I’m over traditional Christmas movies. Christmas Story, Home Alone, Christmas Vacation, Scrooged, Elf, Love Actually…you name it, I’ve had to watch it at least too many times over the years. That’s why I’m completely on board with watching non-traditional Christmas movies like Die Hard over the holidays, a point of view which proved oddly contentious in the great “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie or not?” debate of 2017. However, since this has also been the golden year of horror (at least at the box office) I chose to go with a mini-horror marathon of three scary Christmas movies last night. Here’s how it played out:
The Children (2008)
How could I really say no to a movie with the tagline, “You brought them into this world. They’ll take you out”?
The story starts out convincingly enough, showing us the arrival and co-mingling of relatives (a pair of sisters and their husbands as well as their kids) at a snowy cabin. Children are told to behave. Adults share superficial status updates on their lives with people they have to pretend to get along with only to later gossip about them behind their backs. A surly teenager (Hannah Tointon) texts a friend and plots her escape. Mostly, though, there’s just a lot of chatter and children screaming, which certainly rings true to the common Christmas experience.
Then the kids keep screaming. And screaming. And throwing up. And getting peculiar looks on their faces which none of the adults seem to notice.
When the inevitable twist comes, it arrivals quite brutally, with the suddenly and quite mysteriously murderous kids turning on the adults in clever ways. A father is tricked into going sledding as a ruse to set up a deadly trap. A mother is coaxed up a jungle gym to retrieve a crying child who seems to keep moving away, causing her to lose her balance. The injuries quickly mount and to survive the adults have to do the unthinkable.
The problem is…well, it’s the same problem Children of the Corn, Cooties, Pet Sematary, The Good Son, Better Watch Out (more on that one later), and various others have faced: in your “the children are trying to kill us” movie how do you get around the inherent visual awkwardness of pitting small kids versus larger, more physically capable adults? How do you win us over to the sight of adults killing kids in self-defense? Some play up the comedy, others the drama and yet others play it straight.
The Children opts for the latter, delivering wince-inducing survival horror with some kills you’ll instinctively turn away from. What I realized along the way, though, is that while I have a bit of a black heart it’s not so black that I truly want to see a quasi-zombified little British kid’s head crushed down on the knife-like edges of a broken door, even if she did just Shining her way through that same door in deadly pursuit of her aunt. I respect this movie for going there and breaking the taboo, and by horror movie standards The Children is a fairly well-made indie that’ll please genre fans. But it’s not something I enjoyed.
Once a screenwriting wunderkind who came out of nowhere to co-write X2 and Superman Returns with his partner Dan Harris, Michael O’Dougherty has found a second act in Hollywood as a writer and director of cult classic horror movies. 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat is essentially O’Dougherty’s Halloween version of Pulp Fiction. Disparate scary stories (involving modern-day vampires and werewolves, ghosts, a psychotic school principal, among others) play out in the same town one Halloween night. Sometimes they overlap, other times not, but they ultimately tie together at the end thanks to interference from the malevolent spirit Samhein appearing as a boy with a sack over his head (e.g., as seen in the opening scene, if you take down your decorations before Halloween is officially over Sam will murder your ass).
Of course, it went mostly ignored upon initial release and has found new life on video.
History repeated itself with Krampus, O’Dougherty’s attempt at a PG-13 gateway horror movie. It bombed, but just like Trick ‘r Treat it deserved better.
After a brilliant opening montage of Black Friday-esque retail madness set to the tune of classic Christmas carols, the plot kicks in and initially plays out like a rehash of Christmas Vacation. An upper-middle-class husband (Adam Scott) and wife (Toni Collette) and their young son and teenage daughter reluctantly welcome their own Cousin Eddie analog and wife (David Koechner, Allison Tolman) and kids into their gorgeous, spacious home for the holidays. There’s no “shitter’s full” line, but there’s plenty of snobs and slobs humor and class conflict. It’s enough to trick you into forgetting you’re watching a horror movie. Before long, though, Scott and Koecher are facing down animated gingerbread men armed with a nail gun.
The story hinges on Scott’s son wanting to cling to his belief that Santa is real even though he’s too old for that kind of stuff. After a disastrous Christmas dinner, he storms to his room to pour his grievances with his family into a letter to Santa, but instead of reaching Coca Cola’s fat man it lands with Krampus, who arrives with his demons to punish the naughty. It’s us versus killer German Santa. The family that slays together stays together, or something like that.
What happens after that is more funny than scary, which might disappoint those hoping for something with a harder edge. However, that’s why it’s called “gateway horror.” This is supposed to be something you can actually watch with at least pre-teens who will eventually age up into watching R-Rated horror, and in the pantheon of gateway horror, Krampus falls way above Goosebumps and probably even a bit higher than Gremlins in terms of scares. Mostly, though, it’s the laughs that get me, and there’s always another good visual gag or line reading (from a stacked cast) around the corner in this horror comedy about a kid learning to watch what he wishes for around the holidays.
Better Watch Out (2017)
“Home Alone meets The Strangers” is how one of the pull-quotes in Better Watch Out’s trailer put it. A teenager (Olivia Dejonge) on the cusp of moving to a new city babysits a wealthy couple’s (Patrick Warburton, Virginia Madsen) only child (Levi Miller) one last time so they can go to a Christmas party. She is quickly forced into Mama Grizzly mode when apparent strangers mount a home invasion. The strangers aren’t who they appear to be, and exactly who needs protection from who radically shifts in what turns out to be a great idea for a horror movie let down by inconsistent follow through.
I massively enjoyed the twist and its clever skewering of genre convention, and there’s certainly a healthy helping of black comedy, which I can’t really describe without spoiling the twist. But once you see the movie’s big idea and perk up you gradually sink back into your seat as what seemed so promising devolves into a series of merely ok scenes and setpieces. You can’t be too mad at any film which restages Home Alone’s paint-can-in-the-face scene to far gorier results, but you can feel a bit let down by so much potential going unrealized or wasted on a series of horror movie easter eggs and blatant steals. That sadly prevents Better Watch Out from joining the ranks of the classics, but it still registers as a fun addition to the subgenre of Christmas horror and makes for an interesting comparison to Netflix’s somewhat similar The Babysitter.
I watched The Children & Krampus on HBO Now and rented Better Watch Out on sale on Vudu. Of the three, I’d happily re-watch Krampus again at the same next year. What about you? What are some of your preferred Christmas horror movies?