Disturbing holiday movies you should watch, but only once

The days following Thanksgiving usher in what Andy Williams once called "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," and with that comes tinsel, trees, and—of course—holiday movies. Classics like It's a Wonderful Life, Elf, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are in heavy rotation across the globe throughout December. But for every cinematic holiday mainstay, there are plenty of films that seem to fall through the cracks—and amidst these forgotten flicks, there are a select few that fail entirely at being warm, family-friendly films and instead become warped, bizarre images of the holiday season that unsettle more than entertain. The next time you find yourself getting ready to sit down and watch Home Alone, consider popping in one of these strange little gems instead, but be warned: you likely won't want to sit through them more than once.

Santa's Slay (2005)

Ever notice that the names "Santa" and "Satan" are only a letter switch away from being identical? The filmmakers behind Santa's Slay did—and they thought it was so funny that they ran with it, making a movie in which Santa is actually the son of Satan and delivers gifts on Christmas because he lost a bet with an angel a thousand years before. It's an absurd premise and everyone working on the film knows it—especially WWE legend Bill Goldberg, who plays Santa with campy relish. It's admittedly far more self-aware in its ridiculousness than other weird Christmas movies, but that doesn't stop it from being a bizarre, unsettling watch. Seeing Santa murder the innocent will always be uncomfortable. He's only supposed to do that to people on the naughty list. 

The Nutcracker 3D (2010)

The nightmarish hellscape that is The Nutcracker 3D must be seen in order to be believed. In an effort to make the beloved Christmas ballet more bombastic and cinematic, a number of bizarre decisions were made—like the decision to render the titular nutcracker as a bizarre CGI creature that at no point evokes any other reaction in the viewer beyond "KILL IT WITH FIRE!"

More notable, and more baffling, is the Rat King and his army. Everything about them is horrifying, from their humanoid design to, not kidding, their utilization of Nazi iconography. Headed up by John Turturro as the Rat King, the soldiers wear uniforms clearly drawing on those of the SS, and the Nutcracker Prince's kingdom under their control clearly resembles a Nazi occupation. Mind you, this is supposed to be a movie for children.

Nothing about The Nutcracker 3D is particularly good, not even with talent like Turturro or Nathan Lane involved—it earned a stunning 0 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes). But it's a must-see entry in that special subgenre of ostensibly family-friendly films that are uniquely, and accidentally, chilling

Jack Frost (1998)

We'll give Michael Keaton this: whether it's a classic or a dud, he's often the best part of any movie he's in. And he's easily the best part of Jack Frost—although this movie is definitely bad, and unsettling to boot. Keaton plays an absentee dad who, after passing away tragically in a car wreck, finds himself reincarnated as a sentient snowman, giving him a second chance to be a good father to his son. The problem? Whoever thought it'd be heartwarming to watch a snowman play dad was dead wrong.

Keaton's snowman, with the on-the-nose name of Jack Frost, is rendered almost entirely in CGI, which hasn't aged well since the film's 1998 release. Watching him interact with his son and his wife is uncomfortable at best and frightening at worst. It's easy to see what kind of movie the filmmakers were going for, but they failed entirely—what they got instead is something that more resembles a monster movie, and not a very good one at that. Still, the chance to see the singularly bizarre sight of Michael Keaton playing a talking snowman makes this worth sitting through once for the novelty alone. 

Christmas Evil (1980)

You know that song about seeing your mama kissing Santa Claus? Have you ever thought about how legitimately traumatizing that would be if it happened in real life? Lewis Jackson, the writer-director of the 1980 cult classic Christmas Evil sure has, and his film suggests that it just might drive you insane.

After seeing his mother getting frisky with his father in a Santa suit (confirming to him that Santa is not, in fact, real), a young boy is traumatized to the point that upon reaching adulthood, he decides to take it on himself to become Santa for real. The only problem? Those he deems naughty tend to be brutally murdered. It's a ridiculous premise for a movie, and everyone involved is well aware—it's weird, violent, and campy as all get out. Still, there's something inherently unsettling about a story that hinges on a young boy going through a traumatic experience and processing that by becoming a serial killer in a red Santa suit. It's not going to become an annual holiday viewing, but it's worth a visit. 

The Santa Clause (1994) / The Santa Clause 2 (2002)

Tim Allen's first The Santa Clause movie is actually pretty charming. Allen plays a suburban dad/divorcee who, after murdering Santa in an accident, takes up his mantle. It's pretty funny and surprisingly adult in its humor at times, with some humor that far more resembles something from an episode of Frasier than a lowbrow slapstick Christmas flick. There's just the small issue of the aforementioned accident that sets the whole movie in motion; in retrospect, it's kind of hilarious to imagine this being brought up at the pitch meeting.

It's the sequel that gets really crazy, though. Due to a second Santa clause (get it?) Allen is required to find a Mrs. Claus, lest he revert back to, well, Tim Allen. In order to keep things running smoothly while he's out finding his newly mandated wife (already weird enough), he leaves a life-size and fully sentient Toy Tim Allen Santa in charge of the North Pole. Toy Santa, of course, goes crazy, takes over the North Pole with an army of tin soldiers, and tries to ruin Christmas. 

The first entry in the franchise is forgettable fun but with a hilariously dark twist. The second is perhaps the single most compelling argument against the advancing of artificial intelligence to ever be written. Both are that special kind of bonkers that you have to experience at least once.

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

We've reached the inevitable moment it's necessary to discuss the darkest moment in the history of the Star Wars franchise. We're talking, of course, about 1978's The Star Wars Holiday Special, a made-for-TV movie so disastrous, George Lucas has said he wishes he could find every print copy on Earth and destroy them. It joins the likes of Plan 9 From Outer Space and The Room in that special pantheon of movies whose reputations speak for themselves

You may find yourself wondering if it's actually as bad as people say, and really, The Star Wars Holiday Special is everything you've heard and more. Princess Leia sings a bizarre song in tribute to the Wookiee holiday Life Day. We meet Chewbacca's family, who carry out entire scenes speaking in grunts and growls without subtitles, leaving us completely in the dark as to what they're talking about. There's even a moment in which one of Chewbacca's relatives watches a virtual reality program that was conceived as soft-core pornography. The experience of watching it is only heightened by the fact that there's no official way to watch the special—it's never been released properly, and the only available copies are bootlegs of the original TV airing. It's one of the strangest pieces of filmmaking of all time, and one that any fan of the franchise needs to watch just once, if only for the singular experience.

Surviving Christmas (2003)

Have you seen the horror movie in which Ben Affleck plays a sociopathic millionaire who, when he finds himself stuck alone in his hometown for the holidays, pays off the family living in his childhood home to act out Christmas traditions with him, complete with scripts, matching sweaters, and pure mind-melting terror? Wait, sorry, that's actually the holiday comedy Surviving Christmas, which is neither funny nor the kind of movie you'd want to watch with your family around the holidays, or ever. 

Everything about the movie is off, like the vibe you felt around the high school gym teacher you always suspected was an arsonist. Heck, the movie's inciting incident involves Affleck setting a fire in front of the house where he grew up. The movie makes every effort to ask complex questions about loneliness during the holidays and fails at answering them at every turn. It's still the kind of movie you've gotta see just once, but not because it's good—it's just rare that a movie is so blissfully unaware of the disconnect between its actual tone and the one it's aiming for.

Deck the Halls (2006)

There's nothing outwardly disturbing about the premise of Deck the Halls. It's a pretty simple family Christmas comedy about two men who get into an over-the-top competition to see who can be…the best at Christmas, we guess. From the carols to the lawn ornamentation, everything becomes a contest. But as the film goes on, the levels of competition escalate to obscene heights. At one point, a character buys a rocket launcher and a plethora of fireworks with the intention of blowing up his rival's home. It's insane. Deck the Halls isn't good, but it's worth watching once if only so you can say you've seen that one Christmas movie with attempted murder by way of rocket launcher. 

Santa With Muscles (1996)

Don't go into Santa With Muscles expecting anything resembling a good movie. It's widely considered to be one of the worst of all time. But it's the kind of movie you have to see to believe it exists at all—it feels like the director decided what the crew would shoot each day by pulling some words written on Post-It notes out of a hat. 

Santa With Muscles is a movie in which wrestling legend Hulk Hogan plays a jerk millionaire who hits his head, wakes up thinking he's Santa, hires a little person to be his elf, and effectively becomes a local superhero vigilante. But then there's a mad scientist trying to take over the local orphanage? So that he can gain access to the…crystals beneath it? Look, if you took out the mad scientist plot it'd still be bizarre and disturbing; throw it in, and you've got one of the weirdest movies ever made, a fundamentally unsettling experience that somehow still can't be recommended highly enough. You probably won't find yourself wanting to revisit it, though it's totally the kind of weird movie perfect for pushing on your friends and sharing the experience. Santa With Muscles is like a cursed porcelain doll—it's a great story at parties, but you definitely want to pass it on to the next person as soon as possible and move on.

Love, Actually (2003)

Love, Actually is in love with, well, love. It's about the time of year during which grand gestures and warm feelings run more rampant than ever. It's lovely, right up until you realize that the filmmakers made a movie about psychotic stalkers and reckless sociopaths.

Almost everybody in Love, Actually is, at the very least, a terrible person and at worst should probably be in jail. It's saying something when a character almost cheating on his wife is maybe the least-bad thing someone does in a movie. Much has been said about Andrew Lincoln's crazy stalker character, but less is mentioned about Colin Firth's role as a man who travels all the way to Portugal to propose to a woman he knows nothing about. Or Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister who publicly severs ties with the United States of America because the President hit on his crush. Oh, and the two good characters in the movie, the ones played by Laura Linney and Emma Thompson? Their lives are effectively ruined by the end of the film. For a movie about spreading love, Love, Actually is about as mean as it gets.