Christmas time; a time for families, giving gifts, kissing under the mistletoe and ….watching horror movies? That seems a bit out of place, well, maybe not. I’m going to tell you that watching horror movies at Christmas might just be as much a part of Christmas tradition as putting up a tree or going carol singing.
Christmas as we know it, for most of the western world, is a product of Victorian England, and the one thing Victorian’s couldn’t get enough of was ghost stories. The conventional western ghost story was practically born from the Victorian era, and the practice of gathering on Christmas Eve and sharing these ghost stories was both a popular and important part of Christmas celebrations. But where did this tradition come from? Why on Christmas Eve? It’s seems likely that a combination of the cold, dark weather of British winters, combined with the increasing of sales of ghost stories to be given as Christmas gifts was a factor. However, its root my date back considerably further. It’s likely that this tradition drew it’s beginnings from the pagan festival of Yule. Christmas Eve is the pagan winter solstice, and aside from being the longest night of the year, pagan beliefs considered it to be the most haunted. The night where the barrier between the living and dead was at it’s weakest.
The source of this tradition is more evident in some European countries, where scary fables and stories have been passed down through the years, becoming part of modern popular culture and celebrations.
A horned Devil-like creature, called Krampus is as much as part of Christmas as Santa for many Europeans. Krampus has roots in Germanic folklore, but is recognised in most Alpine European countries. As Santa’s evil counterpart, Krampus’ job is to punish the children who have misbehaved. These Punishments include being shackled, pulling out young girls hair, drowning them in ink and if you’re really unlucky, hurling you into the fires of hell. But wait! There’s more, if that was perverse enough, December 6th is Krampus night, where adults are encouraged to dress as Krampus and roam the neighbourhood chasing down children, and your parents might even invite them into your home to terrify and torment you. As an adult, this sounds like unmeasurable fun.
Another interesting fact about Krampus is that in the early 70s he has a brief spell on the Eastern European BDSM and fetish role playing scene. He still make occasional appearances today around Christmas time in costumes and adult literature.
Krampus isn’t alone either, another Alpine country fable is that of Perchta, a sort of low pagan god, who comes down in the 12 days before Christmas to punish children but slitting open their stomachs.
In Iceland, the mischievous sons of a mountain troll called Gryla, come down during the 13 nights before Christmas and generally cause havoc where they can, often stealing meat, milk and candles, and in France, The Whipping Father accompanies Santa on Christmas and rewards naughty children with a good flogging (and this guy didn’t make it onto the fetish scene?).
Sharing scary and sinister stories in the Christmas seasons is a long standing and well established tradition. From it’s pagan roots to Victorian times, and today it continues with Christmas horror films. Although not he most buoyant horror sub-genre, there have still been many attempts at making Christmas horror films. The majority of these have not been particularly good, but there are a few that I highly recommend, and a few have played a significant part in the continuing development and history of horror cinema.
Now, I am sure there were Christmas horror films before Black Christmas (1974), but I can think of any as memorable. Black Christmas was a very typical 70s slasher, full of suspense and slow winding tension. It follows a group of college girls who are harassed, attacked and eventually killed off one by one over Christmas break. The film is well made with a chilling music score, however, I suspect it may seem a little cliché today, this is mainly because Black Christmas subsequently had an obvious influence on the slasher films in the late 70s and early 80s. The story was visited in a very boring 2006 remake.
Italian film, Don’t Ride on Late Night Trains (1975) follows two girls as take the late night train cross country to get home for Christmas, but things don’t go to plan when they cross paths with the other passengers. First thing I’m going to say is that this film is not going to win any awards for originality. It very clearly draws from Wes Cravens Last House on The Left (1972), still, it’s quite a dark and effective film. It’s not quite as graphic or violent as Last House on the Left, but I think this works to its merit, making it a far more interesting and disturbing movie. It may not have the on screen brutality or shock factor of Last House on the Left and other revenge films popular at the time, yet it was still rejected certification in the UK, and wasn’t released until 2008 in a heavily cut version. So, just a word of caution, this is not a ‘family’ friendly horror film.
I can’t really discuss Christ Horror Films without mentioning Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) is one of the most controversial films to see a theatric release in the 80s. Protests and picketing began even before the films release, largely in response to marketing that depicted Santa as an axe welding murder. Interestingly, it was opened on the same weekend as Nightmare on Elm Street, and, are you sitting down? Initially it out sold Nightmare on Elm Street, however, as public outrage grew and media grabbed on to the controversy the film was quickly pulled by most cinema’s and ticket sales plummeted. The film itself, is relatively tame by todays standards and in hindsight it’s probably fair to say that the American publics initial response to the film was a bit of an over reaction. At the time, the sudden growth of home video and the availability of subversive and exploitive films, that were previously only seen in grindhouse cinemas, had people panicking about how it would corrupt and taint our children and society. Interestingly Tales From The Crypt had done the same thing in 1972. Two appalling sequels followed, and a remake in 2012, that wasn’t too bad.
Santa’s Slay (2005) is a low budget, direct to DVD film, where the son of Satan loses a bet with an angel, his forfeit is sacrifice his day of slaying, instead being bound to give out gifts to children all over the world. However, Santa has done his time, and is quick to return to his evil ways. Sounds awful? It is. It’s over acted, with a cheesy script, and frankly lacking in some expected gore. Oh, did I mention Santa is played by WWE, two-time world wrestling champion, Goldberg? Awful to awesome in one sentence. This film is packed with great fight scenes and superb one-liners. At 78 minutes, this film comes in a little on the short side, but it feels like just about the right amount of time that’s acceptable to waste to this sort of film. Mindless fun.
UK Christmas horror The Children (2006) centers on a family that meets up together for a Christmas vacation, shortly after arriving their children become sick and begin behaving very ominously towards their parents. The Children starts off strong, and is genuinely chilling. The film is well produced throughout, I need to mention it is let down by weak dialogue and scripting, surprisingly most predominantly with the adult actors. It’s difficult to understand or related their reactions to events unfolding within the story, which can be frustrating. The Children in this film easily outshine their adult opposites.
Norway give us their contribution to the Christmas horror film subgenre with Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. Santa is discovered buried in ice during an archaeological dig. He is unearth, and it becomes quickly apparent he is not the jolly symbol of joy and giving we have been led to believe. A strange, funny and wicked film, which is visually stunning in places. It is both based on and a prequel to two short films; Rare Exports Inc (2003) and Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions (2005). I recommend watching both of these films as part of the feature film, for a two reasons. First, they (sort of) explain the frankly bizarre ending to the full feature film, and second, they are fearless, sadistic and brilliant. I would even go as to say, they might just be a bit better than A Christmas Tale.
There are three big films we need to include here. I’m not suggesting that these films fall under the mainstream horror genre. They are family films, but offer an alternative to their cuddly and upstanding peers, by slicing through the film industry standards of their times with a playful dark edge. These films are Ghostbusters (1984), Gremlins (1985) and Nightmare before Christmas (1994). I feel these films deserve an honorary mention for their contribution to the genre. It’s films like these that have twisted and warped young minds just enough to lay the foundation that would later support any diehard horror fans unhealthy obsession.
This Christmas Eve, embrace tradition, and bring people together for a scary movie.
“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”