The best Christmas horror movies

Ella Hunt in 'Anna and the Apocalypse'
(Image credit: Vertigo Releasing)

Since the What To Watch elders were so tickled by my countdown of the most prolific Christmas Horror monsters, more yuletide terrorization was requested. As the site’s resident wicked wonderland obsessor, it’s my honor to oblige. In this article, I’ll share my favorite horror-related Christmas movies of all time since not everyone wants to marathon A Christmas Story until their eyes bleed. Where’s the all-day syndication takeover for Naughty List faithful? Who needs mainstream program scheduling. With the list below, you’ll be set for a night full of slaying belles and Krampus’ most trusted demonoid creeps.

13. Better Watch Out

Chris Peckover's Christmas Horror entry is best discovered organically. There is a mighty twist that I'd be a real son-of-a-gumdrop to spoil. All I'll add is the IMDb synopsis: "On a quiet suburban street, a babysitter must defend a twelve-year-old boy from intruders, only to discover it's far from a normal home invasion." You'll spy familiar faces in Olivia DeJonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould, Dacre Montgomery, Patrick Warburton, and Virginia Madsen. They're all prodded, batty, and appropriately fearful. No more words, just one final vote of confidence that you should all be trying Better Watch Out this season if the film's swift plot deviation is still something you've yet to unwrap.

12. The Children

Who can kill a child? A question, and also a movie title. In The Children, that query is posed to vacationing families who are forced to confront every parent’s worst nightmare. Their offspring have turned into psychotic killers, reasons unknown, and survival options are running thin. Can mommas and poppas fight back against the very sons and daughters they once cherished? Yes! They can! And boy, is it a nasty slice of humble pie that cuts to the very core of existing paranoias inside mothers and fathers who dare never face the unthinkable.

11. Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2

Pardon my crudeness, but holy Honda Days, the balls on this movie. Madonna mi. Lee Harry’s sequel follows Ricky Caldwell, brother to the original film’s killer Billy, as he recalls events from the first film through flashbacks. Not one or two scenes, mind you. Like, two-thirds of the movie repurposes footage from Silent Night, Deadly Night. It’s a baffling decision, but then Ricky gets to recounting his own murderous rampage - electrocutions, movie theater loudmouths, “Garbage Day” - and his eventual confrontation with Mother Superior. It’s a trashterpiece, no doubt, yet still brings a smile to my face—this one’s for the B-Movie chasers.

10. Rare Exports

In this Finnish import, Santa goes corporate. Not like in Fatman, mind you. Jalmari Helander draws upon the regional Joulupukki folklore that helped shape Santa Claus, as I already noted in my “Christmas Creatures” feature, so allow me to focus more on the film itself. A British drilling team goes hunting for a frozen popsicle Santa, but two Lapland children stumble upon their excavation site. A reindeer slaughterhouse finds itself under attack from buck-naked “elves” who appear as old, haggard seniors, all while Pietari (Onni Tommila) attempts to accomplish the unthinkable: kill Santa Claus. For if the beast awakes, kiddie stew is on the menu.

9. The Lodge

After Goodnight Mommy, you’d assume Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala might opt for something more lighthearted. Incorrect! If anything, The Lodge might be even bleaker than their previous mortifying motherhood tale. Another family subjected to immense tortures, this time as Richard (Richard Armitage) announces future step-mommy Grace (Riley Keough) will be joining his family’s routine Christmas trip to their remote Massachusetts vacation home. Son Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and daughter Mia (Lia McHugh) are none too pleased, so once Richard leaves, they enact their master plan of breaking Grace’s psyche. Too bad they’re not aware of Grace’s abused cult-linked history, which sends her down a dark, dangerous path once unlocked by Aiden and Mia’s antics.

8. The Day Of The Beast

Tell me if you’ve heard this one. A super-sinning priest, an occult television host, and a record store metalhead walk into a bar. Er, sorry. There’s no bar. They walk into the site of an under-construction building to halt the antichrist’s birth. In this outrageous apocalyptic December treat, Álex de la Iglesia throws the kitchen sink at Christmas Horror. The Day Of The Beast is blasphemously comical, exceptionally tweaked-out, and characteristically plotted as to accentuate the unexplainable. Maybe there’s a talking goat; maybe there’s not. Only those brave enough to venture past Satan’s guard are permitted to know.

7. Deadly Games

Imagine Home Alone but in a mansion architected with hidden toy rooms, starring an action hero in the making obsessed with Rambo, and an unstable Santa figure who thinks he’s playing hide-and-seek. Deadly Games was released internationally in 1989 but only became available stateside in recent years. It’s a premise that sounds bonkers and allow me to confirm, execution lives up to such a reputation. Little badass Alain Musy acts his heart out when rigging traps, or taking punishment, or cowering atop his estate’s attic tower without any escape plan. Did I mention Grandpa is also trapped and requires his medication? As if the film’s fearless lead had enough problems (and a bedtime), the script just keeps throwing obstacles that an astoundingly well-performed character keeps brushing off like a wiz-kid warrior well-matured past his days.

6. Anna And The Apocalypse

John McPhail’s Scottish Christmas musical comedy with zombies is a bittersweet triumph. Co-writer Ryan McHenry sadly passed away before the project could be finished, but Anna And The Apocalypse lives on with tremendous spirit and invigoration. It’s never about any Hollywood ending, features soldiers at war, but still seeks a human voice to power an emotional, uplifting story in an otherwise gloomy doomsday. With earworms abound and a cast firing on all cylinders, it’s bloody feel-good and loads of fun. I’ve been championing Anna’s journey since its Fantastic Fest debut and will continue to year after year. Hell, even my mom digs this one! And she typically spouts things like, “Why do you have to ruin Christmas?” when I flip on metal covers of Xmas carols while baking cookies.

5. Krampus

Michael Dougherty nailed Halloween horror with Trick ‘R Treat, then shifted focus to the better holiday-horror subgenre with Krampus. All the innocence and dysfunction of Christmas gatherings is roasted like chestnuts as Krampus descends on a suburban stronghold. The teddy bears have razor-sharp claws, Jack-In-The-Boxes eat cousins whole, and the whole film glistens this fable-like sheen that’s still infectiously macabre. It’s so festive, which, hilariously, sometimes is a detail Christmas horror movies forget. Of course, “festive” means watching department store mobs trample store staffers or hearing obnoxious relatives mount frustrations with their off-handed, dumb-dumb comments. Listen, someone has to say it!

4. The Nightmare Before Christmas

What’s this? WHAT’S THIS?! Some dare argue The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Halloween movie, but truthfully, it’s a transition movie. Once the ghouls of October pack their bags, Jack Skellington ushers in his Christmas curiosity through graveyard manifestations. One oogie-boogie musical with still some of the most impressive stop-motion animation put to celluloid (or digital, etc.). There’s a reason why we still sing the tunes and why Hot Topic still plasters Henry Selick’s animated characters on overpriced graphic tees, chain wallets, the works. Were you even a New Jersey mallrat if you didn’t glimpse a Skellington backpack in Spencer's Gifts?

3. Inside

If Anna And The Apocalypse should be your full-family Christmas Eve watch, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Inside is better left for when easily-turned stomachs and more “respectable” audiences tuck themselves away for the evening. They can slumber, awaiting Santa’s arrival, while you watch a battered, gory, twisted battle between two mothers fighting over a single baby. Mind you, one of the women is pregnant, which means the other is attempting womb thievery no matter how repulsive the act sounds. Maury and Bustillo are relentless, subjecting their characters to punishments unparalleled while executing exceptionally breath-snatching home invasion brutality. Me oh my, Béatrice Dalle.

2. Black Christmas (1974)

Find yourself a man who can do both as they say. Like Bob Clark. Director of A Christmas Story and Black Christmas, two holiday favorites for vastly different reasons. Horror historians will quickly point out while Halloween gets much ado credit for igniting the 70s-80s slasher fad, Black Christmas first laid the groundwork (movies like Peeping Tom exist as well, but that’s for another article). The phone calls, the dismissive policemen, drunk Marian Waldman - it’s all wound so tightly in this attic-fiend sorority stalker. A slasher that favors icy tension first and foremost, which indeed became a lost art as latter-era subgenre examples devolved into sleaze all about grotesque kills. Possibly why Clark’s O.G. still tops so many lists.

1. Gremlins

We've reached the inevitable "number one" spoken by hordes of Christmas Horror lovers: Joe Dante's Gremlins. At the risk of sounding far older than my age, they just don't make 'em like they used to. There's more chance Gizmo and Stripe would be CGI creatures in today's Hollywood versus the outstanding puppeteering efforts that inject so much wonder and excitement into Gremlins. Rubberized flaps and hidden wiring create these zany mischief-makers who play poker, guzzle beer, and flash the camera (negative human influence), as Dante masterfully skates thin-ice by merging horror and comedy. Phoebe Cates' monologue is just the cherry on top, as Dante playfully and passionately shows why Christmas isn't such a holly-jolly time of year for everyone.

Matt Donato

Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.