You Better Not Cry: Four Films With an Evil Santa

Written by Film

I know that may be the new norm for stores in the U.S., but it feels wrong to hear “White Christmas” the first week of November.  And honestly, I don’t feel like I’m alone. Christmas creep has become an alarmingly common strategy to get people to shop early and shop often. It’s such a strange phenomenon. We seemingly wind our popular culture back 50 years for no reason except to make sure we max out credit cards and buy gaudy lights to display on our roofs.

I don’t want to sound like a Scrooge. I enjoy getting time off work to spend with family. But I do find myself wanting an antidote from the usual Christmas entertainment. There’s only so many times I can watch A Charlie Brown Christmas before I tire of hearing Linus read scripture. And even “alternative” Christmas films, like Die Hard and Gremlins, have become established mainstream holiday movies that are broadcast alongside How the Grinch Stole Christmas. For a long time, to me, it seemed like I couldn’t have Christmas cookies without listening to Bing Crosby on repeat.

And then I realized that I’m not alone. For decades, filmmakers have tried to provide the biggest alternative possible by turning classic Christmas symbols into sinister figures. Most people have treated these attempts with nothing but scorn, horror, or flat out ignorance. But each of these films tried to subvert traditional – and even nontraditional – Christmas entertainment by turning Santa Claus into a malevolent figure capable of extreme violence. There usually isn’t any moral lesson and certainly families don’t end up having themselves a merry little Christmas.  

I know most people will have a reaction along the lines of “can’t we just watch Rudolph for the 20th time?” But if you’re looking for something a different this holiday season, these films should help satisfy your cravings.

Christmas Evil – John Waters has long been a champion of Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out), citing it as his personal favorite Christmas movie. And if John Waters is a fan, you know the movie is going to be weird.

The movie is about a stunted man child named Harry who is obsessed with Santa Claus. He works at a toy factory and every single wall in his home is lined with Christmas decorations year-round. He’s convinced himself that he truly is Santa Claus and, on Christmas Eve, puts on the Santa suit and drives around town to give good boys and girls their presents (aka toys he stole from work). Those who have the Christmas spirit are rewarded by this dime store St. Nicholas. Those who take advantage of people at Christmas, like his coworker who lied about spending time with his family, are punished.

As he himself says to the children he meets, “If you’re bad…I’ll give you something…horrible.”

The film is not really horror film. It’s a pitch-black comedy about someone who loves Christmas because of what it represents to his stunted emotional development. Christmas is a time where nothing truly horrible can happen to good people and everyone is supposed to be their best selves. But unlike other films with Santa as the villain, Christmas Evil is sympathetic to Harry and his desires. He doesn’t necessarily want to harm people and ruin Christmas. Rather, he wants everyone to uphold the twisted version of the Christmas spirit he possesses.

The climax of the film has Harry confronting his brother about the traumatic incident where he witnessed “Santa” give his mother oral sex by the Christmas tree. The cynics in the audience know it was really a husband and wife spending an intimate moment on Christmas Eve, but the film is successful at making us see the world through Harry’s eyes. While I watched this movie, I wanted Christmas to be the childish dream Harry imagined. That was surely a lot more fun and satisfying than the view of his brother Phil or even my own cynical view of pop culture at Christmas. In Christmas Evil. Santa isn’t the malevolent figure. He’s the only person on the planet trying to ensure that the holiday spirit remains alive in an increasingly cynical world.  

Krampus- Krampus isn’t about Santa Claus directly. Rather, the creature is a foil of Santa who exists to punish people who have given up on the traditional family spirit of the holidays. The Engel family can barely stand each other and their youngest son wants nothing more than to go back “like the way it used to be.”

It’s an attitude that reminded me of the eye twitch I get whenever I hear Burl Ives in the mall. It’s becoming easier for people to dismiss Christmas as a silly façade to mask our true feelings. But we do it every year just the same.

Why? As recounted by Omi Engel in a stop motion flashback sequence, it’s to make sure Krampus doesn’t come back. In the context of the film, he has the power to toss people directly into Hell and uses a variety of Christmas toys and cookies (the gingerbread men are basically the mini Ashes from Army of Darkness), but his arrival symbolizes something much deeper.

As we’ve become more cynical with time, the threat of a Krampus like figure seems more real. Dysfunctional families have been treated as the new norm by pop culture, which makes it easier to laugh at something like Christmas. Krampus is the holiday trying to take back its importance from people who don’t pay attention to the opportunities it gives for people to connect. 

Max loses his faith in Christmas after his letter to Santa is revealed, where he lays out exactly what he wants. Not toys, but for his parents to love each other again. It seems cruel to punish Max for losing his faith after being mocked by his cousins, but that’s how horror works. Besides, it shows exactly what Max and his family are casting aside – each other. They may as well be dragged to hell because for all intents and purposes, they’ve been there for years.

I feel Krampus was targeting people like me who chuckle when they see stores put out holiday decorations. It may be annoying but abandoning the traditions can still leave behind devastation. Maybe you won’t be tossed into Hell, but there are always consequences.

Rare Exports- This Finnish film about a group of scientists discovering Santa and his elves. But this Santa isn’t a benevolent figure. Instead, he’s a giant horned demon who boils naughty children alive. He’s been in a giant burial mound for centuries, and he’s soon to be revealed to the world.

I’d be lying if I said this was a completely original film. Tonally, it’s a knock off of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Onni, the main child character, even slowly turns into a Kurt Russell action hero. There’s even a scene of the farmers standing by a giant hole a la the flying saucer in The Thing. The idea behind the failing business that finds itself gripped in the horror of Santa also feels very Carpenter-esque. The blue-collar people are the only ones who can ignore the messages those in power wish to convey.

And that horror occurs before the elves show up. Far from the cuddly figures in Coke commercials, they are depicted as sinister old men who want to free Santa so they may serve him. A part of their plan involves stealing every heating device they can find, including hair dryers. They’re also feral creatures who bite people’s ears off.

What exactly does it have to say about Christmas? For one, it’s trying to tie its mythology back into the original folklore that birthed these legends. Far from being a happy story, fairy tales and legends were used as cautionary stories to make sure that children grew up with the same values as their parents. Most of the Grimm fairy tales are horrifically gory and a “happily ever after” ending only occurred if the main characters didn’t end up horribly maimed in some gruesome way.

The Santa legends were no different. They were to encourage children to be good – not through toys, but so that children could avoid the horrifying punishment Santa would dole out to naughty children. Over time, we’ve commercialized Santa and made him a figure of fun. This film mocks those efforts (the farmers manage to kidnap an elf and hold it for ransom). The elves are trained to become mall Santas and are exported all over the world. It’s exactly how our popular culture has worked. The context behind Santa, not to mention the context behind the story of Christmas, has been morphed into something that people can literally consume.

But that’s not the most important statement the movie is making about Christmas.  

One of the most effective moments in the film is when Onni fears Santa and asks his father if he’s truly been good. It calls back to the original purpose of Santa. These weren’t just fairy tales. To the cultures that shared these stories, Santa and his ability to punish naughtiness was very real. Children were genuinely afraid of the Santa figures. This film tries to capture that fear and help the people who grew up with Coke commercials understand what these stories original meant to people.

Silent Night, Deadly Night – This is likely the most infamous film on this list. When it was originally released, the film generated enormous controversy and barely lasted two weeks in theaters. Even Siskel and Ebert took the opportunity on their show to accuse the makers of this film of collecting blood money.

The premise itself – in which a man turns into a Jason Voorhees version of Santa Claus after his parents are murdered by a thief dressed in the red suit – was enough to raise eyebrows. (Although Christmas Evil didn’t generate nearly as much press.) Slasher movies were also generating an enormous backlash from critics who felt they were little more than geek shows entirely dependent on their graphic violence to succeed.

Silent Night, Deadly Night is unique because it tries to do something different. Not only is the Santa Claus villain relatively shocking, but the film goes out of its way to explain why Billy, the killer, hates Christmas and why he would look at Santa as a figure of horror. It’s one of the few slasher films that explains the psychology behind the character and tries to understand the motivations behind the monster.

But the problem is it doesn’t do that very well. Silent Night, Deadly Night is completely serious and believes it’s a lot smarter than it really is. It’s debatable how possible it is to inject humor into the subject matter, but Christmas Evil had already done it. Harry is a fully realized character. Billy is the result of every other character making the wrong decision at the wrong time. What’s supposed to be meaningful (like having Billy play Santa for kids at a store) comes across as hopeless tone deaf. How else did they expect Billy to react?

Billy himself doesn’t come across as a sympathetic character. He’s a complete monster who treats adults and children equally. Unlike Harry, he doesn’t want anyone to have a good Christmas and doesn’t want to help any children avoid his fate. He just wants to “punish,” for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. We see Billy in a Catholic orphanage listening to Mother Superior talk about how punishment is not only necessarily, but morally good if punishment is called for. But how does that relate to Billy and Christmas? Again, Christmas Evil did this right by having Harry “punish” people who use Christmas as an excuse to avoid their responsibilities.

Is there anything worthwhile in this movie? Yes, kind of. Silent Night, Deadly Night is correct in declaring its premise to be shocking. The public backlash against the film demonstrates that. Also, there are a few scary scenes in the film, like when Billy gifts a child with a knife he’d just use to murder someone. There’s also a scene where a priest dressed as Santa is gunned down by the police – an event that should carry a lot more emotional weight. Still, the filmmakers are clearly trying to create something new and don’t want to copy Halloween or Friday the 13th. They try to make a new villain who is scarier because he could really exist.

I recommend watching Silent Night, Deadly Night after you’ve watched every other film on this list. It’s an antidote for Santa Claus is Coming to Town, but there are more effective antidotes out there.