What's to love about Christmas? The rampant commercialization? The long shopping lines and traffic that result from said commercialization? Or putting up with relatives who always remind you why you see them only once a year?
That's why we need more Christmas horror flicks. If we're going to be miserable, we might as well have the shit scared out of us, too. Sure, many Christmas horror movies are just as bad as (and often worse than) so-called classic Christmas films, but a select group is decent-ish—even creepy!
Take the following five films, starting with It's a Wonderful Life. On its face, it's a feel-good picture. But, really, it's a horror movie. Don't let the happy ending fool you. For example, the main character is rewarded for saving his brother from drowning by losing his hearing. The old pharmacist accidentally poisons a bunch of people. The town asshole, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), tells George Bailey (James Stewart) he'd be worth more dead than alive. George attempts suicide.
Then there's the ne plus ultra of horror: Bad acting. The child playing George's daughter gives the worst line reading in movie history (for real; I study these things) when she tells him every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings. It's a Wonderful Life was a box office bomb during its original release. I wonder what kept viewers away?
Sappy Frank Capra movies aside, there's more traditional horror out there. If you don't want to watch James Stewart (nearly) drown, perhaps you'd be more comfortable watching sorority sisters menaced by a nameless killer?
That's the premise of Bob Clark's Black Christmas (Clark also directed A Christmas Story, Porky's and Baby Geniuses; his was an unusually varied career). It's the standard there's-a-stalker-on-the-phone-and-he's-inside-the-house routine, but it has the added bonus of good performances by Olivia Hussey (a long way from Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet), Margot Kidder and Keir Dullea, and a built-in gnarly 1970s vibe. Plus, Clark knew something about atmosphere (or at least horror atmosphere; skip Baby Geniuses unless you're looking for unintentional horror). Black Christmas is just plain creepy. You'll never look at a rocking chair the same way. And stay away from the remake.
Back in 1984, Silent Night, Deadly Night started a national frenzy when people saw its one-sheet depicting Santa's arm gripping an axe as he descended a chimney. Church groups and Reagan Democrats were aghast: Santa kills people? Silent Night, Deadly Night was pulled early from cinemas over the furor. It turns out everyone who got bent out of shape by its premise was wrong—Santa doesn't kill people. A deranged dope dressed as Santa kills people.
But just how is the movie? In a word: Garbage. It contains every rotten '80s slasher trope, including attempted rape, gratuitous nudity and graphic deaths. But it also features the fake Santa yelling "Naughty!" before each kill, which is mildly amusing if not particularly inspired. By the way, this piece of crap spawned four sequels.
Here's a poser: Do movies released in June that take place during Christmas count as Christmas movies? If so, Gremlins falls under the Christmas horror umbrella. There isn't much to write about Gremlins that hasn't been written before, but for those who think it's not a horror film, remember: One gremlin explodes in a microwave, an elderly woman is shot into the stratosphere by an out-of-control stair lift, and one character's father breaks his neck and dies in a chimney (off-screen, but still). Gremlins is nasty, mean-spirited, features Howie Mandel and—along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom the same year—inspired the PG-13 rating. Its horror bona fides are legit.
That brings us to Krampus, one of the few horror films that did better with critics than with audiences. Based on a Bavarian folktale about a weird goat-devil thing that punishes bad children, director Michael Dougherty (who made the superior Trick 'r Treat, which is about Easter or something) goes for horror-comedy and ends up with too little of either. Pro tip: If you're going to cast David Koechner and Conchata Ferrell, make their characters funny, not the kind of people you'd like to murder.
Max (Emjay Anthony) is all about Christmas, but when things don't go his way Christmas Eve, he tears up a letter to Santa and accidentally summons the title character who then turns Max's family into mincemeat. Krampus has a dark ending and some chills, but when you're watching it and wonder how this movie attracted A-listers Toni Collette and Adam Scott, it ain't really doing its job.
That means it's your job, budding filmmakers of the world, to come up with the scariest Christmas flick you can. My suggestion: Santa Claus flips out and kills everyone in Anytown, U.S.A., because some brat forgot to set out cookies and milk for him. Or better yet: The milk went bad and causes Santa to suffer paranoid delusions that result in mass slaughter.
Hop to it; I plan to revise this list next year, so screenplays are due by March 31. Happy holidays!