Gremlins in Theaters

Rob Hunter’s Top 5 Christmas Horror Films

 

5. Sheitan (2006)

A group of hard-partying friends on Christmas Eve follow a woman to her country home with the promise of drink, drugs, and debauchery, but they discover too late that she lives with a horned-up Vincent Cassel.

This blackly-comic French film is in a similar vein to the brilliant The Invitation – but with more energy, absurdity, and dong. Friends gather for what should be a simple and fun meal together, but odd behavior leads the newcomers and viewers alike to wonder if these folks are simply eccentric or actually up to something far, far worse. Interactions often seem friendly on the surface, but they all feature a feeling that something dangerous and/or perverse is waiting just around the corner.

The village is filled with oddly threatening characters, but it’s Cassel who absolutely shines with a performance that simultaneously delights and terrifies. He gives the film such a precise balance between the humorous and the truly disturbing, and while the bonkers third act leans heavily into the latter, you’re still left smiling at the audacious nature of it all.

Matt’s Counterpoint: Cassel’s performance is batshit, like a racist, gender-swapped Harley Quinn or something madder, but Satan (or the French ‘Sheitan’ to more refined film fans) barely even acknowledges its Christmas roots. As festive as your drunk relative who wears a Santa hat for three minutes then gets hammered and passes out under the mistletoe.

4. Better Watch Out (2016)

A babysitter and her delusionally love-struck pre-teen charge find their holiday evening disturbed by the threat of malicious intruders.

Home invasion movies are a favorite sub-genre of mine as, unlike ghosts and monsters, it’s a situation that could actually happen. While some of the best are brutal, terrifying affairs, this Christmas-themed entry is as playful and funny as it is smart and deadly. The script finds humor in the characters and sets up real stakes, and it does a great job of teasing possible plot turns, confirming them, and then twisting them all again a few minutes later.

These kinds of films can often be won or lost on the strength of their characters, and here it’s an absolute win as we cheer on our teen babysitter, laugh at the young boy who thinks he loves her, and are unsettled by just how far the villains are willing to go. Fantastic set-pieces, smart humor, and an absolutely perfect ending seal the deal making this a new holiday classic.

Matt’s Counterpoint: Better Watch Out is certainly a fun Home Alone subversion – but “new holiday classic?” The poster and Blu-ray have already been released, Rob. Can’t get a pull quote at this point.

3, Black Christmas (1974)

Christmas break sees a handful of sorority sisters remaining on campus, but between the celebrations, cat fights, and hook ups a stranger begins calling the house with threats he’ll soon be making a terrifying reality.

Director Bob Clark has the rare distinction of being behind two absolute holiday classics with A Christmas Story and this tonally-opposite, beautifully-crafted, and frequently frightening slasher gem. From the caller’s creepy as hell phone voice to the way the camera captures the rooms and shadows of the sorority house, the film is a masterclass is unsettling atmosphere.
Is the final shot nonsensical considering that police would have swept the entire house after what happens there? Sure, but credit Clark with creating escalating feelings of terror to the point that our panic begins to match the characters’. The remake is dumb, gory “fun,” but the original is where the cool kids hang out to have the crap scared out of them.

Matt’s Counterpoint: Rob states many correct things in this paragraph – too bad they don’t matter due to his incorrect placement in the #3 spot.

2. Gremlins (1984)

A teen proves once again that kids shouldn’t have pets, and an entire town pays the price.
This may very well be an obvious choice for “best Xmas horror,” but that doesn’t make it any less accurate. Director Joe Dante’s never found a better tonal balance between comedy and terror than he does here. Laughs and smiles are plentiful, but he’s fearless when it comes to layering in moments of real cruelty and anti-Christmas spirit.

Holiday aside, it’s also one of the absolute best creature features out there, family-friendly or otherwise. Chris Walas’ practical puppets come alive before our eyes, and the damage they cause to property and flesh alike feels more tangible than any CG creation could hope to match. And finally, everything else being equal, Phoebe Cates’ explanation about why she hates Christmas is the best monologue ever captured on-screen.

Matt’s Counterpoint: Imagine being so wrong in life that you don’t think Gremlins is the best Christmas horror movie.

1. The Children (2008)

Two families come together to celebrate the holiday, but a cold that starts with one of their kids soon turns all of the tykes into murderous little shits.

This homely British chiller lacks the cache and popularity of my picks above, but it remains the best Christmas horror movie ever made. That’s right, I said it! A winter landscape, holiday decorations strewn about, and children buzzed on the high of sweets and presents… it’s a familiar world that quickly shatters with the realization that something is very wrong with the children. It builds naturally through small glances and tantrums, themes of parental love and responsibility are woven throughout, and soon the blood starts flowing.

It’s also a rarity in that the kills, even those a part of some glorious set-pieces, feel believable and intense. Too often kids who kill (or dolls like in Child’s Play) fail to feel threatening because, let’s face it, they’re little. This film, though, nails the hesitation in their victims either through the situation itself or the realization that most parents simply couldn’t fathom hurting (let alone killing) their own children even in self defense. It’s a terrifically suspenseful experience, and it builds to a killer ending. See it. Love it. Merry Christmas.

Matt’s Counterpoint: The Children is an often upsetting film about parental paranoia which is surprisingly haunting (innocent kiddies turned killers), but to call it THE best Christmas horror film? Above Gremlins? Above Black Christmas? Once again, this is less a horror film about a specific holiday and more a thriller about mommy-murdering kin – to take top honors, shouldn’t Christmas play a larger role?

***

You’ve read the arguments and sized the competition – now let us know who has won this edition of The Rank Off! Sound off in the comments below. Who has the superior, more accurate list – Rob or Matt?

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