Sunday, December 25, 2016

Horror For the Holidays: The 12 Slays of Christmas

Out of all the many examples of holiday horror, Halloween and Christmas have cornered the market. Between the two, Christmas seems to have given the most gifts to horror fans for over four decades; not all of them are what you hoped for, but there's enough good fear for the cruel-tide tradition to continue for years to come. Below are a deadly dozen of creepy Christmas horrors and a couple of Bad Santa's thrown in for good measure. So gather around the tree and let's open some presents.


Joan Collins has been a bad girl; so bad, in fact, that Santa pays her a personal visit to ensure she's never, ever naughty again. Joan knocks off her husband on Christmas Eve, and in between attempts at cleaning up the mess, hiding the corpse, and trying to keep her daughter in bed, an escaped maniac dressed in a Santa suit tries to come in 'cause 'baby, it's cold outside'

Adapted from its EC comics origins in Vault of Horror #35 from 1953, Britain's Amicus Studios brought good fear with the first ever Killer Kris Kringle in their 1972 anthology, TALES FROM THE CRYPT. Titled 'And All Through the House', director Freddie Francis perfectly captures the holiday spirit in the limited 15 minute running time of this segment (the first of four not counting the wraparound). Years later it would be remade as one of three inaugural stories chosen to launch the award winning HBO series, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, which ran for seven seasons from 1989 to 1996.


Oh, there's no place like Home For the Holidays
Through the storm no matter how far away you run
You pine for the comfort of a familiar gaze
For the holidays you pray to see the next day's sun.

A seasonal suspenser starring a young Sally Field as one of four daughters summoned to the home of their bed-ridden father who believes his younger wife is trying to kill him. Like any dutiful patriarch, he demands his daughters kill off their purportedly wicked step-mother. In between plot twists, a mysterious killer wearing a yellow rain coat begins bumping everyone off with a pitchfork.

Aaron Spelling exec produced this superb Made For TV thriller set on Christmas Eve during a massive downpour complete with thunder and lightning that lasts for 70 of the film's 74 minute running time. 

Written by Joseph Stefano, the writer of Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960); handfuls of OUTER LIMITS episodes (both original and 90s versions); the TV monster flick SNOWBEAST (1977); and THE KINDRED (1987). Director John Llewellyn Moxey directed the fantastic THE CITY OF THE DEAD (1960) before nestling comfortably into the television medium; there he was the guiding force behind such TV terrors as THE HOUSE THAT WOULD NOT DIE (1970), A TASTE OF EVIL (1971), THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) and I, DESIRE (1982). Making its debut on Tuesday, November 28th, 1972, ABC repeated the airing the following year again on Tuesday, but this time on Christmas Day again as the Tuesday Night Movie.


Silent Night
Unholy Night
All are dead
Off with your head
Round yon victims
Young and old
Lowly bodies so bloody and cold
Sleep in so many pieces
Sleep in so many pieces

Formerly an asylum for the criminally insane, the Butler House has been empty for years since the owner died in a mysterious fire. Left to the last living relative, the house is sold to the town council with the intention of tearing it down. However, an axe-wielding, black-gloved figure is stalking the halls of the Butler House with the intention of chopping up anyone who comes inside.

Before Golan and Globus turned it into the House of Bronson and Norris, Cannon was a company that produced a number of lower-tiered horror features including this underrated Christmas chiller; a proto-slasher resembling the sort of movie Hammer should've been making at this time. Aside from a molasses-like pace, you'll recognize traces of Bob Clark's supreme seasonal classic BLACK CHRISTMAS lurking about. Sort of an American Giallo akin to DON'T LOOK NOW (1973), without the artistic touches this would be a forgettable footnote lost in a sea of low budget obscurities. Co-produced by Lloyd Kaufman of Troma, both he and director Theodore Gershuny transplanted the artsy tendencies to the sexy exploitationer, SUGAR COOKIES, in 1973. Gershon Kingsley's ice-cold score is a highlight, particularly his haunting rendition of 'Silent Night'.

The first time I saw the picture was on ELVIRA'S MOVIE MACABRE in the mid 1980s on the late, great WGGT-TV channel 48 (the great entertainer!). It will try the patience of those expecting a linear bloodbath and entice the curiosity of those looking for something under the radar yet classy.


'Twas the night before Black Christmas, when somewhere in the sorority house
a creature was stirring... and it wasn't a mouse.
The bodies were stacked upstairs with morbid care,
the sole survivor in hopes that help soon would be there.

A thoroughly nasty killer delivers threatening phone calls before stalking and murdering the girls in a sorority house over the Christmas holiday. Aside from its skin-crawling suspense, an unsettling score, and goosebump inducing obscene phone calls, the most sense-shattering shock comes upon the revelation that the killer has been phoning it in from inside the house the entire time. Fred Walton would port over this novel plot device for his WHEN A STRANGER CALLS in 1979. The late Bob Clark, who would deliver the ultimate Christmas gift in the form of the seasonal favorite A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983), produced a raunchy remake to BLACK CHRISTMAS in 2006.

BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) was originally set to make its Network Television debut as STRANGER IN THE HOUSE on NBC on Saturday, January 28th, 1978 at 9pm. More or less at the last minute, NBC cancelled the airing because the film's plot was too similar to the then-current sorority house murders committed by Ted Bundy. BLACK CHRISTMAS finally premiered approximately 4 months later on NBC as the Sunday Late Movie on May 14th, 1978. Despite the change in airtime, Judith Crist's less than enthusiastic review remained unchanged.


In 1947, Harry Stadling saw mommy kissing Santa Claus and grew up with a jolly old fat man fixation.... only Harry is seldom as jolly. Feeling an unhealthy amount of the Christmas spirit, he literally knows when you're sleeping; knows when you're awake; and knows if you've been bad or good... documenting this information to decide what he'll be bringing you on Christmas Eve. Both fascinating and frustrating, some fabulous photography keeps this minor cult item from being exiled to the island of Misfit Movies. The original title of YOU BETTER WATCH OUT is a better fit than CHRISTMAS EVIL.

Arguably the most poignant, character-heavy holiday horror featuring a psycho Santa. Of the more character-centric horrors of this time period, director Lewis Jackson's movie is the most tame; it's more DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE than MANIAC without the grim subject matter of the former and the extreme gore of the latter. For those expecting something a bit more cheerily bloody, it won't be chestnuts roasting on an open fire.... it's your patience. Often lumped in with slashers, it's more of a psychological thriller; so the film does have a few gifts under its tree. The finale finds the film either flying off into full-fledged fantasy, or just another example of the unhinged Kringler's dementia. Reportedly, 42nd street patrons threw things at the screen over the ending!

Bad Santa's: TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980)

The early 1980s had a surge in St. Nick horror; yet only one of them made an impression... and it wasn't this one. David Hess's Santa slasher TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT (1980) was the first feature-length Killer Claus movie, yet, sadly, it's nothing to 'Ho Ho Ho' about. Pre-dating FRIDAY THE 13TH by several months, it's more like a holiday version of PROM NIGHT (1979), and even less appealing than Paul Lynch's disco-infused slasher. The sole interest is in seeing what Krug from THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) did in his lone directorial effort. Bloody, but bland, and boring on top of it, GOODNIGHT is made all the worse by an annoying music score and acting that will kill off your desire to remain awake.


Actor Edmund Purdom (PIECES) directed this second hand present to horror fans. It's a Dick Randall (PIECES again) production so that's a clue quality wasn't a top priority. What makes it unique is that this time Santa... actually a whole lotta Santa's, are the victims of a heavy-breathing slasher killer. Lots of boobs, blood, and a cameo by Caroline Munro doing a music video type sequence. When SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT raised such a ruckus, Randall slipped his Santa slayathon in its place where it failed to get noticed. You'd think a movie with such a curious twist on familiar material would be more engrossing.... well, it's definitely gross at times. A large glass of liquored-up eggnog will help get you through this sordid, cold, movie.


Joe Dante's darkly comedic, even gruesome, holiday horror-comedy combo about a young man receiving a most unusual Christmas gift was instrumental in the creation of the PG13 rating. Steven Spielberg, that purveyor of family entertainment, had, up to that point, gotten away with glaring scenes of questionable violence and gore in PG films that had his name attached in some capacity.

Filled with nods and send-ups to past movies, GREMLINS is that rare creature feature that is successful at being frightening and funny all at the same time. It's too bad we didn't get the original, darker version that featured gremlins with a taste for human (and canine) flesh and decapitating major characters.

Arguably the film's most (in)famous sequence doesn't even involve the title monsters. In it, Phoebe Cates discloses how her father died imitating Santa Claus, climbing down the chimney with so little care, breaking his neck in the process--to which she says, "that's how I found out there was no Santa Claus". I was in attendance opening weekend with my mother and at that moment there was this wave of gasps from the small fry in attendance; one kid even began to cry (I can imagine that kid's mom saying, "it's okay, the mean lady doesn't know what she's talking about"). I was 9 at the time and had been informed of Santa's true identity a couple years earlier; so I'm sitting there with this grin on my face amid the dozens of now horrified half-pints. I recall this speech caused quite the controversy at the time; only not the level of outrage of our next movie on the list....


After little Billy witnesses his parents slaughtered by a killer Kris Kringle he grows up with a Santa-phobia and a twisted sense of discipline beat into him by a domineering Mother Superior. Now a grown-up, Billy goes off the deep-end after donning a Santa suit and carrying an axe that's quickly dripping velvet.

There had been many demented evocations of St. Nicolas in print and celluloid form in years prior but none were quite as mean-spirited as Charles E. Sellier, Jr's notorious seasonal slasher from 1984. Critically maligned for years, it's easily the most sadistic example of St. Nick horror. Like a dry turkey on Christmas morning, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths, leading to the film being pulled from release after just two weeks. Director Sellier showed nothing but disdain for his movie right up to his death in 2011. Outside of the protests and picketing parents, the film's other claim to infamy is a topless Linnea Quigley being impaled and hung on a pair of deer antlers.


Two couples spend the Christmas holiday at a secluded country house where their children are exposed to some unknown virus that turns them into homicidal mini-maniacs.

This British chiller set during the Christmas holiday is the least overt in its nods to the season. An unacknowledged remake of the 1974 horror feature DEVIL TIMES FIVE, director Tom Shankland's movie differs by introducing a disease of some sort that infects the tykes as opposed to the kids of DEVILS being in a vehicle accident. Shankland's movie is also superior in every other way. The sharp editing and snowy, isolated locale are keys to the film's success. One of the darkest, most mean-spirited of the killer kid sub-genre.

KRAMPUS (2015)

If you're a Scrooge at Christmas time, it's very well likely you'll be visited by Krampus, a demonic anti-Claus. A suburban family essentially loses faith in the holiday, resulting in a nasty run-in with the nightmarish monster Santa of German folklore. 

Michael Dougherty, the director of the fabulous Halloween anthology TRICK R' TREAT (2005), tries for the same thing with a Christmas theme. In the vein of GREMLINS (1984) and, as unlikely as it seems, SANTA'S SLAY (2005), KRAMPUS is a 15 million mix of comedy and horror. Derivative but fun darkly comical extravaganza.

Krampus was the subject of a 2013 independent movie titled KRAMPUS: THE CHRISTMAS DEVIL. Aside from a few good scenes, there's nothing to recommend. Amazingly, a sequel, KRAMPUS 2: THE RETURN OF THE DEVIL, turned up in Wal Mart's across the country this past October. KRAMPUS: THE RECKONING (2015) is another in a growing list of cramp-inducing horrible movies. The Krampy creature likewise turned up in the omnibus holiday horror A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY (2016).


The holiday terror torch is carried on by the makers of this unapologetic Santa slasher that tips its velvet hat to horrors of Christmas past and many others. The oldest house in a suburban neighborhood harbors a horrifying secret that's connected to a killer dressed as Santa Claus stalking the streets with a pair of garden shears.

The antithesis of KRAMPUS and big studio gloss, the cheapness of ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE is easily overlooked by the meticulous care and affection the filmmakers have for the material. There are numerous lower-than-low budget horror movies these days but few are as engaging as Todd Nunes' antidote for the current crap crop of throwback genre fare. Humor is thankfully minimal... and the horror is highly recommended.

And so this night of Christmas horror comes to an end
These twelve films we dutifully recommend
A dozen times of ghoulishly good fright
A happy, bloody Christmas to all... and to all a goodnight.

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