Chain Reaction: Jingle Hell: Cozy Up to Holiday Horror

Although getting everybody together for the holidays can be hell in and of itself (see also: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Planes Trains and Automobiles, and your Uncle Ralph’s perpetually mandatory Christmas dinner, etc), there’s a nice sub-sub-sub-genre of horror movies and stories centered around holiday traditions. What better time to scare people than when they are supposed to be merry? Or maybe you’re already fed up with the holidays before they’ve even started. No judgment. Grab a hot beverage to keep you warm and a blanket to hide your eyes as you settle in for some holiday screams. That said, since this genre of holiday horror is esoteric, that alone limited my choices for this post. I intentionally did not include slasher flicks like Jack Frost (and no, I don’t mean the Michael Keaton version). Slasher flicks are not on my radar because women never seem to fair well in them. (Raise your hand if violence against women should not be a plot point.) What follows are my recommendations for holiday mayhem.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010): This Finnish movie is one of my favorites. It mines dark humor as much as it twists ancient mythology in a bonkers plot that parodies The Thing and similar movies, right down to an explosive ending. Rauno, his son Pietari, and their neighbor Piiparinen capture a thin, elderly man with glowing eyes, believed to have been discovered in a nearby archaeological dig site. Pietari convinces the men that this is Santa Claus; he’s been dreading the upcoming Christmas holiday after scaring himself with stories about the real Santa Claus — a guy with horns who cooks children for food. Rauno and Piiparinen believe the man was killing their reindeer and stealing food, and Pietari believes he’s been stealing his classmates. They dress him up in a Santa costume, cage him, and transport him to a local airbase with plans to sell him to Americans as Santa Claus. See what I mean about bonkers? This is where the movie goes off the rails — in a good way. Their contact warns them the man in the cage is actually one of Santa’s elves, not Santa himself. All hell breaks loose when the other elves arrive to rescue their, eh, elf-mate, killing the Americans. In their attempt to escape, Pietari, Rauno and Piiparinen take shelter in another hangar, where they find the missing children collected under a block of ice — inside which is the real find from the dig: the horned Santa Claus from Pietari’s fairy tale books, just waiting for the ice to melt so he can tuck into his first meal. The ending justifies the movie title. All in all, Rare Exports is an imaginative, dark, funny film.

Dead End (2003): I read Drew Magary’s The Hike last year (fun fact: The Hike is hopefully getting its own screen treatment, and I can’t wait) and it reminded me so much of this French-made, low-budget, very effective horror film. But I couldn’t remember the name of it — so I had to go hunting around the Internet. Now, overall The Hike is nothing like Dead End, but they both share two concepts: the premise of travelers on a weird road where anything can (and does) happen. Dead End pays tribute to urban legends, especially the “Lady in White” hitchhiker and the “mysterious black hearse,” and nods to films like Jacob’s Ladder. This goreless horror starring Ray Wise as Frank, a cranky father reluctantly driving his family to his in-laws for Christmas Eve, with career scream queen Lin Shaye (the demonologist in Insidious) as his wife Laura. Frank hates going to his in-laws’ house; he is suffering from a severe case of I-don’t-want-to-go-so-let’s-be-late, and takes a shortcut that isn’t really a shortcut, then falls asleep at the wheel and almost crashes the car, which also contains his daughter Marion (Alexandra Holden), her boyfriend Brad, and his son Richard (Mick Cain). Soon after, they give a ride to a young woman dressed in white and holding a baby. Except the baby turns out to be a corpse and the woman turns out to be a guide to the dark side. To say more would deprive viewers the pleasure of following along on this twisted, surreal journey. You will ask yourself “What the hell did I just watch?” but rather than the untidy ending common to so many horror films (the ending to 2002’s Cabin Fever still pisses me off), the end ties up the surreality and delivers a neat, terror-filled package that will keep you from sleeping for the rest of the holiday season. As if you needed another reason. 

Honorable Mentions:

Nightmare Before Christmas (1993): Admit it — you watched it at Halloween; now you get to watch it again. And again. And sing “This is Halloween” while everyone else is singing holiday songs. No? That’s just me? That’s okay.

Gremlins (1984) is the most well-known example of Christmas holiday horror, intended as a family-friendly holiday horror movie, although most people tend to think of it as that Joe Dante movie that could have been so very different minus Joe Dante. Kid viewers were attracted to the sarcastic, mayhem-causing villains, who proceed to trash pretty much everything in their path. That said, Gremlins has been criticized for its cultural insensitivity; it perpetuates the stereotype of the mystical Asian, for example, and has been accused of positioning the destructive, carousing gremlins as caricaturist stand-ins for people of color. 

Lady in White (1989): I’ve mentioned this thriller before as one of my Halloween staples, but it’s good for both Halloween and Christmas as the story’s action spans both holidays. It’s a brilliant ghost story, magical in its delivery, whose fans (me included) consider it a real gem. Frank LaLoggia wrote, produced, and directed, and even composed the original score.  

Krampus (2015): Toni Collette and Adam Scott star in this supernatural home invasion film (think about it — that is what Santa does, right?). I haven’t seen this one (yet), which is why it’s in “Honorable Mentions.”

But if you’ve seen anything you like, mention it in the comments below and keep the chain going! Holiday horror fiction also counts — I realized in writing this post that I haven’t read anything that might count here except Christopher Golden’s Snowblind, so book and story suggestions are absolutely welcome. 

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