Christmas horror is kind of an acquired taste. Those who adore festively-themed fright flicks have a whole Santa’s list to watch come Christmastime. Everyone else just watches Gremlins or Silent Night, Deadly Night again for the hundredth time and calls it a night.
However, this Christmas (or, more specifically, in October and early December of this year) two, equally great Christmas horror movies were unleashed upon us, both of which will surely become part of the rotation in years to come.
A Christmas Horror Story and Krampus have a great many, wonderful things in common but the first and, arguably, most important is that they are intensely scary films. Krampus is a PG-13 rated kids’ horror that is much nastier than one would expect, while Horror Story is an anthology of festive nightmares, each worse than the last, also featuring the great anti-Santa himself.
These two flicks have serious mainstream, universal appeal, with Krampus enjoying a remarkably fruitful opening weekend that left many pundits scratching their heads. While it’s always great to see a horror movie doing well at the box office (or, er, getting a wide, theatrical release in the first place), it’s even better to see a weird, festive fright flick taking charge.
Considering the Seth Rogen-starring The Night Before, and who’s who of young and old Hollywood that was Love The Coopers were both released around the same time, it’s heartening to know that punters flocked to see Krampus instead. It helped that celebrated film critic Mark Kermode actively encouraged moviegoers to see it rather than the other two, enthusing Krampus was the best festive movie released this holiday season.
A Christmas Horror Story didn’t get quite the same reaction (it went straight to DVD in the UK, in fairness) but was well-received by fans and journalists alike, not to mention it made a significant splash at Frightfest opposite the highly-anticipated, fellow anthology feature Tales Of Halloween–no mean feat for a film that was being screened for fans in the middle of August.
What’s immediately striking about both of these movies is how well they capture the Christmas spirit, while simultaneously managing to scare the pants off us. Think of the great Christmas horror movies; what do they all have in common? Krampus and A Christmas Horror Story build upon a fine tradition by paying homage to what’s come before, but by also striking their own path.
For example, Krampus is so hot right now. But, up until this year, he hadn’t really had a big outing of his own, save for perhaps Rare Exports. This Christmas, we have two great examples of his powers, both of which represent a different side to the creature, and the mythology, and both of which are inventive, scary and fun in their own ways.
In Krampus, he’s an unseen entity (up until an amazing money shot that you won’t forget). On the other hand, A Christmas Horror Story sees him face off against Santa in a bloody battle to the death. This is a great example of how the same thing can be done in horror, in two entirely different ways, and still be effective–even in a sub-genre as, presumably, limited as Christmas horror.
These are two very different films, with two entirely different takes on the festive season, but both are equally inspired, with each representing what makes Christmas horror so great, too. And, considering one of them is an anthology piece, and both prominently feature the same demon, this is really quite an achievement.
There are certain elements that must be present in order for a festive horror movie to make an impact. First and foremost, it has to be scary and, preferably, quite bloody-nothing says “Christmas horror” like blood on snow or, even better, splattered all over a Santa suit. However, these kinds of films usually contain a streak of black humour that elevates the typical stalk-and-slash scenario.
Both A Christmas Horror Story and Krampus are smartly, darkly funny. In Horror Story, the laughs are mostly provided by the legendary William Shatner, as a grumpy radio DJ, along with the requisite squabbling family on a road trip to reconnect with estranged relatives. In Krampus, the comedy is courtesy of an extended family of miscreants, all of whom are at each other’s throats right up until the titular demon comes a-knockin’ and often afterwards, too.
Horror comedy is a notoriously difficult line to straddle, but it’s especially complicated when trying to include festive nods, too. Thankfully, both movies manage to be loaded with Christmas spirit while still retaining their black humour sensibilities. In particular, the opening sequence to Krampus, scored by “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas”, sees holiday shoppers killing each other to score the best Black Friday deals, before lead kid Max ruins a recital by fighting with his fellow students.
The idea of things going horribly wrong at precisely the time of year when they really shouldn’t is ripe for horror movie exploitation. The best festive horror movies utilise this nightmare scenario with creepy carol songs, bloody deaths and pitch-black humour. They simultaneously retain and exploit the Christmas spirit. They remind us of those festive feelings and then tear them apart.
A Christmas Horror Story and Krampus benefit hugely from inspired casting, genuinely clever twist endings and their own unique takes on the festive season. However, at their core, they are both inventive, exciting and very fresh examples of Christmas horror that will stand the test of time alongside all the other money-grabbing, festive-themed dross on offer.
Google “best horror movies to watch on Christmas” and a million different lists come up. So, why, then, is it so rare for a festive fright flick to break through? One could argue that the quality hasn’t been high enough, or maybe that Christmas horror movies are a bit like buses: We wait around for one for ages and then two show up. Whatever has changed, this year we got two, great movies and hopefully those are just the beginning.