enough to be in the way. It’s up to Scotland Yard to get to the bottom of things, with the aid of a mysterious reporter, who may be hiding some relevant information. Fans of Bond girl, and sci-fi, fantasy and horror movie regular Caroline Munro (“The Spy Who Loved Me,” “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad,” “Maniac”) will want to see this, as she not only plays herself, but sings! There are some creative murders, a whodunit element, and a nice twist ending that ties in directly to the title. Beware, though, it’s surprisingly gory for a British flick.
Arguably the most star-studded entry on this list (see also #3), this one features movie legend James Caan (“The Godfather”), Rebecca Gayheart (“Urban Legends”), Fran Drescher (“The Nanny”), Chris Kattan (“SNL”), and Nicky Hilton in the opening scene alone. Perhaps needless to say, they don’t last long, but the film proper features some fairly well-known names as well, including Emilie de Ravin (“Lost”), Saul Rubinek (“Warehouse 13”), Dave Thomas (“SCTV”), Robert Culp (also in the Xmas-themed “Silent Night, Deadly Night 3”), Douglas Smith (“Big Love”) and, as the killer Claus of the title, WWE wrestler Bill Goldberg.
As you may have noted, there’s a lot of Jewish entertainment royalty here, which may be a tongue-in-cheek dig at the subject matter in and of itself, in which Santa plays the literal son of Satan! As you may have guessed, it’s more of a horror comedy than a serious slasher, so if you’re looking for something make fun of with your buddies over drinks, look no further. It’s a bit slight, and clocking in at only 78 minutes, a bit short, but that also makes it perfect party fodder. At least the cast and production values are decent!
Prefer your slashers a bit more on the serious side? Check out this Dutch effort, which dramatizes the aforementioned Sinterklaas and his henchmen, the Zwarte Pieten. In this version, Niklaus is a former bishop-turned gang leader, who terrorizes and loots a town in 1492 until the villagers rebel and kill the group. Now, every fifth of December that coincides with a full moon, the date on which the gang was killed, they return as near-unstoppable ghosts to run rampant through the town yet again. Only one man believes it will happen again, and he bands together with some partying college students to fight the evil Nick and his gang once more.
Featuring surprisingly solid production values and cinematography, this one looks great for a fairly low budget film, and the direction is by Dick Maas, who some horror fans may be familiar with from the cult faves “The Lift” (about a killer elevator!), “Do Not Disturb” (with William Hurt, Denis Leary, and Jennifer Tilly) and the serial killer flick “Amsterdamned.” Though played fairly straight, it’s not without a sense of humor, particularly in regard to some of the more politically incorrect Dutch traditions. If there’s one film on this list you haven’t seen that you should if you like Xmas horror flicks, it’s either this one or the next entry…
A Finnish film, this one was inspired by a short film, which is included on the DVD/Blu-Ray, along with another related short. Both serve as great mini-prequels to this movie, which concerns a group of reindeer herders. (You can find them here and here online, in fact.) Unlike a lot of movies on this list, this one is pretty critically acclaimed, with an 90% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a positive review by famed critic Roger Ebert himself, who wasn’t exactly known for being a fan of most horror movies. It also made a nice profit in theaters, thanks in part to its relatively low $1 million dollar budget, grossing $4 million in the US alone.
In it, a group of people inadvertently excavate a supernatural being that is the original source of the Santa Claus myth. Only this Santa actively punishes the wicked, as well as taking supplies, and yes, reindeer from the nearby town. It’s up to a small family of heroic reindeer herders to save the day! It’s less silly than it sounds, and as with the previous entry, the cinematography and production values are surprisingly good. Highly recommended.
I have a soft spot for this one, which predates number two on this list by a few years, and shares many of the same qualities that make it a proto-slasher before there really was such a thing. Check this out: killer’s point-of-view camera work, an escaped lunatic, freaky phone calls, a mystery element, cult favorites in the cast, and, of course, the holiday setting, are all present and accounted for. Sound familiar?
Granted, this one is slow-moving, super low budget, and the DVD quality is still pretty low-fi and sometimes hard to see and hear, but there’s just something about it I really like. I think part of it is the documentary feel, and the fact that the film’s cast and crew are a host of Andy Warhol’s Factory luminaries, including Mary Woronov (“Eating Raoul,” “Death Race 2000”), Candy Darling (whose story is memorably chronicled in “I Shot Andy Warhol”), Ondine (who co-starred with Woronov in the Warhol-produced “Chelsea Girls” and “Sugar Cookies”), underground legend filmmaker Jack Smith, and artist Susan Rothenberg. This gives the film a sort of otherworldly feel that really makes it stand out, particularly in the film’s bravura flashback sequence near the end.
If that isn’t enough for you, the film also features Patrick O’Neal (“The Stepford Wives”), John Carradine (“The Howling”), Astrid Heen (“The Thomas Crown Affair”) and James Patterson (“In the Heat of the Night”). Carradine’s wordless role is particularly memorable- love that bell! Director Theodore Gershuny was married to Woronov at the time, and went on to write and direct some memorable episodes of “Tales from the Darkside” and “Monsters.” Co-producer Lloyd Kaufman went on to form Troma, everyone’s favorite bad movie company. This one won’t be for everyone, but I really dig it, though I’m not entirely sure why. It just has something timeless and eerie about it.
No less than cult film icon John Waters (“Hairspray,” “Cry Baby”) declared this the best Christmas film ever made, and if that doesn’t get you to want to watch it, I don’t know what will. But just in case you need extra incentive, try this: it’s a Troma release, it stars Brandon Taggart (aka Fiona Apple’s dad, which explains a lot), it features a brief but memorable role from a pre-“Home Improvement”-star Patricia Richardson, and “The Walking Dead”-star Jeffrey DeMunn, among other recognizable character actors.
It revolves around a man who actually loves Christmas, but hates what’s it’s become, and decides to take matters into his own hands. Dressed as Santa, he goes on a rampage, gifting good children along the way, and punishing the bad ones when he comes across them. His murder victims are all adults, though, so don’t worry. The ending has to be seen to be believed, and it’s chock full of crazy set-pieces that preconfigured the next entry on our list by a few years. It’s a fun little movie, and definitely worth a look for crazed Santa aficionados.
However, when it comes to crazy Santas on the prowl, this one takes the fruit cake. Roundly derided at the time of its release by critics everywhere, and protested by religious groups, this one was banned after a mere two weeks of release! Thanks to DVD, you can judge for yourself, but really it’s tame by today’s standards. The story concerns a kid who witnesses his mother get killed and raped by a psycho dressed as Santa! Merry Xmas to you, too! Anyway, young Billy grows up reasonably well-adjusted until the store he works in forces him to dress as Santa for the holidays, and buried memories resurface. Next thing you know, the “naughty, naughty, very naughty” citizens are being taken out in Xmas-not-so-friendly ways, i.e. a sledder gets decapitated as he shoots down a hill, another is strangled with Xmas lights, and the film’s lone “name,” Scream Queen par-excellence Linnea Quigley (“Return of the Living Dead”) is colorfully dispatched via reindeer antlers! Well, at least it’s inventive.
Believe it or not, 4 sequels followed, including one which is over-half made-up of footage from the 1st film! Thankfully, both are on the same disc, so you won’t be duped like other buyers were on video. The 4th and 5th sequels have nothing to do with the first two, but all are pretty star-studded by genre standards. Featured players include: Part 3- Bill Moseley (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” “The Devil’s Rejects”), Laura Harring (“Mulholland Drive”), Richard Beymer and Eric DaRae, both from TV’s “Twin Peaks”; Part 4- Clint Howard (brother of Ron, “Ice Cream Man”), Reggie Bannister (“Phantasm”), Maud Adams (“Octopussy” herself); and, best of all, Part 5 features none other than Mickey Rooney (who infamously dissed the original, so I guess he adopted the “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude when he was out of work), camping it up as “Joe Petto”- get it? All are entertaining enough, but don’t say you weren’t warned about part 2, though it may be worth it for the infamous “Garbage Day!” scene.
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Peter Straub, arguably best-known for his collaborative efforts with pal Stephen King, including “The Talisman,” this prestige adaptation boasts far and away the most high profile cast on the list. We’re talking the legendary Fred Astaire (a long way from his perennial Christmas fave “Holiday Inn”), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (“Little Caesar”) and Melvyn Douglas (“Being There”), all in their final roles; plus John Houseman (“The Fog”), Patricia Neal (“The Day the Earth Stood Still”), Craig Wasson (“Body Double”) and lovely Alice Krige (“Sleepwalkers” and the “Borg Queen” in several “Star Trek” projects). The book is better, of course (aren’t they usually?), but until a more definitive adaptation comes along, this is nothing to be ashamed of, and perfect for a cold winter’s night.
It revolves around a group of old men who gather to tell ghost stories before ending up in one of their own, with a connection to a long-buried secret in their collective pasts. When someone- or something- starts picking them and their relatives off, they band together to fight off the evil in their midst. This is an old-fashioned thriller of the sort they don’t make much of these days- think something like “The Woman in Black.” The special effects, by the legendary Dick Smith, of “The Exorcist” fame, are pretty ghastly, though. This might be too slow-moving for some audiences, but I’m a big fan of the book, and you can’t top that cast.
This is it: the original slasher movie. Predating “Halloween” by four years, this one has most of the tropes that come to define the subgenre, well before they became a cliché. To wit: the holiday setting, the lunatic on the loose, the “sting”-filled musical score, the killer POV camerawork, young people getting picked off one by one in a house in a variety of gory ways, an element of mystery, someone looking for a lost pet, chilling phone calls that are…wait for it…coming from inside of the house!
Yep, it all started here, and if not completely without precedent (see #6 and “Psycho” to name but a few), it is considered the first real slasher movie by most fans, though it would be “Halloween” that served as the first big hit and “Friday the 13th” that kick-started the subgenre in earnest. Certainly, the likes of “When a Stranger Calls” and “Scream” owe a huge debt to this film in particular, which some of you may know by its alternate title, “Stranger in the House.” It stars a post-“Romeo & Juliet” Olivia Hussey, a pre-“Superman” Margot Kidder, “2001: A Space Odyssey”-star Kier Dullea, “SCTV”-star Andrea Martin, and John Saxon, who would go on to slasher movie glory in “Nightmare on Elm Street.” Fun fact: director Bob Clark also helmed what is for many the ultimate Christmas movie, “A Christmas Story.” Needless to say, the two films are quite different!
The 2006 remake is way gorier, with a bigger-name to modern audiences cast, including Katie Cassidy (“Arrow”), Michelle Trachtenberg (“Buffy,” “Ice Princess,” to which there is a nod), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (“Death Proof”), Maxim cover girl Lacey Chabert (“Party of Five,” “Mean Girls”), and original star Andrea Martin, but it’s pretty scare-free and the script (by one of the guys behind the “Final Destination” franchise) is pretty anemic. Pretty girls do not a good film make, so stick with the original, unless you’re die-hard fans of any of those ladies.
Okay, first off, I get that some of you may not consider this a horror movie proper, and if so, just consider number two the real number one, and that’ll be fine by me. For those of us who saw this one as kids, though…it definitely counts. Consider this: it’s one of the main films that brought about the PG-13 rating because of all the violence it got away with, it features creatures on a rampage of mayhem and murder, the creatures are dispatched in various gory ways- including, memorably, by a blender and a microwave- and it has one of the most trauma-inducing Christmas-themed stories ever committed to celluloid (which everyone but the director wanted to cut out of the film), and one which blew the whole Santa myth right out of the water for a lot of kids, much to the consternation of their parents. If that doesn’t qualify as horror, I don’t know what does. Just because those Mogwai are cute doesn’t mean they don’t have bite, especially in their titular Gremlin form.
I love this movie. For me, it’s as much a part of Christmas as “It’s a Wonderful Life” is for other people. It may not be the most family-friendly movie in the world, but that’s part of why I love it. Isn’t it part of the horror tradition to be subversive? This definitely qualifies. The script is by Chris Columbus, who would go on to even bigger Christmas glory with the likes of “Home Alone” and the “Harry Potter” franchise. It’s directed by genre fave Joe Dante, of “The Howling” and “Piranha” fame, who was hired by producer Steven Spielberg directly because of the latter, which he considered the best of the post-“Jaws” creature feature pack. It’s darkly humorous and the effects (by Chris Walas) are still effective today, with the voice of Gizmo portrayed by “America’s Got Talent” judge Howie Mandel. Honestly, as many times as I’ve seen this, I never get tired of it.
Of course, there are plenty of other Xmas-themed horror flicks where that came from. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the “Tales from the Crypt” segment, “All Through the House,” which is featured in both the original 1972 anthology film and the series, both of which are readily available on DVD. And who doesn’t love the horror-adjacent “The Nightmare Before Christmas”? There’s also a few horror movies set on or around Christmas where the holiday doesn’t figure enough into the plot for inclusion in my main list, but are worth a look if you’ve seen most of the above, like “P2,” with current “Continuum” star Rachel Nichols and “American Beauty” and “Hunger Games” gamekeeper Wes Bentley as a stalker; “The Dorm That Dripped Blood,” with a small role by Daphne Zuniga (“Melrose Place”) about a sparsely-populated college campus over the holidays, where those few left behind are picked off one by one; the classic ghost story “The Legend of Hell House,” from the recently departed legendary writer Richard Matheson, featuring horror legends Roddy McDowell (“Fright Night”) and Pamela Franklin (“The Innocents”); and last (and probably least, “Jack Frost,” about a killer snowman, who does some decidedly untoward things with his carrot nose, especially with “American Pie” hottie Shannon Elizabeth.
Moving into New Year’s Eve, you might want to check out the slasher movie classic “Terror Train,” which is set on that night, and features Scream Queen legend Jamie Lee Curtis (“Halloween”), character actor and Western movie legend Ben Johnson (“The Town That Dreaded Sundown”), a pre-Prince Vanity (“The Last Dragon”), and, of all people, magician David Copperfield! It’s beautifully filmed by Stanley Kubrick’s cameraman, and takes place mostly on, you guessed it, a train, which makes it a novel entry in the slasher subgenre. The lesser-known “New Year’s Evil” and “Bloody New Year” are also fun, if you can track them down.
Well, that about does it. Now please remember, and don’t ever forget, to be good for goodness’ sake, lest Santa punish you for being naughty! Merry Black Xmas, everyone, and to all a spooky night!