Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film is a major four-month film season at BFI Southbank and across the UK from October 2013 to January 2014.
With our Gothic season continuing around the country, when it comes to Christmas viewing recommendations we’ve little interest in wonderful lives, bungling burglars or miracles on any numerically-monikered streets. Instead, we’re looking into the darker recesses of festive filmmaking – a world of psychotic axe-wielding Santas, killer snowmen and child-devouring Scandinavian legends. All most definitely on the cinematic naughty list.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
With that in mind, we’ve followed the sound of slay bells and stepped over the broken, blood-stained toys to dig out examples of the kind of ghoulish yuletide mayhem guaranteed to drive even the most unpatriotic Laplander to tears.
We’ve made a list, checked it twice – here are our 10 great Christmas horrors…
Tales from the Crypt (1972)
Director Freddie Francis
It’s the opening section of the third (and best) of Freddie Francis’ anthology films for Amicus that concerns us here. It’s Christmas Eve, and Joan Collins has just embedded a fire iron in her husband’s head as her daughter sleeps upstairs. A radio announcement that there’s an escaped lunatic in the area dressed as Santa Claus could provide her with the perfect alibi, as long as he doesn’t make it into the house before the police arrive.
The film that started the whole psycho-Santa subgenre, it may not be the most iconic example (the notorious marketing campaign alone for 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night gives that film that honour), but with a lean 12-minute running time it’s easily the most effective. Amping it’s blackly comic, impishly subversive vibe even further, Robert Zemeckis’s excellent retread of the same material for the Tales from the Crypt television series in 1989 is every bit as worthy of attention.
Dead of Night: The Exorcism (1972)
Director Don Taylor
We could have gone for the Christmas segment of Ealing Studios’ 1945 horror anthology of the same name, but this first episode of its short-lived television spin-off for the BBC offers even more effective yuletide chills. Only three of the six original episodes of Dead of Night are still known to exist, and these are now available on DVD for the first time.
Edmund (Edward Petherbridge) and Rachel (Anna Cropper) are showing off their new country home to friends over a Christmas dinner, when the spirits of the previous occupants take over hosting duties to spell out the tragic history of the house. Lights blow out, wine takes on the taste of blood and children’s corpses are found in the upstairs bedroom. But it’s an extraordinary extended monologue as Cropper becomes possessed by the abused woman who died there that forms the centrepiece of a brilliantly unsettling 50 minutes of television.
Black Christmas (1974)
Director Bob Clark
The police are proving ineffectual in doing anything to stop the spate of obscene phone calls and killings plaguing a sorority house over Christmas. Not just a seminal Christmas horror film but also one of the key prototypes for the slew of imitative slashers that would follow in its wake, Black Christmas even predates John Carpenter’s masterful Halloween by some four years. Nasty as hell, but without caking the screen with blood for effect, the film ably builds tension in spite of some of the more laughable/dated elements (take a bow, Keir Dullea).
Brilliantly utilising a series of alternating perspectives for his killer – including an opening POV soon to be borrowed by Carpenter in the aforementioned, and Brian De Palma for his film-within-a-film sequence in Blow Out (1981) – Clark would later go on to helm much more innocent (but equally acclaimed) festive fare with A Christmas Story (1983). Margot Kidder is a blast as a boozed-up sorority girl, but it’s the direction that most impresses in this quintessential festive shocker, an effectiveness to which its awful 2006 remake barely even aspires.
Christmas Evil (1980)
Director Lewis Jackson
The sole credit for director Lewis Jackson, this terrifically strange one-off predated Silent Night, Deadly Night’s notion that a traumatic childhood encounter with Santa Claus might trigger an unhealthy desire to dress up as the Coca-Cola Company’s benevolent mascot and slaughter those on the naughty list. Harry (Brandon Maggart) has been obsessed with Christmas ever since he caught mommy getting a little bit more than a kiss from Santa when he was a kid. Donning the suit and kitting out his van, Harry takes to the streets to deliver presents to hospitals and murder those who fail to recognise the true spirit of the season.
Yet there’s more to Christmas Evil than might initially be expected, not least in thoughtful visuals which belie its low-budget. If its nutjob subjectivity initially feels more than a little creepy, it offers enough psychological complexity to warrant its subversive perspective on both character and themes, going some way to earning its Frankenstein-riffing finale and brilliantly surreal final shot.
Director Joe Dante
With the manic abandon of a Chuck Jones cartoon, Gremlins unleashes a subversive maelstrom of mischief on its Capra-esque setting, perfectly balancing the cosy values of screenwriter Chris Columbus and producer Steven Spielberg with the proclivities of its director Joe Dante for sharp political and social satire.
As much a skewering of small-town fears and paranoia (notably of immigration) as it is of seasonal goodwill, it’s Dante’s anarchic deconstruction of cultural as well as social values that makes Gremlins such a riotous blast. There’s a Cronenberg vibe to Chris Walas’s extraordinary puppetry and effects work, which strikes just the right balance between laughs and scares (helping to usher in the PG-13 certificate in the US as a result).
Dante would play a loonier tune with his out-there sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch six years later, but the original remains essential festive viewing, a warning against that post-midnight Boxing Day snack if ever there was one.
Jack Frost (1997)
Director Michael Cooney
If it’s thematic weight, Oscar-worthy performances or richly textured visuals you’re after, then Jack Frost probably isn’t the film for you. If in place of those loftier ideals, you’ll settle for a wise-cracking homicidal snowman, then step right up folks. With zero pretension to anything other than the basest Z-movie thrills, this is awfulness to cherish, and awfulness it possesses in spades – but it’s about a giant killer snowman, so stop your griping.
Not to be confused with the Michael Keaton-starring shit-hurricane of schmaltz released the following year, Jack Frost sees a psychopathic maniac return to his old hunting ground to continue his killing spree. Transformed into a snowman on his way to prison when a crash throws him into some secret government experimental goo (or something), there’s soon no stopping Jack and his inexhaustible arsenal of snow-related puns. With its insistence on enforced merriment and a script seemingly made up of Christmas cracker jokes taped together, it certainly nails the seasonal spirit. But, more importantly, it’s the only film on our list that features a giant killer snowman. Did we mention that?
Dead End (2003)
Director Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa
Panic, arguments, booze, too much to eat, a ghostly woman in white clutching a dead baby at the side of the road – it can only be Christmas. As much a pitch-black comedy of familial dysfunction as supernatural chiller, Dead End may sport one of those twist endings you’ll see coming a mile off, but its slender running time and smart execution give off a great early-Twilight Zone vibe.
Taking a short cut on the way to a family Christmas Eve dinner, the Harringtons find themselves lost on a seemingly neverending back road through a dense woods. Picking up a spectral hitchhiker, the bickering and resentments escalate, as one by one they’re picked off and carted away in a mysterious black hearse.
While most of the more gruesome business takes place off camera (presumably for budgetary reasons), it’s the characterisation and the relationships between the Harrington clan that make Dead End work so well. A few well-managed jumps aside, its mostly played for bitter laughs, sharply tapping into seasonal anxieties and familial cabin fever. “And I thought Christmas was bad last year!” says Frank (Ray Wise), but it’s clear he’d rather be dealing with murderous roadside entities than the in-laws.
Director Fabrice du Welz
The meanest film on our list, the Belgian film Calvaire isn’t also known as The Ordeal for nothing. When Marc (Laurent Lucas), a cabaret singer heading from one Christmas performance to another, breaks down in the woods, he’s left with little choice but to follow the strange man searching for his dog to a secluded inn run by one Bartel (Jackie Berroyer). Bartel warns him to stay away from the local village, but it’s quickly apparent that the villagers are the least of Marc’s problems. Knocked unconscious, stripped and dressed as the innkeeper’s long-gone wife, Marc’s ordeal reaches its peak in a brutal overhead tracking shot as the village men descend on the inn.
Director Fabrice du Welz works wonders with atmospheric textures, a dance sequence in the village bar playing like a psychotic outtake from Bela Tarr’s Sátántángó (1994). That stalwart of French cinematic grimness, Phillipe Nahon shows up as leader of the village loons, but Calvaire’s trump card is undoubtedly Berroyer’s Bartel. Despite being so obviously unhinged, there’s something oddly touching in his joy at a first family Christmas in years – even if said family consists of another deranged yokel, a sodomised cow and a crying man dressed as his dead wife.
The Children (2008)
Director Tom Shankland
Two families meet at an isolated, snow-covered home to see in the New Year. Slowly, the young children become infected by an unexplained virus that drives them to murder their parents. Creepy kids have long been a staple in horror films, and in this sharp British chiller, director Shankland carefully builds mood and character before letting all hell break loose with grisly gusto. Making strong use of the isolated, snowed-in setting, The Children proves as effective in its series of set pieces as it does in the simmering dysfunctions of the seasonal family get-together.
Intelligently playing on its young families’ parental insecurities and anxieties, the kids soon become a murderous mirror to the increasingly tense adult dynamics within the house. “They’re like a sponge at this age” says one mother, but on this New Year’s Eve of the Damned, said sponge happens to be wielding a kitchen knife.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
Director Jalmari Helander
Paying stylistic homage to Joe Dante and early Spielberg, this Finnish reclamation of the original Santa Claus legend – a feral, horned beast who’d devour children and demand presents for himself – serves up a wicked blend of chills and thrills.
A team of scientists have discovered something buried under the Korvatunturi Mountains in northern Finland. When hundreds of reindeer are slaughtered, threatening the livelihood of the local community, a trap is set, but it’s only young Pietari who’s initially convinced of the true identity of the gnarly old man with the long white beard, chained up in his father’s basement and awoken by the smell of gingerbread.
Beautifully shot and designed, Helander’s Grimm-infused fable smartly riffs on yuletide commercialisation as Santa is held to ransom, its child’s eye perspective served with plenty of bite. If it can’t entirely resist an injection of seasonal sentiment, the image of Santa’s elves alone – cast as a horde of old, naked men storming through the forest – offers a suitably subversive counterpoint.