Fill the halls with screams of victims! Tra la-la-la-la, la-la-la-laah . . .
Santa’s here! An axe he’s wielding! Tra la-la-la-la, la-la-la-laah . . .
Yes, that’s right. Tis the time of year once more to be with all the family, to eat and drink enough to reach genuine physical discomfort, and to get scared out of our wits over some murderous festive tale. Let’s face it — there are enough vintage Yuletide ghost stories to keep us traumatised from Christmas Eve up until St Swithin’s Day — but what about Christmas horror films? Well, here at This Is Horror, we’ve created a special selection of ten just such festive-themed treats – gruesome gifts to sit ominously under your tree, waiting patiently to be unwrapped and give you a nasty surprise.
The films selected here, just like Christmas presents themselves, are in no particular order of quality. Some might fill you with pleasure and surprise: unexpectedly suitable gifts that are right up your street. Others might be wide of the mark, like some kind of sartorial sacrilege (not your colour, definitely not your style), where you just have to end up forcing a weak smile gratitude. But don’t forget: after all, it’s the body count that counts.
Black Christmas (dir. Bob Clark, 1974)
On paper it’s Halloween for the winter holidays, but Black Christmas should be a rightful staple of anyone’s festive season viewing, to be sported like a sexless knitted jumper and politely tolerated like overcooked sprouts. Set in a sorority house where the resident sisters are preparing to leave for winter break, the scares in Black Christmas build slowly like a carefully-wrought gore of attrition: firstly a teenage girl is found dead, then the sorority sisters gradually get picked-off, and all the while telephone bills of genuinely nightmarish proportions are being racked-up. Black Christmas might not carry the same minimalist terror or legendary status as Halloween, but in all fairness it boasts its own forty year-long following of little helpers (including Steve Martin!) Plus, like that faithful but battered-looking plastic Christmas tree, getting dutifully dragged down from the attic year after year, Black Christmas‘s sheer novelty value has been a mainstay of our movie-going consciousness, it having spawned a predictably feeble remake in 2006, while viewers can also watch Santa empty a whole other kind of sack in the 2012 porn parody, Black XXXmas.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (dir. Charles Sellier, USA 1984)
By no means the first Christmas horror where the antagonist actually dresses up as Santa but probably the most notorious, Silent Night, Deadly Night might be difficult to take on its own merits rather than alongside the general slurry of so-called Video Nasties it tends to get lumped in with. But the characterisation of Billy Chapman, who takes or grants life depending on the basic algorithm of whether people have been “naughty or nice” that year, is suitably chilling. If you’re a kid and Santa Clause decided there and then if you’d been naughty, the worst thing that could happen to you would be no gift for you; you’d be left dealing with the void left behind from Santa’s judgement. But as an adult, if you’ve been deemed “naughty” by a powerful entity, what implication does this hold in store? Silent Night, Deadly Night may not be the most perfectly produced Christmas horror, but did it really deserve the attacks it received from the Parent Teacher Association and the Mothers Against Movie Madness (actual group’s name) when it was originally released? Like Santa himself, the PTA and MAMM carried enough weight to deem who they decided to be naughty or nice and got the film banned for a year. But, just like how they played with the significance of Santa Clause himself, the filmmakers re-marketed it with a new poster self-consciously mocking the whole ridiculous controversy (it did okay at the box office too.)
Santa’s Slay (dir. David Steinman, 2005)
Ex-professional American footballer and world championship wrestler, Bill Goldberg, stars as “Santa Claus”, the demon son of Satan (surprised no one’s wheeled that anagram out before), who visits us mere mortals at Christmas to, erm, murder us if we’ve been naughty instead of nice… again. Like a cross between Silent Night, Bloody Night and Little Nicky, Santa’s Slay is at least played for laughs: our demonic psycho’s actual sleigh is led by a horrifying herd of “hell deer”; one male victim gets mortally deep-throated with a turkey leg; a female victim gets drowned in eggnog; and another gets a Christmas star thrown into their back. Definitely not as bleak as Silent Night, Bloody Night, Santa’s Slay is admittedly something of a Christmas cracker prize – all fun and games at the time, but then quickly you can’t help but remember how Santa kicked Hulk Hogan’s ass in Atlanta. You know the feeling, right?
Films to Keep You Awake: The Christmas Tale (aka Películas para no dormir: Cuento de Navidad, dir. Paco Plaza, Spain 2005)
Before the dual Spanish horror phenomena of [REC] (2007) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), director Paco Plaza and acceptably non-creepy child actor Ivana Baquero, generously lowered this bloodied treat down our collective chimney. Out in the woods, a group of children discover a woman dressed as Santa trapped down a well, and, ermm, decide to keep her there, feeding and watering her at their leisure. Come on, we all did that as kids, right? What could possibly go wrong? Things take a turn for the meta-fictional when two of the kids, in an attempt to re-enact the voodoo elements of their favourite horror film “Zombie Invasion”, try to turn their prisoner into a zombie herself. Then, would you believe it, she only goes and escapes! And starts wreaking her revenge with an axe! A yarn as old as the Nativity itself.
Gremlins (dir. Joe Dante, 1984)
Packed with more Seasonal menace than you might expect, Gremlins is a pretty much perfect comedy/horror that sits perfectly against its Christmastime backdrop. In some ways it might even be the most perfect of Christmas Horrors; utilising the dual safety of the warm festive homestead pitted against the dread of the unknown infiltrators, and contrasting the stationary electric rainbow of Christmas decorations nicely with the shifting, shadowy, half-seen mischief of the gremlins themselves (at least for the first half of the film). But don’t look too hard at the logic of the mogwais’ transformation: apparently you should never feed them after midnight. But, isn’t any time after midnight? When isn’t after midnight? Time is circular, is it not? A genuine festive frightner for all the family.
Silent Night, Bloody Night (dir. Theodore Gershuny, 1972)
A singularly strange bauble to hang off the Christmas horror tree, Silent Night, Bloody Night manages to be convoluted yet boring; over-acted yet deflated; and relatively short but glacial in pace, all at the same time. There really is something “Ed Wood” about it. Something about the dual boldness and outright silliness of the film’s own mythology, where flashbacks and historical scenes do more to muddle the end result than add any substance to it, like eating your fortieth Quality Street of the morning, even though your stomach aches and your teeth feel like there’s moss growing on them. Framed like a traditional haunted house story (a la Edgar Allan Poe, but, you know, not quite as good), the film does at least have some interesting visuals: the asylum scenes do have a raw cinema vérité feel which breaks up the dead-faced acting in the contemporary sections mostly for the better. And to be fair, at the time Silent Night, Bloody Night would have offered something quite new in horror terms during initial release – a format of storytelling which is mined for material today (think American Horror Story: Murder House).
The Children (dir. Tom Shankland, 2008)
Tapping those Creepy-Kid, Festive-Frightener, and Murder-In-The-Rural-House dollars for all their worth, the team behind The Children certainly know which ingredients to chuck into such a gruesome Christmas pudding: two tablespoons of Shining-like strangeness in the eponymous youngsters themselves, a generous pouring of Dog Soldiers’ house-under-siege tension, all topped off with a sprinkling of unexpected surprises. The “sickness” suffered by the children does make them watchably complex dual villain/victims, giving the film a bit of character depth. Set alongside the plummy middle-class grown-ups, it almost feels gratifying at times that these murderous infants manage to dispatch of their grating parents before they manage to finish roasting their organic turkey in Jamie Oliver’s special dressing.
Night Train Murders (aka L’ultimo treno della note, dir. Aldo Lado, Italy 1975)
A Christmas horror which actually made it onto Santa’s special list! (if Santa was actually the Director of Public Prosecutions and the list was the officially-named 72 “Video Nasties”, which we’ve all now come to know and love.) Like many of its fellow persecuted pictures, Night Train Murders was originally known by many an English title, including the arbitrary Late Night Trains, the shamelessly cashing-in Second House on The Left, and the ominously public health warning-esque Don’t Ride On Late Night Trains. The violence is relentless, the moving carriage settings are queasily claustrophobic, and the inter-cut editing between the female victim’s ordeal and the festive preparations being undertaken by the awaiting host family are tasteless in the extreme. Ultimately, like a fair chunk of the Video Nasties, Night Train Murders is more a gristly January 5th turkey bap than fresh sizzling roast, yet it does at least boast a decent soundtrack from the ever-reliable Ennio Morricone.
Tales from the Crypt: And All Through the House (dir. Freddie Francis, 1972)
What self-respecting Christmas horror list would be complete without Joan Collins’ turn as a murderous housewife in this Amicus classic? Reading along similar lines to many a portmanteau movie segment – the bloodlust often lurking behind domestic life; the good spouse gone (very) bad; the shadowy threat of the, often supernatural, unknowable – Amicus dutifully tinselled this one up for the festive season by giving the principle antagonist, what exactly . . ? Why, a Santa costume of course! Definitely not the right Christmas Eve to let Santa do his “slaying”! He’s checking of you’ve been “Naughty or nice”!! etc., etc…
Elves (dir. Jeffrey Mandel, 1989)
Yeah, that’s right. It’s about time those elves got a bit of stick, right? Always leaving Santa to take the blame for everything. Well, in Elves, Santa’s festively-faithful diminutive workforce certainly gets cast in a new light: it turns out that Adolf Hitler had intended to create a race of hybrid “Nazi-elves”, presumably in order to distribute Christmas presents as efficiently as they ran their railways. In theory, Elves has it all – the Nazi plot spanning a thousand years, the occult practices, the virgin sacrifice, the incest. But in reality, Elves is about as amusing as calmly-released flatulence from a brandy-dozing relative during the Queen’s Speech: it might have been fun at first, but afterwards you just want to open a window and take in something fresher.