Christmas horror movies are a holiday must. Even the lyrics of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” mention “scary ghost stories.” Winter tales about ghosts and goblins go back for centuries, with Charles Dickens’s 1843 classic A Christmas Carol featuring several ghosts.
So break out the hot chocolate and candy canes as we unwrap some classic Yuletide horror films that carry on that terrifying tradition…
When it comes to holiday horror, you can’t get much darker or more disturbing than 1974’s slasher classic, Black Christmas. The film follows a group of sorority sisters (among them Margot Kidder and Olivia Hussey) who eagerly embrace the festive spirit as the semester comes to a close and students prepare to return home for the holidays. However, their joyous plans take an unexpected and sinister turn when an enigmatic killer begins causing chaos on campus.
Black Christmas helps establish many modern horror tropes. The killer utilizes the phone (ala Scream and When a Stranger Calls), uses inventive killing methods (you’ll look at unicorns differently after watching this) and authority figures don’t take the women characters seriously when they raise concerns like in countless other films. The film is also often cited as a major influence on John Carpenter’s Halloween four years later.
Christmas horror movies are filled with killer Santas. Taking one of the most beloved symbols of the season and subverting it into something sinister always packs a punch. 1980s Christmas Evil holds the distinction of being the first full-length of the “Slasher Santa” subgenre.
The story revolves around a young boy obsessed with Christmas. However, when he spies his mommy “kissing” (use your imagination) Santa Claus, he’s driven insane.
The film then fast-forwards about 40 years to show a sad and unsatisfied man (Brandon Maggart) working at a toy factory. When not at work, he has the peculiar habit of wearing a Santa Claus costume and secretly watching the local children. It’s an odd film, feeling almost like a character study in loneliness for about half of its running time. However, when the killing starts, boy does it ever escalate. Look for Home Improvement‘s Patricia Richardson in an early screen appearance.
‘Tales from the Crypt’… the First Christmas Horror Movie to Feature a Killer Santa
While Christmas Evil might be the first full-length killer Santa movie, 1972’s Tales from the Crypt might feature the first-ever cinematic psycho St. Nick. However, Tales from the Crypt is an anthology film. This means the killer Santa only has a few minutes of screen time.
The segment titled “…And All Through the House” revolves around a weary wife (Joan Collins) who decides to eliminate her oblivious husband (Martin Boddey) on Christmas Eve, cleverly disguising the murder as an accident. However, fate has other plans. An escaped lunatic from a nearby asylum (Oliver MacGreevy) coincidentally chooses that very moment to pay a visit to their home. Of course, he’s picked up a warm, festive red and white suit to spread holiday horror in. The situation grows complex as Collins’s character, a murderer herself, must defend against the assailant instead of seeking police help to avoid exposing her own fresh murder. “…And All Through the House” was adapted again by Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis for the Tales from the Crypt TV series.
‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’
Perhaps the most infamous Christmas horror movie, 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night is the ultimate killer Santa flick. After seeing his parents brutally murdered on Christmas Eve by a man dressed as Santa Claus, young Billy develops a strong fear of both the festive character and the holiday. Over time, Billy’s anxiety grows until one fateful Christmas Eve when he loses his sanity and goes on a rampage, dressing up as Saint Nick himself.
Silent Night, Deadly Night was met with controversy and protests over its imagery of a killer Kris Kringle. However, the film was a success and spawned several sequels. This led to one of the most famous memes around… the “garbage day” moment from Silent Night, Deadly Night 2.
The Ultimate Classic Christmas Horror Movie… ‘Gremlins’
Director Joe Dante followed up his 1981 werewolf masterpiece The Howling with the gold standard of Christmas horror movies. Of course, we’re talking about 1984’s Gremlins.
The film follows an inventor who buys a rare pet called a Mogwai as a gift for his son Billy. However, three crucial rules must be adhered to to ensure the Mogwai’s well-being. Unfortunately, these rules are (instantly!) disregarded, leading to the birth of mischievous gremlins.
Dante’s film is the antidote to typical overly sentimental holiday fare: At times cynical and always darkly hilarious. It’s also slam-packed with memorable scares. The gremlins dress as Christmas carolers to terrorize a miserly elderly woman. One of the green goblins hides in a Christmas tree to pounce on the matriarch of the family. The town curmudgeon (Dick Miller)is attacked by gremlins piloting a snowplow. The local YMCA pool becomes the ultimate source of the ever-multiplying creatures. Gingerbread cookies, stockings, and festive lights contrast the mischief and mayhem the gremlins rain down on a small middle-American town. It’s the template for all horror comedies going forward.
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