Merry X-Mas: On Holiday Horror
Writer Jessica Ferri brings you yuletide fear as she examines the holiday horror sub-genre. Decorate your Christmas Tree with blood and read on…
“The grave mistake people make about Christmas is not understanding the full horror of the holiday.” The twitter account for Edgar Allan Poe tweeted this quotation a few days ago. I don’t think it’s an actual Poe quotation (since the account frequently also tweets about President-Elect Trump and other modern day horrors) but it is, for some of us, an accurate description of that annual holiday-inflicted dread.
There are all sorts of reasons people loathe the holiday season: the pressures of gift-buying, the enforced charity, the futile fight to maintain a healthy diet, the inevitable family drama and the realization that another year has come to a close… and what have you done?
Luckily, for those of us who take our holidays with a large helping of cynicism, there are plenty of holiday horror movies to get us through until we can get back to our regularly-scheduled anxiety attacks. If you’re looking for lighter fare, there are non-horror films like Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Scrooged. Even Home Alone is its own sort of strange pseudo-horror film. If you can imagine John Hughes pitching the producers with the idea: The kid is left home alone and two goons come to try and rob his house, but it’s okay because he outsmarts them!
Then there’s the holiday gem that is Gremlins. Not a scary film, aside from Phoebe Cates super-disturbing monologue about her father breaking his neck falling down the chimney dressed as Santa. “And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.” I mean, Jeez Louise.
But the most classic choice, in more ways than one, is the surprise that is Black Christmas. Made in 1974 by Bob Clark, the man who would eventually bring us Porky’s and A Christmas Story, Black Christmas holds the distinct honor of being one of horror’s first slasher flicks, made a full four years before John Carpenter’s Halloween. Olivia Hussey, with the appropriately uni-sex name of Jess, is the progenitor of final girls. The movie introduces the trope of the ambiguous killer (which one of the boyfriends did it?) and the long line of horror movies featuring terrifying phone calls. The idea for the film came from the old-school campfire story of “The Babysitter” who keeps getting crank calls from a mouth-breather, only to find out from the police that the calls are COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE.
Black Christmas takes place inside a sorority house, where the beloved den-mother is a drunk and the leader of the pack “knows a professional virgin when she sees one.” With a full-blown abortion side-plot, it’s a bit of a surprise that the politics of the era—that women could lead independent lives and make decisions for themselves—are on full display here, in the unlikeliest of places. In fact, in my opinion, the scariest scene in the entire film is the first time the girls get a call from “the moaner,” as they call him. As Margot Kidder stands holding the phone so they can all crowd around and listen, it’s their reaction to his hateful spewing that creates more sympathy in the audience than anything else in the movie.
If you’re looking for something a bit edgier, there’s 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night. This movie doesn’t hold back from the very beginning. When five-year-old Billy witnesses the murder of both his parents by a man dressed as Santa Claus, said Santa doesn’t just slash his mother’s throat, he makes sure to tear open her shirt, exposing her breasts, first. It’s that sort of extra something that got this movie in so much trouble that it was pulled from theaters just a week after its release. Siskel and Ebert were so disgusted by the film that they read all of the names of its production crew on air with a condemnation of “shame on you.” Leonard Maltin asked “what’s next, the Easter Bunny as a child molester?” That little nugget of movie trivia has to take some part of the cake of the most blatant examples of censorship ever. However, if those sound like winning endorsements, this is the movie for you. I have to admit there were difficult scenes to get through, in particular, the violence that’s committed in front of small children. (Billy’s infant brother is seen crying in his car seat after his parents are killed… then we cut to Billy being an orphan. So what happened to the baby?!)
Billy goes crazy, thanks to the trauma of seeing Santa kill his parents and the punishment inflicted on him in the conservative Catholic orphanage. After playing Santa at the department store where he works, he goes on a rampage killing anyone he’s convinced has been “naughty.” The campy violence works. There’s one memorable scene involving a big buck head mount (an early appearance by cult film icon Linnea Quigley)… or is it a reindeer? Anyway, you’d better hope that you’re on Santa’s nice list.
If all else fails, there’s this total delight that works as a palate cleanser: 2007’s totally awful Jack Frost. What do you get when you crash together a psychopath on his way to be executed and a genetics truck? Apparently, a killer snowman. Oh, the ever so convenient and inexplicable coincidences that make this movie tick. It takes something pretty special to get a 7% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and Jack Frost has it in spades. He’s reborn as a killer snowman and his real name just happens to be JACK FROST. Give yourself a pat-on-the-back, writers. There’s a Christmas tree kill that reminds us all to be careful with ornaments, but the highlight of the movie is undoubtedly the bathtub scene with American Pie’s Shannon Elizabeth. Let’s just say you’ll never see a snowman’s carrot nose quite the same way again.
Ultimately, after returning to these films and in preparation for the holidays, I’m surprised that the horror genre hasn’t done more with the season. Goodness knows there’s plenty there… the horrors of travel, winter weather, returning home, loneliness, a person or an entire family’s past, bubbling up to the surface—any of these things would be a fantastic starting point for a really terrifying movie. Until then, we’ll just have to settle with killer Santas and misguided snowmen, who, when we ask “who’s there?” answer “well, it’s not f*cking Frosty.” No, it certainly is not.