Posted on Thursday, December 3rd, 2015 by Jacob Hall
This Friday sees the release of Krampus, the second holiday-flavored horror movie from Trick ‘r Treat director Michael Dougherty. This film is part of a long cinematic tradition: Santa Claus isn’t what you think he is. That jolly, playful fellow who comes bearing toys for all the good little girls and boys? He’s not here now. Instead, how about a figure who has come bearing punishment for all of the bad children? And, you know, anyone else who gets in his way.
There have been a number of films about “evil” Santas over the years, ranging from versions who are just big jerks to guys who will split your head open with an axe. To celebrate this tradition, this rich, cinematic tapestry of red-suited, white-bearded menace, let’s take a quick tour through some of the more bizarre, brutal, and coal-hearted depictions of St. Nicholas.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
The bizarre thing about Santa Claus as depicted in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is that he’s supposed to be a sweet, endearing character. He’s supposed to be a traditional version of this iconic symbol of love and charity. The plot of this deranged, misguided, totally bizarre B-movie depends on Santa being a gentle, sweet, good-natured guy. After all, this is a movie about Martian invaders abducting Santa Claus and forcing him to make toys for the girls and boys of Mars – the plot may be odd, but its depiction of Santa should be traditional to help sell this genre-mashing conflict.
So why is this version of Santa Claus so quietly horrifying? Just note the scene (embedded above) where the Martian forces invade his workshop with the help of a giant robot. When faced with this powerful metallic foe, Santa doesn’t back down. Instead, he starts talking to the ‘bot. He calls it a “toy” and nothing more. The robot, so threatening moments before, seizes up. This rotund, red-suited human may have the power to slow down time so he can deliver toys to children all over the world, but his real super-power is the ability to give alien machines existential dilemmas. Faced with the uselessness of his own existence, the robot shuts down and must be abandoned at the North Pole by his masters.
There are other unsettling moments from this Santa Claus throughout the film, like his psychotic cackling when his army of toys take down an evil Martian soldier and his cronies during the climax, but they mostly feel unintentional. For the most part, this Santa is creepy because this movie is so odd and off-putting and strange. However, it’s hard to forget that scene with the robot, where St. Nicholas fills an opponent with so much cosmic dread that he essentially commits suicide.
Christmas Evil (1980)
Filthy and deranged, Christmas Evil is a nasty, low-budget piece of work that will turn off many people with its languid pacing and poor production values. However, those willing to meet it halfway will find one of the better (or at least more interesting) Santa-themed horror movies in existence. Here is a slasher movie that borrows the iconography of Christmas so it can actually comment on the season, rather than utilize familiar imagery for shock value.
The evil Santa at the center of this film isn’t actually Santa Claus. He’s Harry (Brandon Maggart), a lonely and emotionally crippled man whose entire existence was thrown into turmoil when he saw his mother getting busy with his father while he was wearing a Santa costume. Now, middle-aged and deeply pathetic, he tries to keep the Christmas spirit alive by toiling away as a manager at toy factory. But his employees have no respect for their craft and build cheap junk. And his neighbors think he’s a loser. So Harry, who already keeps a book of “bad boys and girls,” snaps, puts on a Santa outfit, and journeys out into a dark Christmas Eve to do his work. That work involves stealing toys from work and delivering them to a hospital. And breaking into the homes of “bad” kids to destroy their toys. And, you know, murdering people with a hatchet.
Christmas Evil is more of a curiosity piece than an actual movie, but it’s a fascinating and entirely committed movie. For better or worse, writer/director Lewis Jackson created something wholly unique – a portrait of holiday-infused madness. However, it’s Maggart who holds the film together, delivering an unforgettable performance in a role that could have been a bunch of cheap mugging. It would be a stretch to call this a good movie, but there is absolutely nothing here that can be dubbed lazy. Just make sure you have a shower on hand, because the feverish, surreal climax is going to make you feel like you just waded through a swamp of spoiled eggnog.