HOLY TERRORS #3: BAH HUMBUG! (A HISTORY OF HOLIDAY HORROR)

My Mad Loves, I am what you’d call a “Scrooge”. I hate the holiday season. Hate, hate, HATE it. I despise the cold, wet, dreary weather, the busy, crowded shopping centers, the garish, ugly Christmas decorations littering every damned house, lawn and storefront as far as the eye can see. I hate the fake good cheer everyone plasters on their face to cover up the fact we are all pissy and overwhelmed, I hate the fact we have to individually spend the Gross National Product of Liechtenstein to look like “good” friends, family and acquaintances (thusly racking up a debt that would make a Vegas bookie salivate with envy) and the thing I hate most of all: the movies. Saccharine, cheesy, intellectually empty, emotionally manipulative, sanctimonious “feel good” swill. Watching just one of these films — which often proliferate on cable TV like Spanish Fly-dosed rabbits — is, for me, the equivalent of OD-ing on too many sugar cookies; after a while, I get sick, dizzy and want to pull a Fulci. It’s enough to make me wanna tattoo “Bah Humbug” on my middle finger, just so I can throw it in the air like I just don’t care.

Granted, not every holiday-themed film sucks. There are classics, like It’s A Wonderful Life and Elf, that I can stand. And, praise Baby Jebus, there are a host of twisted, sick nuttos like me who want nothing more to make profane the most sacred of holidays. These are the guys and gals who look at the whole tinsel-smothered madhouse and say “fuck this. Let’s spike the eggnog, get drunk and piss on the fruitcake.” They make hilariously demented Xmas flicks like Scrooged (not surprisingly, my preferred version of A Christmas Carol) and Bad SantaAnd they make horror films. Ho-ho-horror films about slaughterous Santas, evil Elves and cruelty to carolers. These homicidal holiday flicks are my kind of Xmas movies, and since ’tis the season to be jolly, and scary stories make me feel all kinds of warm and fuzzy inside, I’m giving you, my Mad Loves, an early Christmas gift. I’m unwrapping you a history of berserk Yuletide horror films, a cavalcade of candy-caned craziness that you can peruse to make Baby Jesus’ birthday all the more bearable….

Now, I’m must warn ya, I haven’t seen all these films. A lot of them are hard, damn nigh impossible to find, unless you wanna spend a few bucks and not give a few presents. So take this article more as an anthropological survey, rather than my normal critical one… though I won’t be shy of making comments when necessary, no don’t you worry.

Now one of the most prominent features in Holiday Horrors is the Killer Kris Kringle, a subversive inversion of the cuddly Santa Claus of Coca-Cola commercials that makes St. Nick savage and bloodthirsty. This is actually closer to the truth then you’d know. The original European myths of Santa were actually based on the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas, which were in turn based on the historical legend of Saint Nicholas of Myra,  a kindly Greek bishop known to ride through towns  on either the evenings of Dec. 5 or 6, distributing gifts to children, the poor and the impoverished. Nicholas was said to be followed by helpers collectively dubbed Zwarte Piet (or “Black Peter”.) Today, in parts of Europe, particularly in Scandinavian countries, it is believed that Sinterklaas still comes to deliver presents on one of those evenings (depending on the countries) and will come accompanied by a mythical, devilish creature known as the Krampus, who’s purpose is to punish children who have been naughty (often by beating them with sticks, or, in extreme cases, dragging them to hell.) It is tradition in some countries for young men to dress in elaborate Krampus costumes to scare young children on the eve of “Sinterklaas Day.”

Whew. That’s just a small slice of the history lesson I’ll give you. Suffice it to say, that when the Dutch came over and founded New Amsterdam (better known to me and you as New York City), they brought the Sinterklaas legend with them, which combined with the Brit legend of “Father Christmas”, which eventually gave way to the Santa Claus we see at malls the country over. (Apparently, Santa really does sit on a throne of lies.) So, even when Santa wasn’t naughty himself, he certainly had his helpers doling out some nasty punishments that’d make a lump of coal look like an Xbox. (You can read the Wikpedia on Santa here and Krampus here.)

The first Killer Santa — and, essentially, the first holiday horror — appeared in a segment of 1972’s Amicus anthology classic Tales From the Crypt. A five-story British adaptation of the beloved E.C. Comics title, directed by Hammer veteran Freddie Francis and starring the legendary Peter Cushing, it featured future soap star Joan Collins in a segment titled “And All Through the House”, which was later adapted into an episode of the campier Crypt TV series. In it, Collins plays a murderous wife terrorized by a serial killer who disguises himself as Santa the same night she kills her husband.

Horror has always been a subversive, taboo-busting genre, and the idea of a killer Santa, or a horror film set at, on and during Christmas, has occasionally generated controversy; not, strangely enough the first time around. Largely because the killer is NOT Santa — just using a disguise — and represents a typically Cryptian come-uppance for our Black Widow.

However, controversy did indeed meet seminal slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night upon its release in 1984 — despite the fact at least two Santa slashers appeared before it in the twelve-year interim, both in the epochal body-count year of 1980. To All A Goodnight marked the directorial debut of David Hess, the caveman-ish thug Krug in Wes Craven’s grim, canonical rape/revenge “classic” Last House on the Left. Few people remember this tale of a killer in a familiar red suit prowling the halls of a private academy during the holiday intersession, largely because it was regarded as a generic slasher pic (though it foreshadows Scream in a big way that I won’t spoil here for those who want to seek it out.) Christmas Evil — also known as You Better Watch Out! — is a more memorable experience. Campier and more fun then the later, more-mean-spirited, Deadly Night, it stars Brandon Maggert as an unbalanced holiday-obsessed toy store employee who snaps and begins punishing those he feels lack the “Christmas spirit.” Also starring future Walking Dead co-star Jeffrey DeMunn, Evil is enjoyably flyweight, presenting its killer Santa with a darkly comedic bent. It should tell you everything that it’s both John Waters’ favorite holiday film, and was once distributed to DVD by Troma. (Fun fact: Maggert is papa to one Fiona Apple.)

Silent Night, Deadly Night, however, is a nastier, more unintentionally campy piece of work. Not to say its a bad film, per se, at least not by schlock standards. A little boy watches his family get killed on Christmas Eve, and grows up in an orphanage ruled by a tyrannical Mother Superior hating the season. He matures into a strapping, soft-spoken generally well-adjusted young man…until he’s forced to don Santa’s red suit by his boss at a department store, setting off a murderous rampage that leads back to the orphanage and the ultimate target of his vengeance: the cruel Mother Superior.

From the infamous, agonizing and offensive opening double murder, in which Billy’s momma is gratuitously rendered topless, to the bizarre encounter with Grandpa, to the cold-blooded accidental shooting of a cheerful priest, Silent Night, Deadly Night has a lot to offend the mundane, and it did. Released just after the slasher wave peaked, and concerns about the violence of such films were prevalent in the media, the film caused a major backlash among parent and teacher groups who protested outside theaters and caused distributor TriStar to pull ads and scotch plans for a West Coast release. Siskel and Ebert even tried to, literally, shame everyone involved with the film on their review show!

Sigh. How easily people get offended. If you view the success of a horror film by how much it outrages the easily outraged, then by all means Deadly Night was a masterpiece. But, really, it was never gonna end the world as we know it. The only reason it raised arms, was because it was financially successful — unlike the other Santa Slayer films. When you boil it down to brass tacks though, what the movie is, is a generally “good” B-level slasher pic, reasonably well-acted and shot, but rather typical of the era. Doesn’t mean I don’t love this splattery bit of fruitcake though, as I put it on every frosty Christmas morn.

Despite the controversy, Silent Night initiated a series of increasingly irrelevant, and oft-unrelated sequels, the first of which is considered one of the worst films of all time (ill-advisedly combining “flashback” footage recycled from the first film with dunderheaded new scenes in which Billy’s grown younger brother goes nutzoid. The infamous “Garbage Day” scene went viral on YouTube.)

After Deadly Night, horror filmmakers shied away from Killer Clauses until the mid-90s, when low-budget indie auteurs started mucking around with bargain basement Santa horror movies. In 1996 there was both Santa Claws (notably written and directed by Night of the Living Dead co-producer John Russo and starring indie scream queen icon Debbie Rochon) and Massimiliano Cerchi’s Satan Claws, about an obsessed fan stalking a B-horror starlet and a limb-lopping serial killer, respectively. Following Jeremy Wallace’s no-budget horror/comedy Christmas Season Massacre (2001) was Peter Keir’s self-explanatory backyard slasher Psycho Santa (2003). Pulling the killer Santa movie out of the dregs of camcorder-Coppola ineptitude was 2005’s slick TV premiere Santa’s Slay, starring wrestler Bill Goldberg as a murderous Pere Noel. In this incarnation, St. Nick is actually Satan’s son, forced to do good deeds for a thousand years after losing a bet with an angel; now, his debt is clean and he’s ready to wreak havoc on a small town. Featuring goofy cameos from James Caan and Saturday Night Live‘s Chris Kattan, David Steiman’s movie is actually a delightfully cheesy black comedy romp in the vein of Joe Dante’s brilliantly naughty evil-imp holiday creature feature Gremlins (1984) and worth checking out for beer-addled holiday haters. The following year saw a vampire Santa (!) and his zombie elf (!!) minions terrorize a tabloid reporter in Jamie Nash and David Thomas Sckrabulis’ Two Front Teeth. After taking a few year’s off, Savage Santas returned in two Euro films this year: Jalmari Helander’s critically acclaimed dark fantasy Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale and Dick Maas’ Dutch slasher Sint. (See my original story about those films here.)

Of course not every Christmas-themed horror flick see Santa going on a rampage. For one thing, the slasher flick Don’t Open Til Christmas — released the same year as Silent Night, Deadly Night — sees Santa on the receiving end of a sharp blade, with a sicko stalking St. Nicks during the Xmas season.  And then there are the other figures central to the Season of Giving that occasionally like to take lives: Dan Haggerty (Grizzly fucking Adams himself!) battled deadly Elves in a 1989 direct-to-video Gremlins rip semi-infamous for originally obtaining a then-nascent PG-13 despite full frontal nudity and graphic violence. Then there was the killer Snowman (yep) of Michael Cooney’s absurd 1997 DTV effort Jack Frost (a film that inexplicably got a sequel and launched Shannon Elizabeth’s career…after she gets molested with a carrot), a possessed gingerbread cookie with the voice of Gary Busey in 2005’s The Gingerdead Man (and sequel. *sigh*) and vengeful Evergreens in Jason Eisener’s well-received 2008 short Treevenge. To say nothing of the hot Christmas toy with the soul of a serial killer in the legendary Child’s Play franchise.

Most other holiday horror pics simply used Dec 25 as a jumping off point for their horrors. A young heir returns home on Xmas to sell his family’s estate and uncovers dark secrets in the ’74 Gothic Silent Night, Bloody Night a semi-forgotten, but apparently fondly loved (by those who remember it) flick floating around in the public domain. Winding through treacherous winter roads proves perilous for the travellers in the deeply creepy Twilight Zone-ish Dead End (2003) and the utterly mundane ghost story Wind Chill (starring the lovely Emily Blunt…*dreamy sigh*) from 2007. A government agent goes off the deep end in Vince DiMeglio’s 2001 indie Christmas Nightmare, while aliens invade in Feeders 2: Slay Bells (1998). Not even something as sacred as Christmas shopping is safe, as Kim Basinger is terrorized by a gang of thugs in 2008’s While She Was Out. Rachel Nichols (the hot green alien babe in Star Trek) is Wes Bentley’s unwilling holiday guest in P2, a middling film that does underscore how frakkin’ creepy parking garages really are. More foreign frights come courtesy of Alex de la Iglesias’ twisted, blasphemous religio-horror/comedyThe Day of the Beast (1995) and Shaky Gonzalez’s One Hell of a Christmas (2002). Zombies attack in Sean Cain’s 2009 effort Silent Night, Zombie Night. And, finally, there are the non-Santa slashers to be found in Aldo Lado’s cruel 1975 Italian rape/revenger Night Train Murders, Novin Shakiba’s Halloween-esque 2009 Deadly Little Christmas and in the grandaddy of not only all Christmas horrors, but all slasher films: Bob Clark’s brilliant, beautiful no-holds-barred master class in razor’s edge suspense, 1974’s Black Christmas (and its deeply inferior, though perversely enjoyable splattastic remake from 2006, which garnered its own mild controversy after debuting on Christmas Day.) That film is a hands down, no argue classic of garland-bedecked slasher cinema and will be getting its own Holy Terrors before the 2010 season is up. But gosh golly its great and stands head and shoulders above the rest of this motley lot of coal and candy, which is why it’ll be getting its own write up soon for you to nibble on.

Now that that’s over, why don’t stuff my stocking with some treats, take out this bag of shredded wrapping paper and have yourself a holly jolly Christmas from the certified fiends over here at LaserCola.

(Oh, and for my Jewish readers: yes, someone has finally gotten around to making a Hanukkah themed horror flick, directed by Eben McGarr and cleverly titled Hanukkah. No word yet on a Boxing Day or Kwanzaa themed splatter spectacular. And there’s a couple of New Year’s horror pics: New Year’s Evil and Bloody New Year, both of which have yet to see the light of DVD. Evil is a not well received old school 80s slasher, while I distinctly remember Bloody boring me to tears as a youth. Few remember the old flicks. Should old acquaintances be forgot indeed.)

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