When I told my husband that I was thinking of writing about my favourite Christmas horror films, he commented that surely there can’t be many of those… then gradually, he remembered a couple, and I mentioned a couple more which he’d forgotten, and a couple more he didn’t consider horror…
There are dozens of horror films set at Christmas time, and more coming out all the time. Many of them are frankly cheap rubbish, but there are definitely some gems. I won’t pretend to have watched all of them, so I do not declare this list to be literally the best Christmas horror films, but they are a broad and good quality selection, an ideal watch list if you want to find out what “Christmas horror” includes. There’s something for everyone here, too: PG certificate to 18 certificate; sci-fi, humor, slasher and musical; American, British and foreign language. Several decades are represented too, and it even comes right up-to-date with two that are about to arrive in UK cinemas.
So here goes, starting with the least Christmassy and finishing with a downright pinnacle of Christmas horror…
10. The Children
Written by Paul Andrew Williams and Tom Shankland, and directed by Tom Shankland (UK, 2008)
The Children is the least Christmassy film in this list, though it is a horror film that takes place over Christmas Day and the day or two either side. I think it is set at Christmas for two reasons: it’s an excuse for some amazing snow scenes, and Christmas is a classic catalyst for getting family members together who don’t see each other very often.
And Christmas film or not, The Children is certainly a horror, and an excellent one. It is about an extended family, centered around two sisters, who bring their respective middle-class broods together to celebrate. One of the kids is a bit sniffly when they first arrive, and steadily other kids pick up the bug too… And it turns out this is an unusual bug which turns the children – quite violently – against the adults.
The horror is partly in the violence, and particularly coming from children; but also in the blame and misunderstandings that are a natural feature of family life even when there is no crisis, though even more so when the unthinkable is taking place. The writing and cinematography are better than the acting, I must say, but I consider it a minor British horror classic.
PS If you’re prepared to accept a not-terribly-Christmassy film as a Christmas horror, see also Dead End (written and directed by Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabric Canepa, France, 2003), which stars the amazing Ray Wise and Lin Shaye.
9. Black Christmas
Written by Roy Moore, and directed by Bob Clark (Canada, 1974)
Black Christmas is a classic slasher but directed in such a way that it is significantly darker than many other slashers. It has a few humorous moments (comic relief, perhaps), though it is not a comedy in the slightest. There are a few similarities with the original Halloween, which came out a little later (such as an antagonist we hardly see, focusing on one house, and the careful, tense pacing), though in my opinion Black Christmas is a superior film.
It’s about a sorority house where several residents have returned to their parents for Christmas, others (and the “house mother”) are staying behind, and one or two are waiting to be picked up or working out plans. We see the girls having a Christmas party, fighting with boys, listening to Christmas carols, etc… while at the same time, the house is receiving nasty phone calls and a number of women and girls are being attacked and going missing, not noticed at first, but gradually being taken more seriously.
In Black Christmas, the Christmas setting is not so much a plot device, or an excuse to make things more jolly, silly or colorful. Rather, it is a backdrop that creates a sharp contrast to the violent acts, making them even more shocking, almost sarcastically so. And in doing so, Black Christmas asks its viewers can you really hang up your stockings contentedly when lunatics are on the loose?
And if slashers are your thing when it comes to horror, there are plenty more Christmas themed ones, such as Silent Night, Deadly Night.
8. The Nightmare Before Christmas
Written by Tim Burton and directed by Henry Selick (USA, 1993)
Here’s one for all the family (and there are two coming up for teenagers and older). Children may not get nuances of the plot, as everything is in song and some of the lyrics are a little sophisticated, but they will enjoy the stop-motion animation and the playful creepiness of the characters.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is about Halloweentown, and more specifically Jack Skellington, the town’s figurehead who organizes regular festivities there. But he’s tired of it all and looks for a change… which he finds when he’s taking a walk and musing over things out in the forest. He finds a way to places representing and housing other holidays and goes to explore Christmas. He loves it there, and brings Santa (“Sandy Claws”) back home with him, thinking it will add a little novelty. But he hasn’t really taken the time to get to know Christmas and gets a good deal of it muddled and misunderstood. Songs, excitement, and humor follow… and it’s beautifully made.
The horror is to be found in the details (if you’re a grown-up), and it’s about considering what might be under Halloween dress-up (if you’re a kid). And it’s a little eye-opening for anyone who hasn’t considered before that anything can be given a dark twist – even Christmas – leaving you to wonder what might happen if Jack visits one of the other holidays he can access in the forest.
7. Anna and the Apocalypse
Written by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry, and directed by John McPhail (UK, 2017)
Morgan reviewed this one at Grimmfest, and I was lucky enough to have a second chance to catch it at Mayhem, where Anna and the Apocalypse was the opening feature. And I loved it.
Yes, what you’ve heard is right: it’s a musical about a zombie apocalypse, which just happens to take place at Christmas. There was an excellent mix of entertaining with poignant, and it was thoroughly – but not depressingly – British. The only issue I found was the sound, in that the lyrics weren’t always clear… but if it’s now heading towards becoming a singalong musical in the USA, that may have just been the screening I was at. As for how Christmassy it is… well, the subject of the timing keeps cropping up, and the trappings (decorations, snow, etc.) are not only everywhere but thoroughly used in the course of the plot. Granted, the apocalypse could have taken place at any time; but Anna and the Apocalypse takes place at Christmastime, and the writers utterly make the most of that setting.
One to watch out for during its limited cinema release; the novel and soundtrack are available to buy already via Amazon (as well as t-shirts etc. on Cavity Colors).
Written by Chris Columbus and directed by Joe Dante (USA, 1984)
I’ve heard “Gremlins isn’t a Christmas film is it?” and “Gremlins isn’t a horror is it?”. But come on: there are monsters (albeit small), deaths, disasters, and chaos unraveling: you know, like what happens at Christmas! A “mogwai” is bought and given to Billy as a Christmas present, but it comes with rules that Billy doesn’t take seriously until the consequences become apparent.
Christmas isn’t a major theme or plot element in Gremlins (the main theme is – rather boringly – responsibility), but it was originally written as an anti-Christmas film. Columbus did so by setting a monster/disaster story firmly in the Christmas holiday, and that holiday is firmly destroyed; both in terms of the literal destruction taking place then, and the famous monologue about the death of Santa.
And it’s very much a black comedy, with horror and humor weaved together throughout: violent acts are presented in funny ways, and amusing scenes can become scary. To me, that’s a big part of what makes it horror: you watch a film, then think back afterward and ask yourself “what did I just laugh at?” Because of the complex tone, Gremlins has had a variety of age certificates: it’s PG in the USA and 15 in the UK, as well as certificates equivalent to both around the world. Children don’t always know how to take some of the dialogue and find a lot of it more serious than adults do. It’s ideal for older kids or young teens, though, and serves as a great introduction to horror for those who are ready for it.
(By the way, if you consider Gremlins is a Christmas film simply because its subject started off as a Christmas present, then Child’s Play may count too.)
5. Sint AKA Saint
Written and directed by Dick Maas (Netherlands, 2010)
Sint looks like it’s a Christmas horror film, with an image of a zombie-like St Nicholas on its publicity pics. But it isn’t strictly about Santa, or even strictly set at Christmas; but in the spirit of Christmas being celebrated differently around the world, I am including it here. Apparently, in the Netherlands Sinterklaas (also known as St Nicholas) is celebrated separately from Christmas, on 5 December (his birth date, as legend has it). Tradition has him handing out gifts to “good children” from his big white horse, and spanking “bad children” with a rod… his companion Black Peter would then bundle up the bad kids and take them back to Spain.
According to the film Sint, those Dutch legends had it a little wrong, though: Sinterklaas wasn’t born on 5 December, but killed by residents of Amsterdam then… and he keeps coming back, whenever that date coincides with a full moon (which fortunately doesn’t happen very often), though no longer making any distinction between good or bad: he kills all the kids he can.
The spirit of the St Nicholas festival is seeped throughout the whole film, both in its real-life settings and its twisted horror view. I like the idea that old traditions cannot be trusted and they – like Grimms’ Fairy Tales – are simply nasty bits of history made more palatable. There is certainly horror to be found in wondering what else tradition has covered up. The horror in the film itself is in violence and supernatural beings: there are some pretty gruesome scenes (Sinterklaas and his helpers attacking people and people fighting back). There are some great special effects and a wonderful sense of place… but underneath all that, Sint is essentially a medium grade slasher with a heavy layer of European culture. It is however very entertaining and eye-opening to alternative ways of viewing one of the world’s favorite festivals.
4. A Christmas Horror Story
Written by James Kee, Sarah Larsen, Doug Taylor and Pascal Trottier, and directed by Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban and Brett Sullivan (Canada, 2015)
Whatever kind of horror film you’re looking for, there’s bound to be an anthology available: A Christmas Horror Story is an anthology horror film with four stories woven together by a charming radio talk show host, the fabulous William Shatner (for a while, I couldn’t remember what this one was called, and in my head, it was “the one with Shatner”). Each story is well told and exciting, and frankly plain old fun: there’s a murder, there’s Krampus, a spooky Christmas tree, and zombie elves of all things!
A Christmas Horror Story has humor (especially from Shatner), gore, suspense, decent pacing (mostly) and a satisfying twist. In parts, it’s a fun romp; and in others, it’s pretty dark. But the team of writers and directors give a great unified output; as anthologies go, it’s as watchable and consistent as Southbound. This isn’t a film that cries out for analysis though: no great theme, message or stylish tricks to admire. But damn, it’s Christmassy!
3. Await Further Instructions
Written by Gavin Williams, and directed by Johnny Kevorkian (UK, 2018)
This new British title landed within my three top favorite Christmas horror films as soon as I watched it a couple of months ago. It is a perfect blend of horror and satire – with a chilling conclusion – and set firmly at Christmas time too. It’s about the Milligan family who doesn’t get along at the best of times; then they awake on Christmas morning to discover they’re sealed inside their house by a mysterious black substance. On television, a single line of text reads: “Stay Indoors and Await Further Instructions.” I’m not going to say anything about what happens next (and if you can watch it without seeing the trailer first, please do), but it’s a tense and gripping film.
Await Further Instructions really is a Christmas film: not only does it take place over Christmas day, but Christmas is one of the rare catalysts to getting a distant family together. The other such catalyst could be a wedding, but Christmas happens to pretty much every home in every country… which really does reinforce the feeling that the family in Await Further Instructions symbolizes a typical one. Indeed their story could be an example of horror going on everywhere…
Await Further Instructions arrived in selected UK cinemas in mid-December, and it’s also available to rent or buy on Amazon Video; in the meantime, read my full review (as part of our Grimmfest coverage).
PS If you’re a fan of sci-fi horror, I can recommend Hardware: the Christmas element isn’t explicit, but it’s deep in the theme of the film, along with looking forward to the new year. It’s a favorite of mine: I’ve not included it in this list simply because it’s always felt more sci-fi than horror to me.
2. Rare Exports
Written by the Helander Brothers and directed by Jalmari Helander (Finland/Norway/France/Sweden, 2010)
And now a film from the land of the original Father Christmas, Finland. More of a black comedy than a horror (though only just), Rare Exports is set in a little reindeer farming town where nobody believes in Father Christmas any more except for a young boy, who lives alone with his father. The film starts when a strange excavation commences, and a little while later that boy connects the digging with the disappearance of his friends.
Rare Exports is truly worth a watch, for the fabulous landscapes, for the endearing characters, and the reimagining of a Scandinavian legend. As in Sint, the sense of place (though rural rather than urban this time) is absolutely lush, and it comes with pride in the characters’ locale too. All the actors are excellent, though the boy (Onni Tommila, who a few years later starred alongside Samuel L Jackson) stands out: neither twee nor creepy, as child actors can be (especially in horror films), he is both natural and heroic instead. And just wait until you see what they dig up!
PS Jalmari Helander first directed two related short films, to which Rare Exports is essentially a prequel, and which are currently available on Vimeo.
Written by Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty and Zach Shields, directed by Michael Dougherty (USA, 2015)
Finally, Krampus: the most Christmassy film of this list, yet with a chilling ending to rival any classic Twilight Zone. It is all about the dwindling of beliefs and superstitions (in favor of modern commercialism and baubles) and the problematic nature of modern families… and yet it is funny and entertaining, as well as exciting and scary. Some of the scares are surreal, some a little gory and some are just down to the atmosphere…
And what makes this film so Christmassy? Well, pretty much everything: it starts off at a department store stampede, then goes on to show a family getting together for the holiday and a boy writing his letter to Santa. The home and the people are full of the so-called “holiday spirit”, though to varying degrees; and even when things turn dark, the big bad (Krampus himself) and his minions are all decked out or disguised in Christmas garb.
For some, families bring joy at Christmas, and for others, they bring stress, anxiety and – yes – the horror. Krampus shows us what can happen to a family under extreme pressure: loyalty and conflict alike can be amplified. When I was growing up, I remember watching A Christmas Carol (though I can’t for the life of me remember which version) as a Christmas Eve treat. Krampus feels like a good fit for a new tradition: it is still nostalgic, but in a modern way, and shows family members bound together through a crisis by commitment and love.
Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.