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Five of the Best: Festive Frights!

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!

Most anti-festive feature? It’s got to be Phoebe Cates’ memorable and dark as Santa’s boots speech about why she doesn’t celebrate Christmas. This is ostensibly a comedy horror and yes, people do die, but there is humour in the proceedings with the Gremlins generally portrayed as childlike and purely intent on causing mayhem rather than deliberately kill and maim. That the film pauses for this intense and upsetting personal moment is breathtaking and hits you like a bolt from the blue. Other than Quint’s Indianapolis speech in ‘Jaws’ I struggle to think of a more effective monologue as a form of tragic storytelling than this moment…that it serves almost purely to prove that Santa doesn’t exist only complements the subversive nature of Dante’s incredible film.

Click here for full review

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.

Most anti-festive feature? The murder of Barb. The ghost of slashers yet to come have since conditioned us to know things won’t end well for Barb who drinks, is sexually promiscuous and openly taunts the killer. That she is murdered by a glass unicorn (a symbol of purity, implying that the killer is ‘curing’ Barb of her infidelities) whilst Carol singers perform ‘O Come all ye Faithful’, their cherubic cheer drowning out the sound of Barb’s death throws. It’s a quite stunning scene, powerful in its execution and poignant in its depiction.

Click here for full review

‘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!

Most anti-festive feature? Take your pick!!! Let’s not forget that the opening scenes show a mother and father killed by a man dressed as Santa right in front of their kids, both of whom end up in an oppressive orphanage where they’re routinely beaten, one such incident shown happening during Christmas three years later. There’s a terrifying scene early on where young Billy’s grandfather launches into an insane ramble about how Santa punishes the wicked…no wonder he’s mentally scarred. And then Billy eventually snaps, going on a murderous rampage dressed as Santa waving an axe around whilst using Deer antlers and Christmas lights as makeshift weapons screaming ‘Naughty’ at the top of his voice. This certainly isn’t ‘Earnest Saves Christmas’!

‘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!

Most anti-festive feature? The climax, it’s a classic League moment of total darkness that belies their comedy leanings. Having reconciled her past thanks to the tales of her three visitors, the cynical Bernice, for the first time since her parents’ abduction, embraces the Christmas spirit. But when a fourth figure appears at her door saying “Your all grown up”, wearing a Santa outfit, grotesque features and a maniacal laugh, she realises that the evil that took her innocence all those years ago is back to finish the job. As bleak an ending to anything, let alone a Christmas special, as you’re ever likely to see, it’s the League’s finest hour.

Click here for full review

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.

Most anti-festive feature? The fact that the daughter gleefully lets in the deranged Santa believing him to be the real thing, thus inviting the death of her mother. It’s a great little twist on the hypocrisy that we all perpetuate by telling our children not to talk to strangers before placing them on the knee of a total stranger in disguise. Tell them that they’re safe in their bed at night, yet our houses are so secure that Santa can come and go as he pleases. Also, a great use of Christmassy colour portrayed by the husband’s bright red blood all over that glorious white rug!

Honourable mention?

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…

This post first appeared on The Horror Video, please read the originial post: here

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Five of the Best: Festive Frights!


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