Ahhhhh. The house smells of cinnamon and cookies, it’s warm, cozy. Hot chocolate, egg nog with an extra drop of something in it. Perfect time to settle in with some movies. Especially some scary ones, or at the very least something weird and wild.
Santa-themed horror movies are a sub-genre unto their own. Usually it’s the typical slashers you’d expect. Then there are some truly great surprises, such as the disturbing psychothriller Christmas Evil, one of the greatest slashers ever made Black Christmas. And then there are other Christmas horror flicks, like the classic Gremlins.
This year, I tried picking out a few holiday gems I haven’t included on lists for the previous years. Some of them aren’t so much gems as they are very rough yet enjoyable little trinkets picked out of the trough. Moreover, this isn’t a list that’s strict. I’m bending the rules; in certain cases, big time. Bear with me. We all celebrate the holidays in our own way.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few horrors worth throwing on during the season, on a dark, snowy night, in the comfort of your home where nothing bad could ever happen so close to Christmas, right? RIGHT?
Oh, and if you’re mad at something I put on the list, get a grip on yourself – I’m in the holiday spirit, one way or another. Fucking sue me.
1) Tales from the Crypt (1972 film)
1st Segment: “And All Through the House”
Not only does this segment involve Joan Collins playing a housewife who’s had enough of her husband’s shit, murdering him, it also includes a killer Santa Claus in the form of an escaped asylum patient dressed as jolly ole Saint Nick roaming free in her neighbourhood. The murderous Mr. Claus arrives while Joan is trying to cover up what she’s done, so it makes for a real holiday treat.
The part about this one that gets me is the Santa, he’s dishevelled and uneasy looking, exactly like an escaped mental patient who killed some Salvation Army bell ringer and stole his beard and outfit. Add that to a frantic Joan Collins trying her best to survive this horrible man, you’ve got some fine horror for Christmastime!
Tales from the Crypt (TV series)
Season 1, Episode 2: “And All Through the House”
This TV adaptation of the segment from the 1972 film isn’t as good, but it’s still damn fun. It’s got another solid lead performance out of actress Mary Ellen Trainor, and Larry Drake as another really fucking eerie Santa. This one has a bit more dark humour than the relatively pitch black film segment. I love Trainor’s reactions to being told the police are heading to the neighbourhood to search for the escaped mental patient Santa, there’s just something hilariously disturbing about the whole thing. Plus, we do get a bit more than the 1972 version, simply because this is a full 22 minute episode rather than the segment itself being much shorter. Gives you more bang for the buck, either way.
2) Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Equal parts pseudo-archaeology, horror, and adventure, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale takes the story of Santa Claus into fresh, unexplored territory.
On the surface it’s similar to other holidays flicks, where you feel bad for a kid. Here, that kid is Pietari Kontio (Onni Tommila). He’s treated much like a dog. His father Rauno (Jorma Tommila) takes part in the reindeer slaughter. Business has been on the edge for a long while. Things aren’t great. A massive herd of reindeer have turned up dead, taking a worse chunk out of Rauno’s business. At the same time, there’s a British company digging into a mountain, they’ve found something peculiar: wood, and encased within it is tons of ice. Strange, no? That’s because Santa Claus is coming to town. Nothing to be happy about, not like the song says.
If you’re looking for something pretty different from most other Killer Santa films, Rare Exports is the ticket. It’s definitely got some stuff to make you chuckle. It’s got even more to creep you the hell out!
Something endlessly hilarious about Christmas and Santa are how deadly serious people can get over it. Forget the Christian stuff (reminder: it’s a pagan holiday, anyway) – especially in the US, conservatives can get wildly sensitive about the portrayal of Santa Claus, a fictitious entity that gives presents to all of the kids across the world who celebrate Christmas.
That’s why it’s likewise endlessly enjoyable to see Santa treated as a malevolent, mean spirited entity rather than one bringing yuletide joy. Sint is the tale of Sinterklaas. Now, the legend of Sinterklaas says he’s not entirely evil, though he does have helpers called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete; whole thing traditionally gets a little too close to racism for my tastes, the movie avoids any of that nonsense). The film says shag that, this guy’s a creep. And boy, does he ever get evil, too. Director Dick Maas (De Lift, Amsterdamned) makes the legendary figure into a former bishop who has gone rogue, leading a gang of thieves looting villages. He’s killed one night, and every 23 years after, on that same night when a full moon is in the sky, the old bishop, St. Nicholas returns to kill.
Dig in. This one’s fun, it’s weird, and makes no bones about doing its own thing. Fantastic Christmas horror! One of my favourite seasonal horror movies out there.
4) Good Tidings
This isn’t anything special, it’s not going to blow any minds. Good Tidings suffers from poor acting, whereas it excels in atmosphere. Particularly, the murderous Santa(s) here makes for true holiday terror. When three psychopaths lay siege to a homeless shelter celebrating Christmas, a poor war veteran must revert to old, long abandoned ways in order to help him and others survive.
This has a lot of problems. Above all, this is creepy, there are lots of spooky scenes and little moments to unsettle you. The score, when it’s good, it is damn good, and a throwback to the 1980s when the killer Santa flick was thriving. Don’t expect too much, then this one will definitely provide a fun night with some friends, a glass of nog, and a bit of Christmas grub.
5) Silent Night, Bloody Night
Several films on the list are only barely connected to Christmas, Silent Night, Bloody Night is no exception. The event which acts as catalyst for the whole plot and story of the film involves Christmas Eve. Other than that it isn’t much related.
Still, this is a pretty wild and genuinely good slasher before the sub-genre of horror was officially a thing. This was released in 1972, before Black Christmas, Halloween, any of the other films that defined the slasher going forward. Now I’m not daring to claim this was hugely influential, nor is it anywhere near as good as those aforementioned slasher flicks. Not at all. But, it’s interesting to see that this was doing things these other movies made staples of the sub-genre. Like the score, it’s a classic. And there’s lots of blood, blasphemous killing with the soiling of Christian iconography. In addition you’ve got some odd arthouse-style filmmaking going on, particularly when it gets to flashbacks to the Christmas Eve night in question. A wild ride all around. Definitely worth a shot around Christmas, to put you in that mood.
Horrific Highlight: You’ll know what it is when you see it. The broken glass moment is one of fucking nightmares, it’s indescribable. Watch. Be terrorised.
Season 1, Episode 11: “Truth Be Told”
Just like the first Christmas episode of The X-Files, Dexter uses the holidays to dig deeper into its characters, namely the titular one, whose past begins to erupt further in “Truth Be Told” – not only do we gradually discover more bits of Dexter (Michael C. Hall), we discover more of the other characters, from Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) to the Ice Truck Killer himself.
There are plenty of things going on here. The meat of the episode is the latest Ice Truck Killer crime scene, fine holiday treats for the forensic team and the cops to deal with, and though the whole episode isn’t Christmas-centric, the lights shine in the backdrop, the crime scene itself is smack dab in the midst of the holiday season. Then, when you get to the last few minutes, the plot gets cooking with gas. Doesn’t have tons of holiday flavour. What it does have is excellent suspense and tension. You can’t ask for more than that.
7) To All a Goodnight
The one and only feature film directed by actor David Hess (Krug from Last House on the Left and Alex in The House on the Edge of the Park) is, as expected, appropriately sleazy considering some of the films he’s done. This is a true Killer Santa premise, one that doesn’t stray at all from a formula that’s become the standard for Christmas horror.
A group of young people + some breasts + bunch of blood courtesy of a naughty Santa + isolated environment + redder than red herrings = To All a Goodnight. Nothing special.
Yet the cinematography’s surprising, really enjoyable. Then there’s the classic slasher score, which aids in building good suspense for the mostly by-the-numbers stuff; add to that a little eccentric music, it gives the score something extra. A lot of this is generic. It’s still fun, creepy at times, and just a proper flick to toss on with some friends at Christmas, if for nothing else but to have a laugh.
Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (just like Alien: Covenant) gets shit on a lot. Father Gore loves both these films. Because they’re fun, they’re vast stories with far reaching themes, and we get more of the birth of the xenomorph, the world Scott began building in ’79 with the masterpiece, Alien.
For all the shit it gets, Prometheus is a fantastic sci-fi film. And, I’m going to go out on a limb suggesting the Christmas connection isn’t one that’s added for nothing. It’s not merely fodder for a fun Idris Elba moment. We’re dealing with thematic content here concerning the existence of a God, as humans have known it. Follow me here. If Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) prove that God doesn’t exist, at least not in the form Christianity imagined, then there’s no birth of Christ, all that. Therefore, no Christmas. So, for me, the holiday specific scene in Prometheus is an especially tragic one, like we’re watching this Christmas go on in the shadow of much bigger things, perhaps the last Christmas as they know it.
9) The Children
Technically, this is cheating: The Children takes place just before the New Year. However, it’s a snowy, holiday-themed horror, it’s got the vibes of a Christmas horror flick. I vote it goes on the list. And, well, there’s nobody to stop me, right?
And lord, is this ever a brutal, effective, mean little film. At only 80 minutes, director Tom Shankland’s The Children pulls not a single punch. It’s well acted, particularly in the case of Hannah Tointon who plays Casey, the sole teenager in the story. It’s a nasty horror, crossing the borders of decency in all the right ways, asking violent questions about the differences between adults and children in a primitive sense, as well as just a plain tense movie.
Special Mention: The editing and sound design during the dinner scene will have you stressed out, ready to snap yourself. But the kids, they snap first. Boy, do they ever snap. This is the worst – in an appropriate way for the plot – dinner scene in cinema history, or at least in the top three. Makes me physically tense. Love it; but I’m a masochist.
10) All Through the House
This one isn’t one you’ll write home about – do not anticipate any impressive acting, above all else. If you can check expectations at the door, All Through the House plays out as a significant, relatively fresh twist on the Killer Santa sub-genre of horror movies. There are only so many different ways a guy ends up in a Santa suit, murdering people. This flick sort of flips the script, as far as it can, anyway. The reveal won’t blow your socks off. Nevertheless, it will disturb the hell out of you. That’ll also explain, later in the film, why early on so many penises are cut off; not that misandry isn’t my thing, because it kind of is, y’know. (sorry, not sorry.)
Highlight: Santa humping the air with a pair of garden shears. It’ll be more horrifying when you actually figure out who the character is in the reveal later on.
What I anticipated as being a cheesy Christmas movie with a few scares turned out to be a few good scares with a deliciously twisted Christmas movie wrapped around it. Krampus is, essentially, set around what happens when a family made up of staunch Republicans and Democrats have to come together for the holidays, co-existing in one relatively small space for a matter of days on end. So, when one boy starts taking the season for granted, wishing his family weren’t a bunch of shitheads, the folklore figure Krampus lays siege to his neighbourhood, his home, and decides to take the kid a lesson.
Not only is there some enjoyable holiday horror, this flick is funny. The cast is phenomenal – Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, and Allison Tolman play the couples, all in-laws with their kids. And the young actors are pretty great, too. It’s Krampus and his legion of mischievous creatures that seal the deal. From toys coming to evil life to gingerbread men attacks and more, the horror is as fun as the comedy.
What do I love most about Krampus? It’s not necessarily the typical Christmas movie, in that it may not end up where you expect. In a lot of ways, this story stays true to the Krampus legends. That means be good, boys and girls. Else you’ll get a visit, and it won’t be from no Santa Claus, either.
12) The X-Files Double Feature
Season 5, Episode 6: “Christmas Carol”
Not only is this a Christmas episode of The X-Files, one of my most beloved shows on television, ever, this is also an episode that plays into the overall series mythology, as well as a strong, emotional, personal dive into the history of Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), whose infertility plays a large part in the story.
When Scully goes home for the holidays, she soon starts getting strange phone calls. She winds up in the midst of an investigation, which soon proves to reveal things about her own past, things that, on the surface, look too impossible to be true.
Even though the Christmas connection here isn’t huge, it provided Vince Gilligan & Co. a reason to have Scully reunite with family, setting off all the personal issues and emotions she faces throughout the episode. There’s a second part conclusion, “Emily” – that one doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas. But “Christmas Carol” is absolutely an interesting part of the series, not just a one-off holiday episode, rather a big piece in Scully’s puzzle.
But let’s move on to the other Christmas episode of the series, one that also includes Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny)!
Season 6, Episode 6: “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas”
Mulder’s “a left cheek sneak” fart reference gets this Christmas episode rolling with tongue planted firmly in cheek. All the better compared with Scully and her unimpressed attitude about being called out by her partner to an old house on Christmas Eve to deal with “ingrained cliches from a thousand different horror films” Mulder is, as usual, interested in.
When Agent Mulder calls Agent Scully out to a creepy house they’ll be staking out, both the agents get more than they bargained for after they get inside and the house is much more than it seems. A dash of haunted house, a little Christmas spirit, some laughs, some scares and an intense showdown in the friendship between Agents Scully and Mulder. A fun, eerie, suspenseful chapter of The X-Files, pitting that usual sceptical, empirical mind of Scully against the ever theoretical, hopeful belief of Mulder, as the two FBI agents search through the old place. They even run into Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin who play the couple living in the house. Lots of good stuff. Good, weird fun for the holidays!
13) The Twilight Zone Double Feature
Season 2, Episode 11: “Night of the Meek”
Art Carney is a treasure. The Twilight Zone‘s “Night of the Meek” is only one of the reasons why. This is the tale of a department store Santa who’s fallen into the bottle a bit hard. But he knows it. And he knows too much, about the world, about pain, of struggle, all those things.
What starts out as a depressing tale of a rundown man becomes something else entirely. Not the typical Rod Serling-style fare that you’d expect. Definitely magical, fantastical, and like many great Twilight Zone episodes, there’s a message behind the story, about the nature of giving versus receiving during the holidays.
Season 3, Episode 14: “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”
There’s not much to say about this one, because saying too much runs the fun. Maybe don’t even pay much attention to the pictures, either. Anyway, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” is not simply a Christmas-adjacent episode of The Twilight Zone, it’s one of the top ten greatest episodes of television that exists. Some people will tell you that’s not true, that it’s an overrated episode which gets more credit than it deserves.
Fuck those people.
This episode is tight, it is tense, and the reveal is worth a thousand twists in other films and television. You won’t realise it’s a Christmas episode until you get to those final moments. When all is revealed, then you’ll understand.
14) Terry Gilliam’s Brazil
Another cheat. Not a Christmas movie. However, it does feature Christmas, to a degree. It’s set during Christmastime, one of the initial scenes involves a family enjoying the holiday together in their quaint apartment before the ever present bureaucracy in their dystopian society comes crashing through the living room, into their lives. Brazil‘s all about bureaucracy. Terry Gilliam uses Christmas to exemplify the materialism of this society where he sees us headed. We’re caught up in his weird world, where every dumb custom, every rule, every last little thing is enforced, and everything costs money, and shopping is like one of the deepest circles in Dante Alighieri’s Hell.
In short, Gilliam’s Brazil presents Christmas in its purest, most rotten economic form. Much as I love the holidays, he’s not wrong.
15) American Horror Story
Season 2, Episode 8: “Unholy Night”
I love American Horror Story. Fuck the haters. Season 2: Asylum has a special place in my chilly little heart because of the themes and the location, just an all around terror. The eighth episode the season, “Unholy Night”, is a particularly creepy chapter of Asylum. There’s lots of naughty stuff going on at Briarcliff, between the devil using Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) as his Earthly plaything, a stark raving mad Ian McShane playing a man traumatised by the holiday season, and much more.
It’s McShane who makes this episode so memorable. He does appear in a second episode afterwards, but it’s this one where he leaves his best, darkest mark. At the start of the episode his criminal Santa’s laying out what he’ll do to a couple he has tied up, and his remark to the husband – as well as the look on his face while saying the line – is chilling beyond chilling. Even if you don’t like the series, this episode is worth watching if you want some Christmas horror.
And there’s some horror, as is usual for AHS. Try not to laugh when McShane bawls: “Well I don‘t wanna be in your shitty picture, then.” Just be prepared for lots of horrific, unsettling holiday horror around the handful of laughs.
16) Syfy’s Happy!
Happy! stars Chris Meloni as a washed up hitman who starts seeing a little kidnapped girl’s imaginary friend, a blue, flying unicorn (voiced by comedian Patton Oswalt) after the girl is taken by a psycho, meth smoking Santa Claus.
Not sure if there’ll be a Season 2, but Season 1 takes place during the holiday season, obviously, as a really bad Santa is the focus of the crime plot. Surrounding that is a ton of mayhem, laughs a-plenty, two excellent performances from Meloni and Oswalt, and on top of that? It’s violent as hell, just as twisted. The visuals are exactly like a comic book, seeing as how the story comes from a Grant Morrison work. Check this out, because Season 1’s been perfectly messed up TV for the holiday season! It isn’t horror, so to speak, yet it has the right amount of madness to be proudly on this list.