Going at least as far back as Bob Clark’s 1974 proto-slasher movie Black Christmas, horror movies and the holiday season have enjoyed a special relationship. While there may be six installments in the Silent Night, Deadly Night series, for years the Christmas horror movie was something of a special treat, coming along maybe once or twice a year.
Thanks to the relative commercial and critical success of recent movies like Michael Dougherty’s Krampus, Chris Peckover’s Better Watch Out and the anthology A Christmas Horror Story, yuletide horror movies are more popular than ever, especially among low-budget filmmakers who can slip in well-known Christmas demon to attract some extra, seasonal attention. At least six new Christmas horror movies are out on VOD this year, attempting to add some scares to the warmth and cheer of the season. Here’s our take on all of them:
The self-consciously extreme Slay Belles opens with dubstep Christmas music, and keeps the similarly in-your-face tone throughout. Barry Bostwick (Rocky Horror Picture Show) plays an outlaw biker-dude version of Santa Claus, but before he shows up, the movie spends half an hour on the Adventure Girls, a trio of cosplaying YouTubers whose latest “urban exploration” project is an abandoned theme park called SantaLand.
Turns out, Santa really lives there, but so does Krampus, and the girls have to team up with a reluctant Santa (“You’re fucking my shit up,” he tells them when they first arrive) to capture the holiday beast. Director and co-writer SpookyDan Walker has a cheeky sense of humor (the Adventure Girls use candy cane stakes and nutcracker nunchucks to fight Krampus, in addition to their feminine wiles) and he makes judicious use of some surprisingly solid creature effects. Unfortunately, Bostwick’s exuberance can’t quite make up for the rest of the dull characters.
Most festive death: Ripped in half by Krampus.
Christmas is the perfect time of year for … a redo Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare? Even some of the characters in Elves are critical of how much this movie resembles a certain other horror movie with a much better budget. “This sounds like that movie Truth or Dare, except with Snapchat filters,” says one of the young people who’ve been targeted for death by an evil elf doll. Indeed, the idea of a group of friends being cursed during a drunken party game (in this case, one involving a “naughty list”) is remarkably similar, and Elves even copies Truth or Dare’s signature distorted smiles and bugged-out eyes on characters who are possessed by the sinister game (“looking all elfy,” as one character puts it).
The plot — loosely connected to 2017’s slightly less terrible The Elf — makes no sense, with multiple seemingly unrelated villains and production value on par with a high school class project (there are multiple instances in which actors appear to accidentally jostle the camera). The elf itself has a tenuous connection to Christmas, but director Jamaal Burden keeps the holiday in the background at all times, using ornaments to deliver the elf’s threatening messages, in the movie’s mildly creepy touch.
Most festive death: Strangled by Christmas lights.
Ugly Sweater Party
The problems with Aaron Mento’s Ugly Sweater Party can be summed up by the fact that there are almost no actual sweaters in this movie. The plot hinges on an ugly Christmas sweater that’s possessed by the spirit of a serial killer, but this so-called “sweater” is quite obviously a hooded sweatshirt. Mento invests his skills in ever-escalating Troma-style gross-outs rather than plotting or even scene-to-scene consistency. Main character Jody (Hunter Johnson) is introduced shaving his pubic hair over a dirty toilet, and the movie sets out to top itself, for better or worse, from there.
Jody and his buddy Cliff (Charles Chudabala) get invited to an ugly Christmas sweater party at a remote compound that turns out to be a Bible camp, full of horny sinners who aren’t trying very hard to repent. Cliff takes the possessed sweater off of a homeless man, and soon he’s on his way to becoming a monster known as Sweaterface. There are a few successful deadpan jokes (“What does the sweater want?” Jody asks; “Blood,” answers Hanna, the camp’s resident goth), but Mento’s humor is generally as vulgar and crude as possible, and the garish visual style, with its torrents of CGI blood, makes for a Christmas horror movie only for the strong-willed.
Most festive death: Eviscerated by tentacles made of ugly Christmas sweater fiber.
Rent on Amazon
All the Creatures Were Stirring
This year’s best Christmas horror movie, All the Creatures Were Stirring is an anthology of five stories from husband-and-wife writer-director team David Ian McKendry and Rebekah McKendry. There are so-so entries; a take on A Christmas Carol doesn’t offer anything new, and a giallo-style reindeer revenge story that never really goes anywhere. The clever framing sequence, in which a community theater troupe “performs” each segment (complete with rudimentary props), is funny but anticlimactic.
But the stronger segments work as little holiday-themed Twilight Zone-style shorts, from an awkward office party taken over by a Jigsaw-like manipulative mastermind, to a spooky parking-lot encounter on Christmas Eve. The final segment is the least horrific and the most reminiscent of The Twilight Zone, and it’s also the best, featuring Constance Wu as a woman who discovers that her friend spends every Christmas being abducted by aliens who just want a little holiday company. It’s eerie and inventive and unexpectedly poignant, with a great performance from Wu, who isn’t likely to show up in random VOD horror movies for much longer.
Most festive death: Shot through the head by a lethal jack-in-the-box.
The opening title cards of the Norwegian slasher movie Christmas Blood claim that the central, unnamed serial killer, who dresses like Santa Claus and leaves three sleigh bells at every murder scene, killed 121 people over the course of 13 years, which would make him one of the most prolific serial killers of all time. Unwisely, when he escapes after five years in custody, the cops only one detective on the case — whoops. That detective heads to a remote northern town, where a group of girlfriends have become the killer’s final targets (like many Christmas villains, he’s working from a naughty list).
Writer-director Reinert Kiil’s movie splits its tone between gritty Scandinavian crime drama and over-the-top horror, like a cross between The Snowman and Silent Night, Deadly Night. It even mimics one of The Snowman’s iconic ridiculous moments, with a victim’s severed head placed on top of a snowman (here, it’s Kiil himself as a hapless local cop). The axe-wielding Santa — the police file just calls him “Juleblod,” or Christmas Blood — is a menacing antagonist, but the potential victims are interchangeable idiots, and the movie’s shaky and murky visuals often make it tough to tell what’s happening. Luckily, there are a few strong instances of grim humor, like when the cops discover that the placement of the murders makes a Christmas tree pattern on the map.
Most festive death: Hacked up and stuffed into Santa’s toy sack.
From the creators of two previous, low-budget, Krampus-related horror movies (2015’s Krampus: The Reckoning and 2016’s Krampus Unleashed) comes Krampus Origins, the alleged story of how the Christmas demon came to be. Apparently Krampus is from Arizona, where he emerges in 1918 at a Catholic orphanage. A platoon of American soldiers on the Western Front in World War I comes across a spell book and an amulet that can be used to summon Krampus, and when the soldiers are killed, the mystical artifacts are shipped back to one soldier’s widow, who appears to be the only teacher at this suspiciously understaffed orphanage.
More of a slow-moving period drama than a horror movie, Origins features very little violence or suspense, and doesn’t even mention the word “Krampus” until it’s halfway over. Setting a low-budget movie in the past is always a risk, and the filmmakers here mainly rely on vintage war posters and one old car to sell their period setting (they also dress nearly every male character in suspenders). When Krampus finally shows up, he’s rarely in the same frame as any of the actors, and his lips don’t even move while he speaks in a voice that sounds like Peter Cullen’s Optimus Prime. That said, sometimes you just need to watch a Krampus movie.
Most festive death: Sucked into Krampus’ hell dimension.
Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He’s the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and has written about movies and pop culture for The Dissolve, CBR, Film Racket, Uproxx, Kirkus Reviews and more. Find his thoughts on trashy horror movies, classic cinema and other important topics at joshbellhateseverything.com.