God rest ye scary gentlemen – the best Christmas horror movies

Make Xmas a little bit bleaker with these ace Yuletide horrors, as selected by Matt Glasby – author of The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear in Film, available here.

Dead of Night (1945)

Though it’s often forgotten by people who can’t get past the spine-chilling Ventriloquist’s Dummy sequence, this Ealing Studios anthology is 1/6th a Christmas horror movie thanks to director Alberto Cavalcanti’s other segment: The Christmas Party. A rather tamer proposition, it tells of a spooky country-house game of hide-and-seek in which party guest Sally Ann Howes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) comforts a weeping boy in the nursery, only to find that things aren’t quite as they appear. Martin Scorsese is a fan, putting Dead of Night fifth on his 11 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time list (article currently paywalled unfortunately).

 A Ghost Story for Christmas (1971-present)

For viewers of a certain age, these seasonal BBC TV staples provided scares that lingered long into the new year. In the early days, they were mostly directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark and based on the works of MR James, though a standout was a 1976 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Signalman. Of James’s works, the best is probably 1972’s A Warning to the Curious, which sees Peter Vaughn pursued by a spooky figure after digging up an ancient crown. In recent years, Mark Gatiss has taken up the gauntlet, hitting the spot with 2021’s The Mezzotint, in which Rory Kinnear is menaced by an engraving that moves when he’s not looking at it.

Black Christmas (1974)

Originally titled Silent Night, Evil Night, Bob Clark’s clever Canadian shocker has long been considered the prototype slasher. As things wind down for the Christmas holidays, the residents of a sorority house experience all kinds of unwanted (male) attention, from obscene phone calls to breaking and entering. Although the he’s-in-the-house urban legend is now over-familiar, this stretches the tension to breaking point. Olivia Hussey (Mrs Bates in Psycho IV: The Beginning) and Margot Kidder (Sisters, Superman) head the spirited cast; there’s plenty of dark festive fun to be had as carol singers drown out victims’ screams; and the killer’s POV shots were a clear inspiration on John Carpenter’s Halloween.

Christmas Evil (1980)

Another excellent sort-of slasher, Lewis Jackson’s festive freakshow concerns poor Harry (Brandon Maggart), who, as a boy, witnesses his father groping his mother while dressed as Santa. This causes him to grow up obsessed with Christmas, not to mention a few presents short of a full stocking. As an adult, he works in a toy factory, sleeps in a Santa costume, and spies on the local children to see if they’ve been good or bad, hence the original title, You’d Better Watch Out. Eventually, of course, it erupts into violence, with what follows dubbed “the greatest Christmas movie ever made” by trash-cinema guru John Waters.

Calvaire (2004)

This batshit Belgian horror by Fabrice Du Welz deserves far more attention. On his way to a Christmas concert, easy-listening singer Marc (Laurent Lucas) breaks down in a rural backwater and is taken to an inn run by the lonely Mr Bartel (Jackie Berroyer). Over the festive period, it becomes apparent that the eccentric innkeeper has taken a shine to him and won’t let him leave. If that wasn’t enough, the local villagers are rather too fond of their livestock, and guess who’s next in line for some petting? What follows is bleakly violent and bizarrely funny in equal measure.

Inside (2007)

A home-invasion film with a difference, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s shocking debut pits a very pregnant woman (Alysson Paradis) against a mysterious stranger (Béatrice Dalle) on Christmas Eve no less—and it doesn’t skimp on the cranberry sauce. At the turn of the millennium, the New French Extremity movement was in full swing, which means the writer/directors think nothing of employing scissors to the stomach, needles to the neck and burning aerosol to the face. While there’s something unsavoury in their desire to completely destroy these women—it’s hard to look away from.

Inside No.9 The Devil of Christmas (2016)

A one-off Christmas TV special from a show made entirely of special one-offs, The Devil of Christmas is funny, formally inventive and supremely chilling. Inspired by 1970s anthology programmes such as Nigel Kneale’s Beasts, it uses vintage sets, costumes and cameras to appear authentically of that era. Or, as writer/star Reece Shearsmith put it, “It looks shit, but it’s brilliant.” The plot involves writer/star Steve Pemberton and his family staying at an Austrian chalet over the Christmas period, while their creepy local guide (Shearsmith) scares them with stories of the Krampus. But, as ever, there’s a twist. We’re actually watching a 1970s TV show with commentary from the director (Derek Jacobi). And he has a few not-so-Christmassy secrets up his sleeve.