Horror films are chock-full of familiar faces, themes, monsters, murderers, locations, directors, effects designers and the like, many of which reappear multiple times across cinema history. By approaching these figures and topics from a different angle, curious viewers can break the occasionally stale boundaries of a single genre to uncover new, unexpected fringes of horror. Pay attention, class — this is Macabre 101
By Phil Lindeman
Subject: Holiday horror films, particularly of the Christmas variety
Before the rise of Netflix and instant streaming, one of my favorite activities was perusing the dregs of the horror aisle at my local Hollywood Video. I loved checking out the VHS covers, particularly those that were surely more frightening than the schlocky films inside.
Like ominous snowflakes, a handful of holiday-themed horror flicks always sat untouched on those cheap, black-plastic shelves. As you might imagine, these films were usually utter shit – I spent a good chunk of money finding out firsthand – but the covers never failed to make me chuckle deviously. I mean, what kind of young, impressionable kid wouldn’t be hooked by a blood-drenched snowman or ax-wielding Santa Claus?
Suffice to say, I led a charming childhood, and those heartwarming memories sparked my interest in gory, cheesy and legitimately scary ho-ho-horror films. The Macabre 101 cheat sheet to yuletide murder and mayhem is like a visit from the Ghost Of Video Rental Stores Past: It’s a quick glimpse at the strange, strange underbelly of the horror genre, which often thrives on shameless derivation and heavy doses of camp. These films each offer a twisted version of cheer that’s rightfully absent from family-friendly holiday specials.
A note on the list: With the exception of a few films I just couldn’t leave out, I shied away from those in the vein of Die Hard. Hanging a few Christmas lights and playing “Jingle Bells” won’t cut it – holiday figures and folklore all play a major role in the overall narrative.
Black Christmas (1974)
Before pulpy horror tropes existed, the slow-burning Canadian flick Black Christmas delved deep into the B-movie well: pretty sorority girls, shadowy serial killers, mysterious phone calls, dimly lit suburban homes, inept policeman. Set during a snow-covered holiday party, a group of young co-eds is terrorized by a series of unknown phone calls. The ill-fated ladies begin to disappear soon after, and paranoia runs rampant as the bodies pile up. Horror doesn’t get simpler than that.
Beyond the bare-bones plot, Black Christmas is a microcosm of the quasi-progressive themes found in many ‘70s indie films, from feminism to abortion to alcoholism. Set aside highfalutin analysis, though, and you have a moody, entertaining whodunit with atmosphere heavier than regifted fruitcake. The film is also an overlooked watershed: Released four years before James Carpenter’s Halloween, it’s widely credited as one of the first slashers, with more than a few memorable (if relatively tame) kills and a squad of future horror staples, including John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Margot Kidder (The Amityville Horror).
Black Christmas (2006)
Oh, the sad, soul-sucking hell of a horror-film remake. This 2006 dud takes the basics of its ‘70s counterpart – girls, gore, Christmas – and removes every ounce of atmosphere, leaving only a few uninspired deaths and nary a moment of suspense.
Writer/director Glen Morgan (the scribe behind Final Destination) also injects the original’s fittingly sparse plot with unnecessary backstory: A lesser Michael Myers returns to his childhood home – now a sorority house – years after killing his abusive mother and stepfather on (surprise!) Christmas. It’s essentially the same approach Rob Zombie took with his 2007 remake of Halloween, but without Zombie’s trademark brutality and madhouse aesthetic, Black Christmas devolves into a tired, hackneyed, boring mess. A never-ending sermon at midnight mass is more titillating.
Santa’s Slay (2005)
In the spirit of modern-day B-movies, Santa’s Slay takes campy horror to the utmost extreme by riffing recklessly off everything Christians hold dear during the holidays. Within the first 10 minutes, Santa Claus (played with gleeful abandon by former WWE wrestler Bill Goldberg) murders an entire family with weapons culled from their cozy Christmas dinner, from eggnog to turkey legs to steak knives. The kicker? This ill-fated brood is played by Jewish actors, including James Caan, Fran Drescher and Chris Kattan.
The remainder of the film hardly lives up to the delirious clusterfuck of that opening scene – honestly, what could? – but Goldberg proves more than capable in a role that’s heavy on ridiculousness. As usual with horror/humor hybrids, a plot gets in the way of the fun. Things slow down considerably with the introduction of a well-meaning teenager, the ridiculously named Nicholas Yuleson. Little Nic’s crazed grandfather convinces him that Santa is a hellspawn with an eons-old vendetta against mankind, not to mention a fetish for killing people hilariously (albeit bloodlessly).
Tongue-in-cheek Satanism and jabs at every religion keep the film chugging forward, as Santa stabs Jews with Menorahs and leads a demonic “reindeer” (more like freaky white buffalo thing) on a joyous rampage through strip clubs and hockey rinks. Canadian writer/director David Steiman (former assistant to Red Dragon director Brett Ratner, who also produced) runs rampant by transporting his nation’s stereotypes to a backwoods American town, and in one of the most ludicrous details, Santa is sentenced to 1,000 years of good deeds after losing a curling match to an angel.
Is Santa’s Slay art? Hell no. But it’s fulfilling in the same way as cheap eggnog: quick, delicious and infinitely better with a healthy dose of booze.
(On a side note, “Santa’s Slay” is strikingly similar to “Christmas Slay,” the name of an exploitation flick that’s mentioned but hardly seen in Ernest Saves Christmas, a bona fide holiday classic available in full on YouTube. Although the two are wildly different – the Ernest version involves aliens and shotguns – I imagine they’d rival each other for sheer lunacy.)
Rare Exports (2010)
Rare Exports, an intriguing and singularly bizarre offering from the barrens of Finland, re-imagines Santa Claus as an ancient and vengeful force, albeit in a darker, more moody way than Santa’s Slay. After being locked in the snow for millenia (shades of Robot Santa from Futurama?), a wiry and malnourished St. Nic is awakened by American scientists on Christmas Eve and begins terrorizing the locals. From there, things only get more unhinged, with hordes of creepy elves and a shotgun-toting child who makes Ralphie from A Christmas Story seem utterly harmless.
First-time director Jalmari Helander guides the film with an eye for disturbing imagery and a pitch-black sense of humor, all while juggling multiple influences and genres. Think The Evil Dead meets Bad Santa meets Gremlins, and you have an idea of the film’s sheer inventiveness. If you’re averse to seeing full-frontal nudity from old, white-bearded men, take a pass.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Never underestimate the power of provocation. Silent Night, Deadly Night is little more than a mildly entertaining slasher, but by dressing a serial killer as Santa Claus, it drew vitriol from Christian fundamentalists and subsequent adoration from cult-film fanatics.
In a strange and twisted take on Batman’s origin story, a young boy named Billy witnesses an armed robber clad in a Santa suit murder his parents. He and his brother are sent to live in a Catholic orphanage, where Billy’s fear of jolly ol’ St. Nic and Christmas at large is reinforced by an abusive nun, Mother Superior. At 18 years old, he leaves the orphanage and takes a job at that hotbed of ‘80s culture, the mall, until a leering co-worker awakens Billy’s homicidal tendencies. The occasionally inspired script ekes surprising mileage from the ages-old “naughty or nice” dichotomy, showing just how creepy it is for adults to threaten small children with punishment during the holidays.
It’s easy to see why Deadly Night stirred up controversy, even in a decade known for delightfully tasteless horror films. Along with loads of laughable kills – one character is strangled to death with a string of multi-colored lights – it pokes fun at sexual repression, Catholic guilt and holiday materialism. Take that, Charlie Brown.
Although it bungles most of those weighty themes, promises of cheap exploitation attracted audiences in droves, and during the film’s opening days, it managed to outperform A Nightmare on Elm Street until Deadly Night was pulled from theaters after less than a week. Even today, it’s rare on DVD (copies on Amazon sell for upwards of $50). A 2012 remake – simply titled Silent Night – is readily available and stars Malcolm McDowell, who has made a late-career killing in the remake business.
Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987)
Silent Night, Deadly Night spawned four sequels in five years, but its immediate follow-up is by far the best. Of course, “best” doesn’t imply that it’s actually good. By 1987, the novelty of a serial killer dressed as Santa Claus had worn off, and it quietly entered theaters with hardly any opposition. Whether that’s a win for anti-censorship advocates or a comment on the decline of society is up in the air.
Anyway, Part 2 follows Ricky, the younger sibling of Billy, as Ricky awaits trial in an insane asylum for a series of yuletide murders. A psychologist asks Ricky to recount the story of his killing spree, which was sparked by his girlfriend’s nasty ex (again with the sexual overtones) and spread to everyone in a sleepy, snow-covered town. Ricky indulges the doctor, all while plotting his escape and revenge for his brother’s mistreatment.
The film will likely disappoint slasher fans – most of the killing is done with a boring handgun – and the all-important Santa get-up doesn’t appear until the final few minutes. Even though the script has fun with flashbacks and timelines, it’s woefully uninspired in every other way, recycling an inordinate number of scenes from the original to pad out an already lean 88 minutes. Fans of the series may be satisfied to see the abusive Mother Superior return, but for everyone else, it’s a lackluster footnote to an interesting moment in horror-film history. Luckily, it usually comes packed with the original on DVD, so completists won’t need to spend time tracking it down.
Christmas Evil (1980)
Like mistletoe and presents for pretty girls, sexual deviancy seems hardwired into Christmas. Atheists and Lutherans blame the Catholic Church – looks like little boys are actually getting all the presents – while others blame horror obscurities like Christmas Evil (alternately known as You Better Watch Out). Released four years before Silent Night, Deadly Night, it also features a man driven to murder by tragic memories of St. Nic – specifically, an R-rated version of the foreplay described in “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Harry, the scarred youngster, grows up to work at a toy factory and soon becomes convinced he’s Santa Claus. Of course, this means building a handy “naughty or nice” list, which in turn leads to making toys, delivering said toys and committing murder.
If it sounds an awful lot like the more popular Silent Night, Deadly Night, you’re right – the major plot points are there, right down to a killer who dresses as Santa. Why, then, did this film fly under the radar? It comes down to the economics of blood and box office. It saw a very limited release in 1980 and, for all its inherent creepiness, is woefully light on gore. With the exception of a few stock hatchet murders, Harry as Santa spends a lot of time smashing miniature figurines and feigning shock at Penthouse pin-ups – not exactly a recipe for slasher success.
Yet the same qualities that made Christmas Evil a controversy-free dud are the same that now make it a more compelling – although slightly less gory – film than its 1984 counterpart. Harry is an extremely bizarre character: middle-aged yet childlike, gentle yet threatening. Childhood sexual trauma made him more obsessed with Christmas, not less, and the makeshift toy factory in his basement is wonderfully creepy. As played by Brandon Maggart (a respected Broadway actor), Harry’s delusions are hardly Oscar-worthy, but they’re admirably more nuanced than those of most ‘80s slasher villains. Christmas Evil is a rare instance of good acting brought down by underwhelming mayhem.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
The Nightmare Before Christmas isn’t a horror film per se, but Tim Burton’s cultishly adored feature delivers on its title in the most satisfying way possible – a feat most films fail at miserably.
For the dozen or so people who haven’t seen Nightmare, Burton imagines a world where each holiday has its own town, populated by creatures that are blissfully ignorant of everything else. Their respective holidays are the end all, be all, and the entire year is spent preparing for one day of celebration. In Halloween Town, Pumpkin King Jack Skellington suffers from a major case of ennui until he discovers the portal leading to Christmas Town. Like a child on Dec. 25, the twinkling lights and shimmering snow intrigue him, and the good-natured king tries to literally and figuratively capture the spirit of a holiday he doesn’t quite comprehend.
Written by Burton and directed by animation genius Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Coraline), Nightmare is a celebration of all things quirky and misunderstood. Burton’s obsession with outsiders and goth imagery has devolved into self-parody over time, but here, every frame displays unhinged creativity. The various worlds pulsate with life – Oogie Boogie’s lair, a nightmarish casino filled with booby-trapped slot machines and neon-hued skeletons, is absolutely surreal – and Danny Elfman’s rousing tunes are eerie additions to the holiday-music canon. (I still know all the words to “This Is Halloween.”) The film even finds legitimate terror in Jack’s misguided attempt to deliver presents on Christmas Eve, although it results in an ending that’s almost too black-and-white morally. Either way, Nightmare was destined to be a cult hit from the day it opened, and rightfully so.
For those who like to indulge, watch the film in sync to the Dredg album “El Cielo.” Trust me.
Jack Frost (1996)
Not to be confused with the treacly 1998 Michael Keaton film, Jack Frost is raunchier and funnier than its heartwarming doppelganger. The low-budget horror-comedy begins with a serial killer, Jack Frost (duh), as the armored truck he’s in collides with a truck porting radioactive material – arguably a better way of bringing snow to life than bullshit like Frosty’s magic hat. Suffice to say, Jack becomes a murderous snowman and returns to exact chilly, laughably cheap revenge on the man who locked him away, Sheriff Sam Tiller.
Jack Frost unabashedly mines almost every wintery device imaginable to maim and kill its awful actors: toboggans, icicles, frost, mittens. Such displays of “imagination” have turned it into a minor cult hit, but unlike Silent Night, Deadly Night, it’s from a decade when underfunded filmmakers were experimenting with computer FX. (Another remnant of late-’90s filmmaking: American Pie sex machine Shannon Elizabeth in her first feature role, although she’s sadly one of the few females to stay clothed throughout.) Viewed today, the film is a creaky relic of industry growing pains, and it earns very little of the feverish nostalgia reserved for ‘80s horror gems. The campiness will appeal to a very small, distinct audience, but at least the flick shares one thing with its beloved peers: complete and utter shamelessness.
That said, the 2000 sequel, Jack Frost: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman, tries way too fucking hard (just look at that title). It suffers from self-aware camp, a shitty (not shitty-funny) plot and bad FX that are designed to be bad FX. Luckily, it’s damn near impossible to find. Hallelujah!
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
In the wake of a mid-century obsession with fantastical creatures battling other fantastical creatures, Embassy Pictures – the studio behind respectable releases like The Graduate – thought it wise to bring the most fantastical creature of all into the mix. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a bumbling, substance-free diversion that couldn’t possibly live up to it’s title – hell, it fails to even resemble such a goofy premise. The Man in Red doesn’t so much “conquer” the Little Green Men (how’s that for color-coded subtext) as get abducted and brought to Mars, where he builds a toy workshop for needy Martian children. He also takes on a local apprentice and teaches a curmudgeonly king, Kimar, about the true meaning of Christmas.
The whole crap-tastic affair is stuffed with ideas from half-baked science fiction – apparently, space children have knowledge beamed directly into their brains, yet still fall prey to the evils of Earth-based television programs. For all their superior intelligence, the Martians live in art-deco houses, and bear an uncanny resemblance to humans wearing funky hats and rubber suits. In the history of cinema, only M. Night Shyamalan drums up less imaginative threats to humanity.
For a more rewarding (and readily available) experience of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, track down the film’s 1991 appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (Episode 321). The episode isn’t one of the show’s strongest – few things could match the gang’s take-down of the the awful action flick City Limits in Season 4 – but it’s a fun, goofy, irreverent look at a ‘60s flop, and one of MST3K’s few holiday shows.
Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)
The ‘70s were the birth (and possibly death) of brooding, low-budget horror with a slice-of-life mentality, and Silent Night, Bloody Night is an oft-neglected product of the decade. Like the original Black Christmas – a film which likely borrowed a few elements, although critics are divided on charges of plagiarism – Bloody Night is more of a thriller than a full-blooded slasher. The plot is slight: A group of investors attempts to sell a creaky mansion and are met with strange, foreboding apprehension by the locals. As Christmas draws near, an escaped mental patient begins killing the out-of-towners and slowly reveals his ties to the isolated abode.
For folks accustomed to more recent holiday horror, Bloody Night seems disappointing. It’s devoid of anything overtly Christmas-y, with nothing so ludicrous as a Satanic Santa or sharpened icicle. Instead, the filmmakers resisted such easy references and relegated the holidays to the background: Snowy streets and colorful decorations are quietly juxtaposed against the mansion’s shadowy menace, and the killer’s motives are only vaguely tied to Christmas. The holiday simply provides the setting – not the story – and this low-key approach imbues the film with unexpected bleakness.
The production occasionally shows its seams, particularly when numerous POV shots are distractingly ill-lit and grainy. Like Black Christmas, the film is full of then-revolutionary devices that have devolved over time into horror clichés, but the last-act reveal is genuinely disturbing, even for jaded genre fans. After wallowing in obscurity for decades, it recently made its way onto compilation DVDs. The version I own comes with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and a Vincent Price vehicle, The Last Man on Earth (1964). Not bad for $5 at Walmart.
The Gingerdead Man (2005)
If stunt casting equaled quality, the 2005 schlock-fest The Gingerdead Man would win an Oscar. The film barely justifies its existence, but shockingly enough, it managed to rope in one-time Oscar nominee Gary Busey, who plays a homicidal-maniac-turned-cookie with his trademark blend of batshit insanity and wild-eyed smarm. How does the star of The Buddy Holly Story become a delicious and deadly baked good? The easy way: When he’s executed and cremated, his mother, a legitimate witch (seriously), infuses her gingerbread recipe with his ashes, then leaves the cursed mix as a gift for the family of bakers her son once terrorized. Charming, these people.
Although Busey himself gives little more than a cameo in the opening scene, the film tries admirably to build on the absurdity of a former A-Lister being reduced to a C-grade creature flick, and the highly contrived plot is rounded out with enough humor to keep things chugging along. As with most ironically shitty films, the killings are played for laughs – one character is literally frosted to death – and the sight of tiny, wrinkled gingerbread arms hacking off full-sized human appendages is funnier than it should be.
Despite hitting all the corny clichés, the screenwriters overlooked one massive opportunity: the gingerbread man himself. Rather than crack wise like the hilariously demented Turkie in Thankskilling, the malevolent cookie is relegated to constant cackling and uninspired expletives. If you’re going to do camp, don’t settle for half measures.
The Gingerdead Man’s unabashedly goofy premise is worth a one-time viewing, but unlike other guilty pleasures, it’s low-brow fun with only the slightest hint of inspired madness. As for the three sequels, increasingly ludicrous titles don’t even justify their existence. 2008’s Gingerdead Man 2: Passion of the Crust is essentially the same film with different actors – par for the course with most beloved slasher franchises, but the one-note lunacy of killer dough can only go so far. Plus, no Busey.
To All A Good Night (1980)
In a season of charity and goodwill to all, ripping off minor horror films should be a forgivable offense; Roger Corman did so for nearly five decades and became a cinema legend in the process. But when a film is as blatantly, unrepentantly derivative as the 1980 slasher To All A Good Night, Jesus himself would have a hard time granting forgiveness. It’s a cherry-picking version of one-set ‘70s horror films like Black Christmas (sorority girls, serial killers) and lackluster premonition of gaudy ‘80s slashers like Christmas Evil (Santa suits, sharp pointy things), all wrapped around a non-starting plot with only the slightest hint of yuletide terror.
Despite its crimes against entertainment everywhere, To All A Good Night is memorable for obscure cinephile trivia. Director David Hess is a horror standby known for supporting roles in Wes Craven films, while star Jennifer Runyon appeared in Ghostbusters and, fittingly, is related by marriage to Corman. It also touts one of the more outright creepy covers for a holiday horror flick, even if it has absolutely nothing to do with the film.