Naughty And Not-So-Nice: A Guide To The Most Evil Movie Santas

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.

A Christmas Story (1983)

Every kid has that moment when they start to doubt the existence of Santa Claus. For many children, it's a complicated thing to process – a figure who was so important to you, a supplier of dreams and hope, is a fantasy and your parents lied to you. It's enough to shake anyone to their core. While Ralphie, the main character at the heart of the universally beloved A Christmas Story, still believes in Santa when the credits roll, the film's most famous and surreal scene surely marks the start of his road to non-belief.

Popular culture has done everything in its power to make you hate Bob Clark's seasonal classic (overexposure is the death of anything), but the film remains amusing and charming in the right doses. However, not enough credit is given to the film for being downright odd and cynical – everyone focuses on the silly comedy and the film's sweet, nostalgic portrayal of a realistic (i.e., odd) family. It's easy to gloss over the cynicism at the heart of the story and its most cynical moment involves a half-assed mall Santa and his foul-tempered "elves."

You know the scene. Ralphie and his younger brother brave a massive line to meet Santa, only to be roughly manhandled by his helpers and dismissed by the big man himself, who is exhausted and irritated and only wants to move as many kids through the queue as humanly possible. Clark's depiction of the scene is unique: we're allowed to see the seams in this shoddy, lazy Santa, even if Ralphie himself can't quite comprehend that this Santa is not the real deal. The darkly funny, casual cruelty of the scene is refreshing. There is no magic in Christmas – 'tis the season for wants and desires, not magic.

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Silent Night, Deadly Night is no-good, bottom-of-the-barrel garbage, but at least it has the decency to be interesting no-good, bottom-of-the-barrel garbage. In all honesty, the controversy surrounding the film's release is so much more interesting than the film itself. Critics didn't just give the movie scathing reviews – they condemned it. Protesters gathered at theaters to demand that the film be pulled from circulation. The infamous poster, which features an axe-wielding Santa descending into a chimney, riled up parents all over the United States. The film was quickly yanked out of theaters... only to released the next year with a new marketing campaign centered around how controversial the whole thing was.

In retrospect, all of the pearl-clutching seems so damn silly. Silent Night, Deadly Night may focus on a serial killer in a Santa Claus costume, but it's not particularly effective. Without the moms and dads screaming the streets at the time of its release, it would've faded into obscurity, replaced by better slasher movies. Heck, it's a wonder that the stranger and more intimately perverse Christmas Evil didn't get this response. Still, thanks to its infamy, Silent Night, Deadly Night became a franchise, spawning four sequels. The second film, which has achieved some infamy on YouTube, is literally comprised almost entirely of "flashbacks" to the first movie.

Anyway, Silent Night, Deadly Night is the story of Billy Chapman, a kid whose parents are brutally murdered by a psycho in a Santa suit, so he grows up and starts murdering people while wearing a Santa suit. Naturally, he shouts "Naughty!" as he kills his victims. And it's all not very good. Despite the holiday trappings, this is just another lame post-Friday the 13th '80s slasher. As far evil movie Santas go, Billy may be the most famous, but he's far from the best.

Santa’s Slay (2005)

The elevator pitch for Santa's Slay is so great. Thousands of years ago, the evil demon known as Santa Claus lost a bet with an angel, so he must give up his evil ways and become a bringer of gifts and joy for children all over the world. The movie begins when Santa's "curse" is lifted and he's allowed to return to his old ways. And yes, former professional wrestler Bill Goldberg plays Santa. What's not to love?

Unfortunately, the movie peaks in its opening scene (which is embedded below), where Goldberg's Santa ruthlessly dispatches an obnoxious family comprised of familiar faces earning a quick paycheck. Violent and cartoonish and impossibly silly, this scene sets a high bar that the rest of the movie can't quite top. Try as he might, writer/director David Steiman can't quite reach those lunatic heights ever again. If the rest of the movie felt like this scene, it would be some kind of trashy camp masterpiece.

Still, the movie is only 78 minutes long and it's an easy enough watch. And it's not like the movie is without other charms. A flashback to Santa's wager with the angel is told in Rankin and Bass-style stop-motion animation. Emilie de Ravin and Robert Culp are around for some reason. The kills aren't great, but they're certainly better than the likes Silent Night, Deadly Night. This movie may look like the kind of junk that exists simply to fill space at your local Blockbuster...uh, fill up your local Redbox, but that's because it is. And yet, it's the best possible version of that.

However, this thing is all about Goldberg. He turns his performance up to 11 with the opening scene and finds ways to reach 14 or so by the time the credits roll. This gleefully evil Santa is a sight to behold – built like a bodybuilder, he always talks like he's cutting a wrestling promo. Imagining this guy delivering toys for a thousand years is just inherently amusing.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

Of all the "killer Santa" movies in existence, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is the best. Jalmari Helander's brisk, Joe Dante-esque horror adventure is clever and funny and just scary enough, constantly finding new ways to top itself. It's the kind of movie that begins strange and gets stranger with every scene. By the time the climax rolls around, you can only stare at the screen, baffled, wondering how this movie exists.

Set in a rural Finnish community, Rare Exports follows Pietari, a young kid whose worst fears come to life when he learns that the explosions on a nearby mountain aren't from a mining operation. They're part of an excavation, a massive search for a hidden tomb. The tomb that houses Santa Claus. Let's just say that things don't go well for anyone involved.

The mythology of Rare Exports is nutty stuff, but everything is performed with such straight-faced seriousness that it only becomes funnier. It's a complex mixture of tones, with fantasy, comedy, adventure and horror all coexisting simultaneously, with no one genre diluting the others. The whole movie sounds like a joke, but the film asks you to take it seriously... which only manages to make it funnier.