An injection of horror ensures Christmastime stays interesting. Spike the cocoa, dim the lights, and cuddle around the warming glow of the smart TV you pried from another Black Friday shopper’s mittens for a festive movie night — but ditch Rudolph and that cavity-creepy elf. Why not welcome the darker side of Saint Nick’s toy sack into your life?
Frightfully festive tales dare to challenge shopaholic norms of manufactured cheerfulness draped by overpriced tinsel and frosted snow-white. Horror and Christmas blend with decadence like liquid chocolate and mini marshmallows; a sinful delight. More terror lurks than you think under mistletoes or wrapped by hedonistic helpers. Why not stay safely ho-ho-home for the holidays, or chance sledding into one of the Christmas demons below better trapped on your viewing screens?
If you’re not feeling holly jolly, you can check out the best modern horror movies and our pick for the best horror movie of 2021. (Don’t worry, the best horror movie of 2022 is coming soon!)
Álex de la Iglesia blends Spanish and Italian horror influences into The Day of the Beast, a 1995 Christmas horror curveball that throws everything but the kitchen sink at audiences. A sinning priest, a metalhead Satanist, and an occult TV show host must band together to prevent the Antichrist’s birth. It’s wacky, darkly comedic, and filled with hellscapes that boast demonic costumes and wild practical effects. De la Iglesia is known for his extravagant horror concepts, and I’d say a blasphemous buddy comedy about an apocalyptic atypical holiday quest fits the bill.
René Manzor’s Deadly Games (aka Game Over, aka Dial Code Santa Claus, aka 3615 code Père Noël, aka Hide and Freak) was Home Alone before Home Alone ever premiered. The only reason you don’t know that is because Deadly Games was stuck in US distribution purgatory until a few years ago. A tech-wiz child obsessed with action movies like Rambo must defend himself on Christmas Eve from a deranged home invader dressed as Santa. There’s an emotional oomph behind the kiddo’s violent holiday as he fights the madman alone (sans an ailing grandpa), setting elaborate traps throughout his family’s mansion. Deadly Games is also frequently comical and thrilling, as the war-painted youth is forced to confront the bleakest realities. It’s all just a game to psycho Santa — the most unnerving part.
Here’s a scalding holiday horror take — Steven C. Miller’s Silent Night is better than Charles Sellier Jr.’s Silent Night, Deadly Night by the slightest length of a pine needle. It’s a despicably naughty slasher that drips with Christmastime decor and repulsive massacres, one of the “last” of its kind by post-2012 horror standards. It’s got everything on your wish list, from Malcolm McDowell shouting about avocado on hamburgers to flamethrowers for chest-and-nut roasts. From mounted antler trophy callbacks to fresh expressions of violence like a poor soul’s run in with a tree farm’s woodchipper. Miller hits on all cylinders in this remake that stands well on its own, empowered by a disinterest in playing nice even by usual horror fan expectations. It’s not a stocking stuffer; it’s the whole present.
Jack Frost is Child’s Play but with chemicals instead of voodoo incantations and a murderous snowman instead of a killer doll. You’ll recognize a pre-American Pie Shannon Elizabeth in Michael Cooney’s bastardization of Frosty the Snowman, as the titular Jack offs townsfolk in a host of goofily fatal ways. Maybe you’re hugged to death in the shower or strangled by colored Christmas lights before choking on ornament shards. Jack Frost continues his serial spree in Snowmonton, USA — sporting his new frigid form — voiced by Scott MacDonald as channeled through Freddy Kruger and Chucky. Though it’s not exactly appropriate content for the whole family, it scores midnighter points because humor isn’t hidden or ignored — the situation deals more with snickers than seriousness.
Newer to the holiday horror canon is Camille Griffin’s Silent Night, a sudsy soirée about friends sharing Christmas spirits before the end of humanity. Guests debate whether Mother Earth is finally revolting or the Russians have enacted their master apocalypse plan, but our civilization’s fate is inevitable — toxic gas will engulf each nation. The UK lasts until Christmas, granting characters played by Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and more one last December celebration. Partiers sip on bubbly and debate the ethics of their government’s issued suicide pills to spare “inevitable” agony, as the countdown clock creates enough social distortion to broil a little tension between companions. It’s a twisted take on dinner parties from Hell, marked by themes that go down with an unnerved giggle since Griffin’s command over snark and suspense is tight as a noose.
A Christmas Horror Story stands above all other Christmas horror anthologies because of its commitment to unrelenting darkness. William Shatner narrates and serves as our wraparound host playing “Dangerous Dan,” an alcoholic radio DJ whose smooth voice weaves in and out of four chilling chapters. Changelings infiltrate families, abused ghosts possess schoolgirls, and Santa (George Buza) fights zombie elves before squaring off with the professional wrestling version of Krampus (Rob Archer). I don’t want to oversell the “good versus evil” battle that takes place when musclebound Krampus starts swinging his chain in front of a grimacing Santa, but it’s a knockdown jingle brawl. There’s a fortunate amount of grim tidings packed into each segment, all culminating into a psychotic break that sells the macabre vulnerability allowed by Christmas horror catharsis.
If you’ve avoided Better Watch Out spoilers thus far, I suggest you stop reading this entry and return once you’ve watched Chris Peckover’s babysitter thriller. There’s a sitter crush (Olivia DeJonge), a lovestruck out-of-his-league boy (Levi Miller), and said boy’s dopey best friend (Ed Oxenbould). The hot lifeguard from Stranger Things (Dacre Montgomery) pops in for some backyard antics. There’s also bloodshed, devious intentions, and cruel Home Alone myth busting that proves traps are much more destructive in reality. I don’t want to reveal much more beyond adoration of the performances at hand — The hows and whys are better left for first experiences.
Has there ever been a more perfect Scottish zombie musical set around Christmas than Anna and the Apocalypse? John McPhail’s seasonal addiction gives a middle finger to High School Musical sugarcoating and pummels the undead as Anna (Ella Hunt) sing-smashes her way through a winter wonderland of zombies. The soundtrack is incredibly catchy from “Hollywood Ending” to “Soldier At War,” while horror elements don’t skimp on ferocity or seesaw beheadings. It captures the hopelessness when holiday cheer mocks around every corner, but not without tapping into later feelings of joy that surge past cynicism. It’s ultimately a feel-good flick that doesn’t lie about the world’s ugliness, presented as one of the more uniquely ambitious horror films — Christmastime or not — since release.
You can’t talk about Christmas horror without Michael Dougherty’s Krampus. The wicked whimsy of WETA Workshop’s deviant playthings — snarling teddy bears, Jack-In-The-Box fiends that devour children as anacondas would — helps build Dougherty’s yuletide prison of a universe. The madman behind Trick ‘r Treat proves equally proficient at capturing Christmas’ prominent concerns, from consumerism to obnoxious extended family members. A cast including Adam Scott, Toni Collette, and David Koechner defend themselves against elvish hordes and gingerbread ninjas, as childhood memories turn sour during Krampus’ invasion. The essence of holiday wholesomeness becomes a lesson for those who’ve taken so much for granted, all before an ending snow globe tease that should have given us at least three more sequels by now. What is it about studios not permitting Dougherty the chance to create franchise legacies when they’re so deserved?
What’s this? Stop motion? Jack Skellington? The Nightmare Before Christmas might be kid-friendly, but that doesn’t lessen horror influences spilling from Oogie Boogie’s burlap booty. There’s a sweetness to Jack’s uniting of fears and figgy pudding, because everyone deserves to experience Santa’s magic at least once. There’s also poignance to overall themes of living outside classifiable boxes. The Nightmare Before Christmas is goth-grandiose art design that’s become famous throughout pop culture for a reason, along with Danny Elfman’s vocal performance as just one of many singers throughout the cast of spooky-silly creations. This one is for the whole family and should be shared no matter what the time of year.
Bob Clark — one of the grandfathers of the modern slasher — helped cultivate a genre movement. Black Christmas perfects a stalk-and-stab template to be replicated until human extinction, and yet it’s hardly been outshone. Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Marian Waldman occupy a sorority house with terrified sisters and caretakers who generate gallons of transmittable fear. Deaths are more about innocence erased than how corpses are gored, because “Billy’s” peering through peepholes or perverse phone calls are always the scariest sounds and sights. It’s Christmas, daughters won’t be coming home to their parents, and no one can determine why — that’s all Black Christmas needs to become genre royalty. A classic case of triumphant execution because every good horror movie starts with an airtight narrative, and that’s a lesson more filmmakers should remember.
Gremlins is the pinnacle of holiday horror in the way charming puppetry animates a gremlin takeover that cackles, reigns anarchy, and chaotically translates cartoonish glee to live-action molds. Gizmo the Mogwai is everyone’s favorite pet they’ll never own; the green-speckled, scaly gremlins are hijinx masters from barroom takeovers to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs mumble-alongs. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates naturally engage with their prop co-stars, the same way that Joe Dante brings mischievous rubber figures to life through special effects. Gizmo steals your heart with each wide-eyed grin, and Cates demolishes your soul thanks to the most heartbreaking Christmas monolog because Gremlins isn’t only about yucks. It’s endlessly enjoyable, yet never to be underestimated as Chris Columbus’ slicker horror narrative overpowers jokier highlights.
Also check out: Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? You voted and the verdict is in.