Christmas-based horror is a sub-genre that is seldom recognized, but actually includes a vast array of titles dating back decades. A few are quite well known, with titles such as the original Black Christmas pioneering the ‘slasher’ film, and Gremlins showing kids everywhere the fun that can come with a little yuletide terror. There’s no real point in listing the holiday horror most of us know: all five Silent Night, Deadly Night films (and the remake) or Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. And films that take place during the holiday but have very little to do with it are only worth mentioning in passing, such as I Come In Peace (aka Dark Angel). With that in mind, here’s a list of ten little-known films that are worth adding to your holiday viewing playlist. Some may not be to all tastes, but there is definitely fun for everyone.
Christmas Evil (1980)
Over time this has become one of my favourite holiday horror films. It’s actual title is You Better Watch Out, and although it’s sold as a ‘killer-santa-on-a-rampage’ film, it’s actually a whole lot more. Director Lewis Jackson has created a slow-burning psychological thriller about a man living out of step with society, and his increasing distaste for how people treat each other. A trauma in his childhood has warped his worldview, and he becomes a self-appointed ‘Santa Claus’ to his neighbourhood, keeping a ledger of who is naughty or nice. It all works so well because lead actor Brandon Maggart is both terrifying and pitiful in his role, a real powerhouse. There’s also a great supporting performance by Jeffrey DeMunn (Dale on “The Walking Dead”). Go in with an open mind, and let it surprise you. Don’t just take my word for it: John Waters loves this film too.
The Children (2008)
A family gathers for Christmas, and gradually the children get sick. Soon, they are turning on the very people that brought them into the world, and the parents have to fight to survive. This played Toronto After Dark in 2009, and was quietly released to home video shortly afterward. This is a shame, as the film is tense and one of the better genre releases to come out that year. Highly recommended as a gory holiday treat, but avoid if you are offended by the thought of seeing children violently killed in self-defense.
The Day of the Beast (1995)
Director Alex de la Iglesia has grown in popularity recently due to his well-received genre films The Last Circus and Witching and Bitching. This film, made early in his career, is the first of his work I saw, and still remains my favourite. On Christmas Eve, a priest believes the antichrist is about to rise, so must commit as much sin as possible in order to invoke the Devil and find the birthplace of the demon. Along the way, a metalhead and a TV personality join his quest, and together they must try and save the world.
The movie is inventively shot, funny as hell, and entertaining from start to finish. Immediately after seeing it I sought out everything Iglesia had ever done, and within less than a week I had found a new director to add to my list of favourites. He’s the real deal, and this is a great place to start.
Alien Raiders (2008)
I still question why this film was given such a small, under-the-radar release. During the holiday season a group of armed-assailants take over a grocery store in search an alien presence they believe to be hiding within. From there the film goes to crazy, gory places, and doesn’t let up until the very end. Filled with practical monster effects, and clearly inspired by films such as The Thing, it’s the type of film that horror fans only come across every once in a while. Add to that a fun leading performance by Carlos Bernard (Tony on “24”), and it’s a mystery why this went so unseen.
In no way is this a good film. It’s what I would call unique. Taken at face value, it’s a loony flick about a woman that discovers she’s the focus of a Nazi experiment involving breeding and summoning elves. Apparently the elves are an attempt to breed genetic supermen, or something. Her only hope is Dan Haggerty (yes, that’s right, “Grizzly Adams”) playing a rogue Santa Claus. The movie is rarely boring, and is full of so many bizarre touches and moments, it’s perfect for a very specific kind of movie fan. Also, the most amusing thing of all: there is only one elf in the movie Elves.
Vincent Cassel as a shepherd who might be Satan. That’s all some of you really need to know. A group of friends go to a house in the country on Christmas Eve, and meet Vincent Cassel’s character. From there the movie spirals into a surreal, and completely insane meditation on evil. It has been years since I’ve seen this one, and the memory is a little fuzzy, but I recall enjoying it quite a bit. And Cassel is great in it.
Jack Frost (1997)
Another movie that can in no way be called ‘good’. However, if you grew up in the 90s, and remember the flood of attempts to create DTV slasher franchises, this film will bring you to a weird place of nostalgia. Here we have a serial killer who is transformed into a wise-cracking killer snowman. With a jokey, pun-loving personality similar to Freddy Krueger, the snowman terrorizes the town. The film sports a number of fun deaths, and is a good time-killer. There’s also an unnecessary sequel, if you just didn’t get enough the first time: Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman.
Sint (2010) aka ‘Saint’ or ‘Saint Nick’
Director Dick Maas already had my attention with this fun killer-elevator movie The Lift, but this took it to a new level. A revisionist horror twist on the legend of Saint Nicholas, this feels like a holiday-themed ode to John Carpenter’s Halloween, but brings some new elements to the table. Similar to the myth, Saint Nick has ‘Black Peters’ with him. In this case, however, they are the walking corpses of dead sailors, armed to the teeth and ready to wreak havoc. It’s a fun film, full of inventive kills and exciting set-pieces, directed with flair. I hope for a sequel.
Santa’s Slay (2005)
The cast and crew knew exactly what they were making when this was created. You don’t go into a movie starring wrestler Bill Goldberg as an angry killer Santa Claus and expect Oscars. So you do the next best thing: you fill it with recognizable faces, and make it as fun and tongue-in-cheek as possible. It’s silly, it’s stupid, and it’s tons of fun. If you can’t take a movie that wears its goofy heart on it’s sleeve for what it is, don’t bother. Everyone else, enjoy!
This is the reason I will always give a Richard Stanley film my full attention. A space marine buys a robotic head as a Christmas present for his girlfriend, who decides to use it in her sculpture. The head becomes activated and begins to use anything it can find, including the rest of her sculptures, to rebuild itself. This is a great science-fiction/thriller that should be seen in its full director’s cut form. For a relatively low-budget film, it has great effects and atmosphere to burn. Highly-recommended.
BONUS: XMAS READING
“When Elves Attack” by Tim Dorsey
Part of a long-running series of books following around an unclassifiable character named Serge Storms. These books often read like Hunter S. Thompson and Elmore Leonard got together to rewrite American Psycho, and are always a fun read. While you lose out a bit not knowing the character backgrounds from the previous ten books, this can be read as stand-alone, and is a hell of a twisted holiday-themed tale.
“The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror” by Christopher Moore
Christopher Moore takes the Douglas Adams approach to supernatural fiction, and this book is hilarious. An Archangel comes to earth to grant a Christmas wish, but bungles the job so badly he puts the lives of an entire town in jeopardy. Filled with bizarre character (a few of whom are from other Moore books), gut-munching zombies, witty-humour and a talking fruit bat named Roberto, this is a must-read.