The term “holiday film” is usually mentioned in conjunction with the Christmas season, and it invokes thoughts of It’s a Wonderful Life and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But horror lovers don’t buy into that exclusionary line of thought. They see murderers in Santa Claus suits, and they know the 25th of December is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the festive spirit.
In honor of all you fright film fans, who cannot allow a month to go by without celebrating, we’ve put together our list of Horror Movies For Every Major Holiday. For the purposes of this article, we’re sticking with all the commonly shared holidays we can think of as well as days that are officially recognized, so our apologies in advance to fans of Friday the 13th and Bloody Birthday. Also, the list is not comprehensive; rather it’s a best-of wherein we find the quintessential film(s) that apply to the holidays in question. So that means no Memorial Day or Santa’s Slay. Sorry, Goldberg fans.
New Year’s Evil is actually a pretty clever film in concept. The hook is that an anonymous caller has murder in mind, and he wants the host of a punk rock television broadcast to know it. He places a call with a chilling warning: as the New Year rolls over in each of the country’s four time zones, there will be a correlating murder to go along with it. The last victim — the host herself. Dun dun dun.
Unfortunately, it’s not very clever beyond that and the murder set-pieces are pretty uninspired, as is the mystery behind the killer’s identity. We would have to give the killer props on his creepy mask, but even that is undermined by the fact that you only see it for a brief period of time at the film’s conclusion. The vast majority of the film fails to build suspense, and it’s just “there.” It is a fun opportunity to see Roz Kelly outside of her Happy Days/“Pinky” Tuscadero role, though.
Let’s forget about the remake for a moment, and remember what a truly great slasher flick the original My Bloody Valentine is. The miner costume and the dark confines of the mine itself make for a great horror movie setting, and even though censors at the time ripped director George Mihalka’s film to shreds upon initial release, it was still thoroughly watchable.
The unrated director’s cut finally saw the light of day a few years ago, and ever since then, MBV has been cemented for us as not only one of the best holiday horror movies ever made, but one of the best of its kind, and certainly in the top five when compared to the glut of slashers that cropped up post-Halloween. Seriously, everyone, you have got to get your hands on the unrated version. There are some gore set-pieces that would make the “Godfather of Gore” himself, Tom Savini, proud.
Okay, so this one is a bit of a cheat, but it still deserves a mention. Presidents' Day doesn’t get enough love from the horror movie world, so the fact director Timur Bekmambetov would see fit to give us a horror film with America’s greatest President at the heart of it is too juicy to pass up.
Based on the hit Seth Grahame-Smith novel — who wrote the screenplay as well — the story centers on the “real” story behind that awesome guy who abolished slavery. Apparently, bigotry and hatred were not the only things he was warring against at the time. It turns out that dear old number 16 moonlighted as a professional vampire asskicker. Benjamin Walker is terrific in the lead role, and the vampires are far creepier than the hokey title would suggest, though some of the CGI mayhem does get a little tiring towards the end. The only caveat to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is that we do, to some degree, doubt its historical accuracy.
Was there ever any other choice for St. Patty's? The original Leprechaun series isn’t Shakespeare by any means, but it does contain a great deal of fun. The first film — written and directed by Mark Jones, who crafted a handful of other low-budget shockers afterward — does a good job of building suspense before the murderous little guy, played by Warwick Davis, shows up to flush the rest of the film down the toilet. The original is also noteworthy because it stars a pre-Friends Jennifer Aniston.
Leprechaun was followed by five sequels, most of which went direct-to-video. As the films grew more ridiculous, they also became a lot more fun, thanks in part to titles like Leprechaun 4: In Space, Leprechaun in the Hood, and Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood. Unfortunately, WWE Films got ahold of it in 2014 and attempted a more suspenseful reboot, where the Leprechaun (played by wrestler Hornswoggle) gets zero speaking lines and zero personality.
Released a full six years after Halloween and Friday the 13th opened the floodgates on the ‘80s slasher craze, April Fool’s Day, on the surface, appears to be much of the same. However, this one stands out for a twist that, we can assure you, no one saw coming, but probably should have at the time of its release. The plot is very similar to films that would come before and after, with a past tragedy that links a group of friends together sitting at the center of the highly underrated film's core. During an April Fool’s Day retreat, a maniacal killer starts offing them one-by-one. How is it all connected?
April Fool’s Day borrows from Friday the 13th in more ways than one. It also saves as its “final girl” the final girl from the underrated horror sequel, Friday the 13th Part 2. Yes, that’s Amy Steele, the very first teenager to take on psycho Jason Voorhees, outmaneuvering another killer. Both flicks are credits to her resume.
Shortly after the release of Se7en, a glut of demented serial killer movies cropped up on both the big screen and the home video market. One of the best was a little-seen 1999 thriller starring Christopher Lambert as a cop chasing a killer, who is putting together a grotesque body of Christ with each new victim. Resurrection is slick, brutal, and joyless, but it also manages to build a lot of suspense on the way to a memorable rooftop finale.
While Saw usually gets the wrap for the rise of “torture porn,” it’s pretty safe to say that it owed a debt of gratitude (?) to both this and its Brad Pitt/Morgan Freeman-starring predecessor. Resurrection is a little harder to find these days if you stream or VOD all your movies, but you can still pick up the DVD pretty cheap. Warning, though: we’re not saying it’s better than Se7en or Saw (in fact, it definitely isn't), but it is every bit as twisted and demented, and it’s perfect for Easter for obvious reasons -- unless you’re religious.
Don’t confuse this one for the toothless remake-in-name-only starring Rebecca DeMornay from 2012. The 1980 original is what a movie about a killer old lady should be like: hideous taste, graphic violence and humiliation, and overacting the likes of which you’ve never seen before. A demented old lady has raised two psycho killers on her own, and a group of female friends are unlucky enough to come across them somewhere in rural America.
What we love about Mother’s Day is that it has a darkly twisted sense of humor that never really obscures the fact that you’re watching a horror film. Could the talents have been more “polished”? Absolutely. But the 2012 remake is proof that you lose a lot when that happens. In other words, if we had to pick one “Mother” to be afraid of, we would go with Beatrice Pons — the original’s lead baddie — over DeMornay in a heartbeat.
Indulge us once more, good reader. There aren’t many cheats on this list and the ones that are aren’t really over-the-top guilty. Jacob’s Ladder may not seem like a holiday horror film, but when you examine what the film is about, it really becomes a prime candidate for Memorial Day (and/or Veterans Day) as a “salute” of sorts to combat veterans everywhere.
Tim Robbins stars as a man mourning the loss of his child. He is a Vietnam War veteran, who has seen more than enough hell for three lifetimes, and to make matters worse, he now believes something has followed him home from the war and is stalking his every move. In reality, he suffers from a severe case of dissociation and is having a tougher time separating the real from the unreal, the supernatural from delusion.
Jacob’s Ladder isn’t just a solid horror film, but a solid film, period. It speaks to the struggles of veterans in a way that few other films are capable of doing within the horror genre. It’s upsetting, suspenseful, and poignant stuff.
Yes, we’re well aware of the 2011 horror-comedy Father’s Day, but that film was a bit of a mess, so if we had to sit down with dear ol’ Dad and watch a good horror flick on the day in his honor, it would be the Terry O’Quinn-Jill Schoelen classic The Stepfather.
As America’s nuclear family started to break down throughout the 1980s, there were more concerns over second families and the clash of unknowns a child had to face when confronted with a new parent. Director Joseph Ruben was able to get superb performances out of his entire cast, but at the top of that list was O’Quinn, who did so well switching back and forth from all-American family man to psycho killer that, for several years thereafter, the role sort of became him. The Stepfather remains his finest work, at least in a starring role, and it holds up as a horror movie 30 years later thanks to those efforts.
Director William Lustig (Maniac Cop) ventured into the world of holiday horrors by choosing Independence Day as his setting of preference, and what better way to celebrate the Fourth of July — especially after this election season — than to fire up Uncle Sam?
If you are going to base a horror film around July 4th, there really isn’t a better way to go about it than this. A Desert War casualty returns from the grave to slaughter anyone in his community that he deems unpatriotic. He is brought back to life after some jerk-off teens burn a flag on his grave.
It all works well because Lustig and screenwriter Larry Cohen know exactly what type of movie this has to be, lacing in black humor with some inventive kills and a unique-looking killer (to say the least). Uncle Sam is now an annual favorite for us, and given the current state of American politics, we can only see it becoming more endearing.
Severance is the quintessential Labor Day horror film, with victims that include a group of salesmen on a work retreat in the mountains of Eastern Europe. Marketed as a mix between Office Space and Friday the 13th, director Christopher Smith blends enough laughter and gore to deserve that comparison, and screenwriter James Moran — adapting from his own story — turns in some really smart dialogue.
The setups are all suspenseful enough to make you temporarily forget the film’s more satiric elements, but Smith uses the connective tissue to say a lot about the nature of work and the toll that it takes on an employee. Plus, it’s damn funny and it has a fine cast in Toby Stephens, Claudie Blakley, and Danny Dyer, to name a few. If you’ve ever had to put your nose to the grindstone, you’re going to relate to both hunter and prey at some point in the film’s 96 minutes.
What the hell is this doing here, you may be asking. Well, have you ever heard of a little holiday known as Arbor Day? That’s right, film fans, we went there! The Happening may not technically take place on said day, but when you have a film about killer trees, how can you not include it?
Of course, the hard truth is that this is the M. Night Shyamalan film that film historians will point to when looking at his career and making the case that you have to hit rock bottom before you can get any better. Shyamalan’s output since The Happening, while not stellar, has improved, but it took this idiotic misfire to get there. In all seriousness, we would only suggest watching The Happening if you’re a holiday horror completist or hopelessly in love with Zooey Deschanel.
The plot centers on a science teacher who is trying to fight back against a plague that induces suicide in the infected. You’ll empathize with them by the end of it.
Halloween — the holiday — and horror movies go hand-in-hand, so we’re not going to stop with just one here, but we are going to recommend the 1978 Halloween as essential viewing for Oct. 31.
What made John Carpenter’s original work so well, is that we had no idea why the killer was doing what he was doing. The sequels screwed all of that up for us, but if you can go back and pretend they don’t exist and just watch this flick for what it is, you’ll see how bleeping good it is and how well it holds up in spite of lacking buckets of blood and body parts.
Of course, the simple yet effective musical score still deserves a lot of the credit, but so do Carpenter’s camera angles, his use of sound, and his penchant for milking every little bit of suspense out of a scene before slashing at us with the payoff.
Halloween selection number two is this classic made-for-television film from director Frank de Felitta and writer J.D. Feigelson, who admitted in a Fangoria interview a few years ago that literary great Ray Bradbury advised him on the story. It shows in the way Feigelson’s characters and setting sort of mesh with Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. They're kind of spirit animals, you might say.
The plot is revenge-based, EC Comics stuff, centering on a group of small-town bullies who murder a mentally challenged man (the phenomenal Larry Drake) based on a misunderstanding over an injured little girl. The man, Bubba, saved her life, but before she could recuperate enough to tell authorities, the men — led by a lecherous Charles Durning — track Bubba down to a field where he’s hiding inside the scarecrow suit and pump him full of lead.
Fast forward to Halloween: the men, now fully aware of their guilt, begin to see the scarecrow stalking them. With great atmosphere and an even greater twist ending, we simply cannot say enough positive things about this movie.
For those of you who need a little more blood and gore in your horror films, Trick ‘R Treat is a worthy addition to the Halloween pantheon. One of the best anthology films since Creepshow, it weaves a total of four horror stories together with one wraparound story, all taking place on Halloween night with killers, monsters, and more.
The cast and production values on this one are really strong, with standouts like Anna Paquin (True Blood), Brian Cox (the original Hannibal Lecktor in Michael Mann’s Manhunter), and Leslie Bibb (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) making memorable marks.
As good as Trick ‘R Treat turned out, it had something of a troubled distribution history. Shot and finished in 2007, it played circuits for a couple of years before filmmaker Michael Dougherty finally gave up on hopes of a wide theatrical release and put it out on home video in 2009. From there, it caught on with audiences, receiving a “Fresh” rating through Rotten Tomatoes and spawning a number of comic adaptations and action figures.
Thanksgiving is a hard holiday to endure when it comes to watching horror films. There simply isn’t much to choose from. Sure, you could try Home Sweet Home featuring Body by Jake as a homicidal maniac, but it’s a pretty lousy flick. Your best bet is the low-budget (but notoriously brutal) slasher film, Blood Rage.
Arrow Video recently released this one uncensored on Blu-ray after it sat in limbo for a couple of decades. The story follows a pair of identical twins, one of whom commits murder while a juvenile. Years later, he gets out, but there is some question as to which of the two was the real killer. Coinciding with his release and the Thanksgiving holiday, a series of gory murders ensue.
Note: if Eli Roth ever gets around to turning his Grindhouse short Thanksgiving into a feature, we’ll be happy to swap it in for this film. Until he does so, Blood Rage will have to do.
The late great David Hess (Last House on the Left) was the mind behind this forgotten gem, which predates Silent Night, Deadly Night by four years as a Killer Santa movie. The plot centers on a group of teenagers, who are systematically targeted and dispatched by a homicidal St. Nick.
Spoiler alert: it’s not really St. Nick (he would never), but someone close to them in costume. The film can drag a bit at times, but the last half-hour or so is pretty fun stuff. The killer is actually a lot creepier without the costume, too, so there’s no real feeling of letdown when the truth comes out, however predictable it might be.
Hess was the lurid villain in Last House, but he stays behind the camera here, so if you’re hoping for a cameo, you’re out of luck. We would also be remiss not to mention the beautiful Jennifer Runyon, who plays our “final girl.” Seek it out. There’s finally a Blu-ray.
What Silent Night, Deadly Night lacks in production values and good taste, it sure makes up for with a festive atmosphere, inventive kills, and go-for-the-throat violence. Upon its original release in 1984, it drove significant outcry from parents groups and became the target of a now-famous thumbs-down review from Siskel & Ebert.
All that only adds to the film’s charm, however, as it proved to be an undeniable success, as evidenced by the sequels, remake, and longevity. The film centers on Billy Chapman, who, at five years of age, witnesses the sexual assault of his mother and brutal murders of both parents. He and his little brother — an infant at the time — are raised in a Catholic orphanage by an abusive nun. This all sets the stage for a murder spree on Christmas Eve when Billy turns 18 and leaves the orphanage, still having not dealt with the horrific events of his past.
What really pissed off parents at the time was that Billy does all of this while wearing a Santa suit. He was hardly the first or the last to kill people while doing so, but he remains the most memorable.
Black Christmas and Halloween — the originals, not either of their remakes — would make for the quintessential horror double feature if you wanted to scratch that festive scary movie itch at the same time. They are great companion pieces, and you can tell that John Carpenter learned a lot from Black Christmas director Bob Clark when it comes to using the holiday setting as an effective backdrop for horror.
Both focus on maniacs randomly targeting a set of victims. Both are confined, for the most part, to a single house and limited external settings. Neither director feels the need to bombard you with over-the-top violence, nor do they feel the obnoxious obligation to explain why the killers are doing what they’re doing, and both killers are creepy as hell in different ways. Michael is an emotionless mask, while the Caller from Black Christmas is just unrestrained insanity, whose voice alone will haunt you for days after viewing.
So mark your calendars, horror fans. You no longer have an excuse not to celebrate. What are your favorites on this list, and which flicks (and their holidays) should have been included? Sound off in the comments section!