The juxtaposition of holiday cheer and bloody murder is always a pleasure for horror fans, gorehounds, and lovers of irony. The obvious holiday for horror has an entire franchise devoted to it. John Carpenter's Halloween not only set the stage for a decade of imitators and wannabes, it also helped redefine the night of October 31 for an entire generation. Originally entitled The Babysitter Murders, the inclusion of the holiday made it synonymous with evil pumpkins, William Shatner masks painted white, and Carpenter's minimalist synth score.
It was Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Meyers that further cemented the themes of pagan ritual first. Director Dwight H. Little did extensive research into the meaning of Samhain as well as signifiers of the harvest. Later, to the franchise's detriment, the introduction of a druidic cult. Much of that tenuous connection to the holiday has been eradicated from the film series, best left forgotten so Hollywood could get back to all the murder.
There isn't a holiday or cultural event that doesn't have its own slasher film. From Christmas to April Fool's Day, you can be sure there's a killer stalking about somewhere. Some of them are highly entertaining riffs on the elements that make the day so dear to so many. Others are just outright trash.
15 Black Christmas (1974)
While Halloween gets the most credit for ushering the slasher genre into a staple of horror, two films preceded it that deserve more attention than they get. Michael Powell's Peeping Tom first introduced the voyeuristic nature of the slasher, and Bob Clark's Black Christmas first established the basic ground rules.
Interestingly, when Steve Martin met Olivia Hussey, he told her she had starred in one of his favourite films. She assumed Martin was referring to Romeo and Juliet, but he corrected her, claiming he'd seen Black Christmas at least 27 times.
The story is as basic as it gets: a killer hiding in the attic dispatches sisters of a sorority while making menacing phone calls in between kills. It also features one of the most thrilling analogue phone-tracing scenes ever committed to film, as a technician must run through rows of towering computers to find the correct connection.
14 Black Christmas (2006)
Films like Bob Clark's original Christmas, and Halloween prove the old adage that, sometimes, less is more. Both films are relatively bloodless, but what they lack in explicit violence they more than compensate with atmosphere and white knuckle tension.
Former X-Files writer Glen Morgan's remake went 180 degrees the opposite way, filling his cesspool of a film with eyeball gouging, a head bisected by an ice skate, an icicle through the head, and implied incest. For his killer, he adds a complicated, frankly stupid backstory involving things that might have been scary in a tempered Mulder and Scully outing, but here plays laughably. It's beyond gratuitous. Gratuitous violence can sometimes be appreciated in low budget B-horror films. In a high profile remake of one of the best slasher films ever made, it's just insulting.
13 Krampus (2015)
The legend of Krampus, the anti-Claus of Austrian/Hungarian descent, was bound to get his own film sooner or later. It was fortunate that writer/director Michael Dougherty's script was the first major American Krampus tale. As a dysfunctional family sits to dinner on Christmas eve, the youngest member tears up his letter to Santa in frustration, summoning the half-goat/half-demon to wreak havoc on the family and the snowed-in suburban block.
Dougherty stacks the deck with a terrific cast of comedic and dramatic actors including Adam Scott, Toni Collette, and David Koechner. Their family strife is mostly played for laughs, as are Krampus' minions that lay siege to the family as they fight united against the beast. The antics, at times funny, at times tragic, at times both, make for one of the most fun Christmas movies in recent years.
12 New Year's Evil
Take note: pun titles are never a good sign. This particularly lousy slasher follows a punk radio DJ at a party as she takes calls and requests like, "My vote for the best song is 'We Don't Need No Education'!" Meanwhile, a killer stalks the streets, killing a victim when the clock strikes midnight in each time zone.
New Year's Evil commits the mortal sin of not just being bad, but incredibly dull. The only joy is the unintended hilariousness of the killer's disguised voice as he makes calls to the radio show. He appears to be masking his voice through a kazoo.
11 Halloween (1978)
Carpenter's original still packs the same punch it did upon release thanks to the incredible attention to atmospheric terror and the gnawing sense of paranoia accompanied by newcomer Jamie Lee Curtis' performance. Daughter of Janet Leigh - famously offed in Psycho's shower scene - Curtis plays the role with a kind of downy innocence that would go on to define the concept of a "final girl."
The real terror comes from killer Michael Meyers just hovering in the background of shots. Carpenter's deft use of the camera has you searching every corner of the frame for him, even when he's nowhere to be found.
10 Halloween (2007)
Hey, someone got Rob Zombie's trailer trash fetish mixed in with my Halloween. Oh no, it's emulsifying.
Rob Zombie appeared to have a promising future as a horror director. An avid fan of 70s exploitation films, The Devil's Rejects is a terrific example of a retro horror classic. It's briskly paced, funny, and frightening all at once, following the dirt and grime all the way to their bitter end.
Then we learned that was pretty much all he had in his arsenal. What makes his take on Halloween so atrocious is that it takes a very frightening idea - that of a pure, living, breathing manifestation of evil - and neuters it with a standard messy childhood filled with unpleasant Zombie characters.
Then, in an act that can only be described as insulting, he decides to remake the first film in a Reader's Digest half hour. But gone is the charm of Jamie Lee Curtis. Make way for the annoyingly unpleasant, whiny Scout Taylor-Compton. One can't blame the actress, for the dialogue is truly painful to the ear.
9 Terror Train
At last, a New Year's film that isn't terrible.
After Halloween established Curtis as a scream queen for the first generation of slasher flicks, Terror Train helped further her stance. First time Canadian director Roger Spottiswoode (Turner & Hooch, Tomorrow Never Dies) helmed this 1980 slasher film, which is one of the earliest prank-gone-wrong revenge movies. After a New Year's prank sends a student to a mental institution, a group of med students board a train the next year to ring in the new year with a costume party. Unbeknownst to them, one of the costumed guests is picking them off one by one.
Also notable is the appearance (and onscreen murder) of magician David Copperfield, which was, back then, a major draw.
8 Silent Night, Deadly Night Parts 1-4
It's really okay if you fast forward Silent Night, Deadly Night or any of its sequels to the end rather than watch them. It's better not to try at all. This is the film series that led to religious protests outside of theatres for tarnishing a holiday so sacred for some. It may be argued that the war on Christmas, if it ever existed, began right here.
The film opens with a man dressed in a Santa costume brutally slaying a father and mother in front of their five year old son. It only gets more sacrilegious from there, and that would be fine if these films had anything remotely entertaining in them. Instead, we're treated to a seedy, unpleasant little film.
The second film plays like a greatest hits collection of the first. Much of it is comprised of flashbacks from part one, save for this unintentionally great gem:
Part 3 is probably the best of the series, directed by Two Lane Blacktop's Monte Hellman and starring horror icon Bill Mosely.
Part 4 is an in-name only sequel with a confusing plot about a cult, bugs, and spontaneous combustion. None are really worth your time.
7 Rare Exports
Jalmari Helander's Finnish horror film offers the first fresh take on an evil Santa Claus in decades. It's got a clever premise, which finds a team of British researchers accidentally unearthing the real Santa, a monstrosity who boils naughty children in a cauldron and has long, sharp claws. A local reindeer hunter entraps one of Santa's murderous elves and attempts to pedal it off to Americans. Things, naturally, go awry.
It's Santa meets The Thing, in all the right ways.
6 Krampus: The Christmas Devil (2013)
Though filmed in 2013, this Krampus was rush-released to Netflix and video stores following the theatrical debut of Michael Dougherty's film. A small town police detective spends his spare time trying to track down his childhood kidnapper. As kids continue to disappear, he realizes he may be dealing with St. Nick's evil brother (they're related now, apparently).
It's so low on the public's radar it doesn't even warrant its own Wikipedia page. Netflix and the IMDB are the only proof the film even exists. Krampus is the kind of sub-low budget horror film that is so inept there's nothing at which to laugh.
5 Ginger Snaps
Though its Halloween setting doesn't play heavily into the plot, Ginger Snaps captures the autumnal atmosphere about as well as John Carpenter's film, with its picture perfect suburb of Bailey Downs captured in dead leaf orange and street light yellow.
The movie follows two sisters (played with heartrending sincerity by Katherine Isabelle and Elizabeth Perkins) obsessed with death. Their strong bond is the only aspect of their dreary high school experience that keeps them from following through with a hyped-up suicide pact. After Isabelle is bitten by a mysterious creature that is immediately run over by a van, she begins to experience hair growing in new places on her body, her sexuality goes into overdrive, and she begins to grow apart from her sister.
In short, she goes through lycan-puberty. It serves as a clever allegory.
Post-Scream, Hollywood began to grind out one horror film after another, hoping to corner the market on younger audiences. Valentine represents some of the worst of such output.
Directed by Jamie "Urban Legend" Blanks, it's your standard prank gone wrong/revenge slasher. It also includes some dated concepts that today might be considered offensive, like body shaming. Overall, it's a hollow shell of a movie with uninteresting kills, an overloaded expository plot, and a silly conclusion. It's only notable today for featuring early roles from Katherine Heigl, Marley Shelton, and David Boreanaz (who had already established himself on TV with Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel).
3 Night of The Demons
Kevin S. Tenney's gruesome 1988 film has become a bit of a staple around All Hallow's Eve. It features scream queen Linnea Quigley in a role that, along with Trash in Return of the Living Dead, made her a screen legend for gorehounds.
At an abandoned local mortuary on Halloween, a group of teens decide to hold a séance party, a foolproof way to summon something awful, but this was the era of the Satanic Panic, so why not? After a demon infects the host, Angela, it's transferred to the others one by one, who then try to kill the remaining survivors.
It's a fairly straightforward film, but it has got its mouth firmly planted in its cheek. The epilogue, involving the urban legend about razors in apples, is a welcome joke.
2 Santa's Slay
Get it? See, because he rides a sleigh. But you change the spelling of it, and you have slasher flick gold on your hands, Mr. Producer Man. Give me funding!
Ugh. Written and directed by Brett Ratner's former assistant (warning sign number one) and starring WWE champion Bill Goldberg (warning sign number two), the pun-titled (three) slasher finds the titular killer slaughtering strip clubs, dysfunctional Jewish families, and random naughty doers as he runs around town on his "Hell-deer" (four).
What's most upsetting is that Santa's Slay has a cast deserving of much better material. It stars Robert Culp, Saul Rubinek, Emilie De Ravin and James Caan, which begs the question: What the hell do these people owe Brett Ratner and have they finally paid it off?
1 Trick'r Treat
Michael Dougherty's directorial debut was inexplicably shelved for over a year before getting an unceremonious release. Studios somehow didn't know how to market one of the best Halloween films in the past two decades. It's a sharp, funny, scary film told in a series of vignettes that overlap in the timeline over the course of a night, all clearly inspired by the same EC Crypt comics that brought Tales From The Crypt to life over a decade before.
Dougherty's film had a cult following even before its release thanks to festival buzz and favorable critic reviews. If it isn't a part of your October 31 plans yet, it should be.