Thanks to modern advertising and marketing campaigns, it feels like the Christmas season starts earlier every year. By the time December rolls around there have already been weeks of goodwill and cheer, tinsel, wrapping, sugar and sweetness artificially shoved into our eyeballs and earholes and down our throats.
These films celebrate the darker side of the winter break and offer an alternative view of the festive season: the horror of being stuck with family you hate, the underbelly of suburbia, the creeping discomfort of supposedly safe institutions being corrupted, and good old-fashioned decking the halls with blood splatter. From the obscure to the bizarre, these are the best Christmas horror movies.
Black Christmas (1974)
An unseen stalker menaces the inhabitants of a sorority house as they prepare to celebrate the festive season, in this 1974 classic. This is one of the earliest entries in what became known as the slasher genre, clearly influencing films like Halloween, utilising the urban legend hallmark of the “call was coming from inside the house”, and depicting the now classic figure of the “Final Girl”, memorably portrayed by Olivia Hussey and pre-Lois Lane Margot Kidder. It's an incredibly suspenseful film with great use of p.o.v camera angles. The director Bob Clark (who has traversed the breadth of festive emotion) would later go on to make the much beloved, and much less bloody, A Christmas Story.
Christmas Evil aka 'You Better Watch Out' (1980)
Christmas Evil marks the first appearance of a killer Santa Claus on this list - a trope that pops up in several Christmas horrors. Traumatised by an early childhood experience of seeing his mum having some downstairs grotto fun with Santa, Harry grows up to be obsessed with the big red guy, decorating his home like a festive wonderland year round and faithfully spying on neighbourhood children in order to assess who is going on the naughty list. As the countdown to the big day approaches Harry's mental state worsens, until he finally dons the red suit and goes on the hunt. The 'Pope of Trash' himself, John Waters, calls this his favourite Christmas film, and it's easy to see why. Full of quirky images, (such as Harry attempting to get down a chimney only to discover that his Santa-aping has gone too far and he's stuck), it also has a surprising amount of psychological sensitivity. As well as an eye getting punctured by a toy soldier. Eww. [Buy it Here]
A classical alternative Christmas pick. Billy's father buys him an adorable cuddly creature from a mysterious Chinatown vendor and relays three rules. 1. Never expose it to sunlight, 2. Never get it wet, 3. Never, ever feed it after midnight. All of which Billy breaks, of course, resulting in a marauding horde of Gremlins running loose, murdering people and tearing up the town. Although ostensibly a cosy family film on the surface, Gremlins has an admirable satirical bent and a strong streak of nastiness tearing through it, enough to give generations of children the gift of horrible nightmares for years to come. [Buy it Here]
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Double killer Santas for your pleasure in this movie – Silent Night also features a St. Nick-related childhood trauma. Five-year-old Billy witnesses the murder of his father and mother by a man dressed as Santa Claus and is subsequently sent with his infant brother to grow up in an orphanage under the repressive and cruel regime of Mother Superior. As he grows up he is haunted by visions of the murders and repressed sexual desires, and his flashbacks begin to get stronger until one evening, working as a toyshop Santa Claus, he snaps completely into murder mode. This has the same bare bones as Christmas Evil, but with all the schlocky elements dialled up to 11. It's hilarious to see the inventiveness of the methods used to kill people, the rampant opportunities taken to show bare breasts at every stage, and Billy's cries of “NAUGHTY” or “PUNISHED” as he delivers fatal blows.
Jack Frost (1997)
Released just one year before the Michael Keaton-starring family film (hopefully causing many subsequent Blockbuster video box mix ups), Jack Frost features a killer snowman on a rampage. A serial killer is on his way to be executed when the van he's in collides with a truck full of “genetic material”, causing him to fuse with the snow on the ground and transmute into a snowman form with super strength, self-liquefying capabilities and a seemingly endless array of festive puns. Unlike the Michael Keaton-starrer, this film knows that there is no gravitas to be found in a man transforming into a sentient bundle of ice, and leans hard into the terribleness, with ridiculously low, low, low budget effects, sub-soap level acting and nonsensical plot.
The Children (2008)
Two families gather in a remote country home to celebrate the festive season when underlying tensions begin to rise to the surface to sully the idyllic holiday. So far, so middling indie drama, but when one of the children contracts a mysterious virus, his behaviour becomes more threateningly sinister and erratic, and the malaise begins to spread to the other children. Scary kids have long been a central feature of horror films – there's something about the corruption of an innocent that is truly frightening. This film preys on that fear to great effect. [Buy it Here]
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
Several slasher films have had killers dressed as Father Christmas but Rare Exports one-ups them by having the actual legend himself as the menacing presence. Pietari and his family are reindeer herders in the Korvatunturi mountains of Finland. When a nearby excavation unearths a massive burial mound, reindeer are found slaughtered and children begin to disappear, and a menacing old man is captured. Pietari believes he knows the true identity of the entity behind it all. This is an oddball, dark creepy fairytale of a film, a welcome salty liquorice antidote to the saccharinity of the jolly rotund Coca-Cola advertising figure. [Buy it Here]
In ancient European folklore, Krampus is the horned, cloven-hoofed being who is the inverse St Nicholas – he punishes children who have been naughty by beating them with switches and wrapping them in chains to drag them to hell. Krampus finds young Max invested in the festive spirit until his dysfunctional extended family arrive and the holiday descends into petty squabbling and sniping. He ends up disillusioned and cursing the holiday – bringing down the wrath of Krampus in various inventive, comical and creepy ways. Director Michael Dougherty brings the same subversive, offbeat tone to Krampus as he did in his Halloween film Trick 'r Treat. Just enough nastiness to temper the Christmas cookie sweetness.