Slay The Date is a bi-monthly column bringing you something different, compelling, and fun with each edition. As we celebrate the Yule holidays, Justin Lockwood shares with us his favorite holiday horror films.
Christmas horror films remind us that naughty or nice, the holidays can be deadly, but we'll be laughing all the way.
When it comes to Christmas horror, there’s a real embarrassment of riches. The combination of warm holiday atmosphere and bone chilling terror has proven irresistible to filmmakers over the years, producing a number of true classics. Choosing any one of these many titles as the “best” is a challenge, although Black Christmas (1974) remains my all time favorite. This month, I knew I wanted to write about all of my top picks. My partner asked, "Do all of those films have anything in common?" I realized they did and the common thread is humor.
Maybe it’s because there’s something inherently mischievous about creepifying a cheery holiday like Christmas—though any adult will tell you there is a dark and melancholy side to the holiday to begin with. Yet, every one of my favorite holiday horror movies, from Black Christmas to Krampus (2015) has humor to spare.
Director Bob Clark displayed the humor he’d later rely on throughout films like Porky’s (1981) and A Christmas Story (1983) when directing the screenplay, written by Roy Moore for Black Christmas. Clark infused it with humorous elements and it was brought to life by a top notch cast. A sorority house is terrorized by a mysterious killer over Christmas break, with Jess (Olivia Hussey) suspecting her troubled boyfriend Peter (Kerr Dullea) may be behind the terror. Though many elements, from the killer’s cacophonous phone calls to the rocking body in the attic, are definitely bone chilling, the movie isn’t afraid to give itself thoroughly over to humor. Foul-mouthed alcoholic house mother Mrs. MacHenry (Marian Waldman) hides sherry bottles everywhere and struggles to hide the sorority’s seamier side from straight-laced Mr. Harrison (James Edmond). Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon) has a moment of levity when he realizes that the inept Sergeant Nash (Doug McGrath) has been tricked into writing the sorority house’s number as fellatio (“It’s a new exchange!”). Margot Kidder, as snarky Barb, is consistently hysterical, never more so than when she drunkenly rambles about watching turtles having sex at the zoo for hours. There’s an underlying sadness to her character, though, and Black Christmas successfully walks a tightrope between humor and fear; it shows that the world can be both absurdly funny and tragically violent.
A decade later, Joe Dante’s horror comedy classic Gremlins (1984) evolved from a much darker original concept—consider Lynn Peltzer's head rolling down the stairs. Likely owing to executive producer Steven Spielberg’s influence, the Chris Columbus screenplay was pushed in a warmer and delightfully mischievous direction—although the anarchic spirit remained intact. Billy (Zach Galligan) is delighted to receive adorable, furry Gizmo as a Christmas present, but when he fails to follow the strict rules for Gizmo’s care, a gaggle of creepy, destructive monsters invades his hometown on Christmas Eve. Gremlins can be quite intense; it’s hard to imagine Kate's (Phoebe Cates) monologue about her dad dying in a Santa suit getting approved in a “family friendly” movie today. The movie was infamous for inspiring the creation of the PG-13 rating with its violence and gross out moments like the kitchen massacre.
Gremlins and Black Christmas are able to evoke both horror and humor, although the former has enough warmth and sentimentality to fill a standard Christmas movie. Make-up and special effects artist Chris Walas and his team did incredible work bringing the eponymous gremlin creatures to life as practical puppets. The creatures gleefully trash the Capra-esque town of Kingston Falls on Christmas Eve, devouring cookies, attacking a man in a Santa suit, and breaking into a department store. Joe Dante slowly but surely transforms the narrative into a live action cartoon, with a steady stream of sight gags and tropes borrowed from his beloved Looney Tunes. Warner Brothers animation legend Chuck Jones cameos as an artist. The stellar supporting cast helps immensely, with particularly strong work from Polly Holiday as the villainous Mrs. Deagle (“Maybe I’ll put him in my spin dryer on high heat!”) and the always dependable Dick Miller as lovably cantankerous Mr. Futterman, who remembers dealing with Gremlins in “Double-U Double-U Eye Eye.” Gremlins isn’t just a holiday horror classic, it’s one of the greatest horror comedies ever made.
That same year welcomed the release of the controversial “Killer Santa” movie Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). Christians must have done a lot of pearl clutching that year. The film was banned and removed from theaters just a week after release. Though the film plays things mostly straight, despite its absurd premise and heightened tone, the sequel, Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987) veers completely into camp. Designed to reuse all of the highlights from the original film at minimal cost, director Lee Hary and his co-writer Joseph H. Earle created new material to fill out the film's run time. Thanks in large part to Eric Freeman delivering a transcendently hammy performance as deranged Billy’s now grown up brother Ricky, the sequel turned into a hilarious cult delight.
While we knew Billy would snap in the original film and were just waiting for when, in the sequel it apparent that Ricky has already hit his breaking point because it begins in an asylum where Doctor Bloom is questioning him. Their interactions are fraught with an almost homoerotic tension. Ricky's murders are delightfully over the top, with weapons like an umbrella and a car battery; the meme-able “garbage day” moment is one of the highlights. However, every frame featuring Ricky is supremely entertaining. He’s in nearly all of the movie apart from the flashbacks. It’s a shame Ricky only dons an actual Santa suit at the very end, but the whole film is frolicsome.
A favorite from the last decade in the creepy Christmas category is Krampus (2015) directed by Michael Dougherty, effortlessly carries the torch from Gremlins. The film nails a specific mixture of cute, creepy, funny, and heartwarming rarely seen before or since. A strong screenplay by Michael Dougherty, Todd Casey, and Zach Shields along with a phenomenal cast make Krampus a very funny film, but also an eerie one. Sweet young Max (Emjay Anthony) becomes disillusioned by Christmas and tears up his letter to Santa; this summons St. Nicholas’ vengeful shadow, the Krampus. Much like Gremlins, the winter wonderland was created on a soundstage in New Zealand and practical puppets with some digital augmentation make the mischievous Krampus and his minions come to life.
It’s really the cast that brings the humor and humanity to the film, with comedy veterans like the late Conchata Ferrell as acerbic and boozy Aunt Dorothy, Adam Scott and David Koechner blending with skilled young newcomers like Stefania LaVie Owen to create a believable dysfunctional family along with horror regular Toni Collette. It should be noted that the opening shopping onslaught and nativity play brawl is a comedic highlight, while also introducing the melancholy and pain central to the story. That’s fitting for a film that manages to toe-the-line between so many different genres and tones as skillfully as Gremlins did decades before.
Justin Lockwood is a Brooklyn-based film writer, contributor for Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, Scream Magazine and many more in addition to being a lover of campy, “Psychotronic” B movies. He's a lifelong horror fan and recurring guest on the Slay Away horror podcast.