Happy Horror Days: My Favorite Christmas-Themed Fright Flicks
As holidays go in the U.S., Christmas is the largest of them all, both culturally and economically. Thus, it goes without saying that something so inescapable and influential will be the central focus of many stories told in many different genres--including horror. All things considered, Christmas is actually a better setting for a horror movie than Halloween, the second largest holiday. Halloween is a deliberately creepy holiday, so monsters roaming around our streets and homes during that holiday season should come as no surprise. On the other hand, Christmas is always associated with warm and fuzzy things--family, faith, charity, goodwill towards others, and so on--which makes it the perfect time to unleash unspeakable horrors among a group of unsuspecting, holiday-happy protagonists.
Unfortunately, when making a Christmas-themed horror movie, most filmmakers have opted for directly involving one of its popular icons: Santa Claus. Either they have a serial killer dress up like Santa or they have the "real" Kris Kringle revealed to be some kind of inhuman, bloodthirsty monstrosity. (This isn't always a bad thing, though--I'm looking at you, Invader Zim and Futurama.) In contrast, the Christmas horror films that I tend to prefer use the holiday as a background setting to build a more chilling, horrifying atmosphere than your typical non-holiday terror tale. Click below to read about three of my favorites. Each of the movies on my list could have been set at any other time during the year, but having them take place during the Christmas season makes them truly unforgettable.
3. Gremlins (1984): In this holiday gem, executive producer Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Chris Columbus and director Joe Dante dumped piles of psychotic Looney Toons-powered dynamite upon the traditional picture of 20th century small-town Americana during the Christmas season (a picture largely influenced by Norman Rockwell and Frank Capra; It's a Wonderful Life even makes a cameo appearance in this movie) and then gleefully blew it to smithereens. As a result, Gremlins not only spawned its own line of highly profitable merchandise and low-budget rip-offs, but it also prompted the creation of a new movie rating, PG-13. That's a pretty nifty feat for a puppet movie, two decades before Team America: World Police arrived on the silver screen.
If anything, Gremlins proves that there's a very fine, razor-thin line between absurd, madcap humor and brutal, shocking horror. While Gremlins isn't considered by many to be on the same level as the hyperactive "splatstick" classics such as Evil Dead 2 and Dead Alive, it's still a very inspired work of cinematic chaos that reached levels of narrative and visual insanity that few horror films ever come close to achieving. Think about it: How many other horror films can you think of that feature creatures that (among other things) wield chainsaws, graphically melt into skeletons in the sunlight, get blown up in microwaves and pulverized in blenders and have been marketed as family films? (Let's see VeggieTales do that.) In fact, not only was this film set during Christmas, but it was originally intended to be released during the Christmas season as well. Be sure to see its sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, which is just as frantic as its predecessor but lacks its Christmas season craziness.
2. Black Christmas (1974): John Carpenter's Halloween is often cited by horror buffs as the first of many holiday-themed slashers (followed by My Bloody Valentine, Mother's Day, April Fools Day, and so on), but Black Christmas is the granddaddy of them all and still one of the best. Black Christmas is a rarity in the sense that it is one of the few horror movies where you never really see the monster, you never learn where exactly the monster came from, and the monster isn't defeated by the end of the movie. The only other horror movie I can think of that has these same attributes is The Blair Witch Project, which didn't arrive in theaters until 1999. In Black Christmas, you only hear the killer through a series of disturbing phone calls, and you only see the killer from his own point of view; one scene where he has a sudden violent tantrum is particularly unnerving to watch, because you only see it through his eyes.
Black Christmas has a lot going for it, including a great script, a great cast, and a great director--which was Bob Clark, who later went on to direct another holiday classic, the very nostalgic, non-horrifying A Christmas Story(!). Yet Clark amps up the tension considerably by using the holiday season as the backdrop for this slasher story, contrasting the warm and festive holiday decorations with the interpersonal drama among the main characters and the faceless murderer who lurks in their attic. Sadly, everything at which the original Black Christmas excells is completely bungled in the inept 2006 remake.
1. The Children (2008): While this film could be lumped in with other "killer kids" movies (or, for that matter, other "insanity virus" movies such as Rabid, 28 Days Later, Quarantine, and both versions of The Crazies), it's the Christmas setting in the The Children that will have your eyes bulging out of their sockets in shock. If you've ever had to spend time in an overcrowded house as part of a holiday season family reunion--especially a reunion that involves lots of kids--you'll recognize many of the situations depicted in The Children. Kids having to share a single room and entertaining themselves before going to sleep, adults staying up late to discuss adult things in the living room, the crowded dining room where everyone convenes to eat the holiday dinner ... they are all there in detail, which ratchets up the tension to heart-stopping levels once events take sharp, gruesome turns for the worse.