Christmas is for kids, right? A time for families to get together, eat and drink too much, give each other presents and catch an opportunistically romantic moment underneath the mistletoe? There’s no place for horror, scares and general terror is there? Well, yes! As recently as the 16th Century Christmas was banned by Puritans who associated it with excess and mischief, long before Charles Dickens and his contemporaries placed the emphasis back on religion and reciprocal appreciation, in no small part thanks to ‘A Christmas Carol’, perhaps one of the most famous ghost stories of all!
Christmas brings with it a great sense of mysticism. Just think of flying reindeer, elves, Santa and otherworldly, magical creatures who deliver gifts to all of the good little boys and girls that vary depending on country and culture. If you reward the good then there’s some mileage to be gained for punishing the wicked! With religious imagery and ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ focusing on the birth of the Son of God, ghost stories have become a seasonal tradition. In the UK, during the 70s, the BBC launched an annual ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’, resurrected in 2005. We love a good scare with a mince pie so perhaps it’s time to delve into the archives and take a look at some of those scary stories that have been captured on film with my ‘Five of the Best Christmas Horror Films’. As always, let me know what you think and please…give us the gift of your suggestions. We’d appreciate it a lot more than another Christmas Card!
‘Gremlins’ (1984)Dir: Joe Dante
Who said family orientated Christmas films had to be saccharine? Set in a chocolate box small town, straight out of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, Dante instead constructs a wonderful subversion by turning this small town upside down in true fairy style fashion. In a quite brilliant twist on traditional children’s stories, the deadline of midnight is broken to turn the cutesy Mogwai into fatally mischievous Gremlins, turning the idyllic Kingston Falls into a whole new ‘Pottersville’. Set against winter wonderland scenery and festively illustrated backdrops that come alive from a thousand Christmas cards, it’s an unmistakably malevolent satire on the greed of Western cultural excesses, our rejection of mysticism and its subsequent loss of meaning…which is of course what Christmas is all about!
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Black Christmas (1974)Dir: Bob Clark
Coming a full four years before John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ (Carpenter original suggested his classic as a sequel to Clark’s neglected gem), ‘Black Christmas’ serves as the outline for Carpenter’s slasher blueprint. Set in a sorority house in the run up to the Christmas holidays, an unseen killer begins to stalk and slash the young girls in the building. We have long camera shots from the killer’s point of view, we have the terrorisation of female victims, a final girl, terrible place and a calendar date on which to hang the film. It’s all there and Clark delivers a supremely disturbing and chilling film where the killer is not only unseen but also completely unknown, giving us no initial warning, no backstory and no resolution at the film’s macabre climax. The phone calls to the women in particular are genuinely frightening with the killer putting on a terrifyingly threatening oral display that is as obscene as it is scary.
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‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’ (1984)Dir: Charles E. Sellier Jr
Not as well executed as Clark’s chiller, this remains a fairly interesting slasher film, different in that it focuses on the killer rather than the victims he stalks. By portraying him as the victim from the start it gives the film a unique feel as we have some sympathy for him, after all, he witnesses his parents murdered by Santa Claus which is something nobody needs to see! The film got itself into a certain amount of trouble, mainly from self-appointed moral guardians who thought children would be traumatised at the thought of a killer Santa, because of course, children are the film’s target audience…although to be fair they were asking for trouble advertising the film during ‘The Little House on the Prairie’!!! As a consequence the film was withdrawn in the US following demonstrations and protests from the Parent-Teacher’s Association and was pulled from any kind of release in the UK…so much for Christmas spirit!
‘The League of Gentleman’s Christmas Special’ (2000)Dir: Steve Bendelack
Strictly speaking this is less a film and more an hour long special but, it’s so cinematic in its portrayal whilst referencing numerous horror films that I’m going to cut it some slack. Broadcast in the UK on December 27th 2000, this special has become something of a cult classic and is, quite frankly terrifying at times. Taking the form of an anthology with a wraparound story that shows Royston Vasey Vicar Bernice struggling to come to terms with a traumatic childhood event involving her parents being abducted by a maniac dressed as Santa. The first story centres around a voodoo ritual as an act of revenge, whilst the third is set in Victorian times with a cursed veterinarian but it’s the middle story that steals the show. Set in the German town of Duisberg it is a breathtakingly frightening and funny take on the vampire legend. In our house it isn’t Christmas until The League of Gentleman tells us it is!
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Tales from the Crypt (1972)Dir: Freddie Francis
From one anthology featuring a wraparound Christmas story to another featuring a single festive fright. Before its unavoidable association with the Cryptkeeper, Amicus adapted five ‘Tales from the Crypt’ and ‘Vault of Horror’ episodes for a big screen outing, the first of which featured Joan Collins as a murderous maiden, killing her husband on Christmas Eve. Shortly afterwards a bulletin interrupts a carol rendition of ‘Oh Come all ye Faithful’ (what is it about that carol? It features heavily in key scenes in ‘Black Christmas’ and ‘League of Gentleman’ above) to reveal that there is an escaped lunatic on the loose dressed as Santa…and he’s wanting to stir all through Joan’s house! But she can’t call the police because of the small matter of a dead husband in the front room and red bloodstains all over her beautiful white rug! Of course there is a point to the wraparound story (a mysterious man telling them how they’re going to die) and there’s a big clue to the twist, notably that Collins’ character is already wearing the brooch that her husband gave her for Christmas in the story.
I must admit that I enjoyed the 2015 ‘Krampus’ which was a fine recounting of the anti-Christmas legend, until the end at least. It very nearly captured the same anarchic spirit as ‘Gremlins’!
So now it’s over to you, let us know your favourite festive frights…