Sometimes the very term “Christmas movie” can dredge up an overwhelming nausea as paralyzing and blinding as the term “Christmas album.” Sure there are classics like Miracle on 34th Street and Holiday Inn, but for every one of those, you get a double handful of crap like It Happened One Christmas, The Magic Christmas Tree, and A Very Brady Christmas.
Me, I’ve always wanted to re-edit It’s a Wonderful Life, lopping off the prologue in Heaven and running the closing credits as George Bailey is standing on the bridge staring into the dark water below. Then I’d release it as “It’s a Miserable Life.”
Well, it seems I’m not alone in that thinking, and over the years a number of twisted filmmakers have taken a stab at the most wonderful time of the year, usually putting Santa Claus in some strange situations.
As a result, Christmas horror movies have been with us a very long time. There was Bob Clark’s 1974 Black Christmas, of course, which helped establish what would be the standard framework for all the generic slasher films that would come along a decade later. (Always thought it was interesting Clark would go on to make A Christmas Story, which he may have seen as a kind of penance.) Two years before the original Black Christmas we also got Silent Night, Bloody Night, which is less a Christmas horror film than a horror film that happens to take place around Christmas. And personally I still think Rene Cordona’s 1956 Santa Claus is one of the most terrifying holiday-themed horror movies ever made.
Within the subgenre of Christmas horror films, there’s an even more specific sub-subgenre, an unusual number of films in which Jolly Old Saint Nick, as we came to recognize him thanks to the fine folks at Coca-Cola’s marketing department, sets down his bag of toys and his milk and cookies in order to pick up an ax.
So here’s a quick and unscientific ranking of the best of the Santa Slasher films…
9. Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987)
Three years after the shitstorm caused by the original (see below), some smart cookie decided a sequel was necessary. A tough call there, given most all the principals were killed off pretty decidedly first time around, but still. So they brought in an untested director (Lee Harry), a mostly untested crew, and a cast of mostly non-professional actors. After half a dozen writers took a swipe at the script, they came up with this confounding but tepid rehash of the first film.
This time around, and mostly in flashback, we learn that after the first killer Santa was sloppily dispatched at the end of Part 1, his brother Ricky, in an effort to uncover what went wrong that first time around, ended up donning the red and white suit himself to do a little rampaging, though without nearly half of his brother’s imagination. They even used the same fucking poster design, just slapped a “2” on it, I guess hoping they might raise the same sort of ruckus this time around.
Sadly, it was too late for that.
8. Santa Claws (1996)
You do have to wonder what happened to John Russo along the line. Thirty years after co-writing Night of the Living Dead, he came up with this decidedly sleazy but sadly unoriginal wonderment, which was much more focused on boobs than Yuletide butchery.
In what by that point had become a battered cliche of the Slasher Santa subgenre, a young boy named Wayne (Grant Kramer) sees his mom having sex with a man wearing a Santa hat (!), and so murders them both.
I’m not exactly sure how this transferrence would work in Freudian terms, but when he gets older he 1. becomes obsessed with a low-budget scream queen named Raven (played by low-budget scream queen Debbie Rochon) and 2. decides he’s Santa.
As you might imagine, stalking someone when you’re wearing a Santa suit is no mean feat, but Wayne gives it his best shot. Most of the film, however, focuses on Raven and her extended family as she gets undressed a lot and wonders not only why that creep in the Santa suit keeps showing up everywhere, but why everyone around her keeps dying in a particularly bloody fashion.
It can feel like there are two films going on here, a by-the-numbers stalker/slasher movie and a holiday horror film, which leaves me thinking Russo had one of them in mind, but after some clever 8-year-old came up with that clever “Santa Klaws” pun, well, he just had to run with it.
7. Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out (1989)
Well, the one thing you have to hand the flood of straight-to-video titles that hit shelves in the ‘80s, they kept a lot of talented but forgotten people working. If the first sequel was an unnecessary disaster, another follow-up (in a rational world) should have been unthinkable.
Perhaps realizing this, the producers, knowing it was going to be a STV quickie, took the money they would’ve spent on distribution and promotion and used it to hire a name director and star. Monte Hellman had come out of the Corman school, had worked with a bunch of big names, was deeply respected around Hollywood for films like Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter, and by the late-‘80s couldn’t drum up work for the life of him. Robert Culp, meanwhile, had been a huge action star on TV, but, well, that was a long time ago. And now they’d be working together on a no-budget killer Santa sequel!
I’m not sure how many people worked on the script for Part 3, but let’s just say given once again everyone was dead at the end of Part 2, this time around it was apparently necessary to bring in a mad doctor to resurrect Ricky. Then Ricky kills a bunch more people again while dressed as Santa. As a detective on the case, Culp spends a lot of time talking to his partner about the miracle of car phones. Oh, and there’s this psychic blind woman, too, who seems to have some kind of psychic connection with Ricky for some reason. You’d think a coup like that would help the cops get the case wrapped up toot-sweet, but not exactly.
Although there are a few interesting and strange directorial flourishes here (which helped lift it half a tick above Part 2), those may be accidental. Because see, although the film is still credited to Hellman, he was actually removed from the project fairly early on and replaced by, I dunno, maybe nobody at all. Funny though, thinking back on it now, I’m almost tempted to believe this was the most entertaining entry in the franchise, ignoring the fact they lifted the subtitle from a much better killer Santa film (see below).
6. Don’t Open ’Til Christmas (1984)
Seasoned and respected British actor Edmund Purdom, who’d been working steady all over Europe since the early ’50s, was born just a few days before Christmas. Maybe that helps explain why, when given the chance to direct his one and only film, he decided to make Don’t Open ’Til Christmas.
I mean, there had to be a lot of simmering resentment there, right? For over fifty years, every last damn birthay had been RUINED by Christmas. Here was his chance to exact a little revenge.
The Brit slasher film/mystery thriller offers a bit of a twist on the Killer Santa theme, in that this time around, in concerns a Santa killer instead of vice-versa. Yes, in the days leading up to Christmas, some knife-weolding maniac with no Christmas spirit whatsoever is killing off Santas all over London. The cops (lead by Purdom himself as the chief detective) fear if they don’t catch him by midnight Christmas Eve, he’ll vanish, only to return again the next year to do the same thing. And the year after that, too.
At times playing more like dark comedy than sleazy slasher film, it’s all in all a good deal of grainy, low-rent fun. And because it’s British, you can fool yourself into thinking it’s actially much classier than it really is at heart.
5. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Charles E. Sellier Jr. was a legendary low-budget movie producer in the ’70s, a genius at marketing and four-walling mostly family-friendly projects. Come the early ’80s, though, there was no escaping the money that could be made with a no-budget slasher film. Those things were gold. What he needed though, was a hook.
With almost every other holiday snatched up already (Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Friday the 13th, hell, even Prom Night), Christmas was the next, even the ultimate target.
Stepping into the director’s chair himself, Sellier brought in slasher stalwart Linnea Quigly (Return of the Living Dead) and whipped up a fairly generic story: a young boy named Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) witnesses his father murdered and his mother raped by a man in a Santa suit. Understandably traumatized by this, he’s sent to some sort of Catholic asylum, where he’s further traumatized by a cruel Mother Superior. He’s released ten years later, and takes a job at a toy store. When Christmas season rolls around and he’s asked to be the store Santa, well, there goes that. Once he dons that red Kris Kringle suit, he snaps and begins killing teens in assorted Christmasy ways (impaling them on reindeer antlers, etc.).
It’s all pretty standard-issue by that point, but the film itself wasn’t the big deal here. What mattered, and what put Silent Night, Deadly Night at the center of a shitstorm (and again this was Sellier’s genius) was the ad campaign. The posters featured a very traditional image of a snow-covered rooftop and chimney, with the unmistakable mittened hand of Santa entering the house in the tradutional way. Only difference was this time around Santa was clutching a large and bloody ax.
Hoo-nellie, the parents groups and decency activists went bonkers, shrieking that the film was a desecration of all that is good and right and decent in the world. As a result, the movie made lots and lots of money, thanks soley to that single image and millions of outraged righteous types who did all of Sellier’s work for him.
4. Sint (2010)
Dutch director Dick Maas took some early steps toward Krampus territory with his re-imagining of the legend of the warm-hearted Saint Nick. Borrowing heavily from earlier Italian, Spanish, and American horror films as well as Danish folklore, “Sinterklaas” here was actually a bloodthirsty medieval killer and all around brute who engineered a reign of terror until, fed up, the local villagers banded together and lynched him one December 5th.
As per usual, before he died he vowed vengeance from beyond the grave, promising to return every 32 years on that very night to do bad and icky things to the villagers’ descendants. And sure enough, he was true to his word. Still, over the centuries the story became part of the local folklore, and the character of Saint Nick was made much more child-friendly so as not to scare the wee folk. Then, well, that anniversary crept around again and Amsterdam turns all bloody, leaving it up to an intrepid teenager named Frank to put a stop to it.
A stylish, wicked, and hugely entertaining take on the darker history of a beloved legend, it was also the top grossing film in Denmark in 2010, which either says something about the Danish film industry or the Dutch themselves.
3. Santa’s Slay (2005)
We’ve all seen the religious pamphlets, the ones that point out that “Santa” and “Satan” are just a little too close for comfort, right? Well, director David Steiman took that idea and ran with it.
Santa, see, is really Satan’s son (hence the similar names), and a scary son of a bitch at heart. He’s only been kindly and giving and jolly all these years because he lost a bet with an angel (a story recounted in a parody of an animated Rankin/Bass special). Now that the terms of the bet have run their course, Santa is once again free to let his real nature come out. He trades out those stupid boring reindeer for bison, his frumpy old sleigh for something that almost resembles the Batmobile, and starts leaving booby-trapped packages under the trees of unsuspecting families.
It’s less a slasher film (though it is that) than an over-the-top black comedy that gleefully skewers (literally) every known holiday film cliche over the course of a snappy 78 minutes. It’s a madcap jumble of styles, tasteless jokes, slapstick and outlandish gore.
WWE wrestler Bill Goldberg makes for a decidedly menacing and burly Santa who in the film’s first few minutes alone gets to slaughter James Caan and Fran Drescher (only the first in a long string of celebrity cameos). And what’s not to love about a holiday film that takes such clear joy in blowing off the heads of a couple 8-year-olds on Christmas morning?
2. Tales From the Crypt: And All Through the House (1972)
Tee early British horror anthology had a lot going for it from top to bottom, but none of the stories were quite as memorably creepy as “And All Through the House,” After that bitchy joan Collins whacks her husband to death with a fireplace poker, she’s left with the messy problem of how to dispose of the body. Meanwhile, the holiday music on the radio is interrupted by a news bulletin warning residents that a psychotic killer has escaped from a local asylum.
Oh, and one other little thing, he’s dressed like Santa.
Of all the houses in town to choose from, wouldn’t you know it? The killer Santa had to end up on her doorstep. She can’t call the cops, of course, what with her husband’s body there in the living room and all, so all she can do is try to keep Santa from getting in. It’s a tense and claustrophobic (get it?) little story that in a sick way leaves you rooting for the psycho Santa.
Who would’ve thought that when Tales from the Crypt became a TV anthology series in 1989, they’d actually be able to top it? But they did, first by bringing in Robert Zemeckis to direct, and second by bringing in Larry Drake (Darkman, Dr. Giggles) to play the killer Santa. The most important change, however, is that while the bloodthirsty Santa in the original was quite traditional in his white beard and red suit, Drake’s is bedraggled, wild-eyed, and filthy. His beard is scraggly and dirty, his suit oil-smeared and torn. Also unlike the original, Drake’s Santa cackles and sneers, and he carry’s an ax.
Parents groups may have thrown a fit at that Silent Night, Deadly Night poster, but even more than that, this Santa really is the thing of nightmares.
1. Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out) (1980)
In his one and only film as writer/director, Lewis Jackson has crafted a smart and clever black comedy that’s more character study than straight horror film, and something much closer to Taxi Driver than anything else on this list, even though it involves an ax-wielding St. Nick.
Brandon Maggart plays a man who takes Christmas way too seriously. His home is filled with decorations and Christmas carols all year round. Santa is his role model, a symbol for Good and Justice in the world. He even works at a toy factory. He so identifies with Santa he takes to spying on the neighbor kids, keeping naughty and nice lists. But when he sees the level of cynycism and hypocrisy among his co-workers, bosses, and the people around town as the most joyous time of the year approachs, well, he goes a little funny in the head, and reaches for the suit and beard and ax, determined to reward the good and punish the evil.
Maggart has since tried to desperately distance himself from the film, but he gives a remarkable performance here as a completely isolated figure with a head swimming with both joy and rage. And in the end the film, though not a traditional slasher movie, remains king of the genre.
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