“What happened to Miracle on 34th Street?” I heard a rueful man ask as he left a recent screening of Krampus, the new horror comedy based on the Germanic folk monster. You have your Wonderful Life and Christmas Story, I wanted to say. Can’t we have our deranged Santa with an ax and evil reindeer?
After all, holidays are a natural pair with horror, concerned as they both are with strange rituals and mandated human togetherness. This year alone will welcome a half-dozen direct-to-video holiday horror titles, and that’s besides Krampus, which features a horned monster who punishes misbehaving children, and attracted stars like Toni Collette and Adam Scott as well as the ace puppeteers of the Weta Workshop. Unfortunately, not all evil elves and murderous gingerbread cookies are created equal, and over the years, too few of these movies have really hit the anti-yuletide sweet spot. Below, we separate the canon’s rare gifts from its many deposits of coal, with the help of five relatively discrete categories.
The Killer Santa
The most venerable of all these movies transforms the holiday’s rosy-cheeked patriarch into a classic homicidal maniac the whole family can enjoy. Perhaps the most recognizable title is Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), an exceptionally nasty number that earned widespread public ire at the peak of the Moral Majority’s power. Naturally, it spawned four sequels. (A pitiful remake, starring a sad-looking Malcolm McDowell, appeared in 2012.) The irresistible perversion of the quintessential grandfather figure has generated endless titles and recently inspired a memorable American Horror Story episode.
Santa’s pick: Tales From the Crypt, “And All Through The House” (1972, 1989): Treat yourself to both the original segment in Freddie Francis’ film and Robert Zemeckis’ homage for the funhouse HBO series. (They’re each available online.) Both concern a woman who dispatches her husband on Christmas Eve and therefore fails to notice there’s a lunatic in a familiar red-velvet costume on the loose. Though the original segment features Joan Collins (!), we have to give the edge to Zemeckis’ loving version, if only because it costars the Cryptkeeper in full St. Nick drag.
Death by Pun
Santa’s pick: If you must, go with The Gingerdead Man (2005), which is not strictly a Christmas movie but does feature festive cookies. Gary Busey plays the titular baked good.
To Watch With Your Weird Cousins
Every Christmas horror movie should be a little uncanny, just as spending this time of year with extended family can be. Consider Christmas Evil (1980), the slasher flick supposedly enshrined by John Waters as “the best Christmas movie ever made.” It chronicles a disgruntled toy-factory worker who becomes convinced he’s Santa and takes it upon himself to decide who’s been good and who’s been bad (you have probably been bad). The last five minutes might be the weirdest of any movie here, ideal when partaking in liquid merriment.
Santa’s pick: If you’ve never seen Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010), the feral Santa origin story from Finland, just go ahead and do that. I watch it annually to remind myself it’s real.
The Stealth Heartwarmers
These movies pretend to be naughty but they’re ultimately nice. Usually tales of the Christmas spirit lost and found, they unleash mayhem on holiday customs until some lost spirit finds the true meaning of the season. What is this, Jingle All the Way?
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) is a famous example, and so, alas, is Krampus. The film updates the legend into a limp horror-comedy about a boy (Emjay Anthony) who accidentally summons the ancient demon when he curses his family. The jokes are as mirthless as the would-be scares, but the polished special effects are nearly enough to save it, especially the superb puppetry. Krampus has some of the gnarliest monsters on strings this side of The Dark Crystal, and that’s almost reason enough to see it. The main baddie, hooved and snarling, makes for one of the more satisfying creature reveals in recent movies.
Santa’s pick: It doesn’t get much better than Gremlins here. Joe Dante’s cheerful ghouls descend on a picturesque suburban holiday with timeless charm, and the movie is sly enough to please snowflake true believers and picky scrooges alike. You might even call it the perfect Christmas movie, if it wasn’t for …
This one gets a category to itself. Four years before Halloween, Bob Clark helped invent the American slasher movie with a lunatic who crawls into a sorority’s attic during their Christmas party. He doesn’t stay there. To watch the movie now is to see horror conventions codified before you eyes: the cross-bearing final girl, the killer POV shot, the anonymous caller who knows too much. But for our purposes, the movie’s hilariously crass title, teasing (un)holy soundtrack, and casual desecration of the holiday still feels shocking 40 years later. (The gory 2006 remake by The X-Files’ Glen Morgan is inanely brutal by comparison.)
Black Christmas is ultimately what too many Christmas horror movies forget to be: truly subversive and enduringly scary. When you screen it for your disapproving relatives, remind them that just shy of a decade later, director Clark went on to helm A Christmas Story (1983), perhaps the most nostalgic standby of the season. This bit of trivia is a testament to the healthy duality the holiday season inspires in us all—there’s no St. Nick without Krampus, and that’s how it should be.