Christmas and Horror: Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together!
You’ve probably heard about the flap over the R-rated Miramax comedy BAD SANTA, in theaters now and receiving all manner of bad press from various right wing dickheads calling for it to be censored immediately. Fine, but first I’d suggest they—and you—check out some, if not all, of the following movies, most of them available on video and/or DVD (in the US, at least). Their quality varies, but all prove that holiday fare is far more varied than BAD SANTA’S detractors could possibly imagine...and, more importantly, that Christmas and horror make a GREAT combo! Because let’s face it: that fat bastard Santa Claus is pretty damn scary...
I’ll start with the oldest movie on the list, the 1959 Mexican-made SANTA CLAUS. This colorful film displays a worshipful, nauseatingly sugary attitude to its hero that viewers of mainstream holiday fare like MIRACLE ON 34th STREET, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH BLAH-BLAH-BLAH will recognize, but it’s far weirder than any of those movies. Foremost among it’s charms are the wacky, near surreal art direction and unbelievable sight of Santa battling Satan(!), who cavorts in a skin tight red leotard, sends bad dreams to innocent children and inspires them to break windows and steal toys. Director Rene Cardona also made WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY and NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES, films that have much in common with this one.
The 1972 British anthology film TALES FROM THE CRYPT is notable for featuring the screen’s premiere evil Santa. In the first of the film’s five segments, Joan Collins finds herself terrorized by a maniac dressed as Santa Claus, a particularly unfortunate development considering she’s just murdered her husband. It seems Joan might have the upper hand on Santa...until her young daughter screws things up by inviting him into the house! A good, tight little story that’s far and away the best part of the film. It was remade years later as an episode of the cult HBO series of the same name.
In 1973’s SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT, an old man haunts the secluded mansion where he witnessed the murder of his family by a band of maniacs years earlier. The place used to be an insane asylum, you see, and the disturbed protagonist unwittingly let the inmates loose. The creepy and atmospheric sequence depicting the events outlined above is the only reason to watch SNDN, the remainder of which is an erratically paced, poorly lit flatline. Worst of all, the Christmas season is incidental to the story, which might as well take place on Easter.
Bob Clark’s 1974 classic BLACK CHRISTMAS remains the prototype of the modern-day slasher movie; watch it back to back with John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN and you’ll see what I mean. The only thing is, this film is set during Christmastime, with a masked maniac loose in a girls’ sorority house who makes creepy phone calls (meaning that in addition to the aforementioned Carpenter film it’s also a forerunner to 1979’s WHEN A STRANGER CALLS) and then murders the inhabitants. An extremely well made film--director Bob Clark was a talented horrormeister back in the seventies, with this film, DEATHDREAM and CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS to his credit--that utilizes repetitive Christmas carols to superbly unnerving effect. Interestingly enough, Clark’s next Holiday-related foray was 1983’s A CHRISTMAS STORY, a far cry from the darkness of BLACK CHRISTMAS.
Taking a step down—way down—we arrive at TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980), a terminally uninspired slasher about a Santa-clad nut loose in a girls’ boarding school. The direction by David Hess (better known as Krug in LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT) is so listless I wonder if he was even awake. The body count is high (a reported fifteen), but the lighting is so dark it’s often difficult to make out what’s going on and anyway, I’m having difficulty remembering what happened in this film—or maybe I just don’t care.
Lewis Jackson’s CHRISTMAS EVIL (a.k.a. YOU BETTER WATCH OUT; 1980), on the other hand, is a bonafide holiday classic. Quite controversial in its day, it stars Brandon Maggart (Fiona Apple’s dad!) as a toy factory worker who likes to spy on kids and make lists as to which ones are naughty or nice, then break into the houses of the naughty kids and leave bad presents. Maggart really goes over the edge when his superiors don’t show his favorite time of year the proper respect and so embarks on a killing spree. CHRISTMAS EVIL is far from great, but it does contain a good deal of fun non-Holiday friendly sleaze, and the much-contested final scene, a warped variant on the image of Santa in his sleigh, is a real show-stopper.
The 1984 British sleazer DON’T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS presents a novel twist on the seasonal slasher formula: this time around it’s people dressed as Santa who receive the brunt of the abuse. The culprit is a freak who as a kid walked in on his “mum” getting boned by a guy in a Santa suit. The film overall is pretty bland and the gore FX quite cheesy, but there are some memorable bits, including a Saint Nick attired prostitute being felt up under her costume and a guy who gets his wang severed while taking a piss!
No Yuletide horror movie list is complete without a mention of 1984’s immortal SLAYRIDE...or, as it’s now known, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT. This one starts out with a kid witnessing his parents killed by a criminal dressed as Santa Claus; the scumbag not only cuts the throat of the kid’s mom, but also rips her top off to expose her breasts. This effects the kid later in life when, after being raised in a corrupt Catholic orphanage, he goes to work as a toy store Santa and spies two of his coworkers getting it on. This causes him to snap and kill pretty much everyone in sight in a variety of ways: a guy gets strangled by Christmas tree lights, a kid gets beheaded with an axe, a woman (played by scream queen Linnea Quigley) gets impaled on deer horns and a friendly Santa finds himself in the wrong place and gets shot to death by cops.
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT is cheap and tacky throughout, but what it has in its favor is a cheerful willingness on the part of director Charles E. Selleir, Jr. (who now says he regrets making the film) to always go that extra mile to appall. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the film was heavily protested; the “ladies with pink hair” (to borrow an expression from Joe Bob Briggs) actually got it banned in several states. That’s doubtless a large part of what made it such a success...and why it spawned a whopping four sequels. Of them I’ve only seen part 2 (1987), a completely underwhelming effort that consists largely of footage recycled from the first film.
The PG-rated GREMLINS (1984) may seem like an odd choice, but it remains one of the most gleefully subversive holiday movies ever (regardless of the fact that it was originally released in the summer). It was produced by Steven Spielberg around the same time he made INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, easily the darkest of the INDIANA JONES flicks, and directed by Joe Dante, who up to then was best known for straightforward horror fare like PIRAHNA and THE HOWLING. The result is a deliciously mean spirited deconstruction of the “spirit of Christmas,” with cute ‘n cuddly creatures turning into ugly, murderous monstrosities. Polly Holliday’s kitchen gremlin massacre is simply GREAT, as is Phoebe Cates’ legendary “Why I hate Christmas” monologue. Back in ‘84 GREMLINS was almost as controversial as SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, and it ain’t hard to discern why.
Moving into the nineties, we come to JACK FROST (1996), a wannabe franchise starter about Jack Frost, a serial killer who gets his molecules scrambled and becomes a killer snowman. He decapitates a kid with a sled, strangles a dude with Christmas tree lights, turns a young woman’s bathwater to snow, stabs a cop with an icicle, etc. Jack makes lame wisecracks throughout (an obvious attempt at emulating Freddy Krueger) and the ending hints at a sequel. Sure enough, a Part 2 followed in 2000, and it was a disaster through and through; somehow I don’t think we’ll be seeing too many more JACK FROST movies!
A far more effective nineties holiday horror fest is the Spanish DAY OF THE BEAST (DIA DE LA BESTIA; 1995), a nutty romp by director Elroy De La Iglesia (ACCION MUTANTE, PERDIDA DURANGO), who blends slapstick and splatter like no one else. In this film, a priest decides to summon and take on the Devil...by committing all the evil he can during the holiday season! Action packed, gory, darkly comedic fun that’s every bit as outrageous as it sounds; any movie that has a row of street corner Santas mowed down by machine gun fire gets my vote!
A CHRISTMAS NIGHTMARE (a.k.a. THE DAMNED; 2001) is the final film on our list, and proves that the anti-Christmas spirit remains alive and well in the new millennium...sort of. Like SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT it only takes place during Christmas, which is otherwise totally unimportant to the events of this pretentious, no budget SHINING wannabe. In place of THE SHINING’S expansive Overlook Hotel, the setting here is a one-story country house, where a man finds himself drawn into the place’s murderous past as visions of ghostly twin girls assail him (sound familiar?). It ends with a hokey swampland chase topped off by some reeeeeeeeally cheesy CGI effects (I guess the filmmakers couldn’t afford a shrub maze!).
Other recommendations? The opening minutes of THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN (LA CITE DES ENFANTS PERDUS; 1995) consist of a singularly horrific dream sequence featuring a child terrorized by a mutating Santa (the rest of the film ain’t too shabby, either). The SEASONS OF BELIEF segment of the anthology program TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE has the parents of two impressionable kids trying to scare ‘em with a story about The Grither, a big green monster who flies around on Christmas Eve as a rival to Santa Claus; in the nasty ending, we discover this monstrous creation is far more real than anyone suspected. Equally noteworthy is Harlan Ellison’s NACKLES, which sadly exists only in teleplay form. It was nearly filmed back in 1985 as a segment of CBS’s short-lived NEW TWILIGHT ZONE, but got axed by network censors. Like SEASONS OF BELIEF it’s about an evil, seemingly made-up alternative to Santa Claus that becomes terrifyingly real for a bigoted welfare officer trapped in the bowels of a big city tenement. Published in the February 1987 issue of THE TWILIGHT ZONE MAGAZINE, one can only imagine how this unforgettably caustic script might have transferred to television.
So there you have it: Christmas and horror, a match made in movie heaven! If you hate Christmas, just kind of like it or simply want a change of pace from the usual holiday movie BS, the above films should more than satisfy...even if many of ‘em suck!