The 5 best and 5 worst Christmas horror movies

Christmas is a time of comfort and joy, a time for decoration and presents and hot cocoa by the tree. If you're in the right mood, though, it's also a time for killer Santas, demonic elves, murderous prowlers and other seasonal frights. Christmas is so ubiquitous in modern pop culture, and Christmas movies of all types are so prevalent, that the Christmas horror film has become a beloved and reliable subgenre all its own. There's something about juxtaposing the bright lights and jingle bells with a little murder and mayhem that makes both the festive and the frightening more fun, and the horror element means that even people who don't necessarily enjoy the holiday can get in on the action. As with all Christmas films, though, not all holiday horror movies are created equal — they range from legitimate classics to boring slogs to movies that are so ridiculous they have to be seen to be believed. So, to jumpstart your annual Christmas marathon, here are some of the best and worst seasonal scary movies.

Best: Black Christmas

Black Christmas is the twisted godmother of all Christmas horror films, and it also has the distinction of being a significant benchmark in the development of the slasher genre. The plot is fairly recognizable to modern audiences — a faceless killer picks off multiple victims in a sorority house as the Christmas holiday begins and the tension ratchets up for the final girl — but more than four decades after its release, Black Christmas still wins new viewers over with its haunting holiday tone. The film features a couple of truly terrifying murder sequences, compelling performances by Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder, and one of the most unsettling uses of anonymous phone calls in horror movie history, all set against a familiar and even cozy Christmas backdrop. Nearly a decade later, director Bob Clark would use his mastery of cozy Christmas settings to film another, very different holiday classic: A Christmas Story. Now that's a double feature.

Worst: Black X-Mas

Black Christmas is a film beloved by both horror movie and Christmas movie fans, and its plot is both very adaptable and conveniently relevant no matter what decade you choose to set the film in, so it shouldn't necessarily be a surprise that a remake ultimately arrived. Styled as Black X-mas, the 2006 second incarnation of this story attempted to flesh out exactly who and what was committing the brutal Christmas murders at the sorority house, and while the answer to that mystery is satisfyingly bizarre, it does pull time away from the victims and their stories. The result is a film that can't live up to its predecessor, and attempts to distinguish itself from the original film largely through increasingly disgusting murder sequences which culminate in the reveal of the killer. The film is commendable for its effort to grow the mythology of the story and to truly take its murders over the top, but Black X-Mas is mostly a reminder that you could be watching a better version of this terrifying holiday tale.

Best: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

There are many, many Christmas movies devoted to exploring the mythology of Santa Claus, and each one hopes to add something to the legend, or at the very least to look at it through a new lens. Few films have ever succeeded in this pursuit as well as Rare Exports, a Finnish film that unfolds a fascinating, and truly creepy new take on Father Christmas slowly, like a present covered in elaborate bows. Perhaps the best thing about the film is the way it plays with various Christmas movie tropes — a struggling family, a boy searching for a reason to believe, mysterious and possibly supernatural happenings — and twists them into a story that's both scary and magical. It's a film that celebrates the aura of Christmas and the way it can command our lives and a film that shatters the illusions its characters have about how the holiday works. By the end, when the truth about Santa Claus is revealed and the central characters have solved their problem, everything is wrapped up like the perfect Christmas gift, and for at least one Christmas Eve you'll be thinking about Santa very differently.

Worst: Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2

Silent Night, Deadly Night is a Christmas slasher camp classic with arguably the best poster the holiday horror subgenre has ever produced. Its sequel is, sadly, a surprisingly dull exercise in retreading the first film and giving very little reason to celebrate the arrival of a new killer Santa. The story of Ricky Caldwell, younger brother of the original film's killer Santa Billy, Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 spends a massive chunk of its runtime on Ricky recounting his family story to a psychiatrist. That means there are a lot of flashbacks, and flashbacks mean a whole lot of footage from the first movie is simply reused. By the time the film actually does get around to new killer Santa shenanigans, you could have very easily just turned it off and started watching the first one all over again. Christmas movies of any kind, but particularly Christmas horror movies, can often succeed simply by not being boring. This Santa slayer sequel ends up on the naughty list because it takes far too long to get even half as interesting as its predecessor.

Best: Christmas Evil

Silent Night, Deadly Night might be the most famous killer Santa movie, and it's worth watching for the campy fun it has with the '80s slasher formula. If you're looking for the flat-out creepiest murderous Santa film, though, you need to seek out Christmas Evil, which actually predates the Silent Night franchise by several years. It's the story of a man whose perception of Santa was forever warped by a childhood incident, and a result he believes himself to be responsible for keeping the true spirit of Father Christmas alive. That warped vision ultimately takes the form of a creepy apartment, a van, and a glued-on beard. These strange seasonal trappings then warp into a murder spree that plays out in a way that's less campy and more disturbed than other holiday horror films. Christmas Evil is less concerned with being spooky, seasonal fun and more concerned with being an actual horror film, and that deranged desire to truly scare makes it an underseen gem.

Worst: Jack Frost

Jack Frost is not, by traditional standards, a good movie. It's the story of a serial killer whose DNA merges with snow after the truck taking him to be executed crashes into some strange genetic research material. As a result, his consciousness and his urge to kill takes the form of a sentient, shapeshifting snowman who terrorizes a small town through visual effects that weren't even great by 1997 standards. Throw in an often ridiculous plot and campy performances and you've got a film that was critically panned upon its release. Jack Frost has stuck around for the last two decades, though, because all that low-budget absurdity also brought with it a kind of absurd joy. The film may be blissfully unaware that it's bad, or it may be blissfully self-aware of its badness, but to the viewer it doesn't matter. In the years since its release Jack Frost has developed a loyal cult of viewers who've made it a part of their holiday viewing traditions, because bad movie or not, you're unlikely to find another bathroom murder this bizarre.

Best: Gremlins

Do you want to watch a Christmas movie, but you're not up for the standard romantic comedy or TV special about saving the holiday through stop-motion festivities? Do you want to show the kids a holiday movie with a bit of spooky flair that won't also scar them for life? For more than three decades now, there's been one very clear answer for both of those of those questions, and that is: Watch Gremlins. Joe Dante's classic film about a boy and his strange new Christmas present/pet has remained a timeless holiday tradition since its release, because its sense of imaginative fun is absolutely infectious. Every '80s kids knows the rules of caring for a mogwai, and all of those '80s kids who've grown into parents have made sure their kids will know those rules too. Some families watch A Charlie Brown Christmas every holiday season. Others settle in with a cup of cocoa and Gremlins.

Worst: Santa's Slay

Santa's Slay might be a bad movie, but it falls gleefully into the category of films that truly embrace a campy and outright bonkers premise, and that means it's very hard to watch it and not have a good time. Famously starring professional wrestler Bill Goldberg in the title role, the film goes all-in on its murderous Santa premise, delivering not just an evil man dressed as Saint Nick, but the genuine article given a murderous overhaul. Santa's sleigh is pulled by hell deer, he murders just about everyone in a seasonally appropriate way, and just to make sure we get the point, the film even delivers a villainous origin story for Father Christmas. He's not just a Santa gone mad, but a Santa born bad, and that kind of effort takes the film into truly buck wild territory. Plus, if you stick around after the credits, you get to hear Goldberg — as Santa — use his signature wrestling catchphrase.

Best: Krampus

It was only a matter of time before the internet's favorite Christmas monster got his own major motion picture, and Krampus turned out to be worth the wait. It starts as the story of two sides of a dysfunctional family — one a little uptight, the other a little gun-crazy — coming together for what promises to be a tense holiday season, but when one of the kids loses his last remaining Christmas spirit and shreds his letter to Santa, things turn chilling (literally and figuratively) very quickly. When a blizzard sets in and the power goes out, the family finds themselves waiting for a visit not from Santa, but from his dark "shadow," and Krampus isn't coming alone. Just when you think you're prepared to watch this family be stalked by nothing but a creepy goat monster, Krampus' helpers show up, and what could have been a fairly standard creature feature evolves into a festive and feisty horror comedy full of truly delightful terrors.

Worst: Elves

We've got so many killer Santa movies at this point that it's only logical we'd get at least one about murderous elves at Christmastime, but Elves strays far from the Santa's helpers formula into something much stranger. Most of the horror unfolds at a department store, where a group of teenagers and a down-on-his-luck ex-cop turned shopping center Santa (Dan Haggerty) are spending the night. It turns out they aren't alone, because a strange elf creature is also roaming around this holiday season. That could have been enough to kickstart a horror movie, but Elves gets so much stranger that it has to be seen to be believed. It's not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it falls into the "so bad (and so bonkers) it's good" category simply because of far it's willing to go. What does a monstrous elf at Christmas have to do with a secret Nazi occult plot? Watch this weird holiday horror movie to find out.