Snow covered trees, roaring fires, festive lights and decorations, presents piled as high as small children: these are all sure signs of Christmas. But a little brutality can also signal the season just as well. After all, Black Friday shopping is frequently a bloodbath, and trying to make sure you find that perfect gift before someone snatches it out from under you is just as terrifying and tense as any hostage crisis.
So, in celebration of the release of the new movie Krampus, we’re going to ring in the season with ten films all about bloody violence, murderous kids, horrific monsters and the end of the world as we know it. Here are the 10 Best Christmas Horror Movies of All Time.
Black Christmas (1974)
In 1974, Canadian maverick Bob Clark gave us the Slasher film wrapped tightly with care. Black Christmas follows the murder of sorority sisters (including Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin and the perfect Olivia Hussey) preparing to leave school for Christmas break. The perfect time, it turns out, for one of them to be abducted by the serial killer hiding in the attic. It takes hours before anyone notices she never made it home. Relying on the power of the killer’s awful voice as he makes a series of obscene phone calls (one of the great devices in horror cinema), Black Christmas lets horror blanket the sorority house and the surrounding campus like an ever-worsening snowfall.
Black Christmas introduced the English-speaking world to the tropes of the slasher film four years before John Carpenter’s Halloween set them in stone. The 2006 remake, though gorier and nastier, is also worth a look.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Christmas and camp classic both, Silent Night, Deadly Night was one of a hundred films in the ’80s that got the Catholic church up in arms. But unlike The Last Temptation of Christ, this movie didn’t have a brain in its head, just a wonderfully blunt idea for its villain.
Robert Brian Wilson plays Billy, who watched his mom and dad shot and stabbed by a man in a Santa costume as a child. This has done a number on him psychologically, as you might imagine. When he’s given the unenviable task of dressing up as Santa at work, he snaps, grabs an ax and goes on a killing spree. The images in the movie and all over its advertising campaign of a blood-smeared Santa with an ax sent America’s moral authoritarians into hysterics and the film was almost buried completely. But it lives on as a potent symbol of the flip side of holiday cheer (if not a terribly good movie).
The first sequel made our list of the worst Christmas movies, while the second sequel (of four), Better Watch Out, is a pretty bonkers movie in its own right.
Christmas Evil (1980)
Silent Night, Deadly Night was far from the first film to pit a lunatic in a Santa suit against small town America. Christmas Evil, a much better take on the idea, pits a lonely man with a troubled, near-Freudian relationship to Christmas against the less cheery bunch he lives and works with. Christmas Evil’s Harry (Brandon Maggart) is much more like your traditional American serial killer; lonely, schlubby, and filled with easily shattered dreams. He looks like the middle aged bachelor next door, who frequently dons the community Santa suit for the sake of the kids.
It’s not hard to see why Christmas Evil developed a little cult following – it looks and feels like the depressed small town America many of us remember from our childhood, and when it takes a turn for the berserk, it feels all too possible.
The Christmas Tale (2005)
Paco Plaza, better known for the [rec] films, broke through with a chapter in a series of TV movies produced by the legendary Narciso Ibáñez Serrador. Movies To Keep You Awake was a series first unleashed in the 1980s, and the updates kept the spirit of the 80s alive with its mix of nostalgia and horror.
The Christmas Tale, Plaza’s entry, is a morbid spin on Stand By Me. Four little boys and one little girl find a woman in a bloody Santa suit stuck in a hole in the woods. They’re about to help her out when they discover that she’s a wanted criminal with two million dollars in a bag. Things grow more complicated when she breaks free and grabs an ax.
A delightful little horror comedy with oodles of nostalgic ’80s charm, Plaza brings as much heart as grotesquerie to his tale of a warped Christmas holiday.
Rare Exports (2010)
And while we’re on the subject of children, Finnish writer/director Jalmari Helander has the sensibility of a child sent through time from 1988 and into the 2010s to make movies from the VHS heyday. His latest, Big Game, is like a phantom collaboration between Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and the schlocky Cannon Group.
His debut, the excellent, low-key Rare Exports follows a kid (Onni Tommila) caught in the middle of a grizzly mystery. His father and some other guys have found what they think is Santa Claus, a bizarre, gnarled elf wreaking havoc in their small town. This freaks them out sufficiently until it occurs to them that it might not be Santa at all and reinforcements might be on the way. Low-key and kinda cute, Rare Exports is the perfect Christmas film for the budding horror fan in your family.
Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Kids are the center of holiday films for a few obvious reasons, but chiefly because they’re the most susceptible to believe in the impossible. Curse of the Cat People, a semi-sequel to the monumental classic Cat People, follows a married couple whose daughter (Ann Carter) is haunted by a spirit. That spirit (the radiant Simone Simon) happens to the be the father’s former girlfriend. This unearthly angel tempts the little girl into drifting away from her parents, seizing on every minor conflagration during the Christmas season as reason to listen to a phantom and seek shelter outside of the home.
Curse of the Cat People is an unspeakably lovely movie, honest and sensitive about the psychology of children and the burdens of family.
Joe Dante, heir to the throne of Warner Bros. animation greats Frank Tashlin, Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, fleshed out his goofy, gory aesthetic in the Steven Spielberg-produced, Chris Columbus-penned Gremlins. An inventor (country great Hoyt Axton) buys his son (Zach Galligan) an odd little critter in a Chinatown junk shop who has a host of secrets up its adorable sleeve.
Gremlins is a gleefully nasty pop-culture Christmas movie, with a new loving reference around every corner of the backlot town where it unfolds. Dante’s creatures are class clowns, sneering at seriousness and the sanctity of holidays and good cheer. Little Bugs Bunnies with razor sharp teeth, the Gremlins are agents of chaos as learned from years of cartoons and movies. Gremlins may not be a family-friendly classic, but they’re the perfect riposte to a culture who believes there’s a war on Christmas.
The Children (2008)
Anyone who’s ever suffered through a tense Christmas with relatives on opposite sides of the political spectrum will find The Children eerily familiar. Hannah Tointon plays a teen girl who can’t stand her family. Bickering parents, a pervy uncle, and a pack of screaming younger kids all seem to be conspiring to make sure her Christmas in the country is the most miserable she’s ever suffered through. But when those kids come down with the same odd disease, things get even worse. The kids have a far off look in their eye, pallid complexions, and they can’t stop killing everyone.
A merciless little shocker with a black heart, The Children is the Christmas film parents probably won’t admit to sympathizing with.
El Día De La Bestia (1995)
Álex de la Iglesia is Spain’s favorite heretic, a trickster with a penchant for pointing machine guns at symbols of righteousness and purity. El Día de la Bestia, his breakthrough, is the most metal Christmas movie ever made.
A priest (Álex Angulo) discovers that the end of the world is going to come on Christmas day unless he can make the devil manifest itself before him. His plan? Commit as many sins as possible so that he can let the devil know he wants to sell his soul. Once in the Prince of Darkness’s presence, he can kill the Antichrist as it’s being born, as an ancient code foretells. Iglesia shoots his Lovecraftian tale of anicent evils with a splendidly anarchic fervor, creating unforgettable images of violence and cruelty. But even in this story of heedless hedonism, there’s still a twinge of hope, love and selflessness.
Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)
The strangest Christmas movie on this list by a country mile, Silent Night, Bloody Night has a cast full of Andy Warhol superstars and a mean streak a mile long. Opening with a man burning alive, a murder by monkey wrench and a dog getting stabbed to death in pretty rapid succession, this film would seem to be a pretty straight forward horror film. But it takes a turn for the dream-like in its third act flashback.
A lawyer (Patrick O’Neal) comes to an old town to deal with an inheritance case and winds up staying at a kind of haunted house owned by his client. Spooky and a little off-kilter in the early going, it gets supremely moody and gorgeous when it turns into a history of the house in question, which used to be an asylum. It’s strange and lowkey but this curio is worth digging up, if only to see Warhol Factory members like Mary Woronov, Jack Smith, Ondine and Candy Darling acting relatively normal.
What’s your favorite gory way to celebrate the holiday spirit? What’s your favorite blood covered Santa? Any guilty pleasures of holiday murder you like to bring out in December?