Collins’ Crypt: A Half-Assed History Of Holiday Horror

Terror Tuesday becomes Collins' Crypt just in time for the holidays - and a look at Christmas-themed horror films.

Note – “Terror Tuesday” is being retired in favor of “Collins’ Crypt”, but it’ll otherwise be the same weekly dose of horror related “stuff”! Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!

I really wanted to write up a defense of Black Xmas this week, because I think the fact that it’s a remake of the late Bob Clark’s underrated classic (and arguably the REAL first slasher film, not the oft-credited Halloween) makes horror fans instantly dismissive of the 2006 remake, almost like a child will instantly hate his mother’s new husband out of respect for his biological father. But alas, I got too busy in the past week (I went back to my hometown in MA for a “vacation” – this meant mostly driving a rental car up and down Massachusetts highways to visit folks in local eateries) and didn’t have time to revisit the film and write up a full blown “analysis”.

But I wanted to keep things in the festive spirit, so let’s talk about Christmas horror films in general!

Black Christmas may have been the first “traditional slasher film”, but it was not the first horror movie to take place on Christmas*. In fact right around the time Black Christmas was being shot in the spring of 1974, there was a cheapie named Silent Night, Bloody Night hitting theaters, which was shot in 1972. Interestingly, the film also includes a serial killer making terrifying phone calls, and he also seems particularly interested in the occupants of a certain house. The Christmas angle isn’t as prevalent, and it’s hardly a classic, but it’s interesting that Bob Clark’s film would have a few similarities, especially since the combination of this most joyous holiday with horror elements was so rare back then; apart from a few scenes set around the holiday in horror films like Rosemary’s Baby, there really aren’t any “Holiday Horror” titles prior to the early 70s. The closest would be Curse Of The Cat People, which has a 3rd act revolving around Christmas but is barely a horror film at all anyway (there are no Cat People in it, for starters).

It wasn’t until the 80s that we started seeing a relative “glut” of such films, starting with You Better Watch Out, aka Christmas Evil, which focused on a Christmas obsessed weirdo snapping as he tries to make everything perfect (so it’s basically a darker version of Christmas Vacation). I personally find the film quite overrated (it’s so damn BORING), but it definitely has a strong fanbase, and screens regularly this time of year at the better revival theaters. 1980 also had the much more obscure To All A Goodnight, which is a teen slasher featuring a killer in a Santa suit. Inexplicably released theatrically in January of that year (timely!), the fact that it was the “first” killer Santa movie and that it was directed by none other than David Hess seem to be the only legacy it has (it doesn't appear to be on R1 DVD as of yet).

1982 offered the “sort of” Christmas slasher The Dorm That Dripped Blood, which took the unusual path of taking place in the days AFTER Christmas, focusing on a bunch of students who stayed behind during break in order to clean the titular dorm. It’s not particularly good, but does feature a young Daphne Zuniga and slasher-dom’s most jaw droppingly inane killer reveal, and thus offers a sort of “night cap” on the holiday’s genre offerings – if you spend all day watching the big guns, maybe unwind with this.

But it wouldn’t be until 1984 that the sub-genre really blew up, with THREE major holiday titles hitting theaters, each delivering something different for horror fans. The most notable in horror circles is the notorious Silent Night Deadly Night, a “killer Santa” film (franchise?) I’ve already covered extensively. Released in November of 1984, it didn’t last long, as Tri-Star bowed to pressure from various parents’ groups and pulled the film from theaters. The troubled Don’t Open Til Christmas (from some of the same guys behind the immortal Pieces) didn’t fare much better, though it was the exact opposite of SNDN – it focused on a guy killing anyone he saw that was wearing a Santa suit! Seems like it would be pretty easy to stop him (don’t dress like Santa), but that plot hole was the least of the movie’s problems. At least three directors worked on the film at one point or another, and key scenes were reshot and re-edited (the cast lists a major character who never once appears). Needless to say, it’s a mess, and worse, it largely lacks the insanity that makes Pieces such a joy. However, it was just released uncut on DVD (via Danger After Dark and Mondo Macabro) for the first time – maybe that will improve things? I’d be willing to give it another look if I can get my hands on a copy.

The one that got the most acclaim (and box office success), however, was the one released in the summer and given a PG rating. Joe Dante’s Gremlins is an enduring classic, and it fully relishes in the holiday setting; from the snow covered streets of Kingston Falls, to the mom suffering through yet another cable viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life, all the way to Corey Feldman dressed as a Christmas tree, it’s in some ways the ultimate Christmas horror film – there’s something holiday related in nearly every frame of the film. And fans of mean-spirited black comedy can’t do much better than Phoebe Cates’ tragic back-story, a moment that was so hated by certain critics that Dante actually spoofed the scene in Gremlins 2.

Apart from the Silent Night Deadly Night sequels, and a few one-off sequences in otherwise unrelated horror films (like the Christmas-set opening of Jaws 4, where caroling children drown out the screams of Jaws’ first victim), the genre once again suffered a severe lack of holiday horror. The late 90s DTV market offered stuff like Jack Frost (a killer snowman) and Santa Claws (a Christmas-set ripoff of The Last Horror Film), but nothing of any substance. 2005’s Santa’s Slay sounded like a potential cult classic on paper – it imagined that Santa was actually a demon who had lost a bet and was forced to give presents to children for 1000 years, and now that the time has expired he wants to return to his demonic, killing ways. Unfortunately it was produced by Brett Ratner and written and directed by a buddy of his, so you can imagine how well it turned out.

Then in 2006 we got the aforementioned Black Xmas, which unfortunately had to battle not only the anti-remake fanbase of the original, but Dimension’s idiotic decision to release the film on Christmas Day, rather than a few weeks before in order to capitalize on those EXCITED for the holiday. Instead, it had a shelf life of exactly 24 hours – who the hell wants to go see a Christmas movie on the 26th? Not that it would have helped much given the poisonous reviews - most of which were seemingly written based on the trailer - but it might have given folks like me (who had a blast with the film’s mean-spirited, anti-holiday tone) more time to convince like-minded friends to check it out. Those that were curious just waited for DVD, and while many agreed with me to some extent, it didn’t exactly help the slasher genre’s box office potential (or Glen Morgan’s career – he hasn’t worked on a feature since).

Neither did P2, a gory thriller set on Christmas Eve and entirely in a parking garage, as a deranged security guard (Wes Bentley, who even dons a Santa suit for a while) stalks a hotter than hell Rachel Nichols. The film has the unfortunate distinction of having one of the worst opening weekends of all time, and was long gone before Christmas actually rolled around, but it has found some minor appreciation on DVD, where the film’s cramped setting probably plays better. Ditto for 2007’s Wind Chill, an atmospheric supernatural thriller that takes place mostly in and around a stalled car, with its two occupants (a lovely Emily Blunt and the Jesse Eisenberg-ish Ashton Holmes) battling the elements, each other, and some ghosts after breaking down en route to visit their families for Christmas.

And then there’s Inside (A l’intérieur), another Christmas Eve tale that ranks as (in my opinion) the best home invasion movie ever. As with Halloween (which was a clear influence, at least in the direction), the plot is very simple: our heroine is VERY pregnant (like, water about to burst) and alone in her home, and another woman is determined to get in the house and do some very horrible things. More blood is sprayed than in a dozen uncut Friday the 13th sequels, and even I had trouble watching some of the moments of extreme violence… which of course makes it a perfect option to scare off any in-laws or friends that don’t seem to be in any rush to leave your house after dinner. While the holiday doesn’t really factor into the proceedings much, it would be an annual holiday viewing at my house if my wife wasn’t so disturbed by it (she actually stormed out of the room when I put it on a few Eves back).

She was much more delighted with Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, an Amblin-esque Finnish film that depicts a young boy and his father uncovering the "real" Santa, who happens to be a giant monster with horns (and is protected by murderous elves). The subject matter is too dark for children, obviously, but the sense of whimsy and hilarious mythology behind the title make it a terrific addition to the holiday horror canon. There's also The Christmas Tale from Spain's "Six Films To Keep You Awake" series, which also takes an Amblin style approach to a very dark tale - replace ET with a murderous bank robber and you can get some of the idea. As with all sub-genres of horror, it seems the best stuff comes from other countries these days (Jack Frost is all us!)

Every now and then someone threatens a Silent Night Deadly Night remake (noooo), and I’m sure there are plenty of other holiday-set horror films in some stage of development, but luckily the above titles (and others I haven’t mentioned) are more than enough to satisfy the horror fan who is fed up with seeing ads for Christmas Story and Home Alone every five minutes. And plus, there’s always Die Hard anyway – horror or not that movie should be REQUIRED holiday viewing for any movie fan.

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas, folks!

*I put this article together using a very scientific method: looking at the list of horror films on IMDb with the keyword “Christmas”. It’s not meant to be all-inclusive, but apart from Curse of the Cat People and a 1972 TV movie called Home For The Holidays, I really couldn’t find or think of anything else of note prior to Bloody Night – if anyone knows of one (and again, not a movie with a Christmas SCENE like Rosemary’s Baby) please let me know!