This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Imagine a dystopian near-future where a lone, remote overlord is capable of monitoring not just your actions, but the motivations behind them. Citizens try to remain mindful, knowing the year-end audit will result—at best—in home invasion by the omniscient administrator.
Nobody really knows for sure what happens to people who are naughty.
That’s Christmas—aka the perfect backdrop for messed-up horror movies. As I learned on a recent weekend while immersing myself in Christmas horror, most directors bypass the factual terrors of Christmas, like debt, travel, and relatives, in favour of axe-wielding Santa revenge moms going batshit ballistic on horny teens for…reasons. Rather than serving horror’s usual implied purpose of helping us confront our fears, Christmas horror movies seem to provide a specific sort of escapism—the brain-dead kind best enjoyed with pie after smoking shake with your uncle behind the shed.
Much of the cinematic gold listed below is like, “It’s Christmas, BUT MOSTLY WE’RE IN AN ASYLUM HAUNTED BY GHOSTS SO 94 PERCENT OF THE MOVIE IS JUST GHOSTS”; other films are more like, “SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAPPENED TO THIS CHILD (on Christmas) SO NOW AS AN ADULT HE’S GOING ON A MURDER SPREE.”
None of them have much to do with Christmas, but all of them would be fantastic to put on if your family agrees to “watch a Christmas movie.” Only a couple of them are even sort of good. But I watched them, so you wouldn’t have to—I purposely kept them out of order below rather than ranking them, as each is truly good and mostly TERRIBLE in its own unique way. Don’t say this red-eyed reindeer never got you anything.
Good Tidings (2016)
Easily the best of the batch, Good Tidings beats out every other movie on this list in terms of things that make something an actual movie that is normal to watch, as opposed to like, an experience you suffer through and leave with more questions than answers. It’s well-shot, well-acted, and, at times, genuinely terrifying. It concerns a group of street people who’ve built a stable community within the halls of an unoccupied municipal building and forgoes the Christmas myth all together, instead kicking into action with the speed of John Wick: It’s Christmas, we’re in an already-vulnerable community led by a well-meaning but fragile war vet, and three strangers in Santa suits and monster masks just broke into their shelter and started indiscriminately slaughtering people.
This film is arguably also the most frightening on the list because its plot feels the most possible, and within that realm of the possible, the most hopeless to survive, if ever you should have to try. The villains are scary for their apparent lack of motivation other than pure love of the kill, putting it on par with Rob Zombie’s 31 and other films about hunting humans.
That said, Good Tidings ranks between zero and one on a scale of one to Christmas. There’s almost no Christmas in this movie. Just blood—lots and lots of blood. Since all I want for Christmas is a preposterous quantity of high-quality fake blood, I’ll give it an 11/10 (knowing I won’t be ranking the rest).
To All a Good Night (1980)
The meaning of Christmas, according to horror filmmakers: If you get horny anywhere within the vicinity of Christmas, you’re gonna get murdered, probably by someone in a Santa suit. During the month of December, sexual activity other than that which is performed for the purposes of reproduction, between heterosexual married people, off-camera, and during times other than when the movie is set, will absolutely result in violent death. This powerful message is reinforced in every single film on this list in one way or another.
So, naturally, this film is set at an all-girl boarding school full of horny students just dying to be cubed up by Murder Santa. This isn’t just because they’re horny—when you’re a killer in a Santa Suit seeking vengeance for your dead daughter who never lived long enough to be horny or get murdered, it’s just a bad time to have a pulse, and also be in a remote cabin in the woods, and intoxicated.
Now, I wasn’t around, but it seems like, when you wanted to have sex in the 1970s, lots of people would just go up to cabins in groups and arbitrarily assign partners to one another, and you’d be expected to go along with the person your friend brought for you. This seems wild uncomfortable, but in the world of To All a Good Night, maybe it’s an evolutionary self-preservation reflex.
Another theory: Not wanting to bone anybody + showing your overwhelming innocence by only drinking whole milk throughout the entire movie = Final Girl status in 70s Porno Christmas Slaughter World (albeit, probably, one with a mucus issue).
Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)
“Co-produced by Lloyd Kaufman” is usually enough to make my feet sweat, but Silent Night, Bloody Night also stars the legendary Mary Woronov. Cool, even before taking into account that the cast also includes John Carradine and a whole mess of Warhol superstars, including freaking Ondine—right?
No. This movie is nonsense. I still feel like I missed something (coincidentally, the same feeling I sometimes get in modern art museums). From what I can tell, the movie goes like this: A realtor gets a call to sell an old house for cash. That gets him killed. Why? On one hand, because this is Christmas horror world, where Santa drags the wilfully horny to murder jail—and the realtor is cheating on his wife with a babe. But there are other, far less comprehensible or well-explained reasons for why the action unfolds as it does. They’re just not worth getting into.
And that’s the movie—except not, because en route to the movie’s own answer for why the realtor was killed, there are like 16 unsexy affairs (some of which result in orphaned kids?), a whole lot of rezoning that house from a residential property to a mental institution and back again, and some Hausu moments. Mostly, it’s just another harrowing tale of the risks of being horny around Christmas.
The Elf (2017)
“This may genuinely be the worst film I’ve ever seen in any context,” I said after watching two of the movies listed in this piece, one of which was The Elf. Multiple non-connected sources confirm my sentiment that the demonic elf doll haunting the center of this film looks like the dancing baby from Ally McBeal. The important thing to note here is that this movie came out last year.
This is one of the many films on this list where some dude’s Santa-flavoured childhood trauma serves as the catalyst for all that is evil. But where most Christmas horror films, like Christmas Evil, tell stories of people who go cuckoo and dress up as Santa to do bad things, The Elf centers on the witnesses of Murder Santa crimes. Sort of. In brief: Dude who sees a Murder Santa incident as a kid later inherits a haunted toy store (this seemed totally normal—not kidding, I lived over one in college) complete with semi-sentient Murder Elf. Rest of the movie is Goetic Dog the Bounty Hunter against the Dancing Baby. Again: This came out last year.
Mother Krampus (2017)
This movie is ostensibly based on the myth of Frau Perchta. Just like how I don’t know anything about that (though I’ll look into it), I don’t know the first thing about how one makes sense of the 34,432 Krampus movies out there. They’re not all from the same series—none, in fact, seem congruent with the rest. Of them, Mother Krampus may be the worst of all.
This film is off the charts when it come to “Biblical heterosexuality, or else punishment”: Not content to torment the unfaithful, this Krampus goes after the recently divorced and their offspring. Witches take naughty children, your unfaithful ass of an ex-husband dates young women who could become potential stepmoms and subsequently take your children...we get it.
Honestly, I must have fallen asleep during this one both times I tried to watch it from start to finish, dreaming of the Christmas present I bought years ago, well in advance of all my future unborn children (that being my IUD).
Final remarks: These aren’t Christmas horror movies, they’re monster movies about creatures who go after people who are bad at sex.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
While the film itself isn’t any worse than your run-of-the-mill slasher, Silent Night, Deadly Night actually scared a whole lot of people when it was released, thanks to early adventures in film marketing. Commercials for the movie, in which a teenage boy dressed as Santa Claus commits mass murder at the orphanage where he was abused as a child, ran during breaks for family-friendly television, leading to parents bitching and the film being pulled from theatres. Parents across the country reported their children suddenly being terrified of Santa.
That’s what makes this movie so much fun—knowing it made children cry and censors mad. Also, there are punishment nuns. See? There’s still some joy left in this season if you’re willing to look.
Christmas Evil (1980)
This film has a cult following helmed by John Waters, which made me think it would either be campier or scarier than it was. Interestingly, it predates Silent Night, Deadly Night by four years, but garnered none of the same outrage despite being nearly identical in theme.
A blowjob is the (sch)long fuse that sets off an eventual killing spree perpetuated, again, by a middle-aged, maladjusted white dude—this time, a toy factory employee, dressed like Santa. The scariest thing about this film today might be how normal “guy snaps and goes on a killing spree at work” might be to us now, a short 38 years later. Don’t think about that alone in a dark room at night.
All Through the House (2016)
If I have the opportunity to advise against watching anything on this list, let it be All Through The House, which—though The Elf tried its hardest—may be the worst film I’ve ever seen in any context, ever.
Here, again, Christ is still suspiciously present in Christmas, despite that it’s “Santa” going around murdering the byproducts of various marital trespasses from decades past. There’s absolutely no mistaking the villain in this one. Her misandry is so cartoonishly powerful, I have to wonder who wrote the character and how often they call their mom.
I want to be real with you here: Do not watch this horrible, stupid movie. Usually I wouldn’t bother being firm, because if you tell somebody to stand in the corner and NOT think about polar bears, what’s their obvious next move? But, here, I ask for your trust, as All Through The House took the worst of Hollywood transphobia tropes and played 52-card pickup.
In addition to being horrifyingly offensive, the film’s plot is badly executed and difficult to follow, but it basically goes something like this: Sexy 20-somethings get roped into house-sitting for the Infamous Creepy Crazy Misandrist Lady Who Lives in the Mansion on the Corner, on Christmas. Everything is fine until the Sexy Coeds start getting murdered by Santa Claus—surprise, the Creepy Lady in a costume. This is because the Creepy Lady, who hates men after her husband left her for the mother of the Sexy Housesitter (or something), castrated her first-born son thinking it would absolve him of masculinity. Forced feminisation and institutionalisation, castrati son back to avenge his childhood, Murder Santa Misandry Mom gets killed—nobody gets their dick back, but when the movie ends, all seems fine.
If one was forced at axe-point to weave a silver lining out of pubes and tinsel, you could maybe say this film is an effective allegorical warning of what can happen if a parent tries to force gender identity onto their child—pointing at your son and screaming “THIS IS A GIRL” is about as helpful as pointing at the same child and screaming “THIS IS A PANCAKE”—but please do not do this film a disservice by watching it mindfully, or even watching it at all.
Forget I told you about it. There’s not enough weed in the world. Trust me, I double-checked my work.
A Christmas Horror Story (2015)
Here’s another film that made me feel guilty for not watching truly bad movies. A Christmas Horror Story is an old-fashioned horror anthology (think Creepshow or V/H/S), with four stories happening simultaneously, in a small town boasting a radio station helmed by DJ “Dangerous” Dan—William Shatner.
The problem here, as with most anthologies, is that, inevitably, one or two chapters aren’t as good as the rest. Here, it means effective jump scares a small percentage of the time and sexy Krampus CGI for the remainder.
There is not nearly enough Shatner in this to make up for having to write the phrase “sexy Krampus CGI.”
However, this collection has at least one Extreme WTF Moment at the Black Mirror level, where perspective transcends the possible in the worst way: Few things are more frightening, on Christmas or any other day, than considering how fragile the average human’s concept of reality actually is. We’ve all had that nightmare—what if when we see red, everybody else sees blue? What if water is actually solid and orgasms are painful, up is down and Trump is awesome, and, in related news, my wife and I ate this weed brownie and now I think we’re dead, anybody else smell burnt toast, etc.
Now imagine that phenomenological paradox applied to a situation where you are, unknowingly, the aggressor. Blinking mid-attack and the lights coming on in full, tunnel vision rushing away behind you like water down a gutter, the cartoonish Where am I? Who am I?? moment—except you’re in the middle of a mall dressed as Santa, and your hands are covered in the blood of children.
Sidenote: Like a lot of these movies, violence > plot. While the violence here is pretty sick, the stress crux is a shitty relationship involving kids, or a shitty marriage with a garbage person.
At this point, I’m wondering if heterosexuality is the cause of the Christmas Curse. Be gay, avoid Murder Santa!
A L’Interieur (Inside) (2007)
This was my gift to myself after suffering through all of the above—and should be yours too, if you’ve ridden the sleigh this far with me. Roll up another phat Yule log and let’s get excited for the only Christmas movie I’ve ever seen where most of the film is a woman in labor bleeding out all over her house!
One of the higher points of what some call the New French Extremity, Inside is brutally gross from start to finish, with 95 percent of its greatest hits and slits coming from just two women. It still relies on the same tired-ass, woman-ass tropes I’d love to see banned from horror for the next decade—storylines revolving around motherhood, pregnancy, marriage and children, repeat ad nauseum—but the violence is more than atypically indelicate, it bangs like a gong. On your fucking face.
Horror and extreme music are a lot alike in that way. You’d think a love of boundary-pushing and subversion would naturally lead to a vibrant multinational community of women in horror, off screen in production as well as on—cold, unfeeling, serial-killing nightmare bitches who undo society’s expectations in a way that makes people profoundly uncomfortable and pushes everyone’s boundaries, including dudes’ .
But, of course, no. The further you get out onto the fringes, the more you come across “pushing boundaries” and “no safe spaces” arguments from the same guys who get stuffed up and cry reverse-sexism anytime somebody’s nuts get nailed to a cabin floor. Female characters are still largely built from a small group of presets: most are still hot and trying to kill the mistress or avenge their lost child or, here, a lost pregnancy. Rather than pushing boundaries, these big brave brilliant men are copping to the most mediocre, unconscious, socially-sanctioned practice in the world: sexism.
Violence at the level of that in Inside permanently expands our sense of how women exist in the world of horror—as actresses and the characters they play. We’ve now shown a specific, heightened level of brutality and we can never go back. What was thought to be impossible, it turns out, was just forbidden. Nothing says Christmas like watching one woman try to extract another’s fetus from the ribs down, with sewing scissors! Inside is a gift in that way: So gross that the rest of us now get to step it up a notch, forever. Happy holidays to that.