Krampus, the central figure of the new big-screen horror movie titled, yes, Krampus, is an age-old fixture of Christmastime folklore in Northern Europe.
For centuries, the hairy-bodied, horn-headed, long-tongued Krampus has been as familiar to Swiss, German, and Austrian children as the season’s main superstar, Saint Nicholas. In fact, Krampus and Santa Claus kind of work as a team.
See, whereas jolly old St. Nick rewards kids on his “nice” list with presents, Krampus doles out not-so-jolly Yuletide justice to boys and girls classified as “naughty.”
Given such a fright-film-friendly set up, it’s kind of surprising that it took this long for a proper, mainstream Krampus movie to get made. After all, scare flicks always pull in fear fans, and Christmas fare, regardless of any initial box office, tends to run forever on TV (just check this month’s cable schedule).
In addition, holiday-themed horror is its own cinematic cult subgenre. So as Krampus looms, unwrap this roundup of tinsel-strewn terror flicks from Christmases past.
TREE-TOPPERS OF (TICKLISH) TERROR
When it comes to scary Christmas movies, two titles leap instantly to mind like merrily menacing ornaments that have become holiday traditions all their own.
Come 1990, screenwriter Chris Columbus would make the wholesome holiday slapstick blockbuster Home Alone, but first he teamed with director Joe Dante and producer Steven Spielberg to upend All-American small town seasonal sweetness by unleashing the monstrous madness that is Gremlins.
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)
Conceived by Tim Burton, directed by Henry Selick, and musically scored by Danny Elfman, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a massively beloved stop-motion animated fantasy about the Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween, kidnapping Santa Claus. It’s also absolutely the oddest horror-musical-puppet-comedy for all ages to ever fly under the erstwhile merrily mouse-eared banner of Disney.
The first noteworthy appearance of a deranged murderer in Santa Claus drag occurs in “…And All Through the House,” an episode of the 1972 fright anthology Tales From the Crypt starring Joan Collins. Since then, slaughter-happy Santas have regularly splattered screens various cheerful (and otherwise) shades of red.
CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)
Christmas Evil is not only crackpot cult movie genius John Waters’ favorite holiday film, it was directed by Lewis Jackson, father of singer-songwriter Fiona Apple.
Also know as Terror in Toyland and You Better Watch Out, Christmas Evil opens with a perverse play on the plot essentials of the song “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”
Years later, the kid who caught that Yuletide eyeful grows up to work in a toy factory and, following a Christmas Eve freak-out in which he becomes convinced he’s the real Santa, our anti-hero dons jolly red apparel and sets out to slaughter the naughty.
Unlike in the case of Santa Claus himself, Christmas Evil’s surprise ending must be seen to be believed.
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984)
Upon the arrival of Silent Night, Deadly Night in 1984, protestors picketed theaters showing, the great, gruesome, most ballistically bonkers granddaddy of all future fatal Father Christmas rampage movies. That, of course, only enhanced this crackpot slasher flick’s wild reputation. If you’re going to see one hatchet-happy Santa Claus-suited psycho movie in your lifetime, make it this one.
Four sequels followed. More than 50% of Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 (1987) is comprised of footage from the original (with one notable exception). Legendary art/cult filmmaker Monte Hellman somehow helmed Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989). Clint Howard stars in Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1989). The last installment to date, Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991), features Mickey Rooney as plaything craftsman “Joe Petto” who creates an semi-mechanical son for himself named “Pino.”
SANTA’S SLAY (2005)
Pro wrestler Bill Goldberg stars as the title character himself in Santa’s Slay, an over-the-top black Christmas “splatschtick” horror-comedy.
The cartoonish gore-fest’s premise is that Santa is actually the spawn of Satan who got being beaten by an angel in a curling match and was forced to be jolly and deliver presents for a thousand years. The action kicks off when Santa’s sentence is up, and he’s finally free to revert to his true demonic nature. Immediately, he goes blood-gushingly berserk all over humanity.
Aside from Goldberg, Santa’s Slay boasts cheekily pointed interfaith cameos by Jewish actors including James Caan, Fran Drescher, Chris Kattan, and Rebecca Gayheart. Saul Rubinek, as deli owner Mr. Green, even gets mangled with his own Hanukah menorah.
RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)
Imported itself from Finland, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is stylish cult favorite (and therefore, not so rare) about an ancient human hating creature dug up from the ice who deeply resembles Santa Claus—except, once thawed, all he wants to do is hunt humans.
Even more entertaining than Rare Export’s rollicking kill components is the film’s zanily inventive theory as to the origin of the oddball character every child is encouraged to welcome a home invasion from each December.
Sometimes in holiday horror flicks, Santa Claus commits heinous deeds. Other times, heinous deed-doers commit to Santa Claus.
DON’T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS (1984)
The 1982 slasher opus Pieces is both revered and reviled as one of the most over-the-top insane fright films ever made.
Two holiday seasons later, the producers of Pieces stormed back with Don’t Open Till Christmas—and, with this plasma-splashed saga of someone creatively offing anyone in London dressed as Santa Claus, they do their lunatic legacy proud.
SANTA’S HO-HO-HOMICIDAL HELPERS
Just as Krampus is officially in cahoots with Kris Kringle, other familiar Christmastime characters have taken memorable stabs at scary movie immortality.
Not all elves work for Santa. The title creatures of 1989’s nutzoid Elves do their dirty work for no less an antithesis of the Christmas spirit than Hitler!
The pint-sized, pointy-eared (puppet) protagonists of Elves are actually humanoid hybrids concocted by Nazi scientists as part of their master race madness.
After these hateful homunculi get revived by a pagan ritual and run loose through a department store on Christmas Eve, it’s up to Dan “Grizzly Adams” Haggerty as the shop’s alcoholic ex-cop Santa to stop them.
JACK FROST (1997)
Jack Frost spins the timeless tale of a serial killer who gets magically transformed into snowman—and keeps on killing.
Given this direct-to-VHS cheapie’s glorious pre-CGI pedigree, what that means is that a guy in a really hilariously goofy snowman costume runs around stabbing people with his carrot nose (among other crimes against Christmas traditions).
The flick’s rotund, coal-eyed evil-doer even has a shower-set sex scene with pre-American Pie Shannon Elizabeth before ultimately running afoul of a hair-dryer set on “hot.”
This Jack Frost is confused with the 1998 family comedy Jack Frost starring Michael Keaton as a jazz musician dad reincarnated as a snowman. That one’s even weirder—and way scarier.
Seasonally slaughtered trees that have had enough of axes and saws come to life and devour human flesh on Christmas morning, and blood runs like sap all over. Appropriately, the fright farce Treevenge comes to us from Canada.
Mass murder amidst the glow of new fallen snow can make for some maliciously merry movie mayhem.
SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT (1972)
Filmed in scenic Oyster Bay, Long Island, Silent Night, Bloody Night is an eerily effective axe murder thriller set on Christmas Eve at a mansion that, years earlier, served as an insane asylum.
Bolstering SNBN is a cast dominated by Andy Warhol’s “Superstar” art world collaborators, including cult actress Mary Woronov (Principal Togar in the Ramones’ Rock-n-Roll High School) and Candy Darling, a drag queen who gets quite the shout-out in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” (she’s the one who “never lost her head, even when she was giving…”).
BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)
Black Christmas is a masterful exercise in abject terror set on a (mostly) vacated-for-the-holidays college campus from the future director of A Christmas Story!
Bob Clark, who made this enormously influential and, again, supremely scary proto-slasher, also directed the 1982 teen sex comedy smash, Porky’s. His must have gotten “versatility” in his talent stocking one year.
BLACK CHRISTMAS (2006)
The 2006 Black Christmas is a slick, jokey Hollywood remake of the petrifying 1974 original, and it has its fans. The cast offers quite the roster of 2000s-era starlets as coeds in Yuletide peril. Among those sorority house screamers are Katie Cassidy, Michelle Trachtenberg, Lacey Chabert, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Crystal Lowe.
THE GHOSTS OF KRAMPUS PAST—AND YET TO COME
The 2015 Krampus is not cinema’s first attempt to bring the goat-domed punisher to the screen. It’s just the biggest. It also doesn’t look to be the last.
KRAMPUS, THE CHRISTMAS DEVIL (2013)
A direct-to-DVD (and/or download) no-budgeter chronicles an adult who was kidnapped as a child, and who now comes to piece together that the maniac who snatched him may well have been St. Nick’s naughty list enforcer.
Stalking. Torture. Monsters. Murder. Why should all the fun stop so suddenly one Christmas comes and goes?
NEW YEAR’S EVIL (1981)
A rockin’ new wave New Year’s Eve party broadcast by fictional versions of MTV and KROQ goes down in Hollywood, while a crazed killer calls in to the show to announce his next series of slayings.
That’s the gist of New Year’s Evil. Should you need even further enticement to ring in 2016 by watching this slasher nugget, please note that Blaze, the sexy VJ/DJ who keeps fielding the psycho’s phoned-in updates, is played by Roz Kelly aka Pinky Tuscadero of Happy Days fame.