Aliens, monsters, and even a killer Santa Claus rule these wildly entertaining holiday picks
Even the magic and cheer of the holiday season can’t stop the nefarious minds of horror filmmakers. If anything, it only inspires some of their greatest work. The festive and family-friendly sentiments that people are used to during this time of year make for a perfect playground for scary movies to run amok and turn upside down. Christmas especially has a wide variety of horror (good and bad, naughty and nice) devoted to it.
We’ve searched through the libraries of several streaming services to find out who was delivering quality holiday thrills and mayhem hidden beneath the usual yuletide cheesiness, and the findings were surprisingly great. The following movies include a couple of well-established classics, some more modern and frightening offerings, and plenty of original horrors that deserve a watch. Here’s plenty of proof that you can conjure up scares no matter what time of year it is.
‘Better Watch Out’ (Amazon Prime Video / Shudder)
On a quiet street in the safety of the suburbs, Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) is tasked with babysitting a twelve-year-old boy named Luke (Levi Miller) while his parents go out for an evening. She thought this job was going to make for an easy night, but things take a turn when dangerous intruders break in and begin to terrorize the two. Ashley defends her charge to the best of her ability only to discover this is no normal home invasion. Directed by Chris Peckover, Better Watch Out is a jolly dose of psychological terror that constantly stays surprising, shocking, and hilariously sadistic.
‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (HBO Max)
Kubrick’s final film is one that often feels overlooked in the Christmas movie conversation, but the erotic psychological thriller’s festive setting is a prominent feature. After Dr. Bill Hartford’s (Tom Cruise) wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), admits to having sexual fantasies about a man she met – and considered an affair – Bill becomes obsessed with having a sexual encounter. He discovers an underground group and attends one of their meetings, and the masked orgy he walks into quickly leads into a long night of strange and unsettling discoveries. Kubrick’s recurring use of colorful Christmas lights and trees throughout the film makes for purposeful visual juxtaposition, as well as the usual commentary on consumerism.
‘Black Christmas (1974)’ (Peacock)
No holiday horror list is complete without the original Black Christmas. Credited with being one of the earliest slasher movies and a major influence on all that would follow (including Halloween which would be made only a few years later), the Canadian horror flick is set just as winter break begins, where a group of sorority sisters, including Jess (Olivia Hussey) and the often inebriated Barb (Margot Kidder), begin to receive anonymous, lascivious phone calls. Initially, Barb eggs the caller on, but stops when he responds threateningly. Soon, Barb’s friend Claire (Lynne Griffin) goes missing from the sorority house, and a local adolescent girl is murdered, leading the girls to suspect a serial killer is on the loose. The film was directed by Bob Clark, who is best known for making another, albeit more family friendly, Christmas classic – A Christmas Story.
‘The Advent Calendar’ (Shudder)
Written and directed by French filmmaker Patrick Ridremont, The Advent Calendar is a brutally effective piece of festive horror for something that’s based around, well, an advent calendar. The film centers on a young woman named Eva (Eugénie Derouand), a former dancer who is now confined to a wheelchair following a terrible incident a few years prior. Her best friend Sophie (Honorine Magnier) gives her an old wooden antique advent calendar to be used in the days leading up to Christmas, but Eva soon realizes that each window contains a surprise that triggers repercussions in real life: some of them good, some of them bloody and terrifying. There’s an interesting moral dilemma at the heart of Eva’s story, one with big rewards but also big consequences, and it’s what keeps you hooked throughout The Advent Calendar’s rampage.
That’s right, Ridley Scott’s grand prequel to the iconic Alien is indeed a Christmas movie. Prometheus follows a crew of explorers on an ambitious, deep-space science expedition. Led by Doctor Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her partner, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), the team has been following a trail of clues that could possibly lead to answers concerning the origins of humankind. But no one is prepared for the unimaginable terrors that await them. Idris Elba’s character, Captain Janek, can be seen decorating the ship’s tree before all hell breaks loose, but the film’s Christmas setting is also relevant to its larger themes of faith and rebirth.
‘Gremlins’ (HBO Max)
Yet another holiday horror classic, Gremlins is a 1984 comedy that’s the result of the combined brainpower of director Joe Dante, writer Chris Columbus, and executive producer Steven Spielberg. The film is unabashedly 80s and its more violent sequences actually directly led to the creation of the MPAA adding the PG-13 rating, as well as a slew of similar mini monster movies and a lasting mark on pop culture. You probably don’t need to be told this, but Gremlins is about a boy named Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) who receives a small creature known as a mogwai as a gift. There are important rules that need to be followed to take proper care of it, but when they can’t be followed, Billy’s entire town is soon overrun with the monsters that want nothing more than to wreak havoc.
‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’ (Shudder)
1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night usually gets passed up when it comes to talking about slasher franchises, but this series about a killer Santa Claus has spawned several sequels and even a reboot planned for next year. Directed by Charles E. Sellier Jr., the original film follows a young man named Billy Chapman (Robert Brian Wilson) who was raised by abusive nuns after witnessing the murder of his parents on Christmas Eve. As the holiday arrives once again, Billy finally snaps and begins a killing spree while dressed as Santa Claus. There was a ton of controversy surrounding the release of Silent Night, Deadly Night – public outcry from concerned parents, a critical panning from critics, and protests at screenings led to the film being pulled from theaters after only a little over a week. But that controversy is likely what has kept the series going for so long and made it a cult favorite.
‘Rare Exports’ (Hulu)
A young boy named Pietari (Onni Tommila) and his friend Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää) think a secret mountain drilling project near their home in northern Finland has uncovered the tomb of Santa Claus. However, this is a monstrous, evil Santa, much unlike the cheery St. Nick of legend. When Pietari’s father (Jorma Tommila) captures a feral old man (Peeter Jakobi) in his wolf trap, the man may hold the key to why reindeer are being slaughtered and children are disappearing. Another film that turns the image of the jolly old elf on its head for maximum horror potential, Rare Exports deserves to be a true modern classic for its mix of bloody thrills and dark humor. It’s wildly original and imaginative, but most of all, incredibly entertaining.
‘The Day of the Beast’ (Shudder)
Spanish filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia made his breakthrough in 1995 with this demented mix of black comedy and horror. The Day of the Beast is a purposeful and blatant inversion of the religious aspect of Christmas, filled to the brim with blasphemy of all sorts and de la Iglesia’s wicked sense of humor. The film follows a heavy-metal fan (Santiago Segura) and a psychic (Armando De Razza) who help a priest (Alex Angulo) seek the infant Antichrist in Madrid at Christmas. Metal fans should be making this an annual watch.
‘The Lodge’ (Hulu)
From filmmaking duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, The Lodge is a recent critically acclaimed claustrophobic thrill ride that never quite the due it should’ve. This is likely due to its theatrical run in February of 2020 occurring right at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but nevertheless the film deserves much more attention. During a family retreat to a remote winter cabin over the holidays, Richard Hall (Richard Armitage) is forced to abruptly depart for work, leaving his two children in the care of his new girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough). Isolated and alone, a blizzard traps them inside the lodge as terrifying events summon specters from Grace’s dark past. The film is dripping with dread from the very start, creating an atmosphere that’s so unsettling it’s almost tangible. It’ll stick with you for a night or two. Or three.