Top 5 Classic Christmas Horror Films

Many of us know how the holiday season can be scary in various ways. Whether it be the stress of shopping, the deadlines at work, or just the umpteenth tween heartthrob whining through another unwanted version of “All I Want For Christmas”, the holidays can drive even the most mild-mannered pacifist to thoughts of carnage. No matter how much holiday spirit you have flowing through your veins, eventually everybody has their breaking point. And starting in the 1970’s, filmmakers took full advantage of this societal tendency and began producing movies that feature death and destruction around the day of days. These typically focus on a certain individual who equates Christmas with childhood trauma, snaps, and turns to murder to help fill the parental void in their soul. (Imagine if Norman Bates had the Night Before Christmas read to him every night as a child.) In recent years there has been an onslaught of holiday films that tend to lean towards the paranormal or monstrous side of horror. Titles such as Jack Frost (not the one with Michael Keaton), Santa Claws, Silent Night Zombie Night, One Hell of a Christmas, Christmas Nightmare, the Gingerdead Man (both 1 and 2) and Santa’s Slay may all have their moments, but I am going to focus on the more “classic” holiday horror films. To avoid the impending argument I am going define “classic” as being before 1990, I am sorry for how old that may make you feel. I was tempted to put Scrooged on this list because it is my favorite Christmas movie. While it does have some horrific sequences in it, it is, alas, not a proper horror film.

5. Gremlins (1984) – Joe Dante

Gremlins comes in at number 5 not because it is any less of a movie than any of the films that preceed it, but because it does not contain the typical Christmas Horror plot points that I mentioned above. Instead of a crazed man-boy picking off the residents of a town, we have a batch of scaly green baddies doing the honor. Taking place during the days leading up to Christmas, a traveling salesman decides to give his son a furry little creature called a Mogwai (voiced by Howie Mandel) that he picked in an antique shop in Chinatown. Instead of going off about all the rules of owning a Mogwai and what happens if you break those rules, I’ll just stick to what is relevant to this list. Plus I’d be pretty surprised if you are reading this and haven’t seen Gremlins. You can kind of look at this movie as a cautionary tale on giving pets for Christmas. No matter how good your intentions, you are playing with fire and there is a good chance that someone is going to end up in tears, or pieces. It is also chockfull of satire on the consumer culture of the 80’s and how it turns us into little green monsters that function only with the most primitive of natures. But there are two scenes in this film that really put it on this list. The first involves the protagonist’s mother being attacked by a gremlin in various rooms of their house whilst “Do You Hear What I Hear” plays in the background. The second has Phoebe Cates’ character retelling a story from her childhood that involves the death of her father in a chimney during a Christmas stunt gone wrong.

4. Black Christmas (1974) – Bob Clark

From the director of the beloved A Christmas Story (as well as Porky’s and Rhinestone) comes another holiday movie with a slightly different feel. The plot of this film is pretty close to When a Stranger Calls, except instead of just Carol Kane getting freaked out by a heavy breather, we have Margot Kidder, Olivia Hussey, Andrea Martin and a handful of other students. It is the week before Christmas and one by one the residents of a sorority house are slowly disappearing as obscene phone calls become more frequent. For what seems to be the millionth time, John Saxon plays the local policeman. As in all 70’s horror films, this one epitomizes the concept of law-enforcement ineptitude, who were apparently unable to protect or serve during the entirety of that decade. Also, like a lot of 70’s horror films, this one presents a handful of potential persons that could be the murderer, none of whom actually turn out to be the culprit (don’t worry, I really didn’t give anything away with that piece of information). The movie itself is actually a pretty solid film, the only reason that it is not higher up on this list is because of the fact that besides the occasional carol and/or wreath, you kind of forget for the most of it that it takes place around Christmas. Initially this was supposed to be a bigger production starring the likes of Bette Davis, Malcolm McDowell and Gilda Radner. The “killer” POV shots were accomplished by the cameraman strapping the camera to his back and creeping around the house.  The director has a “cameo” as the voice behind the lewd phone calls. This was recently remade, but I am not about to give that a chance, though Andrea Martin does have a small part in it.

3. Don’t Open Till Christmas (1984) – Edmund Purdom

Apparently the issue of Christmas trauma is not solely an American problem. This horrific little tale is a British production and makes almost no sense. But in the end that doesn’t really matter much. What does matter is that some sadistic killer is going around the streets of London killing anyone that is dressed like Santa that may come across his path. Whether it be at a swinger Christmas party, outside a bar or in a strip joint, if you are dressed like Santa, you are fair game. His weapon of choice is stabbing, but he is not opposed to using a grill or axe if needed. There is somewhat of a plot that involves a daughter trying to find her father’s killer and a possibly corrupt police sergeant. But all that really matters is that every ten minutes or so someone else in a Santa suit dies in a new fun way. It gets to the point, by about 30 minutes in, that when you see a new Santa you start looking around at his surroundings and trying to guess how he is gonna get it. Apparently different parts of this movie were directed by two different directors, yet that still doesn’t explain how disjointed this movie feels. That said, it is worth seeing for the fact that it really will change the way you look at anybody dressed as a Santa. Whether it be a guy at the mall or a hipster on a pub crawl, you won’t be able to help but envision them getting a knife to the gut. There are two different drinking games you can play with this movie. The obvious, which is whenever Santa dies, you drink. But if you want to get even drunker, drink whenever they cut to a shot of the “New Scotland Yard” sign. You’ll be getting your stomach pumped in no time.

2. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) – Charles E. Sellier Jr.

The last three movies on this list have one thing in common besides killer Santa Clauses. They all are centered around Christmas related childhood trauma. But this one kind of takes the cake. In 1971 young Billy Chapman not only has to undertake one of the creepiest visits to an old folks home ever, but also witnesses both his parents being murdered at the hands of a carjacker in full Santa regalia. Cut to a few years later and Billy raises a few eyebrows on the faces of the nuns at the Catholic orphanage he resides at by drawing pictures of decapitated Santas. And of course like any good nun, she tells him that punishment is necessary and good and proceeds to beat the snot out of him with his own belt. There is a hilarious scene where Billy is forced to sit on Santa’s lap and promptly punches old Saint Nick out. By the age of 18 Billy is working at the only logical place, a toy factory. And naturally he goes morally crazy and starts to punish and reward those around him in the guise of his mortal enemy Santa. The previous movie and this one both attempt to have some sort of message about morality, but it all gets lost in the blood letting, which is just fine with me. Not surprisingly, this movie was heavily picketed by groups of mothers with too much time on their hands. Something about an axe wielding homicidal Santa just doesn’t sit right with suburban housewives. Siskel and Ebert scolded the filmmakers by name on air. So far there have been four sequels made. Most memorable are part 2 (which I believe holds the record for most footage of an original film recycled in its sequel, at just under 40 minutes) and part 5 starring Mickey Rooney.

1. You Better Watch Out (Christmas Evil) (1980) – Lewis Jackson

You want the best, you’ve got the best. The most messed up and therefore greatest Christmas horror film of all time, You Better Watch Out, or as you may know it, Christmas Evil. The plot of this movie is kind of a mix of the previous two movies. What makes it so memorable is how surprisingly well acted it is. Given a better director the movie could have been something more than just a cult classic. It is a perfect middle ground between Taxi Driver, Falling Down and A Miracle on 34th Street. All around nice guy and toy factory pushover Harry Stadling believes in the spirit of Christmas. Unfortunately, no one around him except kids feels the same way. Pushed to the edge of sanity by the lack of respect he gets and holiday joy he feels, he finally takes the plunge and super glues a beard on and assumes the role of Santa. He not only goes around and punishes those that have wronged him, he also goes to hospitals and gives out toys to needy children. Brandon Maggart plays the role of Harry with such conviction that he gives a humanistic touch to a role that would normally just be played for scares. The relationship between Harry and his brother is also something that sets this movie apart from it’s peers. His brother is the only one that suspects that there is something wrong, yet he doesn’t just write him off as crazy. And instead of just being a side note in the movie, this relationship is the driving force. There is so much heart put into these two performances that it is a shame that a director like Sydney Lument or Norman Jewison couldn’t have gotten their hands on this material. One of the biggest outspoken fans of this film is John Waters. He recently recorded commentary for the film calling it the greatest Christmas movie ever.

Special Features:

For those of you who may be confused about what happens in which horror movie, I have made a graph below that may help. Enjoy.

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