The holidays might be the cheeriest time of the year, but that doesn’t mean that fright-flick junkies can’t celebrate the season just as heartily as the Miracle on 34th Street crowd can. Here are the top ten slices of holiday horror that Hollywood has served up to make your Yuletide a little less bright.
10. The Nightmare Before Christmas
It might not be a horror movie at heart, but when it comes to combining the spirit of the season with a healthy dose of the macabre, few films do it better than The Nightmare Before Christmas. Directed by animation guru Henry Selick and produced by Tim Burton, the stop-motion holiday comedy is the story of Jack Skellington, who hails from a land where it’s Halloween all the time.
When Jack makes the surprising discovery that there’s a such thing as Christmas, he decides to play Santa Claus, and thanks to his well-intentioned but Halloween-clouded understanding of what Christmas is all about, much cheery gruesomeness ensues – he delivers one poor child a beautifully wrapped gift box with a shrunken human head inside, he flies through the sky on a sleigh pulled by decomposed skeleton reindeer, and he even inadvertently manages to get the real Santa Claus kidnapped by a sinister creature called the Oogie Boogie.
Featuring some of the most grotesque moments that the Disney film canon has to offer, yet still arriving at a happy ending and moral that manages to swing the film back into Dr. Seuss or Charlie Brown territory, Nightmare has earned its rightful place as a favorite for holiday revelers of the slightly twisted variety.
9. Jack Frost
Released with the delightfully cheesy tagline, “He’s chillin’… and killin!,” this 1996 B-movie classic is a demented take on the familiar tale of Frosty the Snowman. Jack Frost is a fun, goofy, and gory slasher film about a serial killer who transforms into a walking, talking, and mass-murdering snowman, dispensing cringe-worthy, Freddy Krueger-style one-liners as he slays his way through a small town during the Christmas season.
While it’s intentionally funnier than it is frightening, Jack Frost is frequently a blast, with enough creative kills to satisfy slasher fans and a campy sensibility that prevents viewers from taking it too seriously. Fans should also check out the film’s sequel, Jack Frost 2, in which Jack terrorizes a tropical island with the help of his little killer snowball minions.
Director Franck Khalfoun’s horror-thriller P2 centers on an almost unbearably tense game of cat-and-mouse that plays out in a deserted underground parking garage on Christmas Eve. Rachel Nichols plays a corporate employee who leaves the office late the night before Christmas, only to be confronted by a psychotic parking facility attendant whose unhealthy obsession with her quickly takes a turn for the violent.
Wes Bentley, of American Beauty fame, turns in a truly creepy performance as the villain, and the film does a great job of tapping into its audience’s fear of enclosed spaces; P2 is basically a two-character movie, and the body count isn’t very high compared to the usual stalk-and-slash-fest, but Khalfoun uses his location to great effect and the film is seriously frightening almost from start to finish. It’s enough to inspire a very specific New Year’s resolution for its viewers: always park on the street.
7. You Better Watch Out (A.K.A. Christmas Evil)
It doesn’t take a totally twisted mind to see the creepy side of Santa Claus; after all, this is a guy who sneaks undetected into peoples’ houses, scarfs their holiday treats, and leaves nasty gifts for anyone he decides has been acting naughty. The 1980 film Christmas Evil earns its place on this list by exploring the dark side of the Santa Claus persona, as a disturbed and lonely toy factory employee takes Christmas into his own hands – with murderous results.
The film’s main character, Harry, dons a Santa suit, paints a sleigh on the side of his van, and starts working on a “naughty” and “nice” list of his own; soon, he’s both delivering presents to children and killing all the folks he feels have wronged him, living out a sick vision of what Santa Claus is all about. While there’s no lack of slasher films that dress their psycho killers up in Santa suits, You Better Watch Out is somewhat unique in that it plays the material fairly seriously, and it aims for psychological realism moreso than it does cheap, campy scares. That doesn’t quite make the film a classic, but it’s a bit more difficult to shake off than the usual jokey holiday-horror affairs.
Anyone who came of age in the 1980s will surely remember Gremlins, a seemingly kid-friendly blockbuster about a magical pet that, despite its warm-and-fuzzy plot setup, turned out to be one of the most violent PG-rated movies ever made. The film is about a furry creature called a Mogwai that a teenager named Billy (payed by Zach Galligan) receives from his dad for Christmas; while Billy’s Mogwai, which he names Gizmo, is a friendly and charming little fellow, when Gizmo is exposed to water, he spawns a bunch of green-skinned evil Mogwai, and soon all hell breaks loose in Billy’s small town.
Co-produced by Steven Spielberg, Gremlins is an 80s classic loaded with mischief, mayhem, and dark humor, and its hell-raising creatures are just as fun today as they were back when the film was released. While it spawned a lot of inferior imitators and knockoffs, the original is still the best, and its cheery holiday setting makes all its B-movie creature shenanigans stand out even more entertaininglu.
5. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
From a land where reindeer reign comes this recent holiday horror, a Finnish fantasy in which a team of archaeologists uncovers and defrosts the long-frozen supernatural creature that supposedly inspired the Santa Claus legend. Unfortunately, this discovery turns out not to be a particularly merry one, and as mutilated reindeer and kidnapped children begin to pile up, it’s up to a young boy to save the day from the film’s primeval proto-Santa.
Based on a series of internet shorts created by director Jalmari Helander, Rare Exports is a wholly original Christmas movie that combines horror and comedy and offers up everything from beautiful snowbound settings to the horrifying sight of a bunch of naked Santas wandering around. It’s sort of a modern, John Carpenter-inspired variation on the classic Christmas myths of old, and the kind of holiday movie that would probably never get made these days in America.
Perhaps the darkest and most stylish movie on this list, the sci-fi/horror hybrid Hardware envisions a horrifying dystopian future Christmas in which a well-meaning guy gives his significant other what might be the most ill-advised gift in movie history. Dylan McDermott stars as a scavenger in a nuclear-devastated future America who happens across a creepy robot skull in the desert and decides to present it to his artist girlfriend (Stacey Travis) to use for one of her sculpture projects.
Thoughtful as the gesture might be, it doesn’t take long for his Christmas present to start wreaking havoc; turns out, the head used to be part of a military-created killing machine called the Mark-13, and once it’s able to build itself a new body from some spare parts lying around, it goes on a carnage spree that makes The Terminator look positively subtle. Made on a small budget but with terrific production design and some seriously messed-up moments, Hardware is about as far from touchy-feely as a holiday-set movie can get, and it has rightly earned its place as a cult classic for fans of edgy genre movies. If nothing else, it’ll make you feel a whole lot better about the crappy gifts you’ve bought your girlfriend or boyfriend in the past – that sweater may have been ugly, but at least it didn’t disembowel anybody.
3. Silent Night, Bloody Night
Considered one of the earliest examples of the slasher genre, the low-budget 1974 drive-in feature Silent Night, Bloody Night features an atmospheric New England setting, a cast populated by some of Andy Warhol’s regular actors, and a twist ending that still packs a pretty surprising punch. The film revolves around a creepy Massachusetts mansion that was once used as an insane asylum; the site of a horrifying Christmas Eve suicide 20 years earlier, the mansion has fallen into the hands of a young man who plans to sell it to the townspeople so it can be demolished.
First, however, he seeks to discover the mystery behind the cursed house, but when an escaped mental patient takes up residence there and starts murdering people on Christmas Eve, he begins to realize how terrifying the mansion’s secrets really are. Despite the film’s budgetary limitations, it manages to be a pretty solidly creepy Christmas tale, and its eerie soundtrack even makes use of the familiar holiday carol from which it takes its title.
2. Black Christmas
Oddly enough, the bloody 1974 horror filmBlack Christmaswas directed by Bob Clark, the same guy who later directed one of the sweetest and most nostalgic holiday films of all time, 1983′s A Christmas Story. The two films, however, couldn’t be less alike; Black Christmas is a slasher in the classic sense, in which a psychotic serial killer arrives during the Christmas season to terrorize the residents of a sorority house that used to be his childhood home.
Featuring some fairly big-name actors, including Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and 2001 star Keir Dullea, the Canadian-produced film is considered one of the direct predecessors to “holiday”-themed slasher flicks like Halloween and Friday the 13th, and it became a decent-sized hit when it was released in the U.S. Black Christmas, in fact, proved so influential that it was remade in 2006 by former X-Files writer Glen Morgan, who amped up the original film’s gruesomeness and placed more focus on the killer, played in the newer version by Robert Mann. Whichever version you choose, you can’t really go wrong with the combination of sorority girls and psycho killers at Christmastime – in its premise alone, Black Christmas is everything a horror fan could want in a holiday movie.
1. Silent Night, Deadly Night
Not to be confused with the earlier Silent Night, Bloody Night, this 1984 film may not be the most well made of all the holiday horror movies, nor is it likely even the scariest, but there’s no doubt that it’s the most notorious. Protested by parents’ groups and savaged by disgusted film critics when it was released in 1984, Silent Night: Deadly Nightis essentially the definitive serial-killer-in-a-Santa-suit movie, and it was successful enough to spawn no fewer than four sequels.
The film follows a young boy who witnesses his parents murdered by a killer dressed as Santa Claus; years later, when he gains employment as a replacement Santa Claus at a toy store, he snaps at one of his coworkers and, still clad in his St. Nick getup, begins a slaughter spree to punish anyone and everyone on his “naughty” list. Co-starring popular scream queen Linnea Quigley and featuring a plethora of gory kill scenes, Silent Night, Deadly Night is both a memorable Yuletide nightmare and a reminder of just how over-the-top slasher movies used to be. Though it lacks the wit, depth, and style of some of the other films on this list, and it almost seems tame by the standards of today’s much more graphic horror films, it’s a movie that’s still guaranteed to put a little blood red into your White Christmas.