Look, 2020 has been a horror show for many of us. There’s not one part of the past year that hasn’t been tainted by the pandemic, politics, anxiety, and unrest, so it’s understandable if the holidays feel a little off this year. Maybe this is the season to embrace our discontent with some good old-fashioned cathartic chaos…in the form of old Kris Kringle himself?
Fortunately, horror filmmakers have given us a host of holiday-themed horror movies over the years. Classics such as Black Christmas (all three of them are great—yes, ALL THREE OF THEM) and Gremlins reveal the darker side of the Yuletide season, but there’s something special about the odd subgenre of killer Santa movies. There’s a subversive thrill in seeing an icon of joy and innocence turned into a figure of destruction. For some moviemakers, capturing that thrill is enough. But others use the twisted premise to explore the competing spirits of Christmas and commercialism.
Whether you’re looking to end 2020 on an appropriately cynical note, or you simply want to distract from this long, grim year with some cinematic holiday horror, these movies—ranked from worst to best—will satisfy everyone on the naughty list.
10. Santa Claws (1996)
Like most B-movie stars, actress Raven Quinn (Debbie Rochon) has her share of possessive fans. But her neighbor Wayne (Grant Kramer) takes it to a whole new level by donning a Santa suit and taking a gardening claw to anyone else vying for her attention.
Killer Claus Content: Wayne does most of his killing in a Santa suit, but in the one case of this movie overdoing it, he also wears a black ski-mask. The ski mask becomes the focal point of the get-up, which diminishes the Santa aspect.
Yuletide Terror Quotient: Writer/Director John A. Russo co-wrote The Night of the Living Dead with George R. Romero, but there’s absolutely none of that creativity on display in Santa Claws. Everyone sleepwalks through the film and the kills are about as imaginative as the movie’s title. More than any other film on this list, Santa Claws seems to exist only to show women in various stages of undress. And given the sleaze that we’re about to discuss, that’s saying something.
Ability to Distract from Real-World Horror: Santa Claws is too boring to distract people from the sound of their own breathing, let alone from the existential dread of 2020.
9. Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987)
Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 doesn’t so much pick up where its predecessor left off as it does repeat the first film and then add a bit more. Footage from the original movie takes up 45 minutes of this 88-minute film, with added voice-over from Ricky Chapman (Eric Freeman), younger brother of Billy, the killer Santa from the first film. But Ricky makes the most of his limited screen time, carrying on his brother’s mission to punish the naughty.
Killer Claus Content: Technically, Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 does have a lot of Killer Claus Content. It’s just the exact same content from the first movie. Ricky does most of his killing wearing a comfy blue sweater, until donning a cheap-looking red coat and hat for the final kill.
Yuletide Terror Quotient: Nothing in this movie is scary, but Ricky’s rampage has some pretty great moments, including an eye-popping bit involving a car battery. And even when he isn’t doing anything particularly gnarly, Freeman’s line deliveries are over-the-top enough to make it an entertaining watch. Case in point: “garbage day.”
Ability to Distract from Real-World Horror: If you haven’t seen the first movie, then this movie is pretty fun. The editing and goofy voice-over tones down the nastiness of the original film, and Ricky’s rampage is worth the price of admission. If you have seen the original, well, a YouTube clip of the sequel’s murder-y highlights will probably be enough to get the vibe across.
8. To All a Goodnight (1980)
Two years after a prank-gone-wrong leaves one of their sisters dead, the members of a sorority try to inspire some Christmas cheer by flying in a plane full of boys. And it pretty much works! Even when a Santa-suited killer starts offing the sisters and their lovers, nobody seems to notice that people are missing. That is, until final girl Nancy (Jennifer Runyon) discovers the killer’s secret.
Killer Claus Content: To All a Goodnight is a below-average slasher movie, but it earns a spot this high on the list simply because the killer is actually dressed like Santa Claus throughout the entire film.
Yuletide Terror Quotient: Minimal. Not only does director David Hess (best known for playing the gang leader in Wes Craven’s debut The Last House on the Left) stage the kill scenes with no sense of tension, but the surviving characters’ lack of concern for their missing friends makes the viewer equally apathetic.
Ability to Distract from Real-World Horror: Unless you’re interested in the film’s copious nudity, you’ll probably spend most of To All a Goodnight‘s runtime doomscrolling on Twitter. But the movie does offer a couple of decent kills, and you might spend a few minutes trying to make sense of the movie’s nonsense twist ending. So that’s something, I guess.
7. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
When parents’ groups and critics saw the poster for Silent Night, Deadly Night, they played right into writer/director Charles E. Sellier Jr.’s hands. Their moral outrage gave the trashy slasher flick far more attention than its meager marketing budget could ever have generated. In the decades that followed, a cult following has developed around the story of Billy Chapman (Robert Brian Wilson), traumatized after a Santa Claus murdered his parents, becoming a killer Santa and punishing the naughty, making it the quintessential killer Santa movie.
Killer Claus Content: After six-year-old me saw a commercial for Silent Night, Deadly Night, visions of mayhem danced in my head. But Billy does so much more in this movie than my young imagination could ever have conjures. He sinks a hammer into his boss’s head, decapitates a kid on a sled, and impales a nude woman on mounted deer antlers. Billy is the most famous killer Santa for a reason.
Yuletide Terror Quotient: Silent Night, Deadly Night isn’t as scary as it is nasty. Like a lot of low-budget slashers, the film uses sexual assault as an excuse to work in a nude scene before killing a character. And even the sex-less kills are disturbing, as when Billy hacks off the head of the aforementioned teen on a sled.
Ability to Distract from Real-World Horror: Silent Night, Deadly Night isn’t quite scary enough to keep you glued to the TV, but its mean-spirited attitude might draw your attention away from the news and onto the plight of its fictional victims for a couple hours.
6. Santa’s Slay (2005)
According to the plot of this, the first and only movie from writer/director David Steiman, Santa (played by former wrestler Bill Goldberg) wasn’t always the jolly old elf we know him to be. He is, in fact, a demon who was forced to spend 1000 years spreading joy and presents around the world after losing a curling match against an angel. But when his sentence ends, Santa intends to make up for lost time by going on a rampage through the fictional Hell Township.
Killer Claus Content: Where all the previous movies discussed on this list featured murderous slashers dressed like Santa, Santa’s Slay stars the real Kris Kringle himself, riding a sleigh pulled by a hell-deer and punctuating his kills with terrible puns.
Yuletide Terror Quotient: Santa’s Slay isn’t scary, but Steiman clearly wants laughs, not screams, from his audience. The film leans into the anarchic joy of watching Santa body-slam people to death. The movie works at the start, with a Rankin/Bass-style animated sequence setting up the premise and a scene in which Santa dispatches a family of characters played by Fran Drescher, Rebecca Gayheart, Chris Kattan, and James Caan.
Ability to Distract from Real-World Horror: For the first 15 minutes or so, Santa’s Slay is a blast. But by the time Santa makes tasteless jokes about the topless dancers he’s slaughtering, the movie has emptied its sack of surprises and becomes a self-satisfied lump of coal.
5. Silent Night (2012)
Although it was released in 2012, Silent Night belongs to the previous decade’s run of glossy remakes of gritty slasher movies from the ’70s and ’80s. Director Steven C. Miller takes from Silent Night, Deadly Night the general idea of family trauma driving a man mad and repeats some of the kills, but his movie focuses more on the cops (Jamie King and Malcolm McDowell) than the killer. Throw in a whodunit, a Santa convention, and character actors Ellen Wong and Donal Logue, and you’ve got a recipe for a remake that improves upon the original.
Killer Claus Content: As much as the 2012 Silent Night exceeds its 1984 predecessor, it retains the earlier film’s mean-spirited kills. This Santa electrocutes a deputy, stuffs a woman in a woodchipper, and even murders a snotty tween girl.
Yuletide Terror Quotient: While there’s potential for terror in Jayson Rothwell’s script, Miller’s directorial choices undercut the horror. Copious Dutch angles and shaky camera shots obscure the action, as does the movie’s washed-out color palette. And while the woodchipper death is good and gory, the preceding scene dulls the fun, as Santa chases a topless woman.
Ability to Distract from Real-World Horror: With a solid mystery, well-developed characters, and a great performance from Logue, Silent Night offers more than its gloriously gratuitous gore.
4. Tales from the Crypt (1972)
“And All Through the House..,” the first segment of this anthology film from Britain’s Amicus Productions, follows a woman who murders her husband on Christmas Eve, just as a homicidal Santa arrives to stalk her.
Killer Claus Content: The only on-screen kill comes from the woman herself, who dispatches her jolly husband at the start of the sequence. But the sequence gets a lot of mileage from the threat of violence, especially with its chilling ending involving the woman’s young daughter.
Yuletide Terror Quotient: Where the other films on this list choose gore over scares, “And All Through the House…” does the opposite. Director Freddie Francis ratchets up the tension of the premise, making viewers fear for the woman who we only know as a murderer.
Ability to Distract from Real-World Horror: On its own, “And All Through the House…” is an engrossing ten-minute segment of an otherwise weak anthology movie. But many viewers may know this story from a 1989 episode of the Tales from the Crypt TV show. Granted, that version—written by Fred Dekker and directed by Robert Zemeckis—is superior to the 1972 short. But the earlier take has its own charms and deserves a look.
3. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
In this Finnish film from writer/director Jalmari Helander, the kindly Santa we all know and love is just a mascot for the Coca-Cola Company. The real Santa is a hulking, horned, child-stealing monster who has been frozen in ice for generations. But he’s about to be freed by a greedy businessman looking to own Santa Claus.
Killer Claus Content: Uh… none, actually. The Santa of Rare Exports may be an actual monster, not just a crazy man in a suit, but he spends the entire film frozen in ice. His elves, naked old men with scraggly beards and empty eyes, do kidnap some children, but no one does any killing.
Yuletide Terror Quotient: Despite the lack of actual murder, Rare Exports is the most frightening movie on this list. Helander does a masterful job unfolding the story, and this movie has the evilest elves ever put on the screen.
Ability to Distract from Real-World Horror: On the one hand, Rare Exports is mesmerizing. You won’t pull out your phone once. On the other hand, the real world is full of businessmen willing to sacrifice people for the sake of a buck, so maybe it isn’t much of a distraction at all?
2. Dial Code Santa Claus (aka Deadly Games, aka 3615 ode Père Noël, 1990)
In 1990, Americans met Kevin McCallister, the sadistic child who tormented the burglars foolish enough to break into his house. That same year, Dial Code Santa Claus introduced French audiences to Tomas de Frémont (Alain Musy)—a kid with a killer instinct, high-tech gadgets, and the best mullet this side of the Tiger King. When a disturbed man in a Santa suit (Patrick Floerscheim) breaks into his house, Tomas must use all of those attributes to defend his sickly grandfather (Louis Decreux).
Killer Claus Content: This Santa does kill a few people, but they all happen off-screen, with one exception. Director René Manzor makes sure that we watch Santa stab Tomas’s beloved dog, J.R.
Yuletide Terror Quotient: J.R.’s death is upsetting, and Floerscheim makes for a menacing Kris Kringle, but Dial Code Santa Claus never stays in one tone for long. Most of the movie feels like French Home Alone, with Tomas dressing up like Rambo and setting traps throughout the house. But the movie also occasionally becomes *really* maudlin, both in an extended flashback scene of good times with J.R. and in an unbelievably cheesy musical number about baby Jesus and the spirit of Christmas.
Ability to Distract from Real-World Horror: Depending on your tolerance for (fictional) violence toward dogs, Dial Code Santa Claus can be an absolute joy to watch. There’s plenty of silly stuff to make you laugh out loud, but Floerscheim and Musy give outstanding performances, grounding the movie in real emotion. The movie combines the joy and terror of Christmas 2020 better than any film on this list.
1. Christmas Evil (aka Better Watch Out, 1980)
Despite the trauma of watching his father, dressed as Santa Claus, make out with his mother on Christmas Eve, young Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) grows to be a kindly adult who worships Jolly Ol’ St. Nick. But when cold-hearted executives at the toy factory where he works push him too far, Harry snaps. He becomes Santa himself, punishing those who disrespect the holiday and showering gifts on those who are pure in heart.
Killer Claus Content: While not as grisly as Silent Night, Deadly Night, Christmas Evil has a few notable kills, including death by Christmas tree star and a toy soldier to the eye.
Yuletide Terror Quotient: Despite killing a few people, Harry isn’t scary because he isn’t the villain of the film. In fact, the movie treats him like a tragic hero, someone so devoted to Santa’s ideals that he’s moved to kill those who exploit others.
Ability to Distract from Real-World Horror: Christmas Evil is by far the best movie on this list, and honestly one of the best Christmas movies ever made. Maggart (better known these days as the father of singer Fiona Apple) gives a layered performance as Harry, full of sadness and genuine joy, as does frequent Frank Darabont collaborator Jeffery DeMunn, who plays Harry’s long-suffering brother Phil. Director Lewis Jackson finds plenty of moments of levity in the sometimes-bleak proceedings, including the movie’s fantastical ending. More than any other film, Christmas Evil proves that the killer Santa subgenre has more to offer than mere subversive thrills.
Are there any killer Santa movies I’ve missed? Will Syfy’s upcoming Letters to Satan Claus make the list? Let me know in the comments.
Joe George’s writing regularly appears at Bloody Disgusting and Think Christian. He collects his work at joewriteswords.com and tweets nonsense from @jageorgeii.