Whether or not you celebrate the holiday, Christmas films are ubiquitous in December. Almost every channel, and even many of the most popular streaming services, focuses on wintery tales that are supposed to imbue you with the mood of the season. By design, these films are about learning lessons and reaffirming your faith in humanity. Scrooge relinquishes his greed. George Bailey resolves to live. Mr. Shirley gives Clark Griswold his Christmas bonus (with a 20 percent salary increase, no less).
Let the backlash begin! Even as Christmas films multiply, more and more movie-lovers are turning to genre films to get their holiday kicks with a little less moralizing. Now, with an impish twinkle in their eye, folks refer to movies such as Die Hard or Lethal Weapon as their favorite Christmas movies. But are they really Christmas movies?
Let’s assume that the Christmas movie is a genre unto itself. Where do we draw that genre’s boundaries? In Die Hard, for example, Christmas is hardly important to the plot. The entire movie could play out much the same way another time of year. Sure, you would need a small number of people sequestered in an otherwise empty skyscraper, but that doesn’t automatically mean holiday party. It could be a retirement party in the middle of July. Of you could simply move the action from downtown LA to downtown Jacksonville on any given business day.
Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black loves to connect his movies to the holidays. But, again, nothing would change fundamentally if you exchanged the Christmas dinner scene with just about any conceivable family dinner to which Mel Gibson’s Riggs could be invited. While this probably excludes Hanukkah, the rest of the year is fair game.
So the question remains: do the mere trappings of the holiday make a film “Christmas” or is there something else, some je ne sais quoi that needs to be present to truly make a movie one with the spirit of the season?
As we’ve seen, action movies are imperfect vehicles. It’s a genre that doesn’t get associated with holidays very often, hence the ironic—and frankly superficial—Christmas affectation glossed on Die Hard and Lethal Weapon.
There is another genre, however, that has long mined the season for celluloid. And that genre is horror.
At first glance, horror seems a poor fit with the holidays. Christmas is about family and cheer, kindness and forgiveness. Horror is a genre designed to stir up unrest through the presentation of a visceral, primal id. But the roots of horror are intertwined with loads of classic Christmas stories and movies.
Two of the most “classic” examples of Christmas movies are ghost stories. A Christmas Carol (and all its variations) and It’s a Wonderful Life are both essentially the tales of phantoms. Scrooge moves with the ghosts of past, present and future while George Bailey’s guardian angel Clarence also hails from the spectral world.
So if the vein of horror already runs through many Christmas movies, it’s easy to think that there have been plenty of horror movies that are able to cover everything we expect from a proper horror film in addition to all the bells, whistles and ornaments unique to a Christmas film, right? Not quite.
Gremlins aside, when you start looking for Christmas-themed horror movies, you will quickly be awash in a sea of cheap, gimmicky slashers. From Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night to Santa Claws and Jack Frost, these movies revel in their ability to combine the gentile gentility of Christmas with the gore, blood and viscera usually expect from a popcorn shocker.
Yes, they star killer snowmen and murderous Santas, but do any of these films have that same twinkle in their eye that proper Christmas films tend to have? If we assume Christmas to be a genre unto itself, and if we drew a Venn diagram illustrating the overlap between Christmas and horror, how many of these films would land squarely in the center? Not many. These slashers are simply slashers.
There is an exception to the deluge of Christmas slashers, a movie that does seem to sit nicely in the middle of both genres: Lewis Jackson’s little-seen 1980 cult film Christmas Evil. The name, marketing and even the plot synopsis might lead you to believe it’s more Christmas wallpaper sprucing up a slasher that couldn’t sell in the summer. Sit down and watch the movie, and you’ll see something else entirely.
The mood of a Christmas film plays a very important role in defining it as a “Christmas film.” Much of Christmas Evil is presented in those familiar beats. The main difference between this film and more uplifting fare is that the turning point we have all come to expect never arrives. The movie is told from the point of view of a Bob Cratchit, but his Scrooge does not have a change of heart.
Traumatized as a young boy, Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) is an outsider who has become the whipping post for much of the people in his life, including his bosses at the Jolly Dreams toy factory. Harry’s mental instability, combined with the cruelty he faces, leads to an obsession with Christmas—particularly Santa’s naughty-or-nice list.
Much of the movie plays out like a drama. Harry wants to see the good in people, but sees too many privileged people abusing their positions of power. Harry begins to disassociate more and more. He eventually steals from the toy factory and distributes the loot to kids at the hospital.
In most Christmas movies, this would be the turning point. In donning a Santa costume and delivering toys to children in need, Harry would find his redemption. Christmas Evil takes a different turn. Instead, Harry loses himself more and more in the role of Santa. Finally, he delivers his own version of coal to those he deems naughty.
Even as the slasher elements crash the party, during the last third of the film, the director always makes sure Christmas Evil feels first and foremost like a Christmas movie. In the same way that A Miracle on 34th Street is as much a courtroom drama as it is a Christmas film, Christmas Evil is—finally—as much a Christmas film as it is a slasher flick. It takes the stock protagonist of a typical Christmas story and deprives him of the divine intervention needed to better himself and his lot of life.
So, this holiday season, before you reach for the new canon of Christmas films, I recommend you search for Christmas Evil, where horror and holidays are truly able to meet. Vinegar Syndrome released a thoughtful Blu-ray/DVD set in 2014.