One thing that I never really understood was why Hollywood is so obsessed with making Christmas scary. Don’t get me wrong; I love Christmas almost as much as I love horror movies. I love it when a movie throws two completely unrelated ideas together just to see what happens. I even support studios releasing horror movies in the “off-season” in order to appeal to the non-Four Christmases crowd.
What I don’t understand is why filmmakers continue to try to make Christmas, as a concept, frightening – because it’s not. Santa’s a jolly old fat man whose physique doesn’t lend itself to slaughter. Elves are, at best, unnerving and, at worst, a slightly more malevolent than Alvin and the Chipmunks. Don’t even get me started on snowmen.
Since I dove into the sci-fi side of the yuletide last week, I thought that I would do the same with Christmas’ colorful foray into the horrific. While I can’t possibly justify referring to many of these as the best of anything, they’re at least that special kind of entertaining where it’s obvious that the filmmakers didn’t quite think their movie through as thoroughly as they probably should have.
5 – Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) On the surface, this movie represents everything that I just got through explaining was wrong with this vain of filmmaking. Christmas is not inherently frightening and this movie features an axe-wielding maniac in a Santa costume murdering people on Christmas Eve. While this is true, it tackles the problem from a surprisingly sophisticated direction: delving into the events that turned a happy, middle-class child into a killer.
When eight-year-old Billy’s parents are murdered in front of him by a mugger dressed as Santa, he becomes deeply phobic of all St. Nicks. The orphanage that he’s sent to only exacerbates the problem: forcing him to suppress his trauma for the next ten years. Things start looking up for him, though. He gets out of the orphanage and gets a job at a toy store. But when the store’s resident Santa is put out of commission, Billy is forced to fill the role, causing a psychotic break that results in a Christmas murder spree.
I won’t pretend that Silent Night, Deadly Night is a good movie by any means. The murders are dull, the acting is terrible and the plot is a disjointed mess of half-realized ideas. The film’s strength, however, is that the killing spree doesn’t start until well after the movie’s halfway point. The entire first half is a detailed account of Billy’s tragic childhood: from middle class Bruce Wayne to psychologically abused orphan trying to make sense of what happened to his parents. He is not simply a flatly written killer, but a sympathetic human being whose entire, doleful life plays out for us long before the deadly night in question.
4 – Jack Frost (1997) I’m pretty sure that it’s impossible to hate a movie whose opening dialog includes the line “Jack was nimble. / Jack was quick. / Jack gouged eyes with candle sticks,” regardless of how God-awful it ends up being. That, in a nutshell, describes my not-so-complicated feelings towards Jack Frost – a film so bumblingly inept that the 1969 Frosty the Snowman cartoon was more legitimately frightening.
While transporting serial killer Jack Frost down a slick, wintry road to be executed, a truck carrying radioactive waste into it. Despite killing the drivers, the accident splices Jack’s DNA with the snow, transforming him into a super-powered snowman. Now, free to cut his way across America once more, he tracks down the small-town sheriff that arrested him in the first place in order to enact his revenge.
Although technically a horror-comedy, I don’t see how anybody working on this project was able to mistake the film as anything even remotely terrifying. Pitting ordinary humans against malevolent beings that can control snow and reshape their crystalline body into anything they want is actually a great starting point for a horror movie. But when your R-rated horror film is outclassed by the PG snow creature guarding Elsa’s palace in Frozen, there might be a fundamental problem with your movie.
That being said, it’s a weirdly entertaining film that is infinitely rewatchable. Say what you will about its critical merit, but Jack Frost is funnier than virtually every intentionally comedic Christmas film.
3 – Santa’s Slay (2005) Like 1989’s Elves, Santa’s Slay works needlessly hard to get its plot exactly where it wants to be. Most killer Santa Claus movies are happy enough to just give the old Kris Kringle free reign to kill and call it a movie, maybe shoe-horning in something vaguely resembling a motivation behind the mayhem in after the fact. Santa’s Slay tries really hard to make sense,, and the result is just brilliant.
Santa Claus, as it turns out, is really the anti-Christ: a virgin birth by the way of the Devil who would celebrate his birthday each year by indiscriminately slaughtering the innocent. He loses a bet with an angel over a game of Curling and is forced to bring presents and good cheer to all mankind on Christmas day for a millennia. But now the thousand years are over, and he can once again return to his old Christmas ways.
Despite how fundamentally messed up the entire premise is, Santa’s Slay is one of the most enjoyable seasonal romps I have ever seen. While certainly not a good actor, Bill Goldberg is perfectly cast as the film’s satanic Santa. He’s a physically imposing guy with a grizzled mountain-man beard and a gravelly voice: chewing the scenery with just the right mixture of seriousness and camp. Unlike Silent Night, Deadly Night, the film’s death scenes are actually really fun and memorable, which is really all that you can hope for in a movie with a killer Santa Claus.
2 – Black Christmas (1974) While the previous three films were all varying degrees of entertaining, this is the first film that I would unreservedly call “good.” It’s a fairly standard Halloween-styled slasher film, only with a better-than-necessary cast and a satisfying – if not entirely surprising ending.
During their annual Christmas party, a sorority receives an obscene phone call from an unknown caller. When one of the sisters brazenly tells the guy off, he promises that he’ll kill them all which, over the course of the next 90 minutes, he does. Just that simple.
Looking back on Black Christmas, it incorporates some of the best elements of the then-unproduced Halloween and Friday the 13th. It follows around a group of rambunctious sorority sisters as they’re killed off one by one in increasingly violent means (even if they are incredibly tame by today’s standards). It even manages to keep the killer’s identity a secret throughout the entire film, with murders either being committed through the killer’s point of view or with the killer cloaked in shadows. They even manage to play the film off more as a murder mystery than as what audiences today would think of as a straight slasher film.
Despite its cult popularity and generally popular reputation, the film’s really most notable for having been directed by Bob Clark. Yes, the same guy who was responsible for directing A Christmas Story is also responsible for the Psycho of the winter season.
1 – Gremlins (1984) Gremlins and Black Christmas share one key feature that best illustrates why they work as serious horror films despite being set during the Christmas season. Despite their holiday trappings, they are never really about Christmas. Like Die Hard, they just happen to take place in December: never trying too hard to play up that particular gimmick.
When Billy Peltzer is given a mysterious, Ferbie-like creature called a Mogwai for Christmas, he is given three simple rules. 1) Don’t expose it to bright lights (sunlight will kill it). 2) Don’t get it wet (water causes it to multiply). 3) Don’t feed it after midnight (doing so will turn it into a murderous gremlin). One thing leads to another, and before long hoards of reptilian monsters are terrorizing the town. Now Billy has to lead the charge against the gremlins and reclaim the town.
Released with a PG rating and largely marketed toward children, it’s no wonder that this film outraged a lot of parents. It’s genuinely terrifying, surprisingly gory and even features a character who hates Christmas because her father, dressed as Santa, broke his neck going down the chimney on Christmas Eve and was only discovered weeks later when the smell made its way into the rest of the house. The MPAA, in addressing both Gremlins‘ and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom‘s PG rating, came out with the PG-13 rating later that year.
At the same time, it’s really no surprise why this movie is so fondly remembered today; it was produced by Stephen Spielberg, written by Christopher Columbus (of Harry Potter fame), directed by the consistently serviceable Joe Dante and contains some of the most convincing puppets ever put to film. It’s a film aimed at children, but whose seriousness appeals to adults as well. Beyond being good, it’s fun: creatively parodying films and pop culture while never losing its horrific focus.