We wish you a scary Christmas (and a gory New Year)! Horror fans enjoy a new bevy of Halloween-themed horror movies every October. When November rolls around, many of us aren’t ready for our morbid form of merriment to end; and it’s this void, perhaps, that’s created a market for Christmas-themed horror movies. Sure, we’ve been seeing them sporadically since 1974’s Black Christmas, but there’s definitely been a surge in recent years. Whereas there used to be a few Christmas-themed genre flicks to pick from every year, there are now dozens of options for the holiday horror-seeker.
I’m 100% certain I’ve seen more Christmas-themed horror movies than 99% of you reading this, so benefit from my experience and don’t risk picking a holiday stinker this season. You simply can’t go wrong with the 10 films I’ve assembled below, but be warned: Some are absolutely not for the easily offended or faint of heart.
1974’s Black Christmas doesn’t just deserve credit for triggering the torrent of holiday-themed horror movies that have become commonplace, it actually established many prominent slasher tropes that would dominate the 1980s. If you’ve never seen Black Christmas, you might be surprised to see many of the techniques John Carpenter would later employ in Halloween: The long tracking shots, the use of light and shadow, and the opaque nature of a mentally unhinged psychopath are just some examples. Back Christmas faced intense backlash when it was release, so if the fact Bob Clark would go on to direct the family-friendly staple A Christmas Story isn’t an example of irony, I don’t know what is.
That the events of Black Christmas transpired during the holiday is almost incidental (though the fact that the sorority house was mostly empty during the school break definitely made it easier for the killer to maneuver undetected). It was Silent Night, Deadly Night that first turned Santa Claus into a psychopathic villain, leaving permanent bloodstains on St. Nick’s squeaky-clean image. Horror fans of a certain age would never look at a Mall Santa without a shiver of dread again. Production-wise, Silent Night, Deadly Night doesn’t hold up as well as other entries on this list, but in terms of historically relevant Christmas-themed horror movies, it’s a must watch.
Who doesn’t love Gremlins? Released the same year as Silent Night, Deadly Night, it’s definitely a superior film with creature effects that still hold up to scrutiny in the 21st Century. In an era before the PG-13 rating existed, Gremlins literally scared the hell out of hordes of youngsters who were lured into theaters by images of a cute little Mogwai. In case you don’t remember how hardcore it was (or perhaps suppressed the traumatic memories) let me remind you that people die in Gremlins. Sure, we had moments of comic relief (a theater full of hideous homunculi enchanted by the Seven Dwarves, singing “High Ho”, is cinematic gold) but Gremlins was seriously suspenseful and pretty damn violent to boot. The best thing about Gremlins, though, is that it can be enjoyed any time of year!
In 2015, Michael Dougherty took centuries of European folklore, added a few creative innovations, and introduced Americans to Krampus. We can thank the Godzilla: King of the Monsters director for Krampus Craze that follows: Krampus wrapping paper, Krampus on a Shelf, Krampus Christmas tree ornaments, Ugly Krampus sweaters, etc. Now firmly entrenched in the zeitgeist, later filmmakers have benefited from Dougherty’s crash course in Krampus, as the fiend has been a reoccurring character in Christmas-themed horror movies ever since. One example is the next entry on this list, Slay Belles.
We saw Santa engage in a violent battle royale with Krampus in A Christmas Horror Story (also a great film to consider, if 10 holiday-themed horror movies aren’t enough for you), but Slay Belle does something truly unique. Three YouTube starlets team up with Kris Kringle to battle Krampus in an abandoned amusement park. But this time, the mythological opposites are revealed to be two halves of the same being. In other words: You can’t kill Krampus without killing Santa simultaneously, a creative and entertaining conundrum. Before it’s over, Slay Belles completely re-writes and established Old World and New World folklore alike. Plus, it introduces “The Adventure Girls”, a trio who deserve another film (whether Santa is involved or not). I can’t help but include a shout-out to Barry Bostwick (Brad from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) who absolutely elevates Slay Belles as a version of Santa you’ll never forget.
The trailers for Better Watch Out made it look like a Home Alone rehash, but no. Those who flocked to Netflix when the film hit the streaming giant last December were probably, in many cases, unprepared for the depravity contained within. First of all, this is not a Christmas rehash of Home Alone upgraded for the 21st Century; Better Watch Out takes a few truly unexpected turns, and our hearts sinks deeper every time. I’m not trying to freak you out; we’re not talking about A Serbian Film levels of depravity or anything even close. But don’t be fooled by the teenage cast members or comic undertones. Eventually, the holiday backdrop becomes maudlin when juxtaposed against considerable, realistic-looking violence and intense suspense.
The only entry on this list more twisted than Better Watch Out is The Children. Parenthood can be a nightmare, especially when groups of hyper-active (and hyper-sensitive) youngsters congregate for family get-togethers during the holidays. But this is more than just tummy-aches and tempter tantrums, something is seriously wrong with The Children. This film is an amazing example of conveying maximum terror with limited reveals, but even though we don’t see a lot in The Children, we’re sickened by what unfolds. The ending hits like a gut punch and you might even feel like you need to take a shower.
I know Eyes Wide Shut isn’t technically a horror movie, but Stanley Kubrick is more than just the Master of Horror who directed The Shining, he’s an incredible filmmaker whose final opus deserves to be celebrated-often. Since it takes place during the Christmas season, it’s the perfect time of year to revisit a film that reveals more upon every viewing. Fans of slow-burn, atmospheric hyper-drama will watch mesmerized while conspiracy theorists can dive deep into Kubrick’s complex subtext, which many believe was intended to expose an Illuminati underworld.
The only entry on this list suitable for the entire family is The Nightmare Before Christmas. There’s a chance extremely sensitive tykes might get spooked by the Oogie Boogie, but the jovial spirit of the film, not to mention the fact that it’s a musical, makes it nearly universal. And the amazing thing is, The Nightmare Before Christmas gets love from even the most black-hearted of horror fans. There’s something for everyone with a madcap ensemble of far out characters from the familiar to the outlandish. The Nightmare Before Christmas has become a cult classic with annual screenings, and even live orchestra events at The Hollywood Bowl. Fifty years from now, kids will probably still be watching it the same way Gen Xers watched Snoopy and the Grinch.
Michael Dougherty’s Krampus isn’t the first big-budget film to feature the titular Anti-Santa; that honor goes to 2010’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. The fact that it’s a foreign-language movie out of Finland explains why it never hit many horror fans’ radars, but it’s worth noting that Krampus is never actually named in Rare Exports, so American audiences will actually benefit from having seen Dougherty’s Krampus first. And this isn’t to suggest the two films tell the same story; while both address family conflict, Rare Exports is a much darker exploration of dysfunction and depression. But it is A Christmas Tale, after all, so expect to be left smiling. Rare Exports will also change the way you look at every Mall Santa moving forward, but as opposed to shivering because of Silent Night, Deadly Night, you’ll probably find yourself chuckling thanks to this one.