I’ll be honest: I kind of hate Christmas movies. Granted, I’m not exactly their target audience, but still. While there are some that I do have a bit of a soft spot for (Christmas Vacation and Jingle All the Way being particular favorites in my household growing up), I find that most of the Christmas films I do like tend to be out of nostalgia more than due to their actual merits. They’re overly saccharine, corny, and by-the-numbers to the point where, really, if you’ve seen one, you’ve basically seen them all.
And I think this mostly has to do with the fact that, with very few exceptions, Christmas movies tend not to deviate from a pretty barebones and restrictive set of established tropes. There’s a reason that the Lifetime movie Christmas template has become a meme recently, because they are all, in essence, the exact same movie, just with minor differences. Rarely do Christmas films ever venture into other genres or territories, and if they do, it’s usually only marginally.
So for this Christmas, I thought it would be fun to look at some of the few, rare festive films that boldly defy convention by not just subverting the usual rules and traditions of Christmas films, but in some cases, by even abandoning them altogether. Believe it or not, there’s a solid selection of Christmassy horror films out there, being largely ignored in favor of Tim Allen in a fat suit or stop-motion reindeer. And while their quality, as with most horror films, is wildly variable, there are some genuine gems in the mix, with some even shaking out to be more full of holiday spirit than some of their traditional counterparts. Let’s take a look at some of the best scares that Christmas has to offer:
Not to be confused with the Michael Keaton family film of the same name, of which it shares some bizarre plot similarities, 1997’s Jack Frost is arguably one of the worst movies ever made, and is really on this list solely as a novelty. The film’s plot, if you even want to call it that, follows a notorious serial killer on his way to be executed comes into contact with some radioactive waste, which dissolves his body and combines his DNA with the freshly fallen snow. Now a demonically-possessed snowman, Jack continues his reign of terror in plain site, seeking revenge against the Sheriff who put him behind bars. Full of lazy, low-budget effects (the Snowman never even really moves onscreen), as well as groan-inducing, nauseatingly bad snow and ice puns, Jack Frost’s only real use is as an MST3K-style lampoon fest, preferably while drinking. If you want something stupid to watch and make fun of with your friends and family, and if you have a strong tolerance for poorly-written, winter-themed humor, then pour yourself a strong glass of eggnog and give Jack Frost a go. If you can make it through the entire movie, you have my utmost respect.
Silent Night, Deadly Night
Arguably one of the most controversial films ever made, Silent Night, Deadly Night caught an unsurprising amount of flack in the mid-80s for its marketing, which depicted a killer Santa Claus terrorizing a group of orphans on Christmas night. Dear Lord, won’t someone think of the children? But, as with most things, the controversy only helped cement the film’s cult status, making it a quintessential piece of holiday tradition for many more, let’s say, unconventional households. Gory, offensive, and completely unapologetic, Silent Night, Dealy Night is certainly a product of it’s time, carrying on the trend of grungy, grimy low-budget schlock that the decade seemed to churn out as if on an assembly line. While certainly not the best film on this list, not by a long shot, it deserves a watch simply for its reputation alone.
Given their overall subject matter and tone, you would think the birth of the Slasher genre would occur during the much more thematically appropriate and occultish holiday of Halloween. But no, a good four years before John Carpenter officially jump-started the genre craze with his legendary Halloween came Bob Clark’s Canadian-made sorority-Slasher Black Christmas. Taking place in a sorority house the week of the titular holiday, Black Christmas is very much the prototype for nearly all similarly-plotted horror films that came after it. Featuring some of the most genuinely unsettling and unnerving atmosphere and tension ever in a slasher film, as well as a cast of genuinely entertaining and endearing co-ed victims (including a pre-Superman Margot Kidder), Black Christmas is arguably not just a great Christmas or horror film, but a solid contender for one of the most important and influential films of all time. Just avoid the remakes, which range from terrible to forgettable.
Extra fun fact: In a complete tonal 180, director Bob Clark eventually went on to direct holiday-classic A Christmas Story.
I’ve been extremely vocal about how much I love Michael Dougherty’s Halloween anthology Trick ‘r Treat. Rather than simply being a showcase for individual horror-themed or adjacent vignettes, the film is instead an interconnected and intricately-woven love letter to the holiday itself, reveling in Halloween spirit, while still delivering on the requisite scares and excitement. Dougherty brings that exact same enthusiasm and thematically-appropriate stylistic mayhem to Krampus, a darkly funny, twisted fairy-tale adaption of the namesake Germanic folk creature. Incredible practical effects and creature designs give the film’s monsters more character than most others in recent memory, and it delightfully manages to strike a delicate balance between the scares and the laughs. And yet, despite being technically a horror film (albeit a slightly-neutered PG-13 one at that, at the behest of the studio), Krampus still manages to squeeze in more of that mushy, “True Meaning of Christmas” content than most pure-blood Christmas films. Solid performances from Adam Scott, David Koechner, and God’s gift to mankind, Toni Collette, elevate the movie from just being an okay hybrid Holiday romp to a truly great piece of holly-jolly media. Just like Trick ‘r Treat has for Halloween, Krampus has become my #1 go-to, must-watch Christmas movie.
Is this really a horror movie? It’s tough to say. It’s violent, sure, but the majority of the gore and mayhem is played for laughs. Directed by Joe Dante, Gremlins is essentially a twisted live-action Looney Tunes cartoon, depicting the chaos unleashed by the titular creatures during the most festive time of the year. Part fun, old-school monster romp, and part morality tale cautioning, among other things, waiting until the last minute to do your Christmas shopping and not heeding the instruction manuals that come with your gifts, Gremlins is very much in the same vein as Krampus as a black-comedy genre film masquerading as a Christmas movie. Equal parts hilarious and mildly disturbing, the film follows a family’s holiday spent combating nasty, goblin-like monsters which spawn from a seemingly innocent and adorable exotic family pet. Incredibly timeless puppeteering and practical effects, as well as an insanely catchy score and solidly endearing characters makes Gremlins a cult-classic for all the right reasons.
This movie is bonkers. Set in a small Scandinavian town that farms reindeer as their primary source of income and food, this Finish-made pseudo-horror flick once again plays into the dark fairy-tale mystique that seems to be a reoccurring theme on this list. After a group of archeologists and miners uncover the frozen body of the original Santa Claus, a monstrous, horned creature, the small town must deal with the wrath of his loyal “helpers,” an army of naked, bearded men resembling the more commonly-depicted version of the holiday mascot. Weird, funny, grotesque, and often inexplicably charming, Rare Exports is another treat of a film from frozen north, releasing in the same year as André Øvredal’s fantastic 2010 Trollhunter. Like Krampus, Rare Exports makes you wish that the US had Christmas mythology even a fraction as interesting as that of many European countries.
Better Watch Out
And finally, the most recent release on this list. The bastard offspring of Funny Games and Home Alone, Better Watch Out is probably the most uncomfortable film here, despite being one of the least violent or blatantly disturbing. Set in a very WASPy upper class neighborhood during the Christmas season, a young teenage boy is being watched by his college-age babysitter while his parents are out for the night. Thinking he can use the opportunity to woo his long-time crush, he seeks to prove to the sitter that he’s both mature and exciting enough to consider as a potential love interest. His efforts are thwarted by a terrifying home invasion, but everything is not as it seems. A wonderfully subversive and unpredictable twist on a formula established long ago by Black Christmas, Better Watch Out is much smarter than most of it’s predecessors by completely inverting the typical killer/victim dynamic. To say any more would ruin the surprise, but if you’re looking for something fresh and new to add to your holiday watchlist, you could do a lot worse than this little-known indie gem.