Five Slasher Santa Movies that are Inexplicably Good
If you read that headline and thought it was full of crap, you were at least partially right. I'll admit up front I technically went with four movies and an episode, which is kind of cheating. That said, the episode in question isn't XMas Story from Futurama - this is limited to horror, and all five of my picks come from that genre.
The idea that I would be able to assemble this list at all would have been unthinkable a few years ago. This is, after all, supposed to be the dregs of holiday entertainment - the worst trope Christmas media has to offer. Only... it's not? While there's no shortage of abysmal slasher movies where the killer either is dressed as Santa or - in some bizarre sense is literally Santa himself, there are a shocking number of movies where the otherwise tired premise results in something absolutely fantastic.
Just to reiterate, by "shocking," I mean five. Okay, four and a half.
I was going to start with some history on this trope, but... honestly... I couldn't hope to do better than this guy, so read that if you want some background on where this idea originates and how it's developed over the decades. I should acknowledge that even after ten years of this, I haven't seen anywhere near all the examples cited in the article linked above, so it's certainly possible there are some great movies I'm not including. That said, that article is missing what I consider to be the single best use of the trope, so I guess no one's perfect.
I'll admit, I'm being a tad generous around how I'm defining more or less every criteria in the title. In other words, yeah, it's a stretch to call some of these "slashers," and what Santa means varies a lot from movie to movie, and I already acknowledged this list of five movies is really four movies and an episode of a television show, so I guess almost every word of the heading is a lie. Sue me.
On second thought, I don't want to get sued, so let's see if we can deliver on one of those promises through the use of a few honorable mentions:
HONORABLE MENTION #1: Santa Jaws
Santa Jaws both does and does not fit into the "killer Santa" trope. To a degree, that's true of several other movies on this list, but in this case I'm more breaking than bending the rules. After all, this isn't Santa or even a person dressed as Santa: it's a magical, super-powered shark with a Santa hat on its fin.
But at the same time, I suspect that's kind of the point. It's doing the old killer Santa trope with a shark instead of a person as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the subgenre.
Honestly, the reason this is an honorable mention rather than making the list proper has less to do with how well it adheres to the definition and more to do with that fact it's not really all that good. I mean, it's good for a cheesy made-for-TV horror/comedy/adventure, but it doesn't transcend its limitations or make you forget you're watching a SyFy original. But for all its faults, this is more fun than it has any right to be, and it's genuinely interesting both as a movie in its own right and as a unique twist on Christmas slashers.
HONORABLE MENTION #2: Christmas Evil
Arguably the original full-length Slasher Santa movie, Christmas Evil is hard to rate. After seeing this twice, I still can't decide whether Christmas Evil is actually good or just neat, but perhaps that's a false distinction, anyway. It's a bizarre film that's difficult to describe. It's technically a horror film, but - and I don't think I'm exaggerating here - you'd have to pull maybe five frames to pare this back to PG. There's very little violence, only a handful of deaths, and few if any scares.
And this absolutely is weird, quirky, and - as I said a moment ago - neat. It's a visually interesting movie with bizarre ideas and a bonkers ending featuring an angry mob literally wielding torches chasing the killer Santa's van off a bridge, only for said van to magically fly through the air. That alone earns it an honorable mention, and I almost want to grant it a spot on the list. But I can't quite justify it.
For all this movie does well, the pacing holds it back. This is one of those movies where you admire the ambition and wish they'd been able to deliver. The ideas were there and the effort was put in, but it just doesn't quite click together. I really respect what they tried to do here, but I don't think it works. At least not well enough to bump any of the movies below out of their spots.
Now then, let's get to the list proper:
#5: Rare Exports
Rare Exports is a bit of a stretch for this list in a couple ways. First, while typically classified as horror, I'd argue it's far more an adventure movie. Its horror credentials feel like its R rating: somewhat undeniable when considered objectively, but almost entirely based on technicalities. Nothing in Rare Exports is actually scary or shocking. There are a few unsettling images, but even these are mainly presented comically.
The other reason it's a stretch is... well... remember when I implied I could deliver five great examples? Yeah, well, there's a reason this in fifth place. Don't get me wrong - it's good, and moments are absolutely great. The end is delightful, and the concept is utterly unique, but the bulk of the movie isn't anywhere near as good as the others on this list.
The main issue is admittedly unfair - this clearly didn't have the resources the others had. It's an extremely small cast with a story contained to a handful of settings. There is some CG work near the end that attempts to give the whole thing a sense of scale, but it comes off looking and feeling like television from the era.
The movie is still fun, though most of its appeal comes more from concept than execution, at least until the very end, when it delivers a bonkers epilogue that lays out what's simultaneously a joke and an effective theme about the commodification and sanitation of myth into a marketable product.
Even still, that concept really is cool. This is the only piece of media on this list where Santa* is presented as something intrinsically wild, a brutal and unthinking beast driven by hunger and instinct. It makes for a fantastic contrast with both other killer Santa stories and with conventional versions of the character. On top of everything else, one area the movie doesn't let us down is its portrayal of the elf himself (well, technically one of the elves the main characters believe is Santa, but he's the Claus with the most screen time). Between a fantastic performance, subtle makeup and effects, and some brilliant staging, he's simultaneously creepy and funny.
Between the creature and the ending, this earns a spot on the list, but I really can't pretend it's in the same league as any of the next four entries.
*I'm aware "Santa" is actually the Yule Goat in Rare Exports (English translation be damned), but the similarities between the two - or rather the transition between the folkloric Yule Goat and the modern version which is indistinguishable from Santa - is more or less the point of the movie. Besides, the ending makes it pretty clear there's zero meaningful difference between the movie's deadly "helpers" and Jolly Old Saint Nick, so the distinction would be academic even some later inclusions on this list weren't even more of a stretch.
I warned you there'd be an episode. Regardless, this is great in its own right. Of everything listed here, this features by far the most straightforward use of the trope (which isn't surprising, since it's based on the classic Vault of Horror comic that's arguably the origin of the concept). It's a simple story about someone trying to survive the night against a disturbed killer dressed as Santa: there are no real twists or subversions, because that premise is supposed to be a "twist" in itself (ironic, given the scale of the subgenre it's created).
This makes the list mainly because it executes that premise remarkably well. The action is at once comical and suspenseful, the setting is atmospheric, and the direction (from Robert Zemekis) is fantastic.
My main complaint is that the ending always disappoints me. I know we're not supposed to root for the woman who just murdered her husband, but the sheer impossibility of her situation coupled with her resourcefulness makes it impossible not to.
The only other nitpick I have concerns the depiction of the murderous Santa. His makeup makes him appear almost inhuman, which is a bit overboard. I also think it's a questionable choice given we're supposed to view him as unbalanced - the mentally ill are demonized far too often in this subgenre, and this takes that even further than usual.
A final note - I have seen the segment of the Tales from the Crypt movie from the 70's which adapted the same short. I think that did a decent job, too, but the TV episode was far superior.
Okay, now we're really testing the limits of what qualifies as a "Santa Claus". We're already off the "slasher" thing entirely - Krampus isn't *that* kind of killer. But he does kill people, both directly and indirectly, and seems to drag them to hell. Or the underworld. Or something. And in the context of the movie, he dresses like Santa and may in fact even be an authentic version of Claus. That's close enough to count for the purposes of this list.
On rewatch, I found I liked this even more than I remembered. Visually, it's absolutely fantastic, and the tone of this is just pitch-perfect as a sort of dark fairytale. Throw in a wonderful cast, and you've got an amazingly effective movie. It's unsettling without being unnecessarily violent or disturbing - basically, this is exactly what I want from the genre.
Where it falls a little short is in the resolution. Krampus closes on an ambiguous ending where the characters have either been taken to hell or essentially allowed to go free by the demon. Either way, their fate was never in their hands, which to me undercuts the narrative. It doesn't help that said ending doesn't quite land in the first place - having read some interviews, I think the implication was supposed to be that they live, but what's on screen strongly implies they're in some sort of pocket dimension in hell or something. It's a neat visual, but it's unclear, and not in good way.
For the record, I'm not harping on the ending to complain so much as explain why this isn't higher. If the movie had fully stuck its landing, there's a good chance I'd have it all the way up in the top spot. The rest of this is just an amazing film. Hell, even the ending is beautiful and evocative - I just don't think it holds up to scrutiny as well as I'd like.
Of the five movies on this list, this is the only one that includes sequences I'd describe as particularly scary, though those aren't the sequences that make it eligible for consideration. In fact, this is an awkward movie to include at all, since the killer Santa motif only involves one of the four stories told in this anthology.
I feel a little bad teasing this out, but spoilers count for a lot in this one, so I don't want to tell you why I love this movie's spin on a Santa Claus killer; just that it takes that idea in a direction I haven't seen before and absolutely love. Overall, this is a shockingly good movie, especially considering it was released direct-to-video.
It's virtually impossible not to compare this to Krampus - both movies came out the same year, both feature the iconic Christmas demon, and both are among the best yuletide horror movies out there. While A Christmas Horror Story includes some fantastic imagery, there's no real comparison there - not many movies in this budget come close to matching Krampus visually. Somewhat ironically, the one visual element I think A Christmas Horror Story does better is Krampus himself. Up close, I think this offered a more effective image (I specify "up close", because that rooftop sequence in Krampus is damn near perfect).
The reason this edges out Krampus comes down to writing. Both movies blend horror and comedy, and A Christmas Horror Story delivers both better. That's in spite of a choice to cut the four segments up and stitch them together, a somewhat awkward decision that maybe holds this back a hair (though, honestly, I'm kind of grateful - I think the changeling story would have messed me up without those breaks).
While the writing throughout this is clever, creepy, and fun, it's really the ending that elevates A Christmas Horror Story this high on my list. Krampus's conclusion doesn't come together in a satisfying way, while this... I was genuinely surprised and impressed how it worked. Again, I don't want to say too much, but this is a hell of a film.
I do think it's worth mentioning there are some really unsettling things in this movie. If you're easily disturbed, you might want to head to Wikipedia or Does the Dog Die and make sure it doesn't cross any of your lines, spoilers be damned. But if you enjoy horror, consider this highly recommended.
At last we come to my pick for the best movie in the subgenre (and one of the best Christmas horror installments of all time). 3615 code Père Noël has been released a few times in the states under different names - Deadly Games seems to be the one currently in use, but I honestly hate that, so I'll be sticking with the original French title or the relatively close approximation, "Dial Code Santa Claus." Honestly, all are better than "Hide and Freak" or "Game Over," which are also in use.
Regardless of what it's called, the movie is everything you could ask of the subgenre. It's quirky, funny, and surreal. Okay, maybe not everything - if you're looking for something terrifying, you'll probably want to look elsewhere, as this is more interested in showing you a dreamlike world than scaring you, but if you're looking for abject terror, you're probably in the wrong subgenre, anyway.
Like Rare Exports and Krampus, 3615 code Père Noël is at its core a coming of age story built around a child facing a monstrous perversion of Santa. Unlike those, this Santa isn't magic: he's just a man in a suit. This movie takes that premise and transforms it into a parody of action movies, and the result is... it's just wonderful.
This is the missing link between Die Hard and Home Alone, and if you're only going to track down one movie on this list, make it this one.