This weekend, the movie Better Watch Out arrives in theaters, all dressed up in its best tacky Christmas sweater — and covered in blood. An excellent debut from director Chris Peckover, Better Watch Out is a dark-hearted holiday horror comedy taking place over one night, in which a preteen boy tries to carry out a scheme to get his pretty babysitter to fall for him, but is foiled when things take a hard left turn into murder and mayhem.
The Christmas horror sub-genre is not one of high repute, but the quality of Better Watch Out inspired us to assemble a best-of viewing guide. So after surveying decades’ worth of candidates, Vulture has come up with a list of a dozen essential scary holiday films, a 12 Days of Christmas Horror to help get you in the (Christmas-y) Halloween mood. Now break out your worst fruitcake and get a big old knife to cut it with: ’Tis the season to be terrified.
Home for the Holidays (1972)
This ABC TV feature from 1972 is the quaintest movie on this list, chock-full of snap zoom-ins on dramatic reaction faces and ominous thunder claps. Home for the Holidays opens with four sisters coming, yes, home for the holidays for the first time in years, because their father has demanded they return to save him from his wife, who might be slowly poisoning him to death. Is she really trying to kill him, though, or is this just a ruse to trap the girls in one place? And who is the masked, gloved killer stalking the property with a pitchfork? Aaron Spelling produced the soapy murder mystery, which means it focuses on a rich family and their opulent home. It stars Walter Brennan as the ailing father, with Jill Hayworth, Eleanor Parker, Jessica Walter (!), and Sally Field (!) as the Morgan sisters.
Black Christmas (1974)
Black Christmas is a great horror movie that just happens to be set at Christmas. The sisters of Pi Kappa Sigma (among them, Margot Kidder and Andrea Martin) are being harassed by the Moaner, a man who’s been calling the house to breathe heavily and eventually threaten the sisters with death. Debuting five years before Halloween, Black Christmas is a slasher movie forbearer and a clear influence on John Carpenter’s seminal work from 1979. It remains super creepy to this day — the sickening tension of a single, invisible man holding a group of women emotionally hostage with the looming threat of abstract violence is a construct that, unfortunately, has not lost any of its resonance.
Christmas Evil (1980)
The post for Christmas Evil claims, “First there was Halloween … Then came Friday the 13th … and NOW …” In other words, you’re supposed to consider this movie part of the horror Mount Rushmore. It’s not all that, but Evil is an interesting serial-killer profile movie about a man named Harry who is so severely disturbed by seeing his dad grope his mom while dressed as Santa that he grows up deeply obsessed with …being Santa. He spies on neighborhood kids to keep track of who’s naughty and nice, and keeps his home festooned with Christmas décor. He even works at a toy factory. But one day, Harry realizes people ridicule him behind his back, and he snaps, going on a red-suited murder bender. Silent Night, Deadly Night may be the more popular Christmas slasher pic, but Christmas Evil paved the way.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Silent Night, Deadly Night is the rare Christmas horror movie that catalyzed a franchise. It all started with little Billy, left traumatized after seeing his parents murdered by a man in a Santa suit. Billy is then raised by nuns in a convent, where he’s abused by Mother Superior; years later, his PTSD is triggered while working at a department store during Christmastime. This sends Billy, naturally, on a killing spree. This is Santa slasher material at its most stripped-down; the sequel, Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2, focuses on Billy’s little brother, Ricky, and the movies stay with him through the third, Silent Night, Deadly Night: Better Watch Out! By Silent Night, Deadly Night: Initiation, the Santa construction is left behind, but you can complete the cycle with Silent Night, Deadly Night: The Toy Maker.
Watching Elves is a truly singular experience. The movie opens with three young girls forming a casual witch coven in the woods, with the sole mission of being anti-Christmas and pro-women. The main girl, Kirsten, has drawn a picture of a naked woman to serve as the group’s symbol; as she tells her friends, “I dreamed those Art Deco boobs. Cool, huh?” The picture will serve an important purpose later in the movie, but Elves has a lot more going on than boredom-induced séances. There’s a small group of Nazis that’s endured over the decades, remaining devoted to the cause of fostering a master race, and they’ve decided to achieve said goal by force-breeding one specially chosen virgin with magical elves on midnight of Christmas Eve. There’s incest, truly terrible puppetry, a detective turned mall Santa who ends up a hero, and a guy who dies from repeated stabs to the penis. These are not your standard Santa’s little helpers.
Jack Frost (1997)
If villainous Santas start feeling played out for you, zag over to Jack Frost, where an abominable snowman takes Kris Kringle’s place. Just don’t confuse this movie with the other Jack Frost, which came out a year later and stars Michael Keaton as an aging rock star who dies in a car crash but is brought back to life in the form of a snowman. That’s kind of scary in its own right, but you want this movie, which follows a serial killer named Jack Frost who gets into a car accident on the way to his execution, transforms into a murderous, ice-fanged snow monster, and engages in a death match with Shannon Elizabeth in the shower.
The Children (2008)
There’s no Christmas camp in this holiday horror movie. A family comes together to celebrate the season, and things get off to a rocky start when one of the children gets sick and starts vomiting a thick goo. Soon all of the kids in the house are infected, and the illness starts to cause problems that are more behavioral than physical in nature. To clarify: The infected kids band together like a demon horde and start picking off their parents, but because they’re just sweet baby faces, the parents reject the truth of what’s going on until they’re within striking distance and unable to save themselves. The children in this movie are so heinous and annoying, you’ll root for all of them to die, which makes for a tense, satisfying thriller.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
Santas Gone Bad is a staple of the Christmas horror genre, but rarely do you see a film that excavates a bad St. Nick from a block of underground ice. Rare Exports is a Finnish movie about a little boy named Pietari who discovers the real secret of the most wonderful time of the year: Santa isn’t a fake. He’s a monster buried in the Korvatunturi mountains, and after his tomb is unearthed, local children start disappearing and reindeer turn up slaughtered. Making matters worse and weirder, an army of old, naked, feral men start amassing around Santa and wreaking havoc on the nearby residents. It’s an excellent combination of thrills and absurdity.
One thing you learn when you’re an adult is that proper fairy tales are actually terrifying. Such is the case with Sint, a movie out of the Netherlands in which communities spend the night of December 5 celebrating the good Sinterklaas, not knowing the true origin of his myth. Turns out that more than 500 years ago, a bishop and gang leader named Niklas was killed by local villagers, who refused to further abide his thugs’ looting and murdering. So when the anniversary of the Niklas’s death coincides with a full moon, he and his gang, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters, permanently singed from being burned to death), rise as ghosts to take vengeance. It’s a bloody and culturally instructive Dutch horror comedy, which is exactly what you asked Santa for.
A Christmas Horror Story (2015)
A Christmas Horror Story is an anthology movie, but the various narratives are stitched together as a continuous story rather than broken down into vignettes. In other words, if you start trying to make one-to-one connections between threads, things could get confusing, but if you accept this film as separate arcs playing out in the town of Bailey Downs over the course of a single night, then you’ll be primed for extremely enjoyable Christmas creeps experience. There’s an age-old battle between Santa and Krampus, a changeling that infiltrates a home in the form of a child, the haunted bowels of a mental hospital, a hateful little family that’s forced to reckon with their sins, and Santa going to war with a whole lot of evil. At one point, old Saint Nick is even forced to decapitate one of his elves with his golden staff, before using that severed head as a bludgeoning instrument to beat another elf to death. The whole thing is tied together by a Christmas Eve radio broadcast from William Shatner.
Christmas horror movies from the 1970s and 1980s tended to be slasher-style serial-killer movies, but the more contemporary ones have taken advantage of the bombastic side of holiday lore. Krampus stars Adam Scott, Toni Collette, and David Koechner as parents just trying to get their dysfunctional families through Christmas despite bitchy kids, family squabbles, and a huge goat demon laying siege to their neighborhood. Krampus is a European folk figure that normally serves as a companion to Santa Claus instead of a replacement, but in the movie Krampus, there’s only room for one mythological presence, and the humans are on their own against this horned beast and his evil minions. Bad news: Santa is not coming to town.
Better Watch Out (2017)
The newest movie on this list is also one of the best, because it embraces its own absurdity and gleefully crosses lines of good taste without turning trashy. Working off the simple premise of “a night of babysitting goes gruesomely awry,” Better Watch Out combines so many of the Christmas horror sub-genre’s most entertaining elements: It’s funny, gory, over-the-top, startling in its intensity, and jammed full of kitschy holiday decorations. At one point, a group of carolers sing outside the front door of a house where a hideous murder scene sits just out of view — tonally, that’s a microcosm of the whole thing. We won’t spoil the truth about the bad guy, but this rollicking serial-killer movie really thrives on the strength of its teenage stars, Levi Miller, Olivia DeJonge, and Ed Oxenbould. (If you recognize those last two names, it’s because they were the perfectly paired siblings in The Visit.)