Technicolor lights are about to illuminate every other home in the neighborhood; carolers are marching through the streets; even that old tree in Rockefeller is shining brightly.
For some folks, that’s enough to make you want to grab an axe. But don’t do that. Watch demented men dressed as Santa Claus or a demon Krampus give your old Anti-Christmas sentiments a turn with maximum gore. Indeed, this list isn’t about the most charming, or heartwarming, or fancy-schmancy schmaltz that most Christmas articles, even on this site, heave into the world. Nay, this is about the 17 grossest, nastiest, and all around most fun Christmas horror movies. The kind where the greatest gift you’re going to get on Christmas morning is escaping with your life and maybe some everlasting psychological triggers whenever you see big jolly men in red suits.
Yep, here are the very best Christmas horror movies. Ho. Freaking. Ho.
Black Christmas (1974)
Getting stabbed by a unicorn head to the ghostly tune of carolers singing “Silent Night” is probably not how you want to spend Christmas Eve. This pre-Scream holiday slasher claims its victims in a sorority house haunted by creepy phone calls (sans ghost mask), demonic noises, bodies eerily shrouded in plastic wrap, and one perverse killer whose voice alone is enough to freeze your blood.
When an unidentified caller keeps repeatedly harassing your entire sorority house with obscene things you can only half-understand (because he sounds like a deranged Donald Duck that laughs like the Joker), you should run even if it is 10 degrees outside. The blizzard of murders keeps raging with one victim being dragged screaming by a hook, and another being bludgeoned to death like something out of a medieval torture scene. Never mind the one suffocated to death by plastic wrap and left next to the window like the vacant face of a doll staring out into the night. You’ll hardly sleep in heavenly peace after this one.
– Elizabeth Rayne
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. John Waters insists it’s a comedy about a closeted transvestite (of a sort), but it’s much more than that—it’s the Taxi Driver of Yuletide shockers. Brandon Maggart plays a man who takes Christmas way too seriously. His home is filled with bright holiday decorations all year-round while Christmas carols are playing on the stereo. Santa is his role model, a symbol of all that is good and just in the world. He even works at a toy factory.
He so identifies with Santa, he takes to spying on the neighbor kids, keeping his own carefully annotated naughty and nice lists. But when he recognizes the level of cynicism and hypocrisy among his co-workers, bosses, and the people around town as the most joyous time of the year approaches, well, he goes a little funny in the head. He reaches for the suit and beard and axe, 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. In the end, the film remains king of the sub-subgenre. Screw It’s a Wonderful Life and Rudolph. Apart from Blast of Silence and Invasion U.S.A., Christmas Evil is the only holiday film I watch annually.
– Jim Knipfel
A Christmas Horror Story (2015)
Admittedly, a number of horror-based Christmas films have gone with the anthology angle for their storytelling. Hell, this isn’t even the only anthology film depicted on this list. A Christmas Horror Story may not be on a lot of people’s radar, but it’s a worthy installment that gets to go to some unusual places purely because both the Christmas and anthology playgrounds have gotten so bloated at this point. This film also benefits from being executed by a cabal of directors who are responsible with directing some of the best horror content to come out of Canada in passing years, such as Splice, the Black Christmas remake, and the Ginger Snaps Trilogy.
A Christmas Horror Story deliciously uses William Shatner as a radio DJ to be the connective tissue that holds together the four stories that comprise the film. Parables on ghost possession, clone doppelgangers, Krampus, and zombie elves all get their due here. Furthermore, ideas like a pregnant ghost using you as a conduit to give birth to its baby is all sorts of messed up. The film also has a pretty inspired ending that actually managed to surprise me and casts the picture in a whole new light. It’s got Santa Claus fighting Krampus. What’s not to like?
– Daniel Kurland
Dead of Night (1945)
Never play hide and go seek in a house where someone was murdered. While it might be best known for Michael Redgrave’s night-terror-inducing ventriloquist dummy scene that sparked the phobia of possessed puppets, Dead of Night also invites you to a Christmas party with a spectral guest. Spacecase Sally’s genuine terror at realizing what she thinks she saw is what she really saw will forever have you second-guessing shadows creeping in the cold.
What is obvious in this scene—encroaching darkness and shadows looming over what a place you know is haunted without ever having to hear the big reveal—is hardly as chilling as what is not so obvious until the truth silently materializes. The ghost of the little boy plays hide-and-seek with the other children as if warm blood courses through his veins. Unlike many stereotypical see-through phantoms of the era, this one doesn’t have that telltale translucence which would set off a chorus of screams. Being almost disturbingly normal is exactly what makes him so terrifying.
– Elizabeth Rayne
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Eyes Wide Shut was the non-denominational star at the top of Stanley Kubrick’s Christmas tree. Originally conceived as a Woody Allen vehicle, it almost starred Steve Martin after Allen insisted on reading the script from right to left. It is as much a cautionary tale as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, bringing the whole family together with a different Christmas tree in almost every frame. Kubrick pours on the cheer from the opening sequence at the Christmas party where the first gifts are unwrapped, and oh boy are they unwrapped. Bill Harford, played by Tom Cruise, dives right into the muffled spirit of giving after he performs a more than charitable deed for the party’s host, played by Sydney Pollack.
Harford spends most of the film looking for the perfect gift like a slow motion version of Jingle All the Way, rushing around from New York City’s famous toy repository FAO Schwartz to downtown specialty shops, to the suburbs, where he can find collectors’ editions. Cruise pays Harford like a wooden windup toy, and not a particularly cute one, either. In spite of all the colorful lights and trips above and below the rainbow, Harford just can’t get into the Christmas spirit. He’s not even moved by the uplifting seasonal tunings of “I Want a Boy for Christmas” by the Del-Vettes. He recovers his seasonal facilities while humming along to the chant during the climactic illuminati sex party, though! The song is actually “Here Comes Santa Claus” sung backwards in Latin, adding more menace to the proceedings than Silas Barnaby brought to Toyland in The March of the Wooden Soldiers.
The film ends when Alice, played by Cruise’s then-wife Nicole Kidman, is caught by her daughter kissing Santa under the mistletoe, revealing herself to be the nutcracker.
– Tony Sokol
Santa doesn’t exist… unless it’s your father in a red suit who met his untimely end trying to slide down the chimney with a sack of presents before getting stuck. Don’t tell that to the innocent bat-like ears of a harmless (for now) Mogwai. It’s exactly the kind of story you expect to hear while hunkering down in the shadows with a flashlight while a bunch of leathery green things with too many teeth ransack the neighborhood. And Santa? That smell coming from the fireplace weeks later was no dead cat. Worst. Christmas story. Ever.
This movie should be on every hardcore horror fan’s holiday playlist just for the musical monstrosity of those reptilian things decked out in Santa hats and earmuffs singing “Deck the Halls” at the neighbors’ door, sheet music and all. This is continuing proof that animals have a sixth sense, because her yowling cat senses something off about the voices warbling “Joy to the World” outside. She’s right to have an aversion to Christmas carolers.
– Elizabeth Rayne
I kind of love the concept of this movie.
There have been so many holiday-themed horror films at this point—reaching Christmas and going far, far beyond that—so why not make an anthology film that takes that idea to the extreme? Holidays hits the expected staples such as Christmas, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day, but part of the fun here is how holidays with lesser expectations like Easter or St. Patrick’s Day deliver some truly horrifying content (seriously, the St. Patrick’s Day segment is disturbing, bonkers chaos). The Christmas segment comes courtesy of Scott Stewart (Legion) and has Seth Green trying to survive the holiday as he attempts to get his son the perfect gift. Stewart’s installment feels very reminiscent of a Black Mirror episode with virtual reality, consumerism, and the dangers of mob mentality all playing their part here.
A lot of these anthology films also try to bank off of the name recognition and notoriety of the assembled directors, but Holidays proudly features a collection of mostly fresh faces (although Kevin Smith and Starry Eye’s Kevin Kolsch contribute segments). It’s fun to discover a bunch of new blossoming talents here. Come for the Christmas madness, and then stay for the bonus serving of mega dessert that accompanies it.
– Daniel Kurland
Jack Frost (1997)
Before you ask if this is the cringe worthy father/son bonding vehicle starring Michael Keaton. No, this is the Jack Frost where the killer snowman’s nose functions as both a killing tool and a device to sexually assault his victims. All square? But hey, at the least the film isn’t afraid to ride its ridiculous premise as hard as possible. First of all, an actual killer named Jack Frost crashes into a truck of “genetics material” that causes him to transform into this cold abomination in the first place. That sets the tone pretty nicely for the abundant murders, sex, and plot holes that plague the town of Snowmonton (yup). It’s hard to believe that this film got made, with all of the visuals being some real spectacles that you don’t typically see in the horror genre.
Jack Frost is the perfect Christmas horror film to shut your brain off and watch, or the title that you should be selecting right in the middle of your deep eggnog haze (it’s got a 7 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, so…). It’s stupid nonsense, but it knows that it is and has tons of fun with itself. We need more talented individuals trying to tap into the killer snowman subgenre. There’s still a true classic waiting to come to life here.
– Daniel Kurland
Morbidly funny in its anti-holiday sarcasm and ridiculous demons, Krampus is like a mashup of the Griswolds, the Grinch, and every mythical beast that has ever been rumored to devour children on the naughty list. You’d rather get coal in your stocking than a killer jack-in-the-box jump scare… or find chilling hoof prints in the snow that are definitely not from Rudolph.
Krampus is one Yuletide monster actually worse than the Grinch. The grisly inspiration for this tale is a Germanic one about a hairy, horned, and cloven-footed demon who stuffs naughty children in his sack and either beats them with a wooden switch or eats them (depending on who you ask). Also, his heart won’t grow three sizes from gorging on human flesh, either.
This version of him is also hungry for anyone who’s lost their holiday spirit—whether or not you otherwise qualify for the nice list. Watch this with the lights off for the full effect of the power outage that works to the creature’s advantage as he goes hunting for holiday nonbelievers. Kids, don’t scorn Santa or Krampus will come to collect you.
– Elizabeth Rayne
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
There are some of us who know this movie verbatim and to the point where we will shamelessly break out singing “This is Halloween” and raise Jack’s quasi-Shakespearean monologue from the dead even in the middle of July. Or keep warning people that tragedy’s at hand. Or correct anyone who says there are 365 days until next Halloween by growling “364!” The stop-motion animation saga of the talking skeleton turned “Sandy Claws” bewitched an entire generation of ‘90s kids.
Even people who hate Halloween will stare with delight and awe when Jack’s skull bursts out of a snowdrift, and he first puts colored lights in his eye sockets and explores every “what’s this?” in Christmas Town like a spook in a coffin shop. You just can’t help but love the adventurous skeleton, even if he does end up making haunted houses out of people’s living rooms on Christmas Eve. Whether you’d rather be making Christmas with strangely somber carols, reanimated reindeer or toys that bite back, it’s now an officially unofficial holiday classic.
– Elizabeth Rayne
Rare Exports (2010)
There couldn’t possibly be a more sinister place to search for Santa’s ancient burial mount than in the frigid depths of Lapland. It’s the same supposedly enchanted place Dick van Dyke hiked to in the search for Santa in an ‘80s musical Christmas special, except this time you won’t find him in a cozy cottage with stockings hung by the chimney with care. You won’t find the guy in red from the mall, but anything that takes a disembodied pig’s head as bait couldn’t possibly be jingle-belling on a sleigh with eight tiny reindeer, especially when he seems to have a ravenous appetite for said reindeer.
This time, “the spirit of the season” is literally the most malicious Christmas spirit that has ever terrorized the Yuletide. Even if you watch the whole thing in Finnish and don’t understand a word except the screaming, the ghost of the child in you that really did believe there was a guy in the North Pole will be forever traumatized. This glaze-eyed zombie incarnation of Mr. Claus doesn’t laugh like a bowl full of jelly. You better watch out.
– Elizabeth Rayne
Santa Claws (1996)
You do have to wonder what happened to John Russo along the line. 30 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 cliché 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 transference would work in Freudian terms, but when he gets older, he a) becomes obsessed with a low-budget scream queen named Raven (played by low-budget scream queen Debbie Rochon) and b) 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 eight-year-old smarty-pants came up with that clever “Santa Claws” pun, well, he just had to run with it.
– Jim Knipfel
Santa’s Slay (2005)
Christmas can sure scare the Dickens out of people. Hence why you can’t not watch a holiday horror flick in which Santa is the Antichrist, sentenced to 1,000 years of delivering gifts after losing a curling match with an angel, and played by former pro wrestler Bill “Who’s Next?” Goldberg. As the only son of Satan (you know what they say about rearranging the letters in that name) whose grim legend is immortalized in the Book of Claus, he can now at last spread Christmas fear with weapons, karate kicks, hand grenades, exploding presents, and his own perverse idea of what “Ho ho ho” should really mean. Them’s the breaks once the bet’s terms are done.
Santa’s methods of murder are fiendishly festive—to say the least. There is no naughty or nice list when it comes to an insatiable appetite for violence. Grandpa gets run over by a hell-deer, and Slayer-Claus forever silences Fran Drescher’s irredeemably nasal laugh by drowning her in eggnog. He even knocks out poseurs in red suits and drives a sleigh with a rocket engine like it’s the Batmobile. Mall Santas everywhere are shaking in their pleather boots.
– Elizabeth Rayne
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Naughty children get punished with more than just a stocking full of coal in this Christmas chiller. Just the opening scene with all those empty-eyed animatronic toys haunting a window display after-hours should tell you that this is not a movie that’s going to end in visions of sugarplums. Forget that it’s supposed to be the season of all things magical. Those things can be more terrifying than every single plastic skeleton and gaping zombie mask you’ll ever see in a haunted house around Halloween.
You’d better watch out for that psycho in the red suit who grabs a hatchet off the wall as if it was his bag full of toys and packs an automatic pistol in his fur-lined pocket, murdering misbehaving kids he’s been watching undercover of shadow. This sadistic Santa clearly doesn’t believe in sliding down chimneys—and the only red he’s interested in wearing is the blood of innocents. If that won’t convince you to stay awake because he sees you when you’re sleeping, you must be Freddie Krueger.
– Elizabeth Rayne
Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987)
Three years after the shit-storm sparked by the original’s ad campaign, some smart cookie decided a sequel was necessary. A tough call there, given most all the principals were killed off pretty thoroughly the first time around, but still, right? There was money to be made. So they brought in an untested director (Lee Harry), a mostly untested crew, and a cast of mostly non-professional actors. After a half-dozen writers took a swipe at the script, they came up with a 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 becomes determined to uncover what went wrong.
He pays a visit to the sadistic Mother Superior at the Catholic asylum where his brother had been kept, and before you can say “ho ho ho,” Ricky ends 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 the first one had. Sadly, it was too late for that.
– Jim Knpifel
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 murderer and all around brute who oversaw a savage reign of terror. Finally fed up with all his nonsense, the ornery local villagers banded together on the night of Dec. 5 and lynched him. As per tradition, however, in the moments before he died Sinterklaas vowed vengeance from beyond the grave, promising to retirn every 32 years on that very night to do bad and icky things to the villagers’ descendants.
Over the centuries, the story was mainstreamed and soft-pedaled, becoming part of the local folklore. The character of Saint Nick became much more benevolent and child-friendly so as not to scare the wee folk. Then, well, wouldn’t you know it? That anniversary creeps around again, Sinterklaas is true to his word, and Amsterdam turns all bloody, leaving it up to an intrepid teenager named Frank to put a stop to the mayhem. 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.
– Jim Knipfel
Tales From the Crypt: And All Through the House (1972)
The Crypt Keeper first emerged as a ghoulish EC Comics horror host in the pages of Tales From the Crypt who crawled onto the big screen in this horror anthology, welcoming unknowing tourists to his catacombs with bony arms open. What the tourists don’t know is that they’re all recently deceased. The invite is to a subterranean story-time in which he unearths the gruesome details of their deaths with a gap-toothed grin. Creatures are obviously stirring when killer wife Joanne is stalked by a homicidal Santa in this warped homage to ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas titled (appropriately enough) “… And All Through the House.”
So it is that “O Come All Ye Faithful” is interrupted while playing on the radio by a scratchy warning of a homicidal maniac run amok. And wouldn’t you just know it, this occurs right as Joan Collins is offing her husband with a shot to the head—and then realizes she has to dismember the body before cashing in on his life insurance. Her blissfully naïve daughter lets the killer jolly old elf in, shrieking that Santa finally came before he erupts into psychopathic rage. Clement C. Moore must be turning in his grave.
– Elizabeth Rayne