For most people, the worst violence they encounter on Christmas is getting into a shoving match with someone over the last Cabbage Patch Doll or Tickle Me Elmo at the toy store. But while the majority of holiday movies tend to aim for a warmer, fuzzier register of emotions, there is a surprisingly robust subcategory of Christmas movies that present far more aggressive visions of the season.
The latest example is Violent Night, which is essentially an even more Christmas-y riff on Die Hard. A group of bad guys take a family hostage on Christmas Eve, but instead of Bruce Willis racing to the rescue, the real Santa Claus (David Harbour) shows up to save them. He‘s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice, and then he’s gonna kick the crap out of the naughty folks.
In honor of Violent Night, here are 50 years of dark and violent horror and action movies set in and around Christmas. They may not make the best fare to watch on Christmas Eve with the family. But if you’re feeling like a Grinch, they can really hit the spot.
Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)
Directed by Theodore Gershuny
“‘Twas the night before Christmas… and all through the house, not a creature was … left living.” So begins the spooky trailer to Silent Night, Bloody Night, an early 1970s slasher about a series of killings in a small Massachusetts town on Christmas eve. The plot involves incest, amputations, and assorted slayings (not sleighing). The film is in the public domain because of a copyright snafu, so you can actually watch the entire thing right here.
Black Christmas (1974)
Directed by Bob Clark
One of the all-time great pieces of movie trivia: Bob Clark, the man who made perhaps the most beloved Christmas movie of the last 50 years, A Christmas Story, also made one of the darkest Christmas movies ever. Black Christmas is the prototypical Yuletide slasher, with a series of murders in a sorority house in the run-up to Christmas. The movie became so iconic it has already been remade twice, in 2006 and 2019.
Christmas Evil (1980)
Directed by Lewis Jackson
This particularly nasty piece of work is essentially Halloween set two months later. A kid gets traumatized on Christmas when he sees his mother fooling around with Santa Claus (actually it’s his father). When he grows up, instead of putting on a William Shatner mask and a jumpsuit, he dresses like — who else? — Santa, and starts hacking people up in between present deliveries. No wonder this film was originally titled You Better Watch Out.
Directed by Joe Dante
You thought those tube socks were a crummy present? At least the tube socks didn’t turn into snarling, slimy, mischievous hellbeasts! That’s what happens in Gremlins, where an innocent Christmas present from a dad to his son, nearly destroys an entire town. For all the chaos the Gremlins cause. As gross as some of Gremlins is — like a melty death to rival what happens to the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark — the most disturbing part of the entire movie might be when Phoebe Cates recounts the story of why she hates Christmas — a tale that involves her father, a Santa suit, a broken neck, and a very clogged, very smelly chimney.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Directed by Charles E. Sellier Jr.
If Silent Night, Bloody Night didn’t do it for you, maybe you’ll prefer Silent Night, Deadly Night. Actually, the film is closer in concept to Christmas Evil — it’s another story of a man who was traumatized as a boy on Christmas, who then grows up to associate the holiday with darkness and terror. Forced to dress like Santa Claus at his job, he snaps and goes on a rampage. All is not calm, all is not bright as the disturbed young man in the Santa suit hacks his way through town with box cutters and axes.
Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987)
Directed by Lee Harry
The killer from the first Silent Night, Deadly Night had a brother — AKA an extremely convenient protagonist/killer for a sequel. Enter Part 2, which follows the brother on his own path of Christmas-themed destruction. But first: He narrates his brother’s story to a psychiatrist in order for the film to find a way to recycle a bunch of footage from the first SN,DN. Then the kid brother’s story follows, as he slaughters people he determines are “naughty.” You couldn’t just give them a lump of coal or something?!?
Die Hard (1988)
Directed by John McTiernan
It’s almost embarrassing that people fought for so long over whether or not Die Hard was a Christmas movie. Of course it was! It’s a violent one, sure, but it definitely qualifies. Detective John McClane fights to rescue his estranged wife and a group of hostages when their Christmas party gets interrupted by terrorists. There are shootouts, explosions, and — worst of all — a scene where McClane runs across broken glass barefoot, leading to an aftermath where he has to drag his blood and beaten carcass across the floor. This is why I always come up with an excuse to get out of my own company’s holiday party. I don’t need that kind of aggravation in my life.
Directed by Jeffrey Mandel
No, this one is not a dark comedy about Santa‘s overworked labor force rising up against their jolly overseer to demand better pay and fewer hours. That would make too much sense! These elves are — wait for it — connected to a secret Nazi cult, and attempts to take over the entire world by impregnating a pure-blooded virgin. You know, Christmas stuff. Elves also includes the immortal line “I had a rough day at work, Santa got murdered.” (Don’t you hate when that happens?)
Jack Frost (1997)
Directed by Michael Cooney
As disturbing as the other Jack Frost is, this one might actually be even more horrifying. When a serial killer gets exposed to chemicals, his evil essence fuses with some snow and turns him into a homicidal Frosty. Once must at leave give this slasher some points for ingenuity; rather than the traditional instruments of destruction, Jack Frost tends to prefer holiday-themed murders, like strangling someone with Christmas lights or stabbing someone with an oversized icicle. No one gets poisoned with a bad batch of gingerbread, but you can’t win them all I guess.
The Gingerdead Man (2005)
Directed by Charles Band
Speaking of gingerbread: Meet The Gingerdead Man, who is created when the ashes of a psychotic killer (Gary Busey!) are mixed with gingerbread spices by a witch. Yes, it’s that old worn-out cliché again; the old killer-gets-reincarnated-as-evil-food-by-mixing-his-ashes-with-cookies-by-a-witch gag. The thematically-appropriate kills in this one include death by a variety of kitchen implements, not just knives. While actual gingerbread goes stale in a matter of days, The Gingerdead Man franchise continued on for four films over a decade, culminating in the classic sequel Ginderdead Man vs. Evil Bong. Yes, it’s that old worn-out cliché again: The old killer-gets-reincarnated-as-evil-food-by-mixing-his-ashes-with-cookies-by-a-witch-then-fights-with-an-evil-bong. Come up with some new ideas, Hollywood!
Black X-Mas (2006)
Directed by Glen Morgan
This Black Christmas remake (a second followed 13 years later) was so upsetting to some religious groups that they actively protested the film. (“To have a movie that emphasizes murder and mayhem at Christmas, a time of celebration and joy around the world seems to be ill-founded,” said one such offended party, who had clearly not been paying attention to movies for the previous 35 years.) Admittedly, this is an even darker take on the original Black Christmas premise, with even more disturbing content and at least one impalement via Christmas tree. Ouch.
Silent Night (2012)
Directed by Steven C. Miller
You know the drill by now: This remake of Silent Night, Deadly Night features yet another Santa-garbbed slasher. This guy uses axes, wood chippers, and even a flamethrower. (Look, you gotta roast those chestnuts on an open fire somehow.) One character notes that Christmas is “the number one holiday for people going nuts.” Which, at least according to the movies, may actually be true.
Directed by Michael Dougherty
Don’t lose that Christmas spirit, or you might just get a visit from Krampus, an ancient spirit that’s like the dark side of Santa Claus. He kills people with evil jack in the boxes, sentient gingerbread men, and assorted other goodies. This clever dark comedy with an awesome cast has quickly become a holiday favorite for horror fans. Be good, for goodness sake!
Better Watch Out (2016)
Directed by Chris Peckover
This list could have been titled “Movies With Trailers That Start With a Cheerful Holiday Song That Builds to a Dark Twist” with very minimal changes. Better Watch Out certainly would have fit. It’s about a kid and his babysitter who are terrorized by a masked intruder — or so things initially seem. Eventually, the film evolves into a very dark take on Home Alone — which, come to think of it, is a pretty darn violent Christmas movie itself. It’s just that the violence is cartoonish and not bloody and disturbing.
The Advent Calendar (2021)
Directed by Patrick Ridremont
We’re now 50 years into the history of twisted and violent Christmas movies, and while it sometimes seems like every conceivable twist on that formula has been exhausted, enterprising directors continue to invent new ways to turn the holiday season into a bloodbath. The Advent Calendar is exactly what it sounds like: A Christmas horror movie centered around a magical version of the holiday favorite. In it, a paraplegic former dancer receives this mysterious advent calendar as a gift. Eating the candy causes strange calamities. Cue the bloodshed and mayhem — just what everyone wants for Christmas.
The Worst Christmas Movies Ever
Ho ho ho — these movies stink.