Christmas stuff pops up in stores well before Halloween these days, and then there’s all the sales, and the trying to figure out what to get for people that have everything, and the crowds, and the weather, and…. It’s enough to turn anyone into a Scrooge (or a Grinch). These 15 “naughty” Christmas-themed movies are the perfect antidote.
Among these yuletide treasures, you’ll find catharsis in zombies, gremlins, demons, kidnappings, slashings, home invasions, supervillains, insults, nasty gossip, sex parties, f-bombs, and general emotional breakdowns.
Anna and the Apocalypse
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This one is a triple-threat, a Christmas-musical-zombie movie. Anna and the Apocalypse (2018) concerns several high-school students dealing with various problems just before Christmas break. Anna (Ella Hunt) is smothered by her worrying dad, and her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) is secretly in love with her. We also meet sophisticated lesbian Steph (Sarah Swire), obnoxious bully Nick (Ben Wiggins), cabaret-style singer Lisa (Marli Siu), and Lisa’s film-geek boyfriend Chris (Christopher Leveaux). Then the zombies come, and the friends must make it across town to the high school to rescue a group of stranded parents.
The movie is less silly than it might seem; death means something here. The songs begin delightfully, but grow surprisingly darker as things go on. Christmas imagery is used in a subversive way, such as a giant candy cane turned into a weapon, but even if the focus is not necessarily on holiday cheer, Anna and the Apocalypse is still weirdly touching.
Stream it on HBO Max
After the enormous success of his re-darkened Batman (1989), director Tim Burton made it winter—and Christmastime—in Gotham City. This setting lends a strange air to the dark adventure as Batman (Michael Keaton) battles not one, not two, but three villains. In Batman Returns (1992), the Penguin (Danny DeVito) decides to run for mayor, Catwoman (an unforgettable Michelle Pfieffer) seeks revenge against her boss, and Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) is the mastermind. Rather than going with a traditional, handsome bodybuilder, Burton cast Keaton for his ability to convey the Dark Knight’s inner turmoil. Even with the cowl on, Keaton’s eyes are immensely powerful.
Some fans objected to the overload of bad guys as well as the ending, but the nightmarishly powerful atmosphere, mood, and pace (and a great Batmobile) eventually win out. Best of all is the astonishing origin of the Penguin prologue, rendered without dialogue and like a Viking funeral, co-starring the one and only Paul Reubens (shortly after his infamous scandal).
Better Watch Out
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Well Go USA
Just when it seemed as if nothing more could be done in the subgenre of Christmas horror films, Chris Peckover’s clever, fun Better Watch Out (2017) displays enough bright ideas to earn it a surprising “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Twelve-year-old Luke (Levi Miller) is in love with his pretty 17-year-old babysitter, Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). When his parents (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) go out for the evening, Luke sets out trying to win Ashley’s heart, which includes popping a bottle of champagne, snuggling while watching scary movies, and protecting her from a masked intruder.
The movie starts with an almost ridiculous amount of cheery Christmas lights and decorations (Warburton is particularly proud of his loud holiday tie), as well as a hilarious opening line. All of it grows steadily darker as—ahem—other colors begin to take over the film’s palette. It all takes place in a world where horror movies exist, and the characters are smarter as a result, but it also offers up a sinister twist on an old Home Alone staple, and it includes a few refreshingly unpredictable plot turns.
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Still the greatest Christmas horror movie ever made, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) is like a spiked eggnog you can enjoy again and again. One of the very first bloody “slasher” movies, it’s also an expertly paced mystery filled with strong performances and interesting characters, as well as a decent slice of festive holiday cheer. (The darkness and snow are dotted with bright colored lights.)
At a sorority house Christmas party just before the holiday break, an obscene phone caller threatens to kill the girls. The next day one of them is missing, and from his secret hiding place, a killer will strike again. Margot Kidder is great as the hard-drinking, sex-obsessed, swears-like-a-sailor Barb; lovely Olivia Hussey is Jess, who finds herself pregnant; Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey) is Peter, an obsessed, selfish music student; and John Saxon is the police lieutenant. Amazingly, Clark went on to direct the sentimental favorite A Christmas Story (1983).
Christmas Bloody Christmas
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RLJE Films, Shudder
For our brand-new Christmas 2022 horror movie, how about a mashup of Silent Night, Deadly Night; The Terminator; and High Fidelity? Joe Begos’s Christmas Bloody Christmas (2022) begins with Tori (Riley Dandy), who runs a shop that sells LP records, VHS tapes, and other physical media, and her employee Robbie (Sam Delich), talking a mile-a-minute about horror movies and Christmas music. It’s Christmas Eve, and they begin a night of drinking, maybe/possibly leading to sex. But first, they stop to visit their friends Jay (Jonah Ray, the MTS3K host) and Lahna (Dora Madison) in a toy shop, where a robot Santa Claus looms.
Lo and behold the robot—which was built with military-grade tech—goes haywire, grabs an axe, and starts doing what killer Santas do. Begos conjures up a great look here, shooting on Super 16mm stock and using arrays of red and green lights for illumination. The movie is brutal, though—it contains many, many f-bombs—and the bloody carnage goes on and on and on. That said, it’s a clever, knowing movie that will please most fans of holiday horror.
Ernest Saves Christmas
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Buena Vista Pictures
Jim Varney’s Ernest P. Worrell character started on various 1980s TV commercials (for Coca-Cola, Chex, et al), speaking to the always-unseen “Vern,” and it seems like an awfully callous, Scrooge-like idea to shove him into several 90-minute low-budget movies, cashing in on a quickie trend. But the surprise is that Ernest Saves Christmas (1988) is, well… earnest and quite likable.
Ernest is a doofus, prone to slapstick-flavored accidents, but he is a good person who genuinely loves Christmas and wants to help people. He’s also an odd master of disguise, pulling off all kinds of weird characters, including a snake charmer and a bitter old lady. The plot has something to do with the real Santa Claus (Douglas Seale) looking for his replacement with time running out; his pick is recently laid-off children’s TV show host Joe (Oliver Clark). The plot arc is very slight, so whenever the movie needs a transition, it cuts to a running joke where two confused shipping clerks try to figure out what to do with eight flying reindeer.
Eyes Wide Shut
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Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), is a masterpiece, one of the director’s best and most mature films. It’s set in a dreamy, unreal, holiday-decorated New York and begins at a Christmas party. After being flirted with, tending to an overdosed, naked woman, and hearing a story about one of his wife’s fantasies, Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) embarks upon a nighttime odyssey across the city, considering fleeting opportunities of infidelity and sex, until he reaches a forbidden masquerade party.
Everyone in the film relates to Harford in a physical, sexual way. The film is about sex, even if it’s not inherently sexy. Kubrick’s ingenious framing and movement is still startling, and the film works on many levels, both intellectual and visceral. Nicole Kidman—married to Cruise at the time—is luminous as Bill’s wife Alice. Sydney Pollack, Todd Field, Thomas Gibson, Vinessa Shaw, Rade Serbedzija, Leelee Sobieski, and Alan Cumming appear. Frederic Raphael wrote the screenplay with Kubrick, based on a short novel by Arthur Schnitzler. Netflix is offering the uncut version, with the infamous digital figures—designed to cover graphic sex acts—removed.
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Joe Dante’s subversive, gleeful Gremlins (1984) should not be shown to any kids (or grownups) who believe in Santa; a notorious monologue about a chimney accident has been the stuff of nightmares for many. At Christmastime in small town Kingston Falls, Billy (Zach Galligan), gets a mogwai as a gift, a cute little guy named Gizmo, but there are three rules: He doesn’t like bright lights, don’t get him wet, and don’t feed him after midnight.
As Dante loves satirizing the absurdities of human behavior as filtered through classic monster movies and cartoons, these rules get broken in ways that are hideously bonkers. Phoebe Cates plays Billy’s crush who helps out during the mayhem. Hoyt Axton, Corey Feldman, Keye Luke, Dick Miller, Judge Reinhold, and Jonathan Banks co-star. Comedian Howie Mandel provides the adorable voice of Gizmo.
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special
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The absolutely lovable, 41-minute The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (2022), from writer/director James Gunn, is everything a Marvel fan could possibly want in a stocking stuffer. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is glum this season, mourning the loss of Gamora. Then Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Drax (Dave Bautista) learn about how Peter’s surrogate father Yondu (Michael Rooker) ruined Christmas for him as a kid. So, Mantis and Drax team up to get Peter a very special gift, which involves a trip to Earth and a kidnapping.
It’s great fun to see our two heroes interact, and Mantis—who hasn’t had much Marvel screen time so far—turns out to be a delightful character. Gunn decorates his movie with joyous holiday spirit, loaded with lights and snow and glittery, tingly things. And you’ll love the show’s two new Christmas songs: the hilarious opener “I Don’t Know What Christmas Is (But Christmastime Is Here),” and the touching closer “Here It Is Christmas Time.” Other classic rock songs are peppered throughout as well.
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The shockingly good holiday horror Krampus (2015) starts with a little holiday shopping department-store mayhem in slow-motion, before turning to young Max (Emjay Anthony), who still believes in Santa. But after a stressful season, and some teasing from his mean cousins, he tearfully rips up his letter to St. Nick and throws it out the window, an act that summons the evil Christmas demon of the title. It’s up to his parents (Adam Scott and Toni Collette) and annoying relatives (David Koechner and Allison Tolman), as well as his knowing grandmother (Krista Stadler), to try to save the day.
Director and co-writer Michael Dougherty includes practical monster effects that seem far more realistic than computer-generated ones, using snow and darkness and a sinister chime-and-bell score to heighten the terror. Surprisingly, the movie also has its share of laughs without betraying the scares, and it has more than it share of heart—and genuine holiday cheer—in spite of its unforgettable ending. Dougherty also made the Halloween cult classic Trick ‘r Treat (2007).
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The one and only Tina Fey wrote the clever screenplay for Mean Girls (2004), taking a realistic look at the viciousness of cliques and bullying among high-school girls. Lindsay Lohan stars and gives a slyly nuanced performance as Cady, both sweet and cunning. She returns with her parents to the U.S. after being raised in Africa and immediately finds herself in that most unsettling of institutions, high school.
Cady befriends two misfits, the goth Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and the gay Damien (Daniel Franzese), but also finds herself accepted by the popular and dangerous “Plastics” (Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, and Amanda Seyfried). Prompted by Janis and Damien, she decides to infiltrate and bring down the group, but also finds herself swept away by popularity, glamour, and possible romance. Fey co-stars as a helpful teacher, and Tim Meadows is very funny as the principal. One scene—the “mean girls” performing “Jingle Bell Rock” in sexy Santa outfits at the winter talent show—makes it a holiday staple.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
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In the irreverent, but sweet National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), Chevy Chase’s accident-prone family man Clark W. Griswold agrees to host a big family Christmas while waiting for his Christmas bonus to come in; he wants to use it to pay for a swimming pool. His brother-in-law Eddie (Randy Quaid) causes no end of embarrassment, and there are excessive holiday lights, rodents in trees, septic-tank-emptying, dry turkeys, and a kidnapping, as well as a memorable use of Bing Crosby’s “Mele Kalikimaka (Hawaiian Christmas Song).”
Beverly D’Angelo is game as ever as Clark’s long-suffering, loving wife Ellen, a young Juliette Lewis plays daughter Audrey, Oscar-nominee William Hickey is the toupee-wearing Uncle Lewis, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a yuppie neighbor, Brian Doyle-Murray is Clark’s heartless boss, and legendary voice actress Mae Questel (Betty Boop and Olive Oyl) is Aunt Bethany. John Hughes wrote the screenplay.
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While robbing a safe on Christmas Eve, Gus (Denis Leary), trips an alarm and is forced to take hostages—an angry, aggravating, bickering couple, Lloyd and Caroline (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis)—while hiding out and planning his escape. Gus’ patience is worn hilariously ever thinner as he snarls obscenities at them in a vain attempt to shut them up. Later, when Lloyd’s entire family shows up for the holiday, Gus must pretend to be their marriage counselor.
Directed by the late Ted Demme, The Ref (1994) is an amazing collection of foul-mouthed zingers—with the perpetually annoyed Leary as the anchor at the center—as well as a hugely entertaining array of bizarre Christmas rituals (those candle hats!) and plot twists. Despite some bad luck, Gus is an appealingly crafty character who somehow manages to stay just a half a jump ahead of the insanity. Christine Baranski, B.D. Wong, and future Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons co-star.
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Richard Donner’s Scrooged (1988) was initially dismissed as violent, misguided, and sour. But saner heads have prevailed, and Bill Murray’s take on Ebenezer Scrooge has become a warped holiday favorite. He plays a cynical TV executive, Frank Cross, who orders a very expensive, live, all-star Christmas Eve broadcast of a production of Dickens’s Scrooge, requiring thousands of people to work over the holiday. Frank is hilariously mean to everyone, but he’s soon visited by three ghosts, including a taxi-driving Ghost of Christmas Past (David Johansen) and a toaster-wielding Ghost of Christmas Present (Carol Kane).
This deluxe, prickly, glistening production takes a few short cuts, but it’s long on wicked laughs, and Murray’s transformation into a genuine human being is truly touching. Karen Allen, Alfre Woodard, Bobcat Goldthwait, John Forsythe, and the legendary Robert Mitchum co-star, and the equally legendary Miles Davis can be glimpsed as a street musician.
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Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín had already made two exemplary biopics, Jackie and Neruda (both released in 2016), before he moved onto this more ambitious, unconventional film. The deeply poetic, fascinating Spencer (2021) imagines what life might have been like for Diana, the Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart) over the course of three days (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day, presumably in 1992, although the movie doesn’t say) as she suffocates under the weight of the Royal Family. She has her secret allies with whom she can be herself, baring her weight-of-a-nation anguish. Then, forced to attend family functions with color-coded outfits, she comes to a hard decision. It’s a great, meticulous, wrenching film that received a lone Academy Award nomination for Stewart’s performance, but deserved many more. Jonny Greenwood’s score provides an unbearable tension, while the set design and pristine cinematography create a beautiful prison.