Three decades after the PTA petitioned to have Silent Night, Deadly Night pulled from theaters, a serial-killing Santa Claus has become one of horror’s hoariest clichés. (And one of its punniest—rejected titles for this Inventory include Merry Christmassacre, I Saw Santa Claus Killing Mommy, Stocking Snuffers, Slashing Through The Snow, and A Christmas Peril.) But Santa’s killing spree actually began in 1972, when Joan Collins was murdered by a homicidal maniac dressed in a Santa suit in the British horror anthology Tales From The Crypt. Collins plays a deceitful wife who kills her husband on Christmas Eve, and is so preoccupied with making it look like an accident that she doesn’t take the escaped lunatic in the yard as seriously as she should. Aside from the bellbottoms and gold-plated tchotchkes, the most ’70s moment in this 10-minute segment is when Collins tries to scrub her dead husband’s blood from the white shag carpet. This story was later remade for the second episode of the Tales From The Crypt TV series. (See number seven.)
Christmas and slasher movies have been linked since Black Christmas, which was released in 1974 and is often cited as the first proper example of the genre. But the killer didn’t actually put on a Santa Claus suit until To All A Goodnight, the lone directorial effort of Last House On The Left villain David Hess. There’s little to recommend of the film besides a series of college students—with little to distinguish them besides the manner in which they were killed and the amount of clothes they were wearing at the time—that get picked off by the killer. Poorly paced and cheap looking, To All A Goodnight feels longer than its 82-minute running time, even with a body count of 15 and some truly weird plot points. (One escaped victim is driven insane, and spends the rest of the movie ballet dancing on a balcony.)
Christmas Evil stars Brandon Maggart as Harry, a Christmas-obsessed weenie that’s scarred—as they often are in these movies—after walking in on his mother having sex with “Santa Claus” (his father) when he was a child. Harry lives in a creepy apartment strewn with children’s toys and spies on the kids in his neighborhood, noting their behavior in books marked “Naughty Or Nice.” After being humiliated by a co-worker, Harry disassociates and becomes convinced that he’s actually Santa Claus. His new identity starts out relatively harmless, stealing toys from the factory where he works and giving them to kids at a state hospital, but turns dark when a trio of yuppie co-workers (the scourge of the ’80s) provokes him to commit ax murder on the steps of a church. Christmas Evil spends a lot of time focusing on Harry’s nervous breakdown, and has more in common with Maniac than the “faceless killer” kind of slasher movie. But it also has its moments of comic levity, capped by a bizarrely whimsical ending. Christmas Evil is a favorite of John Waters, who calls it “the greatest Christmas movie ever made.” If you’re only going to see one Christmas horror movie, this is the one.
Although it was far from the first Christmas-themed slasher, Silent Night, Deadly Night was the one that mobilized the moral crusaders thanks to a TV ad depicting an ax-wielding Santa Claus. The film was picketed by parents and condemned by religious groups, and eventually was pulled from theaters (after all that free PR ensured that the producers made their money back, of course). Siskel and Ebert added to the film’s infamy by calling it “sick, sleazy, and mean-spirited” and repeating the names of all involved with the admonition “shame on you” on At The Movies. The film itself is an exploitative argument for trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy: A boy whose parents were murdered in front of his eyes by a man in a Santa Claus suit is forced to draw pictures of Santa, sit on his lap, and ultimately work as a toy-store Santa until he snaps and murders those he deems “naughty” in a period-appropriate, crazed-killer fashion.
Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 abandons the grim tone of its predecessor in favor of goofy ’80s excess, and has gained cult status among bad movie fans thanks to the hilariously eyebrow-based overacting of star Eric Freeman and the infamous “Garbage Day!” YouTube clip, which has been viewed over 5 million times. Most of the movie is actually composed of clips from the first Silent Night, Deadly Night (so much so that the cast and crew of both movies are listed in the credits) as Ricky (Freeman), the little brother of original Santa Claus killer Billy Caldwell, “recalls” events from the first movie—that there is no way he could possibly remember—to a psychiatrist. Eventually we catch up to the present and Ricky’s most recent killing spree, prompted by viewing Silent Night, Deadly Night—the only movie that exists in this universe, apparently—with his girlfriend at the local multiplex. Ricky doesn’t actually don the Santa suit until the end of the film, where he confronts tough old bird Mother Superior (Jean Miller), who could have prevented this whole thing by excusing those suffering from Santa-related trauma from the orphanage Christmas party. The remaining installments in the Silent Night, Deadly Night series, all direct-to-video, don’t have killers in Santa suits but do have Clint Howard holding a giant animatronic grub in Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation and Mickey Rooney as an unhinged toy store owner in the surprisingly entertaining Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker.
Twenty-one years before he voiced Santa in the animated kids’ flick Christmas Is Here Again, Andy Griffith defended Santa Claus on murder charges on the first season of Matlock. The plot revolves around a heartless businessman, Alan Rollins (Linden Chiles), who has served eviction notices to the residents of an apartment building so he can build a parking garage on the property. When Rollins is bludgeoned to death with an ashtray (an old-fashioned way to die if there ever was one—good luck finding an office building that still allows smoking) in his office by a man in a Santa suit, building resident and semi-professional Santa Tom McCabe (Pat Hingle) is accused of the crime. Nobody seems to like McCabe much—not even Matlock—but that won’t discourage Atlanta’s folksiest defense attorney in his quest for Yuletide justice.
The TV version of Tales From The Crypt pays homage to its cinematic predecessor in “And All Through The House,” Robert Zemeckis’ re-imagining of the segment from the 1972 film. This one clocks in at 22 minutes, a full 12 minutes longer than its source material—some of that time is filled by the seasonal wordplay of every kid’s best pal, the Crypt Keeper, but we also get backstory on why Elizabeth (Mary Ellen Trainor) dispatches her husband with a fireplace poker in the first scene. In this version, Mommy kills (Step)Daddy so she can inherit his money and spend the holidays with her lover, a guy whose answering machine instructs callers to leave their “name, number, and measurements.” The 1989 version of “And All Through The House” is superior to the 1972 version in every way—it’s funnier, it’s scarier, it’s more visually interesting, and the psycho Santa gets way more screen time here than in the original. You might call it a Christmas… fear-acle! Get it? FEAR-acle?
Satan Claus could have been the Jason Takes Manhattan of killer Santa movies, if only you could tell any of it was happening in New York. This dark (as in it seems to be lit entirely by Christmas lights) tale is the end of the exploitation line, made about as cheaply as a movie can be and still be called “professional” by Italian director Massimiliano Cerchi. This killer has no origin story—he’s a homicidal cipher in the Friday The 13th mold, killing random people and collecting their body parts to trim a macabre Christmas tree. The police captain is without any leads, even though the killer calls him to brag about the murders in a series of long, seemingly easily traceable phone conversations. So it’s up to a struggling actor who witnessed one of his murders, his skeptical cop girlfriend, and a voodoo priestess to find the killer. Adding what appear to be Satanic rituals to Satan Claus further confuses things, although almost everything about this movie is confusing.
First of all—there are two movies called Santa Claws, and if you rent the wrong one you’re in trouble. The 2014 Santa Claws is a kids’ movie produced by The Asylum about a litter of talking kittens who have to take over for Santa when he suffers a cat-induced allergy attack. The 1996 Santa Claws is about Raven, a softcore actress currently filming Scream Queens’ Naked Christmas, played by Debbie Rochon, star of Scream Queens’ Naked Christmas. It’s very meta. (In one scene, someone asks Rochon/Raven what she’s been up to lately, and she describes the plot of Scream Queens’ Naked Christmas in great detail.) In the movie, Raven is married to a cheating photographer who keeps going out of town and leaving her alone with the kids. So she asks her friend Wayne (Grant Kramer) to help babysit, unaware that he’s completely, creepily obsessed with her (like, owns-a-bust-of-her obsessed). As Raven and Wayne spend more time together, his fixation grows until he takes to putting on a Santa suit and murdering her fellow models. That’s the ostensible plot, but most of Santa Claws consists of Rochon and friends shimmying in lingerie as the movie’s pseudo-metal theme song belts out, ”SCREAM QUEEN, a terror so sublime / SCREAM QUEEN, scare my pants off any time!”
Santa’s Slay is the killer Santa movie as Looney Tunes cartoon, a slick Hollywood horror-comedy that clearly states its intentions by killing off Fran Drescher, Chris Kattan, and James Caan—all Jewish—in the opening scene. Former Brett Ratner assistant David Steiman directs this tongue-in-cheek attempt to capture the youth of the last decade, namely teenage boys in WWE T-shirts who fast-forward through movies for boobs. But even for those outside of the “see if your brother will rent this for us” target demographic, Santa’s Slay is entertaining enough, and keeps things moving with energetic action scenes and relatively bloodless, comedic kills. Speaking of wrestling and Looney Tunes, former pro wrestler Bill Goldberg stars as the sooty, growling Wile E. Coyote of the piece, Santa, re-imagined as the immortal son of Satan sentenced to a thousand years of niceness after losing a curling match with an angel in some completely made up Nordic myth.
Killer Santas do seem to be popular among the micro-budget crowd, maybe because all that’s required is a Santa suit, a fire ax, and a box of decorations from Mom’s basement. There are a number of Christmas horror movies that look like they were made for $20 and a case of beer, which are not included here, but Yule Die warrants a mention simply for attempting to construct a narrative as opposed to a loose collection of scenes. Is that preferential treatment? Maybe. But for a movie that appears to have been shot by amateurs on a consumer-grade camcorder, it’s quite watchable. Anyway, the story begins with a girl—who’s way too old to believe in Santa Claus—freaking out when she sees a guy dressed like Santa Claus, which makes sense once it is explained that she was attacked by a hijacker in a Santa suit and saved by a passerby the year before. Now her single mom is trying to put the moves on the good samaritan, and after learning that the hijacker has escaped from prison, the trio takes off to his house in the country where it’s “safe.” But in a slasher movie—and whoever made this has obviously seen a lot of them—a remote location is the opposite of safe. There’s very little information on Yule Die available online, so if the Seth Middleton who made this is reading, don’t give up. Maybe one day you’ll get a budget.
Although the title implies a remake of Silent Night, Deadly Night, the only thing Silent Night has in common with its predecessor is a guy in a Santa Claus suit who judges people before he kills them. That isn’t as minute a distinction as it may seem, since many later killer Santa movies remove the “naughty or nice” element in favor of indiscriminate slaughter. Anyway, Silent Night is trying to be “gritty,” which is practically impossible when you’ve got a guy tied up with Christmas lights in your basement. So, in trying to be realistic, the filmmakers ended up with something that is goofy in concept but incredibly spiteful in execution. Jamie King stars as a female deputy in a small town trying to find the killer Claus, with Malcolm McDowell as her boss and Donal Logue as an uncouth street-corner Santa. Silent Night is well shot but strictly for hardened genre fans, as a series of awful people—including a (extremely bratty) child, still a taboo in horror movies— are killed in painful, protracted ways by an anonymous psycho.
Santa Claus reincarnated as a killer robot is just one of the ways Christmas (now called Xmas, pronounced Ex-mas) has changed in Futurama’s 31st century New New York. Xmas is now a holiday of fear after a Santa ’bot programmed to separate the naughty from the nice was recalibrated way too far on the “naughty” side in the year 2801. With his sensors registering everyone he sees (except for Dr. Zoidberg) too naughty to live, the humans of the future spent their Xmas Eve indoors, singing carols with lyrics like, “You’d better not breathe, you’d better not move / You’re better off dead, I’m telling you, dude / Santa Claus is gunning you down.” Robot Santa Claus was first introduced in the season-two episode “Xmas Story,” where he was voiced by John Goodman, then returned for “A Tale Of Two Santas” in the third season and the DVD movie Bender’s Big Score, where he was voiced by series regular (and voice of Bender) John DiMaggio.
Of course there’s a killer Santa episode of American Horror Story: Asylum. Why wouldn’t there be? This is the season that had one of everything, and this homicidal Santa Claus—played by Swearingen himself, Ian McShane—fits right in with the demon nuns, aliens, and handsome serial killers already populating Briarcliff Manor. Leigh Emerson’s (McShane) backstory is particularly ugly, involving prison gang rape and the murder of “18 people from five families in one night,” a fact that is repeated several times throughout the episode. His character arc is nasty too, leaning heavily on the threat of sexual assault to give him menace. But when the eternal struggle of disciplinarian nun vs. unhinged Christmas killer comes down to Jessica Lange and McShane, who do you think is going to win?
Christmas is a relatively new and completely secular holiday in Japan, and is generally a low-key affair celebrated by picking up some KFC and, for young couples, a romantic night out. Thus a group of six college students find themselves at a love hotel on Christmas in Kazuo Umezu’s Horror Theater: Present, one in a six-part series of hour-long horror tales made for Japanese TV. There they are stalked and slashed by a Caucasian Santa Claus whose magic torture sack contains quite a few toys. This version of a killer Santa movie favors an exaggerated visual style and graphic gore effects over coherent storytelling, but Silent Night, Deadly Night didn’t exactly have an award-winning screenplay either.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is another standout in the killer Santa genre, both for its high-quality filmmaking and for the creativity of its concept. Originally conceived as series of short films called Rare Exports Inc. and The Official Rare Exports Inc. Safety Instructions, in 2009 writer director Jalmari Helander was finally able to secure funding for a feature-length version of the film. Set in the Finnish region of Lapland near the Russian border—about as close to the North Pole as humans usually get—Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale stars young Onni Tommila as Pietari, a boy who lives with his reindeer-herder father in the shadow of the Korvatunturi mountains, believed in Finnish folklore to be Santa’s homeland. When a secretive mining project frees an ancient, malevolent being, Pietari’s childish belief in Santa Claus is the only thing that can save his family’s way of life. Although (fairly) classified as horror, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale adds a Spielbergian sense of adventure (and kids in peril) to the story, with a very unconventional take on Santa and his helpers reminiscent of another Scandinavian monster fantasy, Trollhunter.
The irredeemably sleazy 1984 British slasher Don’t Open Till Christmas is a killer Santa movie with a twist. In this movie, the Santas (Fathers Christmas, whatever) are the victims instead of the killers, and although they’re all portrayed as drunken, abusive, lecherous scumbags, the punishment inflicted on them does seem… disproportionate. Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Harris (Edmund Purdom) eventually decides to investigate this series of brutally creative murders, an investigation that takes the rest of the movie despite the identity of the killer being really obvious. Not-quite-Hollywood leading man Purdom only agreed to star in this lowly exploitation movie if he could also direct, but quit and was replaced by writer Derek Ford, who also quit and was replaced by Al McGoohan, who added most of the gory killings (or, as he called them, “additional scenes”) before handing the whole mess over to editor Ray Selfe. Watching the movie, this is also really obvious.
For aficionados of direct-to-video trash, Feeders 2: Slay Bells has it all: stilted dialogue; really early, really cheap CGI; aliens that look like tennis balls stuffed into gym socks and dipped in tempera paint; a ’90s suburban mom as herself; a Casio preset soundtrack; and even an Infoseek reference. But more importantly, it’s also a Christmas movie, and features a scene where Santa blows away a bunch of aliens using a toy gun with the orange tip still on it. It’s done in self-defense—the aliens shot his sleigh out of the sky in the previous scene—so it doesn’t quite count as a psychotic episode, but Feeders 2: Slay Bells is so transcendently terrible we’re including it anyway. Merry Christmas!